Based in the rural region of the city Stoker Circus originated in the country of Levinkrantz. The have existed for centuries and their grand striped Big Top now resides in Allford (also known as Alford).
It is truly a spetacle to be seen with top acts including the trapeezy easys, strong man Otto and a freak show not to be missed! A day at Stoker Circus is fun for all the family and you can even try your luck at the carnival games.
It’s all fun and games until you realise you are missing some valuables. The Stoker family are also thieving scoundrels. What may or may not have escaped notice is when the Stoker tents are pitched there tends to be a spat of home invasion robberies in the area. Have you had a lizard woman crawl in your window? Has a freakish little man named Freddy knocked on your door telling you your cat has been run over?
Despite it’s terrible reputation and the lack of morality among its perofrmers, Stoker Circus does have it’s qualities too. One of its most famous performers, the legendary escape artist Adrien Stoker, was considered a war hero. He was a theiving scoundrel too but he did put his skills to good use and saved hundreds of lives during the Levinkrantz blitz.
So step right up for a show you won’t forget.
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The Prayer Room is located in the Herod Halls of the castle, just off the overpass. It’s an original part of the building where St Wigan, when he was in residence, would lock himself away seemingly with no food or water for days. He emerged when God had delivered his message. Normally this meant someone was burned, hanged or buried alive in Gregor Court. God could be a nasty bastard if Noah Wigan was to be believed and Francesca Chamberlain made the perfect nasty vessel to operate through. However, that’s another grisly tale for another grisly day. For now, our story focuses on the Prayer Room in more recent times. The room has no plumbing. It doesn’t have a bowl or sink on offer. You eat and drink very little whilst you’re in there so you find yourself with little to excrete anyway.
As the famed monk said, “God provides the nourishment.”
He may have been able to get a fat soul with conversations with a figment in sky but for our inmates it drained what little will they had left. There are no windows. You are completely engulfed in darkness. You are left alone with only time to think and to say your prayers.
Jake tried to keep himself awake for as long as possible. He didn’t know how long he would be left to rot. He had no means of counting the hours. He could only try and keep himself awake for as long as possible – not that he would find much of a cosy bed. It was a moss covered, granite floor. In fact, the dampness within the Prayer Room really attacked the lungs. It was common in the prison to hear the cough of an inmate that had spent some time in solitary.
Jake had to keep himself awake. He wanted to stay alert should some of the ghoul guards come for him. That was what the inmates were calling the guards who lost their minds. Jake didn’t pray. He never was the praying sort but the voice inside his head was ringing loud. He tried to keep it ringing as his eyes started to feel heavy. He was slumped on the floor. His issue trousers were damp from the moss. He was in the most discomfort he had ever felt but he couldn’t resist sleep. Those Beta brain waves were crying out to him.
“Come on, Jakey. Just close your eyes. Sleep it away. Sleep. Sleep …”
He was jerked awake by a sharp pain. Something had bitten him. He could hear a squeak and a draw of a long, worm-like tail across his hand. He pulled it away and as he did so he caught the feel of matted fur.
“Fucking rat,” he grumbled to himself.
There was another sharp bite on his lower leg where the trousers of his kit had slipped up. There was another one there. He could hear the hungry rodents squeak at each other. Then there was another bite at his hand. This one was harder than the others. The broken rat teeth must have pierced skin.
Jake tried to kick his leg out to make them scurry away but they were brave and they were hungry so they took another bite. One ran across his chest, the worm tail drawing underneath his chin. Jake was on his feet by then trying to shake them off. They finally did scurry away when the doorway was opened.
“2011?” The voice of the warden came through the dark. “What’s the story?”
“My daughter,” Jake began. His voice sounded hoarse having not spoken in some time. “My sisters. My cousin.”
“I’m sorry about your family,” Remar told him sincerely.
He had put in a call to Fullerton Villa to find out what he could.
“Lucy’s with her mum, from what I’m told,” Remar said. “She’ll be fine. Lionel received a shot to his shoulder and to chest but from what i hear he’ll be fine. I’ll let you have a call and catch up a little later but if you get out of here you don’t bring me any trouble are we understood?”
Jake nodded. He cleared his throat. “Of course.”
Cerberus held 2011 in his searching gaze. There was something going wrong with the guards and he needed people among the inmates he could rely on should the worst happen.
A chill was in the air as the funeral service for Mrs Margaret Williams filed out of Chamberlain Crematorium, located in the north section of Coldridge Park.
Margaret’s granddaughter, Marlene, pushed her mother’s wheelchair out.
“She had a good life,” said Marlene. Her mother, Moira, agreed. She had been ninety-three when she passed, comfortable in her bed, still cheering her beloved City football team, and surrounded by family. A goal from Andre Luis had won the game against Cardyne. She rested back with a smile and passed. She had seen so much in her life, too. She had been so many exciting places. What more could someone ask for?
Seth Bergman of the Bergman diamond dynasty, and cousin to the missing Kappa So brother Isaac, extinguished his cigarette underneath the sole of the black boots he wore. His father, Howard, had always warned him, “Try not to smoke when you’re greeting people. The smell of tobacco isn’t particularly pleasant for some and you’re representing yourself.”
Seth approached Marlene and Moira.
“Oh Seth,” Marlene gasped with joy. “Thank you for coming.”
Seth kissed Marlene’s cheek. He then leaned down and kissed that of Moira who clutched his hand and kept a hold of it.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Seth assured them.
He was glad he had blown warm air onto his hands before greeting. No one liked to hold a cold hand, especially whilst grieving. A gloved hand was too impersonal.
“A lovely boy is Seth,” said Moira from her chair. “A lovely boy.”
“If we can do anything for you, please just let me know,” he put to them. “I’ll let you get on and I’ll be in touch,” he said as the crowd from the crematorium began to spill towards them.
He waited aside respectfully for the mourners to clear before following the path round to the back of the building. The door was opened and Eugene Morris aka The Tailor emerged, accompanied by the Holy Brother of the Albans order.
“Seth, my dear boy,” said Eugene. “I pass this now into your care.”
To Seth he gave a ceramic urn containing the ashes of Mrs Williams.
“Thank you, sir,” Seth nodded. “I‘ll see her well.”
“How is your sister?” asked Eugene.
“Elsa? She’s keeping herself out of trouble.”
“Good, good,” nodded Eugene. “And your father? How is he?”
“He’s doing well, thank you,” was Seth’s reply. “This Article 22 situation is a little unnerving.”
Eugene nodded. “He’ll be especially upset at the loss of Reginald Penn.”
Seth agreed. “It was a sad loss but we have to carry on, don’t we?”
The Holy Brother dipped his hands into the opposing sleeves of his robes.
“My concern is with the young one – Reginald Junior. Through terrible circumstances he’s been left on his own. He really needs friends to keep him right,” he said.
Seth replied, “I did contact him online but there was no response, which is unusual for him. Elsa tried calling him too but he was just not to be reached. We both figured after Rita’s burial he wanted to be left alone for a while.”
Eugene lowered his voice. “It’s not for me to comment but I’m sure a visit from a friend would do him the world of good.”
“Yes sir,” agreed Seth.
And so the group parted with Seth Bergman carefully escorting Mrs Williams’ remains.
City Main was always a busy place. The noise of it was enough to cover the tick-booming of the City Face clock unless you caught it at a certain time of the morning. That being said, Seth Bergman was astounded to find such a commotion around the base of Faulds Park.
Admirers were gathered to seemingly show their support of the lone prince. Some had laid candles and wreaths for the king and queen. Rita in particular was a very active member of the community. She had the heart of the Baroness and the mind of the Broker. I learned that Rita – as sweet as she could be – was fearless when it came to protecting her people. Of course, Reginald carried out any violence required so his queen wouldn’t have to, but upon research I found that Rita was adept at getting among them.
At the doorway to Faulds Park was stood a man in Wigan robes. He was ringing his bell.
Ding ding. Ding ding.
“Repent before it’s too late!” he was yelling.
The Loyalists seemed to be leaving him be. They were more focused on an imminent clash that would occur when Billy Owen decided to send CPD.
It was a long ride up to the Penthouse but when Seth reached it the noise was worse than the floors below. Music boomed and people flooded everywhere. Seth stopped one of them. “I’m here to see Reggie,” he explained. “Where is he?”
“Reggie isn’t seeing anyone,” the greeter remarked.
Seth frowned. “It doesn’t seem that way now does it?” he passed comment on the gathering with a raised eyebrow. “Where is Reg Junior?”
That was when Seth noticed the purple ribbons of Wigan tied around wrists and necks. The Wigan cross was displayed on chests. The man he had stopped slipped away. Seth watched as he approached what appeared to be a superior. They both looked at him. He stood his ground.
“Seth?” Finally he had an audience with Reggie.
Seth had seen images of the triplet prince in the press. He looked worse for wear but he hadn’t expected to find him so dishevelled. He clutched his face and looked at him closely. His skin was warm, sweaty, feverish.
“You’re taking too many drugs,” Seth stated. “I know you went through a lot but you need to pull yourself together.”
Reggie shook him off dismissively. When he noticed Seth glare at him he laughed.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Top shape. I’m just relaxing, like. Got plenty of people around. It’s all good.”
That was when Seth took note of the young woman who accompanied him. She was holding his hand. She offered a polite smile to the Bergman boy. She was dressed as a true Wigan from the bay.
“This is Leona,” Reggie introduced.
“Nice to meet ye,” her accent confirmed her pedigree.
Reggie groaned. He was starting to feel pain in his leg and the stab wounds in his abdomen were stinging again. The dressings would be needing changed soon. He needed pills.
“Reggie, you need to be careful,” Seth warned. “You don’t know these people.”
Becoming a little frustrated with the pain, Reggie grunted. “I know Leona,” he explained. “She’s been looking out for me. Where the fuck have you been?”
“Now, Reggie,” said Leona softly. “That’s no way to speak to a friend.”
“I have been trying to get in touch,” said Seth.
Leona spoke for him. “Too much contact with the outside world with computers and telephones wasn’t doing him much good.”
“And who were you to decide that?” Seth asked angrily.
Leona was unmoved but her softness continued. “I care a lot about Reggie. I’ve been helping him get better.”
“By plying him with drugs?” Seth exclaimed.
This angered the triplet.
“I’m standing right here. Don’t talk to her like that,” he growled. “I’m not some fucking simpleton. I’m … Look, I’ll be fine.”
“I think you should leave,” said Leona.
“If Reggie wishes me to leave I will,” returned the diamond merchant.
Leona clenched Reggie’s hand tighter.
“Just fuck off Seth,” said the triplet. “I mean thanks for coming down and all that but I’m good.”
Seth nodded. “Glad to hear it. Just call me if you need anything.”
To Leona, Seth said, “If you truly care about him, you will make sure he talks to his brothers.”
Leona smiled. “Whatever is best for him,” she said. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr Bergman. Now Reggie has asked you to leave.”
“That’s shit,” Reggie was saying to Leona as the elevator doors closed and took Seth away. “I should have asked him to stay for a joint or something.”
Leona hushed him. She patted his hand gently. “I’m sorry Reggie,” she said. “It’s hard to know who’s good for you and who isn’t. I’m sure he’ll understand when you’re better. I just want what’s best for ye. You need to relax. You’re getting uptight again.”
Reggie agreed. “I can’t thank you enough for being here,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do without you.”
“I’m happy to be here, although it is really unnerving,” she said.
“I’ll not let anything happen to you,” Reggie assured.
“Wigan bless ye,” Leona replied.
Time for another trip. Transport provided by heether mushrooms.
“Bergman Memorial, because life is precious. Your loved one deserves to be remembered in the most shining way possible. No one knows your loved one better than you, so you will be given full support from one of our master cultivators throughout the heartfelt process.”
Seth could hear his father’s voice in the old advert as he took two scoops of Mrs Williams’ ashes to begin the blend.
“With a history of perfection that spans generations, our cutting and polishing is carried out to the highest quality; and because we know how important it is to your family, we take pain staking care that your diamond is worthy of remembrance.”
As Seth prepared to purify the ashes, that was when I arrived and knocked on the door of the lab where one of the merchants in the parade upstairs had told me I would find him.
“Take a seat, Sam,” he offered as he spun around in his stool.
“Thanks for agreeing to see me,” I said genuinely.
During my time in Coldford the Bergmans had managed to be everywhere but nowhere. They had ties to the Loyalists of Main as well as Kappa So and the Law Makers. Not an easy task to manage such varied groups. Seth’s father – Howard – was a well known and loved figure but what was astonishing to me was how cleanly he conducted business. Perhaps I had been in the Shady City a little too long and it was making me sceptical, but even as I passed the beautiful pieces of jewellery I kept searching for the shadows behind the shine. The family intrigued me and given Seth’s attempts to see Reggie I thought it would be good to get his views.
Amicable like his father, Seth was more welcoming than most to a reporter. His dark hair and wild blue eyes much like his Aunt Sophie’s.
He laughed heartily when I told of my discovery of Reggie and Tabitha in David Finn’s apartment.
“When The Tailor shows concern there must be something very wrong,” Seth spoke of Reggie. “When I went to Faulds Park it was strange. Reggie himself seems content for now.”
“The Auction House is being put up for sale again,” I said. “I heard your father made a bid.”
Seth replied, “As much as he loathes business with Chick Owen, he felt it was only right to try and help Reggie get it back whilst the boys are in prison.”
Finally, a break in the armour of the ever-friendly Howard Bergman.
“Bad history with the Owens then?” I asked.
“My father isn’t one to harbour grudges or bad blood but he finds the Owens arrogant, conceited, and too quick to throw their weight around. An Owen killed Reginald Penn. You can quote me on saying that if you like,” said Seth.
“So your family wouldn’t have been happy that your cousin pledged Kappa So?” I pressed.
“My aunt was furious at Isaac. My dad was too, but he’s his own man and has been making some positive changes from within the frat,” Seth explained. “They asked me to join too but I wouldn’t be caught dead inside that Chapter House.”
There was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Seth beckoned.
The door opened and a short man with wild grey hair bounded in. He was quite upset about something.
“I’m not having this. Is this some kind of joke? Where the fuck is Isaac? Fucking frat boys.”
“Woah!” warned Seth. “Language please, Abe. Can’t you see I have company?”
Abe looked to me. He still seemed worked up but he adapted his tone.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m leaving this with you. I’m not doing anything until I hear from Isaac.”
He dropped a bag into Seth’s lap and made his exit. Seth opened the bag. I watched his expression change to that of one of surprised amusement. He began to laugh.
“I hope you’re not prudish, Sam,” he said.
From the bag he removed a large penis carved in gold. Abe Rothenstein was one of the Bergman’s leading gold mongers. His family had carved some of the most beautiful golden pieces, some of which were worn by royalty.
Seth turned it over and looked at the stamp at the bottom.
“No!” he gasped. Then he began to laugh even harder. “1015. That’s the mark of Hen Owen. This is the captain’s telescope.”
That was when I first set eyes on the golden asset. With a warning from Ronnie, Buddy had turned to the best goldsmiths in the city for help correcting it. Seeing it as a frat boy prank – which, in fairness to Abe, it was – it had now fallen into Bergman hands. Howard Bergman loathed to do business with the Owens. Those were his son’s words. I could only imagine how Chick Owen would feel about Howard Bergman should he find his golden asset.
“I’m going to need you to sit on this, Sam, ” Seth said. He chuckled when he realised what he was waving at me. “I mean the story, not this.”
With an invitation in hand to Howard Bergman’s coming together gathering, I arrived at Bergman estate. The patriarch had been hoping to give the city a chance to heal. I was escorted through the estate in Kingsgate. It was a beautiful place with expansive lawns and a little patch of woodland surrounding it. When I arrived, the party had already begun. Seth himself wouldn’t be there until nine but he promised me some time with his father.
“Just as long as you know you’re probably going to learn a lot about the history of Levinkrantz,” Seth warned in jest.
I was prepared for that providing Howard was willing to share some insight into the bad blood between he and Chick Owen.
Some called it Castle Bergman because of how fortified it was. Inside was like any other family home. On the walls were photos of the Bergmans. There was one of a young Seth. There were others too, of his cousins Isaac and Eli who I still had to meet. Special placement had been given to Seth’s sister, Elsa. She was a rebellious looking girl who clutched her father affectionately in the photo kissing his cheek. A genuine moment of joy had been captured on Howard’s face.
“Sam!” the man himself called to me from across the hall. He politely dismissed himself from the group he was entertaining.
“Thank you for the invitation, Mr Bergman,” I replied.
With an arm around my shoulder he led me to the main hall. I could see Sophie with the large man named Golem who acted as her interpreter. She was smiling, greeting some guests with a kiss on both cheeks. Golem stood obediently by her side.
“If you don’t mind, Sam, I need to get everyone settled. You have a drink and enjoy the party.”
I was seated at a delightful table with Abe Rothenstein and his brother Ike. They had hilarious stories to share, comments to pass on those at the other tables and a penchant for drinking booze by the gallon. Howard stopped by every now and again in between entertaining his other guests.
“You should write a story about my grandfather,” Ike was saying. “The Levinkrantz blitz destroyed his whole building but he still refused to move. He just hung sheets up where the walls had been blasted away.”
Abe put in, “Just swept all that dust and rubble right out.”
“They offered him a new house but he told them to stick that where the sun can’t get to,” added Ike.
“He was ninety-eight when he died,” said Abe.
Ike shook his head. “Still wouldn’t move. We had to bury him there.”
They both started laughing. Their merry chuckles were quite infectious. Abe filled my glass with more Waldens vintage.
By the time it reached 8 o’clock the band was very much in full swing. A pleasant night was being had by all. At around eight ten, that was when things began to turn sour.
“Uncle Howie?” Isaac arrived in a hurry, pulling Howard away from his party.
“Isaac? Where have you been? We’ve all been worried about you.”
“I need to talk to you,” said the nephew. “Right away.”
“Oh dear, Mr Bergman!” cried one of the ladies. “I’ve spilled some wine.”
“Not to worry,” said Howard. “We’ll get that cleaned up.” To his nephew he said, “Whatever is going on, now is neither the time nor the place. Breakfast tomorrow. You and I will sit and we’ll discuss what’s on your mind. We’ve missed you around the estate.”
Before he could explain further, Howard had waved to a new arrival.
“Karyn!” he called. “You look tremendous.”
“Shit!” Isaac grumbled.
The Judge herself was accompanied by his mother, Sophie, and the interpreter, Golem. As Howard fell into conversation with Karyn Doyle, Isaac made an attempt to sign ‘I need your help’ to his mother, but didn’t catch her eye.
A server bumped into him carrying a tray.
“Sorry, sugar,” said the soft voice.
The server passed the tray. Isaac had been too busy looking for an opportunity to get Golem or his mother on their own, he hadn’t noticed the server close in behind him. She pinched his backside.
“Woah!” Isaac jerked around but as he came face to face with her, she pushed him against the wall and locked her lips to his. Isaac could hear whistles from party-goers in the main area where the booze was flowing.
Isaac was led into a small room just off the main corridor. The server woman, not a woman at all. Freddy Stoker pulled off the platinum blonde wig. Irvine Stoker kicked the door closed.
“You want to talk to someone, Isaac? I’m listening. Freddy? Let the Easys in.”
There was already tapping at the window. Freddy crossed the room, opened the window and the two trapeze artists slipped in.
“I always said never trust a Bergman,” Irvine went on. “Now look where we are.”
The Easys pulled rope in with them.
Irvine reached into his pocket and produced a tobacco tin. He opened it and tapped a sample of powder onto a long finger nail and sniffed. Freddy’s hand reached up slowly to sample some but Irvine slapped it away. “Get your own,” he warned his son.
He slipped a metal pole down the sleeve of his patched coat.
“Isaac,” he said. “I’m going to have fun with this.”
“The blood splatter,” warned Freddy.
Irvine danced around Isaac as the Easys laid tarpaulin they had brought in backpacks. Irvine angled himself towards the window.
Karyn Doyle always attended the parties of Howard Bergman. She was almost as comfortable in the Bergman Estate as she was in her own home. One particular evening, when she was a freshly-appointed judge, she had wandered onto the balcony for some air. It was a pleasant night. The summer warmth and the closing of sunset cast an orange glow across Kingsgate. She embraced a little of the ambience when the door opened and she was joined by Van Holder. She turned. She smiled but her focus went back to the view. He approached her and wrapped his arms around her waist and pressed gently against her.
“You’ve been making me hungry all night,” he jested as he nibbled playfully on her neck.
Karyn giggled girlishly and stroked his thigh. The music and the party sounded behind them. They could hear laughter as one of the Rothensteins tried to get a sing-song started.
Van Holder ran his hands gently down her stomach and hitched her dress up slightly, and began to massage her through the black lace panties she wore until she gave a little gasp. That was the signal to tug the panties down. She turned her head and he leaned forward kissing her passionately. She turned to the view again as she felt his hardness discretely push inside her. Soft, rhythmic, but with a lustful grip around her waist, Van Holder grunted and there they came together as husband and wife.
“A bottle of Macks for the first person who can name all the streets of Main!” they could hear Howard drunkenly call.
“We had better go back inside,” said Karyn.
Van Holder, having righted himself, stepped aside. “After you, Your Honour.”
Van Holder – given the nature of his occupancy in Subala – was kept away from them. Karyn – an army brat herself – knew exactly what that was like. Van Holder made as much time for their son as he could when he was there.
“Bye dad,” said Cameron for what felt like the millionth time in his life. Van Holder clutched his head and kissed it.
“You be good,” he said. “Just need to nip out.”
Just nipping out. It was a phrase Van Holder used to calm the boy whenever he had to leave. Just nipping out could take several months or more but if he was just ‘nipping out’ Cameron knew he would be back eventually.
If Ruud Van Holder of the Subala Black Bands had known that that would be the last time he would see his son alive, he would have stayed that little bit longer.
“I can’t stay all evening, I’m afraid,” Judge Karyn Doyle informed her host.
“And how is Cameron? Haven’t seen the young man around. I was hoping to pick his brain about Kingsgate’s chances of winning the cup,” Howard was asking.
The Judge’s attention was snatched by her sister, Ashley, who had readied her table.
“You go ahead,” said Howard pleasantly. “We’ll catch up later.”
To his own sister he signed, “Where did Isaac go? He was upset about something.”
Sophie patted Golem’s shoulder.
“I’ll find him,” agreed the monstrously large man.
I looked over from my table to see Karyn take her seat with Ashley. She looked worried about something. At the time I thought it might have been upholding Article 22 taking its toll on her but I know now it was something much worse.
Without her interpreter Sophie took her brother’s arm, scanning the room keenly. As Golem went in search of the only Bergman to pledge Kappa So, Howard addressed his guests.
“Good evening, everyone,” he said. “It’s good to have you all here and despite the troubles in the city I am very pleased to say the new section of Harbour House, helping those displaced by the violence, will be open very soon. Thank you all for your generosity. There is still time to aid this wonderful cause and I’d like to make a special mention to Elizabeth Beckingridge for beginning this. Ironically, she can’t be here tonight because she’s…well we all know Liz. She’s a little overzealous. Anyway, if you still care to give to Harbour House I’ll happily match any donations made this evening. In the meantime, relax. There’s plenty of food and booze.”
“Wooo!” Abe Rothenstein cheered, filling his glass. “Have another one Sam.”
Indulging in the atmosphere I drank more. I would have refused it if I had known what was to happen next.
Isaac coughed up blood.
“Aren’t you going to fall out cold?“ asked Irvine, wiping sweat from his forehead.
“Fuck you!” Isaac spat as he clambered onto his feet. He charged at Irvine managing to punch him, rattling free some false teeth.
Freddy picked them up. Errol easy wrapped a rope around Isaac’s neck and heaved him back, falling into a painting, sending it crashing to the floor.
Irvine addressed his trapeze artists.
“Get him out of here,” he instructed. “We’ve made too much noise now. That clay boy, Golem, is going to be looking for him. Freddy?” He turned. “Where’s Freddy? Ah there you are.”
Freddy was fixing the painting back to exactly how it was when they arrived.
“Make sure this place is spotless.”
“Hope you’re not afraid of heights.”
Errol wrapped his arms around Isaac and pulled him to the window. Isaac was losing consciousness. He tried to fight it. He thought he could when the crisp evening air hit him but the ground left his feet and he was pulled through the window. Errol’s grip remained tight until they hit the ground again. A white van was waiting to carry him to the centre ring of the Big Top.
Irvine wrapped his arm around Ethel’s waist as they stepped onto the ledge.
“After you, my dear,” the ring master grinned.
She leaned out and with one hand unclipped a rope, laid there by her Easy brother. Entwined, the two leapt into the night and down to the ground.
The door was opened.
A blonde server bumped into Golem.
“Sorry, sugar,” they giggled.
Golem scanned the room. There was no trace of Isaac. Nothing would be found amiss.
“So, Sam,” said Howard as he joined our table. “My son tells me that you’d like to talk. A story you’re writing?”
“I’d like to ask a few questions if you don’t mind,” I put to him. I was still enjoying the party atmosphere. My voice was a little loud as my head began to swim.
Howard had left an empty glass on the table beside his hand. Abe lifted the bottle to refill it but the Bergman patriarch rested his hand on the top.
“I’m fine for now, thank you Abe.”
Abe shrugged. He and Ike finished the bottle between them.
“I read Marble Mantel,” Howard admitted. “I’m afraid it had me a little lost. I’m more of a history buff. I prefer true stories.”
“I’m actually a journalist by trade,” I explained. “I used to write for the Daily.”
“I said true stories,” Howard jested. “I’ll tell you what though, my daughter loved Marble Mantel. I must get you to sign something for her. She cosplayed as one of the characters last Halloween, isn’t that so Ike?”
Ike Rothenstein looked up. “Was that that green thing she was wearing, with the tentacles?”
I assumed they meant the character Judith and it was extra arms not tentacles, but I was flattered all the same and still a little drunk so I tried to steer the course.
“This bad blood between you and The Cappy, where did that begin?”
“I don’t like to hold grudges,” Howard said. “Life is too short.”
“Don’t listen to him,” said Ike. “He’s a spiteful old fart when he wants to be.”
“Yes, thank you Ike,” Howard laughed off the comment. “It isn’t so much Charles himself but what his family represent. You see the Stokers committed some terrible atrocities but rather than being held to account, the Owens protected them. They’ll do whatever it takes to keep themselves on top and that kind of ruthlessness is like a poison in society.”
If I didn’t know any better I would swear our conversation had been bugged because just as Howard was explaining this, CPD entered the room led by Billy Owen.
Howard craned his neck to check the commotion. Billy went straight to Doyle.
“Ma’am,” he said. “I’m afraid I have some terrible news.”
Doyle stood to be confronted with the information.
“A body has been discovered and we have reason to believe it might be Cameron. Can you tell me when you last heard from your son?”
Given the sensitive nature of Cameron’s parentage and the potential for terror groups to target him, the boy had never been officially declared missing.
Ashley Doyle covered her mouth in shock. Billy spoke sensitively.
“I’m going to need you to come down and make a positive I.D. as soon as you’re ready, Your Honour.”
“Oh, Karyn!” sobbed Ashley.
Howard had been distracted by the entry of the police to his party.
“Excuse me,” he still had the time to say as he left our table and crossed the room.
“What’s going on?” he put to Judge Doyle.
Billy grabbed Howard’s arm and pulled it behind his back.
“Howard Bergman, I’m arresting you on suspicion of the murder of Cameron Doyle. You have the right to say whatever you like but I advise you to shut the fuck up. You’ll be appointed a lawyer and all that shit.”
“Karyn!” Howard tried to appeal to his long time friend but The Judge was preparing to leave. Her sister was hurriedly helping her.
Billy spun Howard round to face his guests.
The image was caught by a press photographer. Sophie was frantically signing to her brother.
“Don’t fight it,” she was saying.
I began my visit to Bergman Estate in awe of how Howard and his family had lived cleanly and quietly with little alliances on all sides. Watching the diamond merchant being escorted from his home in cuffs under the shocked faces of his party guests, I realised being nice rarely bodes well. However, diamonds are not easy to cut and the Bergmans had some sharp tools.
Rumours spread across the news floor of the Coldford Daily that the maven herself was in house to take things over and get the newspaper back on track. Eric Waddle wasn’t cutting it anymore. He had been circling the drain for a long time as far as reporter Sandra Wake was concerned.
He circled the drain so much he made himself dizzy and stumbled from the window of the Coldford Daily editor’s office. Maybe it had been the news of Tabitha’s miraculous return that had him feeling a little woozy but I can only speculate on that point.
“Maybe we should arrange some pictures,” Sandra had put to Kathleen in anticipation of her arrival.
“I know what I look like,” was Kathleen’s response. “Why would I want pictures?”
Kathleen’s arrival at the Daily was preceded by three Kappa Si sisters, dressed neatly in their sorority colours. They said nothing to the reporters as they crossed the news floor. Sandra stood from the desk I had once occupied to get a better look but the chickadees offered no comment. They went straight to the editor’s office, closing the door behind them. Sandra had been at the point of knocking on the door to see if they needed anything when the sorority queen did make her arrival, accompanied by more sisters, higher ranking than the first from what could be determined.
“Kathleen!” Sandra cheered. “It’s so good to see you.”
They had met once, at an Owen Inc. Party.
“Everyone in the conference office,” Kathleen called across the news floor. “Drop whatever you’re doing. You can pick it up later.”
When the reporters had gathered around the table, hungry for their feed, Kathleen stood and addressed them. The chickadees she had brought with her stayed in the office to make the editor’s station more to Kathleen’s taste.
“We have the say in the city,” she began. “We still remain the most-viewed newsfeed in Coldford.”
Sandra smiled. She looked among her colleagues for their reaction to the praise.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Kathleen stated. “We will be looked to first for the news on Knock Knock, Penn Auction House, Mack Distillery, the whole lot of them, so let’s give them that news before someone else does. It’s time the city learned just how much we are mending fences around here. In other words, we are the good guys. I don’t care how it is written just make it so. I want focus on charity work and community service. I want wherever anyone walks – from the Shanties to Bourton – they see another good news story courtesy of the Daily.”
Sandra had been hired by the Daily specifically for her controversial, combative approach to news casting. Some saw it as hard hitting journalism. What it really was, was trouble stirring for the sake of ratings. Her popularity only climbed because morbidly curious viewers tuned in to see what nonsense she was going to spout next. Having to write the news in a positive way was going to prove a challenge for her.
“Sandra,” Kathleen addressed her directly. “I want you to focus on the rift between CPD and the Wigan church.”
“I was following the story on Joshua Coby and the Freefall massacre,” Sandra replied.
Kathleen frowned. “Did I sound like I was asking? Get a statement from Coby, even if it’s ‘no comment’, close it and move on. I want you to calm the heat with the Wigan church.” The sorority queen went on, “Roger?”
The other reporter’s eyes widened at the call of his name.
“The Penn story. I want you to focus on the championships Simon Penn won, the medals he donated. Reginald is gone now so there’s no harm in a story on his tenure. Get some quotes from his supporters. Invite them in, let them lick his ass and print it. We’re changing the narrative people. We need as much positive spin as we can get. I want a piece too on Buddy Owen, Chad Perry and Dale Cooper. I want everyone to know what good rehab is doing them. I want the Daily to be putting smiles on everyone’s faces. I want our feed to be so sickly sweet people will become addicted to it. It’s the only way we’re going to strengthen our position and completely blindside the competition. Any questions?”
Sandra spoke up. “Just one,” she said. “Will you have tea or coffee?”
The history of Coldford was a bloody one as I’m sure you can imagine. It stretches back centuries but it really became what it is during the time of Henry ‘Hen’ Owen, who had been commissioned by Queen Eleanor of the Chamberlain family for his sailing and navigation prowess. Hen Owen fought against a knight known as the Greatest Northsider, he helped quash a rebellion from Eleanor’s granddaughter, Francesca Chamberlain, who sought to take the throne for herself. The Castle in Bournton now known as The Boss, was Francesca’s stronghold. From there she pushed her savage agendas. The queen’s grandson, Royce Chamberlain, Duke of Hathfield Bay, involved himself only where it was beneficial to him. Devious Royce held back on the island as long as he could before deciding which side of the family table he was going to take a seat at.
Throughout the ages, the Chamberlain family cemented their story into the very fabric of the Shady City. Chamberlain Docks – you’ll already be familiar with – fell from the hands of Julia Harvester as her stores in Bellfield and City Main caused her to cut her losses. Chamberlain Heights, the retirement community in Kingsgate had been part of the Chamberlain Trust for generations. There’s also Chamberlain library and Chamberlain pond in the heart of Coldridge park. All of these spots served as a reminder of the blue blood that once ran through Coldford’s veins. The Chamberlain Trust mediated the family’s interests as they remained at bay for many years. An invitation to Kingsgate Museum showed they hadn’t quite forgotten their roots.
The museum housed artefacts from the earliest parts of their dynasty. There you would find Eleanor’s crown jewels, Francesca’s gowns, paintings and torture devices. You would also find Royce’s weapons, goblets and opium pipes – giving clues as to the priorities of the man.
What particularly caught my attention was the armour of the Greatest Northsider. I imagined how heavy it must have felt to wear. I thought of the cold air that would have fallen onto it as he rushed into battle. I considered the blood splatter that would have been washed off afterwards.
“It really is something,” someone said behind me.
I recognised the distinctive droll of Chick Owen.
“I can only imagine what it must have seen,” I remarked in reply.
Chick was drinking in the armour worn into battle against his beloved ancestor. As a history enthusiast and especially engrossed by his own lineage, I had fully expected to find The Cappy at the museum exhibit. I wanted to ask him about his thoughts on Howard Bergman but I felt at that point it wouldn’t do much good.
“That battle lasted three days and nights,” Chick went on. “Hen gave them Hell.”
“He was defeated down in Northside,” I commented.
Chick laughed a little. “A tactical retreat.” He gasped with enthusiasm as he recounted the event.
Seeing Chick Owen, better known as The Cappy, in such a light was quite refreshing. In my whole time in knowing him, all the ups and downs we had had thus far, I believe it was the first time I had caught a glimpse of the true man he was.
“Got there eventually though, didn’t he?” I said.
The Cappy grinned. “An Owen never misses.”
“Indeed they do not,” I replied.
“Enjoy the exhibit,” Chick said before departing towards Kathleen who had set up a photo op of Chick with Hen Owen’s portrait.
The Harbour Master of Chamberlain Docks was an esteemed position, coveted since the Chamberlain days previously discussed. The title at this time belonged to Master Barnaby Brooke. Brooke was unassuming in appearance. He lived in a little town house on the dock edge, the top of which acted as a light beacon during the night, alerting passing ships to avoid the edge of Coldford.
Gateshead was the name of the little building and Master Brooke lived there with his two lovely daughters, Erica and Becky, their dalmatian dog Ruffus, and his wife Helen. The whole family, including Ruffus, took the early ferry every Sunday across to the bay for the Wigan service. Yes, Brooke was a devout man. He was devoted to his faith, devoted to his family and devoted to his station at Gateshead, Chamberlain Docks, Swantin.
Most of his time was spent overseeing the loading and departure of the Ferry Way liner. There was the occasional fishing vessel and Bergman freighters launched there but for the most part it was all routine. His chief operator, Anthony Runnetti, had been arrested along with Nan Harvester when the trafficking boats were raided. Good riddance to bad rubbish there. They were giving His Eminence, Dom Cole, a hard time when they really should be shutting down thieving vagabonds like the Macks, murderous middens like the Knock Knock girl, and animals like Billy Owen. Police commissioner? He should be behind bars himself. The church was cut off from its parishes in the mainland when that bully with a badge gets to throw his weight around. It’s just not right! They should be dealing with the whores on the docks instead of harassing, beating and murdering God-fearing folks.
Times were changing though. Wigan was going to cleanse the city. It was written and it was promised. In the meantime it was the job of Barnaby Brooke to watch the Ferry Way pass back and forth to the island.
But alas! There was an exciting change afoot and it occurred on the day of the Chamberlain Exhibit.
“Move the ferry liner,” was the Harbour Master’s instructions. “Make way!”
Back at the exhibition, museum curator Malcolm Wurst had taken to the stage of the Queen Eleanor auditorium. The screen behind him showed an open book with wave symbols on the pages – the Chamberlain crest.
CHAMBERLAIN – THE TORN DYNASTY the caption read.
“Thank you all for coming,” said Malcolm. “What I present to you is a unique history filled with success and loss, power and struggle, and dare I say it, the real Coldford City as it was formed many years ago. None of that is my story to tell though, so I’d like to introduce you to the living blood of all these fabulous relics we have around us. I believe we have Captain Charles Owen here this evening.”
The spotlight landed on The Cappy. Chick smiled graciously and gave a polite nod as the audience applauded.
“A pleasure, captain,” said Malcolm. “Henry ‘Hen’ Owen’s 10th– great-grandson ladies and gentlemen.”
The audience gave another appreciative applause. I looked along the aisle and that was when I spotted the Wigan priest, Peter Millicent. He was nodding and clapping his hands in a warm, receptive sort of way.
“Now without further ado, I would like to introduce Lord Francis and Lady Charlotte Chamberlain.”
Onto the stage wandered a girl of nine years old, holding the hand of her seven-year-old brother.
Lacking the shyness of a child, Lady Charlotte stepped up to the microphone. She curtseyed. Francis gave a congenial bow with one hand behind his back and the other across his stomach.
“Thank you,” Charlotte said sweetly. “Thank you for being so welcoming.”
Chamberlain Docks was experiencing some upheaval at this point. The Ferry Way had already been preparing to collect its traffic when Barnaby Brooke had to call it back.
“We need to halt the crossing,” he announced.
As you can imagine dear readers, Barnaby was met by a lot of disgruntled passengers finding the crossing to Hathfield Bay quite essential. The Harbour Master instructed the ferry liner to remain along the coast. The 6:15 was experiencing some delays. There was a collective groan as the traffic set aside.
“Clear some space,” Brooke requested. “We’ve got incoming.”
“What we got?” Captain Farraway of the ferry liner asked. “A blue whale?”
“Remain off shore,” said Master Brooke in return. “I’ll bring you in as soon as I can.”
The beeping of horns, the creek of the ferry as it remained stationed and the cries of disapproval from the ferry passengers were all quashed when an ear-splitting horn sounded.
“We were told so much about Coldford,” Charlotte was telling the auditorium. “My brother and I always hoped to return here and see it for ourselves. It’s been everything we could hope for. We’d like to share with you some never before seen images from the family archives. Thanks to Coby Games we get to share the stage this evening with our ancestors.”
Behind Charlotte flashed a holographic image of Queen Eleanor sat upon her throne. She was dressed in full regalia, a chalk white face and a golden mitre in hand. She bore the Chamberlain coat of arms on her breast. Joshua and his team had done an excellent job with the display. The collective audience gaze widened in awe at the realism.
The next figure was Francesca Chamberlain. In the background loomed the shadow of The Boss. She was in the forefront, seated upon a horse. Her black hair blew wildly around her in a wind the artist had captured.
Taking a walk on stage then was Royce Chamberlain. Prince Royce was smiling a self-assured smile as though to the auditorium. He removed his sword and held it at his side. There was an absence in his eyes though, which I assumed the artist had made deliberate.
Another figure of Francesca emerged. This time she was stood in the Great Hall of her castle which was now where the electric chair, Buzzkill, sat. She raised her arms up and turned her focus towards the sky. Around her neck hung the weight of several Wigan beads. What was most astounding about this image though was the figure by her side, dressed in humble robes. He had a youthful, soft face. He was encouraging in his body language.
“You cannot be saved,” it would seem he was saying to her.
The Saint Noah Wigan’s presence spread to the walls as other pieces of symbology emerged behind them.
Royce returned next and I would be damned to Hell if I didn’t notice the purple ribbons he had tied around the sword he carried.
The two children turned to view the image of Royce. He was a drunken philanderer, a self-preserving narcissist if the history books are correct, but the children seemed to be enamoured by him.
I looked to Peter who was watching the presentation with great interest.
As large a craft as the Ferry Way liner was, Captain Farraway could feel it shake upon the waves caused by the approaching vessel. The staff gathered at the windows to catch sight of the monstrous craft as it made its way to the dock.
The horn blasted again as though its presence were easy to miss.
Chamberlain docks bid welcome to a sister of hers. Restored with some of the very boards that Royce Chamberlain himself had walked, was a regal ship flying the Chamberlain flag. The raven’s head – Royce’s personal sigil – ornamented the bow, leading the way as it ferociously tore through the water. On the side of the ship was the name HMS RAVENSEDGE. It was a historic enemy of Hen Owen’s Elgany, rearing its head and returning to port after all those years.
“Would you look at that!” gasped the ferry staff.
Back on stage at the auditorium Charlotte spoke of her ancestral connection to the Owen family.
“My brother and I would like to return Hen Owen’s rapier if Mr Owen will accept it. We feel it’s been in Royce’s hands long enough.”
There was an affectionate acknowledgement from The Cappy of the Chamberlain children’s generous offer. It would make a fine addition to his collection.
For a child so young, I had to admire Charlotte’s natural confidence. Her brother was a little more subdued. Francis gave a nervous, ‘thank you’ into the microphone, leaning over to speak. Together they knew the influence they held in their hands. They had been orphaned you see, the details of which aren’t important. What is important though is the city that now was in their control, the wealth and the name. As the exhibit came to a close, Charlotte looked to Peter Millicent who nodded assurance to her.
Aboard Ravensedge, their guardian awaited them. In a flurry of robes he rushed to the walkway where he could see the children alight from a town car down on the docks.
“Uncle Dom!” Charlotte cheered, rushing across to His Eminence to be collected into his arms.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“We did great. Didn’t we Peter?” Francis asked of the priest that accompanied them.
“They did splendid,” Peter assured.
“I wouldn’t have expected anything less,” Dominick encouraged.
“The ship looks beautiful. Do you like it Uncle Dom?”
Dominick admired the gift from the Chamberlain Trust to the church.
“She is a beauty,” Dominick responded with awe. “You should see how she tears through the water.”
Francis laughed. “We had better go back or you’re going to get into trouble.”
Dominick raised an eyebrow. He reached a foot out towards Coldford limits. “Illegal,” he called. “Legal,” he added drawing his foot back. “Illegal. Legal. Illegal. Legal.”
His whimsical tease caused the children to laugh.
“Let’s not hold the ferry up too much longer,” Peter suggested ushering the children onto the ship.
For the time being, the Wigan church left Coldford behind and returned to the bay.
ERROR 65. My screen read.
“This is really frustrating,” I exclaimed.
It had been some time by then since the Coby servers went down and I had been locked out of the blog I had been using to keep the city up to date with the real truth.
“Sorry,” Joshua replied sincerely. “We’re starting to get our processing back but we’re still blacked out in Bellfield, Northside and Hathfield Bay. I have to dedicate every bit of RAM we have to our gaming. The Scribble Post software isn’t a priority. I’ll do what I can though. I’ll keep you up to date.”
“Thanks Joshua,” I said. “I appreciate that.”
I was in a race against time with my old newspaper because the truth in the Shady City was quite often the story told first. The Filton Crier press, thanks to Elizabeth, had ensured my words were reaching as many people as possible in print but it was a slower process.
Something must have opened up at Coby games because a message came through.
HAVE YOU SEEN THIS?
It was an anonymous statement. Attached to it was a video file. I pushed play. The moment I did, I wished I hadn’t. My heart skipped to a race suddenly. What consumed me first was the noise of the screaming. Flames licked most of the image.
“It was written,” said a Wigan priest, “that the flames of St Michael’s retribution consumed the harlot’s body.”
“Harlot! Harlot!” screamed a gathering.
This was not taking place on Hathfield Bay where such activity was rumoured to occur. This was taking place on the streets of Northside. I was suspended in disbelief by what I was looking at. What aggrieved me the most was the woman being consumed by flames was none other than Agnes Wilde, the Knock Knock Broker.
Father Renfield was the name of the Wigan priest who was the overseer of the church’s Northside parish.
At The Knock Knock Club Tawny was viewing that very same footage. She hadn’t gotten as far into it as I had before she couldn’t bear to watch any more.
“Tabitha!” she shrieked. “I want Tabitha. Tabby! Tabitha!”
David tried to calm her but she would not stop screaming until she could hold her niece in her arms. David fell into a chair trying to wash the cries of Agnes’ pain from his mind.
“Harlot! Harlot!” he could still hear them chanting.
Over on Hathfield Bay, Peter came to Dominick in the church. He knelt before the altar. It was only he and Bart present so the church leader ushered his priest to stand.
“Alright, Peter,” Dominick said softly. He was a little taken aback by the formality. When they were alone they tended to behave with more of a familial bond.
“Your Eminence,” he said, maintaining a formal tone. “There’s something you should see.”
He passed a tablet to Dominick and pushed play. Bartholemew drew down his hood and looked over Dominick’s shoulder.
Peter watched the church leader’s expression as the video played. The flames reflected in his dark eyes.
“Who is this? Who is the harlot?” he asked.
“Agnes Wilde of The Knock Knock Club. It seemed Father Renfield discovered she was passing information to the Bellfield fleet. He punished her.”
Dominick stopped the footage. He knew well what burning looked like. He didn’t need to see any more.
“I don’t remember giving him permission to do that. Did I give him permission?”
Peter shook his head to the negatory. If permission had been granted for such an action on the streets of Northside he would be aware of it.
“I believe he sees himself as St Michael the Punisher.”
Dominick’s eyes blazed. “Does he? I would love to take a gander in whatever fucking mirror he’s using because he’s no St Michael. Does he look like the man in that painting?” Dominick asked pointing to the brooding, broad-shouldered knight who was the actual St Michael. “I don’t fucking think so.”
“My concern is that we’ve worked so hard to build our position in the city and this action could see all of it undone,” Peter’s own temper began to flare. “All of our progress wiped out in an instant.”
“Is he winning this fight against the fleet scum at least?” Dominick asked.
“Not exactly,” Peter explained. “Liam Tulloch is modelling himself on the Greatest Northsider.”
“What is it with the people of that God forsaken city? Kings of Main, Boss Ladies, dragon ladies and every other kind of ladies. Ye’ve got Captains and circus freaks. It’s not just me, is it? They’re all fucking mad.”
“The Law Makers will look to you to answer for what Renfield has done. That’s not the worst of it though. Agnes Wilde was a well-connected woman. This news could very well have us up against a huge part of the Shady City. The Shanties most definitely. Closely followed by Main,” explained Peter.
“Dom?” Bart interrupted with urgency. “Leona’s still over there. She’s right in the thick of it.”
Dominick raged. “Send word to her right away. I want a watch on the weans too. Charlotte and Francis go nowhere unless they have plenty of eyes on them. Tell Renfield to get his arse over here because he’s treading so close to blasphemy and he’ll learn how St Michael truly punishes.”
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Lucca Markov didn’t visit Bournton often. The cold, unforgiving land north of the city didn’t hold much appeal for him. The smelly farmlands and uncivilised people who drank beer and belched weren’t his particular cup of tea. The last time Lucca had been there had been on a visit to the Perry Wildlife reserve. His companion at the time had been quite the nature enthusiast. They trekked through mud, snapped photos of rarely spotted birds and discussed the various trees. For Lucca it was more of a lecture. He didn’t know trees at all and had very little opinion on the subject. Still, he did his best to enjoy the day but when the rain started he became downright miserable. One thing that he did note though was the people of Bournton loved to tell stories. When they stopped for some pub grub at the Bournton Arms the regulars were gathered around like a great big family swapping stories of the area and the hard work they put into the lands. They mostly spoke of The Boss that overlooked all of them. When The Boss was the subject of conversation the tones became hushed. A lot of them had never seen the inside of it despite having lived in the area their whole lives (they would proudly state). They didn’t care to see the inside either way.
At the time Lucca had thought to himself, ‘why would you be stupid enough to go to prison?’ We ain’t all that lucky, are we Lucca?
As the prison van trundled up the hill towards the great castle fort, Lucca was focused on his breathing.
In through the nose and out through the mouth. Count, two, three. Count, two, three. At least this steadied his heartbeat. There was another man in the van with him so he wasn’t completely on his own in the darkness. They had the whole van to themselves but the guards had cuffed them side by side. The man was staring straight ahead. He was so close to him he could feel him shiver. He was only wearing a light jacket and the northern chill was setting in so he could have been cold. Lucca suspected it was more than that though.
In through the nostrils. Out through the lips. Count, two, three. Count, two, three.
“Will you stop breathing so fucking loudly!” the fellow prisoner barked impatiently.
Who can blame him for being a little nervous? There were no windows on the van so there was no telling where they were on their journey. They couldn’t see how close the prison was. That was if in fact they were being taken to prison. There have been rumours of certain people of particularly foul character being sentenced at the High Court of Coldford, sent on their way but never actually arriving. For all intents and purposes, they just disappeared.
I guess Lucca’s trembling van mate knew this and was putting a lot of stock in those rumours. Either that or he knew just what The Boss had in store for him. So what are you in for Mr Trembler? Murder? Rape?
The van mate wasn’t in much of a talkative mood. He just wanted to sit in silence until the van shuddered to a stop. That was a bad idea. It’s a dangerous thing for a person to be left to their own thoughts, especially when they were about to be enslaved. Thoughts can be fraught with all kinds of problems. It can be treacherous to be reminded just how fucked you really are.
Lucca managed the silence. It wasn’t easy but he managed. When the van did come to a halt he gave a great sigh. The trembling van mate began to bump his head against the wall behind him. They could hear the doors slam as the transporting officers climbed from the cabin. The trembler hit his head harder and faster.
Lucca was just about to tell him he was going to hurt himself when …
The van door was pulled open. They had missed the delightful journey up the hill towards the castle. They missed that breath taking view. Maybe they can appreciate it when The Boss decides to release them. If She does …
The man slammed his head against the van wall again. This time he gave a wail. There was blood. He had cracked the parietal bone on the posterior of his skull. He was crying. I did warn it was messy to leave a condemned man to his own thoughts.
“Get him out,” the senior officer ordered with little sympathy.
The trembling van mate was positively convulsing by now. Guards ushered him from the van. They were already in the castle grounds from what Lucca could see. Through the open doors he caught glimpse of his home for the next five years – at least. No parole, no understanding, no hope. The blood stain where the man had smashed his head was left untouched. It would do good for other prisoners to see what happens when you think too much.
Lucca watched the man stumble a little in the courtyard they had been brought to. He looked dizzy, possibly concussed. He was handed off to other guards and taken inside. Lucca was then removed from the van. The first thing to catch his attention was how quiet it was. For a place that housed thousands of lost souls there was not a peep, only the tapping of guard shoes across the cobbled ground. The guards on the gun towers were as still as statues. If it weren’t for one of them craning their neck to look out they could have been assumed to be mannequins.
The eery tranquility of the court yard was completely contrasted by the chaos of the processing building. The vans had been coming all morning, delivering new slaves by the looks of it. They were lined up in a never ending queue. That queue moved along fast. Next! Step. Next! Step.
When it came to Lucca’s turn that was when he met Remar for the first time.
“I’m the warden here,” he said. “If you don’t give me any trouble I don’t give any to you. Really piss me off and you don’t see the light of day. Observe meal times, keep clean, don’t fight and no wise ass comments, cursing or disrespect to our librarian. Your number is 0902. For your crimes you are now in servitude to The Boss. Next!”
Lucca was offered up to the jaws of a scowling guard named Trevor Gould.
“Strip,” he ordered.
Lucca started to peel his clothes off. If there was ever a body shy prisoner it wasn’t our lucky model boy but when he had gotten down to his Brad Shroeder undies he stopped.
“I said strip,” Gould snapped.
Lucca frowned. “Is that really necessary?” he asked.
“Cavity search,” said Gould. “It’s very necessary. Just pretend you’re at the doc getting the old prostate tickled.”
Got to be thorough when you’re dealing with degenerates.
“Shave him,” said Gould to one of the other guards who was assisting him.
Lucca was sat in a chair.
“I don’t want my head shaved,” he protested.
Gould laughed heartily.
“Would you listen to this one?” He said to his fellow guard. “I don’t give a fuck what you want, sunshine,” he said. “Shave him.”
“No disrespect to the librarian …” he could hear Remar tell the next fresh new inmate.
After Lucca was shaved, very thoroughly, delousing powder was thrown onto him. Then he was dressed in a standard issue kit. Across his back read the words ‘Property of The Boss.’
Gould grabbed his arm and hissed, “you’re in The Boss now so step fucking lightly.”
He looked into a greasy, filthy mirror that hung on the wall. The shaved head made his nose seem longer. It made his entire face look like that of a stranger as a matter of fact. Losing control of his appearance wasn’t suiting our model boy. Strike a pose there Lucca. Give us some prisoner chic.
In through the nostrils. Out through the lips. Count, two, three. Count, two, three.
We claim individuality in what we wear, how we style, make up, no make up, cosmetic procedures. None of this mattered. 0902 was now but a number.
Lucca pulled the hood of his prison issue hoody over his freshly barbered head. His full lips tightened.
“He’s in North Unit,” he overheard Gould being instructed by Dante. At that he was chained and led deeper into the belly of the great stone beast.
“Hands on your head,” Gould ordered him.
As he was led along the gangway to his cell he could hear other inmates call at him. They were screaming and wolf whistling. If promises were to be kept Lucca was going to be a lucky boy indeed.
“You’re going to be popular around here,” Gould commented.
You are a shoe in for winning the popularity contest behind these bars, Lucca. Got to be careful what you wish for though. This isn’t really the place you want to be that sought after.
COMING APRIL 2020
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“Damnit playa’” Anthony had cried over the message. “You better get your ass back here. We’re down on the second deck and we’re in a whole loada shit. I mean like mountain of shit. Like truck loads!”
“Yeah, I got the point,” Joshua responded.
He was already on his way to the second deck of the Motherboard building. This particular floor housed Coby Games’ main I.T suite. It was also where the Main Information Local Drive Reader and Encryption Device sat, or MILDRED for short. MILDRED was the main Coby server. Putting it simply, she was the main power house of the Coby Games empire. She was the heart of the Motherboard.
On this morning, as Joshua rushed to see who was gaining access to MILDRED’S information, he was greeted by a man in black.
“Good morning, Mr Coby,” he greeted. “I’m Professor Lynch.”
The Law Maker pin on his lapel introduced his purpose before he said anything further.
Beads of sweat had started to gather on Josh’s forehead but his body language remained composed.
“If you have a warrant I’d be happy to open up the servers for you.”
Professor Lynch smiled. It would have been personable if the man weren’t so sure of himself.
“The warrant is within. You don’t have to worry. We already have access to your servers. If you’ll be so kind and step inside with me. My charge has some questions he would like to ask about what he’s found so far.”
Professor Lynch pushed the door open to the main frame room. The heat within was like stepping into an oven no matter how many fans were operating. At the table next to MILDRED, hidden mostly by a hefty laptop with the Law Maker symbol on the lid, was a boy of about ten years old. His name was Sanjay Rappapor. He was a remarkable young man. Certified genius at age seven he already had degrees in information technology from Kingsgate University.
Coincidentally this was where he had met his handler, Professor Lynch. Lynch was a retired academic. His specialty was history and communication. He had been tasked with overlooking the boy, honing his skills and providing service to the Office of Law Makers’ forensic accountants.
He was a part of their ‘Hell Hound’ team, the other two of which we’ve already met.
Joshua looked to the registry screen.
‘LIL_SNIFFLES LOGGED IN’
That was the name he went by in the cyber world. He called himself that as a tongue in cheek play on the name the Black Bands gave him when they learned of his ability to spread viruses through online communities. He was a Subala native, raised by Van Holder himself. He had been brought to Coldford and educated by Judge Doyle.
Lynch went on to explain, “We’re going to start by searching the archives for any time the name Tabitha McInney turns up.”
The search Lil Sniffles had initiated produced one result.
“We’ll copy those files as part of our investigation,” added Lynch. “You’ll find the details in the warrant.”
BLEEP. BLEEP. BLEEP.
More search finds popped up.
“We’ll take into account the sensitivity of some of the other user data on the servers, employee details etc. Only information used in evidence will be presented.”
BLEEP. BLEEP. BLEEP.
Sanjay looked up from behind his computer. To Joshua he seemed delighted by what he had found.
BLEEP. BLEEP. BLEEP.
Sanjay raised an eyebrow at his screen. He then tapped on some keys.
BLEEP. Another one? Does that win a prize?
The door was thrown open by Anthony.
“Wooooh!” he gasped having rushed from his office on the fourth deck. “Got here as quick as I could.”
Professor Lynch addressed the Coby lawyer. “You must be our legal correspondent. You will have been made aware we’ve been granted at least three hours of your server time to gather what information we can.”
“That little mother fucker is going to cause all kinds of shit,” Anthony said to Joshua in an aside.
“I’ve not done anything wrong,” Joshua maintained.
Anthony agreed. “I know but they ain’t going to see it that way. If our users find out the Law Makers are tracking servers they’re going to pull out. Your dealings with the Boss Lady…”
“God damn it, will you shut that thing up!?”
Sanjay scowled behind his laptop screen.
“Feel free to go about your business for now,” said Lynch. “We wouldn’t want to hold you back. I think we have everything we need here. We’ll call you should anything turn up.”
A cacophony of bleeps sounded from Sanjay’s laptop then. He stopped. He leaned back in his chair. He took a sip of the milkshake that had been brought for him.
‘LIL SNIFFLES HAS JOINED THE CHAT’
Joshua read the server screen. ‘I know that user name,’ he reflected. He was the one that wrecked the Lonesome Nights server just last year.
The game had been glitching all day. The support thread had been filling for most of the afternoon. People were asking a lot of questions as to where their profiles had gone. It was a major data breach. A lot of money was lost too, as users logged out and the stock at Beckingridge Tower dropped rapidly. One gamer tag, LIL_SNIFFLES, kept filling the error logs with complaints.
REG3 ONLINE – error code 1304
FINND ONLINE – error code 1504
LEXF1 ONLINE – error code 1104
It took two hours for Joshua, backed by two of Coby’s best technicians, to break the firewall that LIL_SNIFFLES had thrown up. When they finally managed to confront the user there were no verifications, no apologies, but his message had been simple.
LIL_SNIFFLES has joined the chat.
LIL_SNIFFLES: Your servers have now been infected by a rapidly replicating virus. In the next few hours it will have destroyed your mainframe’s hard drive. You will already be experiencing a 60% fall in your processing speed. I’m not looking to cause any permanent damage. I have the code to write the virus out.”
Joshua looked to Anthony at the time.
“What do we do about this?” he asked.
“Find out what the mother fucker wants,” Anthony suggested. “Those stocks are still falling and if we don’t do something about this we’re gonna end up flat broke.”
Joshua sighed. He took one of the stations.
COBYPLAYER1 has joined the chat.
COBYPLAYER1: What do you want?
It didn’t take long before there was a response.
LIL_SNIFFLES: The Murabe village in Southern Subala is under a constant wave of attacks from nearby rebels. I will send you a video file which confirms some of the atrocities. You will circulate this as far as your networks will allow. Once this has been done I will write the virus out of your system.”
Joshua checked the footage. It was difficult to stomach. There were graphic images of men, women and children being put to the slaughter. It was a humanitarian crisis in a part of the world that Coldford seemed to have forgotten about. It was brought back to mind that day. As agreed, the awareness was spread and the virus was removed. LIL_SNIFFLES had bested the brightest minds of Coby games, including Josh Coby himself.
Three hours after gaining access to the server room, Joshua returned to the second deck to check on them. He wanted to politely remind little Sanjay and his handler that it was time to leave.
When he entered the heat again Sanjay was still behind his laptop.
“Time now, Sanjay,” said Professor Lynch.
He had been pacing, admiring the Coby games hardware.
Sanjay logged out of the mainframe and stored his laptop away in a black shoulder bag. On this bag was the badge of the Subala Black Bands.
After they were gone, Anthony asked Josh how many occurrences of the Boss Lady being mentioned they found.
Josh shook his head. “Adding her full name, Shanties and Knock Knock Club to the search, two hundred and forty six.”
I didn’t get much opportunity to visit Cardyne. It was an area of the city that set itself aside from the rest. It is the technological center of Coldford, as previously discussed. As I made my way to my meeting point, I passed glittering arcades, hip hop dance demonstrations on the streets and swarms of smiling, excited faces. It was a buzzing, bright place.
I arrived at The Planetarium restaurant. To access the unique building, you were taken aboard a glass elevator with a 360 view. Once inside you were raised to the sky-scraping platform where the space themed eatery sat. The view over Cardyne you were given was beyond remarkable. The light show from the Gigantidome Complex as darkness set in was worth spending a few extra minutes at the restaurant entrance to watch.
Waiting inside at our reserved table was Joshua Coby. He was a down to earth man on first appearance. He waved me over but before I could join him, I was stopped by a waitress.
“Table for one?” she asked.
“I’m here to meet with Mr Coby,” I explained.
The waitress turned back for confirmation from Josh.
“He’s with me, Lorraine,” he confirmed.
The waitress handed me a menu with a smile.
“I’ll be your server,” she said. “I’ll give you a few moments. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Just coffee please,” I ordered.
“Thanks for taking the time out to meet with me,” I said to Josh as I took the seat across from him.
“The Express and the Daily have been hounding me. I had to file grievances against them when they both printed contradicting stories without my say so. They both have their agendas so I’d rather talk to you,” Josh explained.
Such was the way of mainstream press.
“I thought it would be better to talk to a guy who had been through it too,” he added.
“I appreciate it,” I assured him. I couldn’t help but feel a bitter glee at the thought of Sandra Wake’s reaction when she saw my ‘little blog’ had an exclusive interview with Mr 60 himself.
“Tabitha is clamped at the club for now until the Office of Law Makers do what they have to to lock her up again. How do you feel about that?”
“She’s really something,” Josh laughed nervously. “I knew this would blow up, that’s why I thought I had better set my part of the story straight.”
He seemed to think about how he felt about Tabitha’s limited freedom. In an expression that surprised me he seemed to be quite pleased at the idea. “It’s good for the Shanties, I suppose,” he said. “I heard the Baroness was back on stage at the club, too. They’ll be glad. A lot of people were put out of homes and left without help when the Law Makers shut them down.”
“A lot of people benefited from The Knock Knock Club,” I admitted. “Do you think it was worth the lives lost, though?”
“You can’t put a price on life,” said Josh. “All I know is we all gotta wake up to what’s going on around here.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” I said. “Freefall was a wake up for you?”
“I had never been more woken in my life. I don’t think I slept for days after.”
Click. Click. Click.
The noise of the high heels slowly crossing the marble floor resonated in Joshua’s ears. He clutched the huge Beckingridge table he was sat at. The dead body of one of the firm’s employees still lay on top.
He was shivering uncontrollably. It could have been the breeze. The window was still open where fifty nine people had fallen to their deaths.
Click. Click. Click.
“You seem a decent kinda guy, so I’ll level with you.”
Josh looked up. The girl in the red dress perched herself on the table next to him.
“I did what I did tonight because I’m standing up for those who cannot fight for themselves,” said she. “I’m like a fucking superhero.”
Josh cried, “I think you made your point.”
“Maybe,” replied Tabitha. “Do you think I’ve made my point?” she asked Reggie Penn.
Reggie snatched Josh by the collar and dragged him to the window. Josh emitted a shriek when he was held out. Given the height of Beckingridge Tower it was a little blurry but the mess of body, blood and brains below made his stomach turn.
“I had therapy for a while afterwards,” Joshua explained. “I’m doing better now but I was a mess at the time.”
“I can imagine,” I said.
Given all that I had faced since Tabitha came into my life I could completely understand.
“So, I got this.”
Joshua rolled up his sleeve, displaying a tattoo on his arm that showed the number sixty. I snapped a picture of it.
“It reminds me how close I came,” said he. “I came so close to spilling my guts on the Beck Tower courtyard. It reminds me every day that no matter what happens, I have to do business right. No matter how much easier it would be to cut corners. It was really my commitment to doing the right thing that saved my life that night. It stopped at fifty nine. It stopped at me.”
“Was anything mentioned about Mayor Feltz and what she had done with him?”
“No,” Josh stated with certainty.
“After what she put you through, why would you listen to anything she has to say?”
Josh thought about it. “It was fear at first,” he said. “I’ve never dealt with anything like that in my life. My games can be violent sometimes but never have I seen anything like that in reality. I’m Cardyne born and we’ve got a small community here. It’s a culture shock when you go into City Main. Reg Penn was no man to mess around. The triplets aren’t either. Tabitha? She was something else. As the night wore on, the more she dropped her stage act. She let her performance fall behind the curtains and I could see she was desperate. You would have to have been to do what she did. She was right on a lot of things though. Too many people were being overlooked. Someone had to catch attention.”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” I said. “I can’t agree with you, though. There was nothing right in what she did.”
Josh nodded. “I know, but if you were backed into a corner what would you do? I never thought I would find myself listening to the ramblings of a crazy little bitch in a red dress. If you had told me before I would have said, ‘I’d fight her off no sweat,’ but I didn’t.”
This made me think of Madeline, my former colleague and friend. I had been backed into a corner then both figuratively and literally. If someone had asked me, I would never have said I was capable of taking a life. I guess we can’t predict even our own behavior under certain circumstances.
The tone of our conversation, which was a polite and courteous exchange, was broken by a Coby games jingle that sang from Joshua’s pocket.
“Sorry,” he excused himself removing the device. “I have alerts on all the newsfeeds. It looks like the Daily has something.”
I shook my head. “This I’d love to see.”
“Becker screen, Shirley,” Josh called to the waitress. On receipt of her orders, she switched on a large screen that hung above the entrance to the kitchens. The screen showed a cartoon icon from a game called ‘Chomper Dash,’ rush across. It was then replaced by an image of Sandra Wake, standing before her camera lens, poised with a microphone in her hand. She was camped outside the Coby Games building.
“In the last hour we’ve received reports that Joshua Coby of Coby Games inc has been remanded in custody by the Office of Law Makers for being complicit in the Freefall Massacre event which saw the deaths of fifty nine members, associates and staff of the Beckingridge Firm. When the event occurred, Mr Coby had stated that he had no prior meetings with Tabitha McInney of The Knock Knock Club. He did have acquaintance with Reggie Penn of the Penn Auction House, who helped orchestrate the tragedy. A Coby Games whistle blower has confirmed that Mr Coby and Reggie Penn had a long friendship and it is alleged that the Coby Games servers were used to spread information regarding the victims, access the Beckingridge Tower and lead the victims to their unfortunate deaths. Mr Coby has claimed himself Mr 60 and said he was always grateful to have survived. It could have been luck on his behalf or maybe it is something more sinister. Mr Coby has refused comment. More to follow as the events unfold. I’m Sandra Wake of Coldford Daily, your only source for the real news in the Shady City.”
246 mentions found by Sanjay on his servers. Reggie had a lot of friends in that cyber world. Joshua had been confident he was innocent of any wrong doing as well he should have been, but the more he thought of his servers the more ill at ease he became.
“That rotten to the core witch,” I found myself grumbling.
I’m not proud of it but the idea of my old newspaper continuing to tear reputations apart got under my skin. If anyone was going to push someone like Joshua Coby to do underhanded things it was those hyenas. It strengthened my resolve to tell the true stories, no matter where I found them. The truth was Joshua was a good man. His empire brought thrills to many. His tactics of encouraging and inspiring was admirable. I couldn’t let him be dragged through the mud.
“It’s time to get the truth out Josh. We don’t have a lot of time before this spreads so I’ll make a quick video now and we can do a full piece later. We need a response to this before it gets too hot.”
Joshua looked nervous. He bit his lip at first but then he managed a smile.
I opened my phone to camera. The video we recorded isn’t of much relevance. It basically reiterated the details of Josh’s experience at Beckingridge Tower. I asked him his opinions on all those involved which he gave respectfully but truthfully. I gathered the video to upload quickly. We were in a race against time before the latest Daily drivel became viral.
ERROR 65 CANNOT ACCESS
“It won’t let me upload,” I said, feeling thankful at having the tech mogul with me. “Error 65.”
Josh raised an eyebrow. “You use the Scroll On software, right? That’s one of ours. Let me see.”
I passed my phone to him for examination. He peeled off the back. Pressed an inner button that allowed for some kind of reset. When he tried again, he sighed. He took his own phone. His screen asked him for his server I.D. When he presented this his screen also read Error 65.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“They’ve shut down our servers,” Joshua admitted. “I’m sorry, Sam. I have to go and check on this.”
Joshua departed our interview in a hurry. I warned him to be careful if Sandra was hovering around his building still. Left alone, I contemplated how I was going to get around my own predicament. If it was true and the servers had been shut it meant all my previous stories and interviews were gone. I had essentially been thrown into the media dark.
As I looked up at the Becker screen the image cut. ERROR 65 it now read.
Mayor Jim Feltz gave a lot to the city. Coldford was a demanding mistress though. It had earned its nick name as the Shady City not just because of the gloomy weather but because everything was there for the taking for anyone who wasn’t hindered by morals or conscience. Jim was such a man.
Whilst the city’s funds depleted he squirrelled away as much as he could. There was a war brewing on the city streets and he was damn sure he wasn’t going to get caught up in it. Things were going to implode soon. It was only a matter of time. The regeneration projects he had promised during his last campaign were halted by the LAWMAKERS in the city. The poorest area known as The Shanties had been left worse off than they ever had been.
People in high positions – people he considered friends – had pilfered the money away leaving those lower on the ladder high and dry.
As the class war raged it left no money for the expecting mothers the mayor swore he would help. School budgets were cut to compensate for any losses caused by riots and looting. Only the exclusive Alban’s Boarding School managed to weather the storm.
What did it matter? When campaign time came again he could blame the opposition. He was just dealing with the mess they had left behind. Half of the city would believe it and the other half wouldn’t care either way. But he was done with all that.
“Will you be home on time?” Sylvia Feltz asked her husband as he prepared to leave. “We have the Weirs coming to dinner,” she added. “I need you here.”
The plan to leave everything behind had been in the works for weeks. The day had finally come. He had enough money to start over now. When the finances of the city finally tumbled like a house of cards and the war spilled onto the streets he would be out of the picture. Sure his family would have to face the music at first but they would get out of it cleanly for the most part.
His eldest daughter, Ruby, kissed him.
“I’ll be by the office this afternoon,” she said. “We need to go over a campaign plan.”
Ruby was her father’s daughter in every sense – so like him she was. She had gotten involved in his political career right from the beginning. The day he announced he was running she was by his side. She had aspirations on becoming the city’s first female Mayor. She had a naïve view of politics though. A certain lack of compassion was required despite what many might argue. She would learn that soon enough.
He stepped outside of his building. People were becoming irate so he kept his security close. His silver town car wasn’t waiting for him at the entrance of the building as it always was. He trusted his driver, Shane. He was nothing if not punctual. He looked at the security guard he was assigned. He was expressionless with hands clasped on his stomach. His cold stare was masked behind spectacles. He recognised the man’s face. His name was Marcus. He wasn’t a security guard all. He was one of Penn triplets who owned the AUCTION HOUSE in Main. The car pulled up before he could ask him his business. Mayor Feltz looked at the door of his car. something had gone awry.
His heart increased the tempo of its beat as MARCUS PENN reached over and opened the car door. It was really happening. The car pulled close. The driver’s seat was covered by tinted windows. Marcus leaned over and opened the door. The mayor made to climb in but he hesitated. A woman was sat waiting for him. She shifted over and patted the seat beside her.
“Don’t be shy,” she said.
Her ruby lips curled into a pretty smile. The collar of the grey coat she wore was pulled up around her neck. Marcus pushed him in and sat beside him.
“Isn’t this cosy?” she remarked.
He tried to control his breathing. He called upon every political stoicism he had in the hope he didn’t look worried. The sweat gathering on his brow didn’t lie.
“What do you want?” he asked.
The woman looked out of the tinted windows and watched the city pass by at greater and greater speeds.
“I just wanted to give a proper farewell,” she replied. “Surely you wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye to little old me?”
Fear erupted inside him. He didn’t care that he would be leaping from a moving vehicle. He clutched for a door handle but Marcus snatched his wrist and twisted it causing the bones to crunch together.
“Let me out!” he cried.
The woman laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’re not going far. The city wishes to thank you for your service.”
Her name was TABITHA and he should have known there would be no escaping.
The car stopped. The driver opened the door. It wasn’t Shane after all. It was a woman. She wore a plain white blouse and simple black trousers. She had a familiar face but he couldn’t place her. If he paid more attention to the people he threw money at he would recognise her as the scantily clad girl who spent some glorious time on his lap during his last visit to the KNOCK KNOCK CLUB. He had paid her extra to finish the job but that was all but a distant memory.
Tabitha stepped out first. They had parked outside an office block in the business district of City Main. Marcus pushed the mayor out onto the street.
He was escorted into the building. Tabitha was in front of him and Marcus loomed behind to make sure he wasn’t going anywhere.
Tabitha said nothing as they climbed the steps. The mayor was sobbing. Each time he thought they had reached the end of his torture they had another floor to climb. They finally reached the top. Tabitha fished a key from her coat pocket and unlocked the green door that greeted them. The Beckingridge Tower could be seen standing tall across the street.
“Your daughter wanted to say good bye.”
His youngest daughter, Amber, was tied to a table. Her arms and legs spread. She had been stripped to her underwear. Jim moved to run to her but Marcus grabbed him with great clenching hands and pulled him back. The room was empty save for a chair, a large machete blade that leaned against the wall and the table that held the seventeen year old girl. Amber’s mouth was covered but she was screaming. Her eyes were wide and terrified.
The BECKINGRIDGE FINANCIAL FIRM are one of the largest organisations in the city and had been for generations. When tensions rose and the recession hit it became collateral damage. The office across the street had remained empty ever since the FREE FALL MASSACRE. Fifty nine people lost their lives when several benefactors and staff fell from the balcony of the penthouse suite. No one dared take over the space again.
“Leave her alone!” The mayor cried desperately. “She’s done nothing to you.”
Tabitha clutched his face and rested her chin on his shoulder.
“You have really pissed me off Jim. You think you can abandon ship just like that? You really want to go to Kuberstan? Who the fuck wants to visit Kuberstan unless you’re ditching something.”
“I wasn’t leaving. I just needed time to think. The Lawmakers are pushing me more and more. I could come back and be of more use to you.”
Tabitha slid her hand into his pocket and pulled out the flight reservations. She looked at them and dropped them on the floor.
“You see,” she said, “the thing is, I would love to believe you. I really would. This is a one way ticket though.”
“Let her go,” the mayor sobbed. Tears were rolling down Amber’s face. “I’ll pay anything.”
Tabitha shook her head. She stood up straight. “It’s not about the money,” she stated. “We have that already anyway. This is personal now.”
She sat across his lap and kicked her long, slim legs out.
“A girl could be insulted with a man running out on her like that. I thought you liked my little club.”
“I do,” protested the mayor of Coldford.
Tabitha grinned. There was a gap between her front teeth that gave her a quirky, girlish quality.
“Let’s see how much then, shall we?”
With a nod to Marcus he swung the blade and cut her left hand. The sharpened knife swiped through flesh and bone with ease. Her screams of agony were muffled by the cloth over her mouth.
Her father screamed too. He didn’t have time to gather himself when Tabitha pointed again for Marcus cut off her other hand.
“You’ve made your point!” said Jim. “Let her go!”
Tabitha gave a raspy laugh. “And miss the chance to see Marcus at work? The man is an artist, isn’t he?”
The mayor tried to push against the binds. Tabitha was on her feet again. She walked over to the table and took the blade from Marcus.
“I will give you a choice,” she offered. “Since your girl is going to die anyway I can either continue cutting her up into little pieces or just end it now for her. What do you want me to do?”
The mayor sobbed. “Please just leave her.”
“I didn’t quite catch that.”
“End it,” the mayor cried louder. “End it for her.”
He had averted his gaze unable to see the pained look on his youngest child’s face. Her eyes were hazy. She was going to pass out from the blood loss soon.
“I will if you tell me I’m pretty,” Tabitha teased.
“Just kill her! Just kill her now! Please!” the mayor roared.
Tabitha’s grey eyes widened. “That is your daughter!?” she gasped. She grinned. “You are a nasty piece of work Jim.”
She lifted the blade and centered it on Amber’s forehead. Before the point penetrated her skull there was a flash of realisation on Amber’s face.
The mayor cried. He knew he was playing a dangerous game but never would he have thought it would come to this. He was leaving his life behind for sure but not in the way he had intended.
Tabitha dropped the blade, circled behind him like a predator and began massaging his shoulders.
“Well Jim, we must dash. You know what it’s like when I’m away from Knock Knock too long. Well … Well it can be just murder!”
Times have been desperate for the people of Coldford, better known as the Shady City. Once upon a time executives now reduced to rummaging through their neighbours’ trash to find a meal. Many are hunting for shelter wherever they can find it – like stray cats. Their once well tailored suits now hanging in rags. It’s surreal to see once proud captains of industry reduced to the indignity of soup kitchens. Nowhere to go, no means of rising back up to their ivory towers.
My name is SAM CRUSOW. When the depression hit, two industries were saved – entertainment and news. People always need to know what’s happening in the world and people always need an escape from their reality. Luckily for me I’m with the latter. I have been a freelance journalist ever since finishing college. As the financial belt tightened it was harder and harder to get a full time position with a news paper so I (and most of my colleagues) went from story to story just trying to make it. Most of my stories sold to the biggest newspaper in the city – COLDFORD DAILY.
I thought I had managed to successfully navigate through the choppy waters of recession until the day I discovered that beneath the harsh surface lay a more terrifying truth. But I get ahead of myself. I write these notes so that everyone can know the truth. Chances are I will be gone by the time you read this. I am on borrowed time as it is.
It began just as summer was breaking. We were experiencing one of the warmest spells we had had in quite some time.
The Mayor – Jim Feltz – had disappeared without a trace. That morning he had kissed his wife, a voluptuous and formidable woman named Silvia, and his eldest daughter, Ruby, goodbye. He straightened his power tie in the mirror and made his way to wade through the city’s financial crises, which if you were to believe the tabloids were largely his fault. Normally he would have been escorted to the office by security of some kind. The citizens of Shady City, riled at the very sight of the Mayor, only made matters worse. However, that morning he never arrived at his office. Making his way down his street in his luxury silver car was the last anyone saw of him. Some of the neighbours remembered hearing loud music blaring from his open windows as he passed which was most unlike the buttoned down, conservative man that he was.
I had been covering the story as it developed. This meant I had been spending more time at the offices of the Daily. The Daily was the only source of news on the mayor by Mrs Feltz’s request and being area’s largest newspaper. It was also the provider of food on my table. Hiring freelancers had been their way of protecting themselves. It meant that they were only paying for the material they needed, without any full time mouths to feed.
I never liked Mayor Feltz. I certainly didn’t vote for him. As I pursued the story I uncovered gambling debts and a mistress at the far end of town. He must have been quite the charmer. When I interviewed his mistress she told me that he was planning on leaving his wife (which is probably what they all say). On the morning he disappeared he had been planning to visit her. They were going on a trip together, which is why he had wanted to be discreet. The mistress, Cindy, had waited for him for most of the morning in her lavish apartment that the city coin had paid for. She flipped between anger and worry as she did. By two in the afternoon the police swamped her, acting quicker for such a public figure than they would have for any ordinary citizen.
Neither his wife, his mistress nor his gambling associates could offer the police any idea as to where he went, so on that warm morning I made my way to the stretch of tower blocks that housed the newsroom in City Main. My mind was occupied by ways I could spin the same story or offer a new angle.
Close to the office the clang of metal bins falling over drew my attention. From behind the cans crawled a man. He was young, filthy and with a mop of thick hair. Like many of the others forced to live on the streets. He sat with his back against the wall and brought his knees to his chest. His eyes were dulled by the effects of alcohol. He held a core of an apple and made breakfast of it. Sights like these were shocking when the recession first hit but they became more common and so you no longer noticed. The mighty had fallen and the rest of us became desensitised to their plight. I gave him what coins I had left. With very little I could do to help him, I entered the tall grey building with the large towering sign on top that read ‘Coldford Daily’.
The newsroom was hot and thick with the smell of coffee. Full time reporters had become scarce but those of them who did remain in work dashed back and forth trying to perfect their articles. Nothing quite so stimulating as a looming deadline. The brown leather satchel that I always carry my articles in was dropped on an unoccupied table. I rested at the desk, drew out my notes and began to review them. I had to ignore the hum and chatter around me to focus on the words.
“Hey Sam,” came the voice of MADELINE LOWER. I looked up and briefly acknowledged her presence with a smile. Madeline and I had been friends since college. She too was a freelance writer although she would admit her stories weren’t selling as well. I don’t think my writing was any better than hers, its just that the editor, Eric Waddle, was a bit of a chauvinist and what articles of hers he did accept were probably grudged.
‘Maybe if I slept with him he would change his mind,” she had said. She was joking of course but everyone had their motives in Shady City so it wouldn’t surprise me.
Madeline was an athletic woman in her late twenties. Her shoulder length brunette hair fell loosely around her shoulders. Her skin was a warm caramel colour like she had come from a sun kissed land. Her pale blue eyes were sharp and feline. That morning she wore a white shirt and a plaid skirt. She sat herself on the edge of my desk with the leap of feminine grace. “Waddle was looking for you,” she informed me. “He told me to kick you into his office as soon as you got here.”
“Thanks,” was my reply, still absorbed in my reviewing. I brushed my auburn hair away from my face. I was always pale but in those days of hard work I was even paler. I gathered my strength. Discussions with Waddle took a lot of energy. He was the kind of man who didn’t talk to you but talked at you.
“You look like hell,” Madeline commented – ever the crusader for honesty. “Go see what he wants and I’ll get us some coffee.”
Madeline slipped off the desk and made her way to the farthest end of the newsroom where the fresh coffee was being brewed.
I knocked on the door of the editor’s office. I could hear Eric’s voice inside having a one sided conversation which suggested that he was either conducting a telephone call or some journalist was on the listening side of a hostage situation. I pushed the door ajar slightly. I caught a glimpse of Waddle standing behind his desk. His back was to me. He had a black telephone receiver placed to his ear. He heard me as I stepped inside because he swivelled round, smiled and waved at me, gesturing me to sit down.
“I gotta go, sweetheart,” said Eric. “If I hear anything I will let you know.”
I took the seat across the desk from Eric, laying my papers on top. Eric Waddle was a tall man. He had a thick beard and always wore a long, black pony tail.
“That was Silvia Feltz,” he informed me even though I hadn’t asked. “Poor thing is still in shock. Trying to piece together what happened. Jim and I go way back and even I had no idea what he was up to.”
“I have nothing new really,” I ventured.
Eric reached his heavy hand across pulled my papers towards him. “It doesn‘t matter. People can’t get enough of the story. They’re swallowing it down like buzzards and coming back for more.”
“I think I’ve spoken to everyone he ever met. That is everyone but you…” Eric had been quite adamant that he not be included in any of the articles but I didn’t become the reporter I was by not chancing my luck.
“I have nothing to say,” Eric snatched up a glass bottle filled with whiskey and poured himself a generous share into a square shaped glass by his hand. “I asked you to come here because there is something that I wanted to talk to you about.”
“As you know, times are tough. We can only handle the best which is why they want you Sam.”
“Want me for what?”
“I’m talking about full time,” Eric said. His face beamed with excitement.
“I don’t know what to say,” I stammered.
“Say yes!” he bawled before emitting roars of laughter. “These kind of opportunities aren’t easy to come by these days.”
I stood. My actions became subconscious. “That is a great offer. I am very grateful. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me, just do what you do best,” Eric dismissed, downing his glass of whiskey in one single gulp. The bottle was probably less expensive than the MACK AND SONS brand he was used to but decent alcohol was becoming increasingly difficult to come by. “You don’t have to be hanging around here all day. Go home and tell your wife the good news. You can start fresh tomorrow.”
My wife, Theresa, had studied journalism too. In fact that’s where we met. When Theresa and I married she gave up a career. Her mother blamed me for this but the truth was I had been the one trying to discourage her from doing so. Theresa didn’t want to take any chances on a writing career when housewife was the most stable job to be had. I never corrected my mother-in-law as to whose decision it had been to give up. She already hated me anyway. She thought me too self absorbed to be a suitable husband for her daughter. Her concerns weren’t completely without merit. When I was caught up chasing stories I often missed what was happening to the people closest to me. Theresa would be excited though. I couldn’t wait to tell her the news.
I was out of breath by the time I got home, my heart beating forcefully with exertion and excitement. The drums of anticipation rattled in my ears. I fumbled for my keys in my pocket. I leaned against the door as I reached deeper into my pockets. As I did so the door fell aside. It was very unlike Theresa to leave the door unlocked even when she was at home. She was a cautious little thing and home invasion robberies were happening a lot in our neighbourhood in the Rumilaw of Main.
Our humble home was a small, one bedroom terrace amidst an array of similar granite buildings. What separated ours from the rest was the addition of an emerald green front door. Green was my favourite colour and it matched the shade of Theresa’s eyes. I called for my wife but there was no response. Heaps of blankets lay across the worn brown sofa which kept us warm without any extra cost. The scent of baking apples danced from the kitchen. Theresa had been baking apple pie which she always did when she had had a rough day. The kitchen was a direct off set from the living room. I found Theresa in there lurched over the cooker. She was weeping heavily. Her mousey brown hair was uncombed. When I pushed the swinging door open she gripped a knife that was close at hand. She stumbled backwards emitting a frightful shriek.
When she saw it was me she dropped the knife, ran at me and threw her arms around my neck. She didn’t ask why I had come home so early. It was I who asked the questions.
“What happened?” My heart was now beating to a completely different rhythm.
“I wasn’t expecting you so early,” she said. “A woman was looking for you.”
“What did she want?” I asked.
Theresa gathered her wits. “She gave me an invitation to a club.”
“And who was she? What was her name?” I enquired, assuming it to be someone I had been questioning on the Feltz story.
Theresa shook her head. “She didn’t say.”
Theresa wandered into the living room and dropped herself amongst the blankets. “She told me that this story on the Mayor could put you in danger. She said you were getting involved in something you shouldn’t.”
I sat beside her and put my arm around her shoulder. “That’s all nonsense, I promise.”
Theresa shuddered. “She gave me this …”
She gave me a black business card. On the front read ‘The Knock Knock Club’ with two finely shaped female figures on either side. It was an exclusive club in town. A club I would visit that night and my life would be changed forever.
#amreading the #thriller #graphicnovel #knockknock by @VivikaWidow