Fifteen feet below the streets, in a damp, malodorous tunnel, one man stood and shivered. His heart still raced, his lungs still burned, and his body still ached. Certain types of magic played havoc with his body, and even though he’d tapped into it over an hour ago, he’d yet to climb up from the depths of the ritual. He glanced down at his right hand; it trembled. He made a fist and tried to will away the shaking.
Elias Merriwether Sloan stood in front of time- and moisture-warped door and tried to collect his breath. Through a gap in the planking, he saw into the room beyond the door. Four men sat in the room, waiting for him. They sat on battered, dark chairs that had splintered and mildewed in the humid air, and had seated more men than they. The oldest sat with his feet flat on the floor, his elbows on his knees, and his chin tucked into his chest. The youngest had tilted his chair back on two legs until it touched the damp wall behind him. Of the two seated between them, one cleaned his fingernails with a short knife and the other sat and stared at the door. They would all wait for him, no matter how late he was. He didn’t want to set a bad example of tardiness or disrespect to the others, but he didn’t want them to see him in this state, either. Only one man would say anything about it, but Sloan needed to speak to him the most.
Sloan stepped toward the door, his breathing less ragged and his heart beginning to slow. The aches remained, but the men wouldn’t see those. He looked at his hand again. The trembling had stopped. It was time. He grabbed the handle of the wood-and-iron door and pulled it open. The hinges were oiled; despite its age, the door didn’t squeak. Stepping into the meeting-room, he glanced toward the men. He nodded.
The second man put away his knife and nudged the oldest awake.
Sloan set his hand on a battered wooden desk. It was from here that he held court. His chair came from the same beaten stock on which the others were sitting. On any other occasion, he’d circle around behind the desk, take his seat, and begin discussions. Today, though…today didn’t feel quite like it should.
From above, he heard the sounds of daytime business. Voices provided a constant murmur and the clip-clop of hooves on cobblestones accented the sound. Occasionally, a raised voice of a merchant calling his wares pierced the susurration of sound. Nearby, rushing water created a constant low roar. The sounds echoed around the cube-shaped room, making it a bit hard to hear but damnably hard to be overheard. He glanced over at the second door into the room. They’d closed and barred it, as they always had.
“Ash,” he said to the second man. “Crack the door.”
“Crack the door,” Sloan told him. “I want a little air in here.”
As the man stood to unbar the door, Sloan took a seat on the edge of the desk. Finding it somewhat comfortable, he looked around the room at his men. They were watching him. They were curious; he had no doubt about that. He took a moment to imagine what they saw.
He was best described as nondescript: medium height and medium build, with brown hair of a medium length and with plain brown eyes. He generally dressed in utilitarian brown-and-tan leather, and was neither handsome nor homely. His was the kind of face that vanished into a crowd. He was a man of rituals – not just magic, but everyday ones as well. Today he’d broken two, and he supposed his men wondered why.
It might have been the expanse of magic filling him, or it could have been several years of constant work and regular expectations in this room turning into a form of claustrophobia. He simply didn’t want to be there any longer than necessary.
“I have it on good authority,” Sloan finally said in a level voice, “that Two-Dagger Hamish was brought down last night. He will certainly hang for his crimes.”
“What’ll we do f’r the girls’ families?” The oldest man asked. Sloan called him Scurvy, but that wasn’t his name.
“There are no families. Hamish only went after women with no children and no husbands.” He thought a moment and shifted on the edge of the desk. “I doubt very much if any of the women have living parents either. I hope there is no mother that would allow her child to live so poorly. Ash, check it out. See if there are any parents.”
“How should I find a whore’s mother?”
“These were not nightingales, Ash, these were poor women with no one around to help them.” Ash was surly again. This meant either he’d been drinking heavily the night before or he’d lost some coins in one of the gambling halls he frequented. “Use your own contacts. This is why I pay you. What else?”
“I’ve got one,” said the third, a fishmonger whom Sloan had dubbed Carp. “Lord Winterheart’s passed. I heard it from the cook. She came by all dressed in black. She said it happened two days ago.” His face scrunched in concentration. “I sold her some sea bass.”
Sloan stared at Carp a moment. The fishmonger was far from the brightest of the four, but he had the best connections to the wealthy. Even nobility loved fresh seafood.
“Who inherits the title?” Sloan finally asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Did you ask?”
“Of course! I know what you pay me for! She didn’t know. But she said that she thought the lady would.”
“Would know or would inherit?”
Sloan nodded and made a note to remove Lord Winterheart from his files, and to add the Dowager Lady.
The youngest, Bicardo, said, “Another one of the boys got killed last night.”
“No. He got pomoted.”
“Yeah. He’s in Old Town now. He was, that is.”
“Where did it happen?”
“The west end of Reed Street. The whole street was dark. Looks like he went back to relight the lamps. They found him in an alley near. He was a mess, they say.”
“Was it like what happened to Tall Wennel?”
Sloan steepled his index fingers. Tall Wennel was reported to have been found with his throat slit and his eyes open. But the Watch was being cagy about it, and he found that troublesome.
“Did Dougie have any enemies?”
“Just a couple gents of girls he knew.”
“Do the boys have anything in common?”
“They was both lamplighters.”
“Yes, Bicardo.” He was more patient with the youngest of his men than with the others.
"Anything besides that?”
After a moment, Bicardo shook his head. “Nothing I know of.”
“Look into it, will you? See if they have anything in common. I’ll look into the murders. Is there anything else?” He asked again. This time there was no response.
“Fine. Thank you all. Carp, Ash, Bicardo, you may leave. Scurvy, stay a moment.” Sloan and Scurvy waited as Ash led the three out of the room. When they had exited, Scurvy shot a glance at Sloan.
Scurvy closed and barred the door again. He sat back down.
“Tell me about your niece.” Sloan said, focusing his gaze on his man. Scurvy shook his head slightly and glared back at him. Sloan knew he wouldn’t ask how he had found out. It was his business to know things, even if they were about his own people.
“She was seein’ this lad,” Scurvy began. “Noble, he was.”
“I know how ye think,” Scurvy blurted. “Ye know I agree.”
“Why did you let it happen?”
Scurvy laughed. “Yer a good man, Mister Sloan, but ye don’t have a child. Ye can’t stop them doin’ that thing when they’ve got a mind t’ do it. If a boy does it, it’s not so bad. He’ll get caught. Boys are stupid, ye know. Anyways, a boy’s not the one ye got to worry about. No boy gets a nipper.”
“She’s with child?”
“Aye, looks like it. Me wife says so. So does her sister.” Scurvy smiled a toothy grin. “Betwixt ‘em, they got ten of they own.”
“Is she going to be married?”
“Not t’ the lad. He’s told her no.”
“Who is he?”
“Don’t know the family name. She calls him Donol.”
Sloan thought a moment, riffling through nobles names filed away in his head. “That’s Donol Barrendon.”
“Donol Barrendon,” Sloan said. “Youngest son of Cleitus Barrendon. He’s eighteen or nineteen. He’s quite the reputation as a rake. I’d be willing to guess that Ananda isn’t the only common girl he’s left this way.”
Scurvy was quiet a minute.
"Why ye asking me this?” he finally asked.
“Why do you think?”
“Are ye going t’ take him?”
“Aye. I know how to do it, too.” He hopped off the edge of the desk. “Leave this one to me, old friend. I’ll see what I can do for the family, Scurvy.”
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“Because I know how ye think about the nobility.”
“Was I wrong?”
“Not this time.”
“Tell me,” he said after a moment, “what would you think about meeting somewhere else next time?”
“Somewhere sunnier, p’rhaps? Somewhere what doesn’t smell like shite?”
“That’s fairly well what I was thinking.”
“I’d like it. I may work in the sewers, but it don’t mean I want t’ spend any more time down here than that.”
“What about the others?”
“They’d love t’ get out of here.”
“No one likes it?”
“Why didn’t you say so?”
“Yer the one payin’ the fiddler, Mister Sloan. That means yer the one callin’ the tune.” Scurvy turned to leave. He unbarred the door and swung it open. He turned and looked at Sloan again.
"I don’t know what ye’ve been doin’, either, but so ye know, ye look like shite. Yer not hidin’ it.” He walked away, leaving the door open.
Alone in the meeting-room he no longer liked, Sloan laughed raggedly.
Continue with Chapter Four - "Melbourn"