by Ben Hodges

I was returning home from ‘The Hook’, a rather seedy inn I frequented more for the clientele than the atmosphere. A thief would be sure to find a fence there for any item he had, or a rich client wishing for that certain something to add to his collection. There was a table near the back of the taproom, the torches permanently doused by its side, where a small group of shadowy figures sat. People would come in, sit at the table for a minute, coins would change hands, and the next day someone would be lying on the slab in Shalebridge mortuary. I never paid much attention to the business, not being interested in hiring them myself and secure in the knowledge that I hadn’t caused any one person enough trouble to make it worth their while to have me killed.

It would seem, from the arrow that had just buzzed past my ear, that I had been wrong about that assumption but I didn’t really have the luxury of time to think about it. I ducked into the doorway I was passing, swearing as I realised most of my equipment was left in my apartment, after all, it had only been a trip to the pub. I ran through my inventory quickly, two flash bombs in my pockets, cosh, hammer, no crossbow or bow unfortunately although I did have a small pouch of water crystals for hard bargaining. A thief was much easier to deal with when he was drunk, and the fences around here knew that, unfortunately for them they did not know that I tended to replace the liquid in my goblet with water from a crystal while they weren’t looking. It’s amazing how much you can get for an item if the person you’re haggling with believes you’re too drunk to sell it for even half its value.

Jiggling the doorknob that was sticking into my back I discovered it was unlocked and stepped out of view quickly, just in time to avoid the next shaft that buried itself deeply within the wooden frame. Throwing dignity to the winds I leapt up the stairs to the landing window, spotting the sniper almost instantly, crouched as he was just above the gutter on the other side of the street. I ducked back down before he realised I could see him and tried to think. I’d never make it across the road without catching a couple of arrows in the chest, and the sewers in this area were non-existent, therefore I needed another plan. I cracked the bedroom door open behind me and crept in, blackjacking the sleeping inhabitant as politely as I could under the circumstances, pocketing the purse on the dressing table as I passed. I opened their window and slunk up the drainpipe, shuffling across the rooftop as I made my way behind the sniper. Peering over the top of the incline I saw the man hadn’t moved, still holding an arrow in place and scanning the front of the building. Rolling over the top I silently crossed the street from above, using the beam going between the houses I’d passed under many times. From beneath it never looked this narrow, or this dark, but I made it across without being noticed, hauling myself up on the guttering and drawing my blackjack as I checked to see if the sniper was still there. Thankfully he seemed unaware of my manoeuvres, still waiting patiently for the perfect shot. I hefted the weapon in my hand, unslinging it from my wrist as I flung it with all my strength at his head. The figure collapsed without a sound, almost slipping off the roof before I grabbed the tail of the cloak and pulled him back up. I took his quiver, arrows and purse before I leant him against a chimney stack, changing my mind I decided that he deserved more than this, and fed him down the chimney itself until only his feet were sticking out of the top. Grinning for the first time since I’d been shot at I looped my new equipment around my shoulders and made my way carefully to my rooms.

Another man was watching the window, obviously they’d studied my movements before attempting to kill me. I was somewhat flattered, though not enough to leave him alone. Slotting a water crystal onto the end of an arrow shaft I fired it at the sloping roof just above where he was crouched, the water washing about his feet. He swore loudly as he lost his footing on the lichen-covered tiles and plunged over the edge, turning in mid-air to grab hold of the gutter. The weight of his equipment was hindering his efforts to pull himself up though and he’d just got one foot over the gutter by the time I’d arrived. I grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled him up before smartly rapping him over the skull with my blackjack. I hooked his quiver strap over a gutter hook after swiping his purse, and left him dangling over the drop as I made my way to my apartment.

I decided to change my ways just this once, and dropped to ground level, walking in through the front door and going up the stairs. I picked the lock on the ‘empty’ rooms next to mine and slipped inside. I’d rented them since the beginning, but not even the landlord knew this, he merely knew he was being paid a goodly amount of gold each month to keep these rooms unoccupied and didn’t want to ask questions and risk the money. I had worked on the walls one night and set up a couple of secret passages to and from my lodgings as well as storing an emergency kit under the floorboards. I rummaged through the hidden safe, exchanging the current quiver for my spare one, complete with the compartments. I slung it and the pack over my shoulder and prepared to enter my home, certain that I’d have company waiting for me. I eased open the panel leading to my bedroom and crept in, noting the lack of light and sound I assumed it was empty and silently made my way to my closet. I froze as I heard a slight scuffing noise, someone moving a leg to prevent it falling asleep, and turned very slowly to see where it had come from. A shadow was crouching by the window, I could make out a knife in its upraised hand, the blade coated with soot to prevent it glinting and warning the victim. I guess my years of practice at moving silently and unnoticeably, and the lack of light in the room, had worked for me. They had been concentrating so intently upon the window, expecting me, if I had made it this far, to enter through there, that they had been oblivious to the silent opening and closing of the panel. I moved towards them, as silently as the night wind, drawing my hammer this time and slowly drew myself to my full height before bringing it crashing down upon their skull. They collapsed with a muffled grunt, the knife slipping from their fingers and lodging itself in the window ledge as they hit the floor. Checking the pulse I found the man was still alive, though his head would be killing him tomorrow, and cut his purse, ‘accidentally’ slicing through his belt and waistband as I did so.

I swung the shutters closed silently and lit a candle to see the state of the room. They seemed to have searched it thoroughly, though whether for a specific item or just to see what they could take was uncertain. A wire had been set by the door, the thread leading to a mine, which I disarmed and pocketed before opening the closet. I’d heard of people keeping their valuables in closets before now, and had taken precautions about mine being found. First I pressed the loose plank in the floor, which opened up to reveal the spot where a pouch of gold should have been, the gang seemed to be slightly more effective at theft than at killing, and, at the far end, another switch. Pressing this caused a wooden panel to swing open from the wall in the bathroom. I took the candle with me as I went through, preparing to equip myself properly at last. They hadn’t discovered this stash, unsurprisingly, and I was soon arrayed in all my glory.

I blew out the candle and headed outside through the window, figuring it would be harder for them to find me if they had no idea where I was. I headed back towards the inn, the last place they’d have expected me to go, aiming to find out who’d hired someone to kill me. I crept in the kitchen door, noting the lack of sentries after all I was supposed to be dead by now. I pressed a finger to my lips as the cook turned and saw me, I gestured for them to lean over, then whispered into her ear.

“If I were you, I’d take the night off. Don’t worry, I’ll pay for any damage.”

I slipped her a handful of coins to help with the decision and, sure enough, stopping only to remove her apron she was gone. Looking about the kitchen I grabbed the things I needed for my plan and, putting on the fallen apron, stepped boldly out into the main room. I strolled over to the shadowy table, the lack of light working my favour, and placed the tin platter before the figures about it. They looked somewhat surprised at this and glanced downwards as I lifted the lid with a flourish. The shattered gas crystal that was revealed was not well received as, rather than applause for such a superb presentation, they merely reacted by toppling sideways off their seats and lying unconscious on the floor. The inn emptied swiftly, no one wanting to watch the show if there was any chance they’d get caught up in it. I propped the gang up in their chairs and tied them in securely so they wouldn’t fall out and hurt themselves again. After I removed their hoods I lit all the torches in the area, dragged a chair over for myself and collected a bottle of fine wine and a goblet from behind the bar. Then I merely sat and waited for them to regain consciousness.

The first one that did tried to break free briefly, discovering the strength of the ropes for himself, before sitting back as he noticed me sat opposite him with a rather off-putting smile on my face.

I greeted him politely and suggested we wait for his companions to awake and join the party too before we chatted. They awoke fairly soon as the gas, while its effects varied upon different people, did tend to wear off at approximately the same time for everybody, and no one here had had a long exposure to it.

I suggested that they told me who had hired them to kill me. I mentally answered my own question as to why in one word, money. At first they were unwilling to speak, but as soon as I pointed out that I had ‘disposed’ of the assassins already sent after me without any bother or pricking of conscience and that I could easily do the same to the rest of them they soon broke down. I would point out that I spoke no word of a lie there as I had indeed disposed of the others. I had merely not killed anyone in doing so, if they wished to believe that their friends were dead then that was their business and I would hate to interfere in anyone’s private beliefs.

I got their signatures, those that could write at least, upon a confession for a series of high-profile murders and informed out that, if I were to be killed, this paper would make its way from the bank to the sheriff’s desk in Shalebridge. They were mercenaries after all, my favourite people to deal with, and soon decided that whereas my living would not affect their business greatly my death would cause them some trouble. That particular matter taken care of I headed off to deal with the next stage.

Their leader had informed me that a nobleman had ordered my death, although they were uncertain as to which one. They had been contacted through a courier who had been tailed home by one of their number to make certain of their payment, although he had not seen anyone visit while he was there.

I followed their directions and soon found myself in one of the middle class areas of the city, surprising that a person from here would be picked as a messenger to a gang of hired killers. I shinned up a drainpipe and made my way across the tiles to the house that had been pointed out to me. I marked it so that I could pick it out again, and headed back to my lodgings as the sun started to lift over the horizon.

To my surprise my rooms had been arranged slightly more neatly than when I’d last seen them, and my missing pouch of coins was placed upon the window ledge. Grinning to myself I put my equipment away, raided the larder and went to bed.

Waiting for dusk I prepared myself to go out. Placing all my equipment in the right slots on the harness I slipped out of the window, and up to the rooftops. I made it to the house without any interesting occurrences and quietly lowered myself over the eaves, dropping onto the bedroom window ledge. I eased the shutters open and made my entry silently, finding the sleeper by the sound of their breathing. I found a tinderbox and lit up a candle, unslinging my hammer and prodding the figure in the bed roughly.

A few mutterings later they awoke and sat up, looking more than a little surprised to see a fully armed man stood over them. The courier was actually a woman, something that the killers had failed to mention, and shrunk back, pulling the covers up about her neck. I sat down in the chair by her desk and rested the hammer across my lap.

‘Well, let’s get to business shall we? Who sent you to hire those killers? And why do they want me dead?’

‘What killers? Who are you? How did you get in?’ she stuttered, not quite awake yet, and not recognising me at all. That really cheered me up, I had been set up by someone who didn’t even know who I was.

‘Ok, you were sent by someone to hire the group of assassins in ‘The Hook’ to have me killed. Who sent you? You have two seconds to tell me.’

She virtually screamed out the name of her employer, panicked by the fact I had tracked her down and entered her house so easily. ‘It was Reindhart!’

I knocked her cleanly over the top of the head with my hammer and tucked her in warmly. Checking over the house revealed more money than one would expect, obviously a courier’s job paid well, and quite a few small but valuable items. I pocketed it all then left, closing the shutters behind me to keep out any unsavoury elements in the area.

I mused over the new information as I made my way to a fence to lighten my load. From what I’d heard of this Reindhart he was merely a minor merchant, living in a fairly sumptuous mansion but not beyond his means. Allegedly he’d inherited his money from his father’s business and made his living by the transport of goods.

Reading between the lines gave a slightly different story. A man who’d moved into town recently with a large amount of money, purchased a mansion with security force and had an excuse to move items to and from any place he wished. A smuggler, but with a very good front to cover it, and enough self control to prevent himself spending more than he should be able to.

I’d ‘explored’ his house earlier in the year, but hadn’t been able to find anything interesting so had been forced to settle for what valuables I could find. It would seem that he’d taken it very seriously and, after finding out who had robbed him, had decided to send a statement to the crime community. Now, I believe, it’s my turn to think up a suitable reply.

Equipping myself at the fence I bought far more explosives than I would normally, including some that were not only illegal but generally considered by most to be suicidally dangerous. This job was going to very complicated, and almost idiotically reckless, but it had been such a long time since I’d allowed myself the luxury of having fun. And I do have a reputation to keep up after all…

The information I’d bought from the fence turned out to be very useful, the map showed the location of all of Reindhart’s warehouses, and which cargoes were in at the moment. I had already been to his mansion and didn’t want to risk that again, however I had not been fully aware of his other activities in the area then.

I soon found myself outside his main warehouse, just by the docks with a group of his ships being loaded. Perfect for my purposes really. I quietly moved around the outside of the building, checking for any guards or alarms but found very little, except on the docks themselves. Several guards were there, watching for anyone who might come too close, it would seem that something valuable was being loaded on tonight and their boss didn’t want to take any chances with it.

I headed into the warehouse next door, picking the lock without too much trouble and creeping up the stairs to the roof. I managed to bypass the night watchman easily enough and soon found myself on the walkway across from my target. I reached into my quiver, reading the dots on the ends of the arrows with my fingers as I searched for a rope arrow. Finding it simply enough I tied one end of the rope to the railing in front of me, and aimed it carefully at the window frame opposite. It buried itself deeply in the wood and I pulled the rope tight before preparing for my journey.

I considered the options, hand over hand beneath the rope, no, too tiring and slow. Climbing across it upside down, again slow although easy. The perfect method came to me and, clasping my bow in one hand and my hammer in the other, I started to walk across the gap. The weapons balanced each other nicely as I made my way over, thankfully I had no fear of heights or I probably wouldn’t have chosen this line of work anyway.

Loading a broadhead into the bow once I had reached the other side I aimed at the knot on the rail, preparing to regain my expensive arrow, then changed my mind. I might need an emergency route later after all, and I could easily recover the cost of the equipment tonight.

I sheathed my weapons and drew my blackjack, after all you never knew who I might meet, before heading into the warehouse. I eased the window open and crept along the wooden beams in the roof compartment, looking down upon the guards with interest. It would seem guards were fairly similar everywhere, and these were quite sensible fellows. Conscious of the fact that no one could possibly get to them without their comrades downstairs alerting them they had set up a small party in one corner of the offices and were quire happily getting drunk. I tutted under my breath as I unhooked and cocked my crossbow.

Lining up the shots I sent them into unconsciousness swiftly, each slumping onto his chair, or piece of floor and being mocked by the others for their inability to hold their drink. The last one looked down at his bottle as I was loading his shot and raised his head to empty it with one swig. The small pellet that shattered the bottle as he lifted it, knocking it forward to remove his front teeth, and then smacked between his eyes seemed to surprise him, although admittedly it didn’t seem to last very long. I lowered myself off the beams and dropped onto the table in the centre of the bodies. Drawing my blackjack again I went around them, carefully giving each an extra tap just to be on the safe side and recovering the ammunition I had used on them.

I lightened their loads by removing their purses, and the goblets and wine bottles they’d been drinking from, before moving onto the real reason I was here. I lifted the key I’d found on one of the guard’s belts and opened the main office door. There was no need to be quiet now as the guards downstairs would assume the footsteps would be those of their companions. I walked in confidently and picked the desk drawers, finding a small bag of spice and some loading orders.

It seemed that there was a considerable amount of high quality spice being loaded onto one of the ships at the dock, a very large order for one of the largest suppliers around. It was going to be concealed in flour sacks, the packets buried within the flour itself, and then shipped down the coast to where it could be unloaded safely. Sadly this meant I would be unable to take it myself, the flour would stick to the bags and give away its origin as well as making a mess of my outfit.

However there was a costly shipment of antiquities from the lost city being collected tonight. It seems that someone had made a trip there and actually returned for once. This would take care of my expenses very nicely, and was being stored for me in loading bay 2 along with a legitimate load from the goldsmiths quarter. Jewellery, masks, urns and goblets, this wouldn’t exactly be the lightest of my hauls but should definitely rank amongst the most profitable.

Before I left I took a last look around the office to see if I’d missed anything and noticed the painting behind the desk seemed to be projecting slightly further than one would expect and ran my fingers around the edge of it lightly. The button projecting from the bottom seemed interesting, so I pressed it, causing the entire picture to swing out from the wall. The safe revealed by this was simple enough to open and was filled with loading papers, permits to transport goods and the wages for Reindhart’s workers. I removed the coins and set a small amount of my most volatile explosive inside. I set the simple timing device for two hours, no rush for this one as nobody as paranoid as Reindhart would ever let anyone else have the key to his main safe. The blast should destroy every one of the papers within, costing him a great deal of time and money to replace them as well as destroying the safe itself.

I headed downstairs now, moving silently to avoid the guards on the ground floor hearing me, and made my way to the loading bays. The first two were open already, workers occasionally moving heavy sacks from them to the ships, but the one I was interested in, bay 2, was closed securely. Obviously they didn’t want to take any risks and leave their valuables where the workforce could get to them for some petty pilfering.

The door looked heavy and the noise of its opening would undoubtedly draw the attention of anyone around so I needed to find another route in. My personal choice was the window outside, which was unfortunately clearly within the sight of the patrolling archers, a challenge indeed but not insurmountable. I looked around the gallery surrounding the first floor, all the offices were located here, above the bays but easily accessible if need be. I pulled a rope from my pack and fixed it firmly to the column beside me, lowering it on the opposite side to the occupied sconce, the rope’s dark outline obscured in the profound darkness created by the torch.

I loaded my crossbow and waited for the circling guard on the balcony to start heading my way, his sword hanging loosely at his side. I swore quietly as I realised the sound made when he dropped it would give away my presence and hung the bow back on its loops. Moving over to one of the office doors I drew my cosh and faded into the shadowy recess, my fingers picked a coin from my pouch and I carefully laid it on the floor just after the doorway. As the guard came past he noticed the glint on the floor and bent over to collect the money, continuing his downwards movement as my weapon cracked him neatly across the back of the neck and my free hand grasped his sword by the hilt before he hit the floor. I sheathed the weapon neatly in its scabbard and opened the door behind me to drag him back. I wedged him in a corner where he’d not be noticed by other patrollers and rifled through the desk, nothing but another small pouch of spice and some more loading papers. These detailed which bay the ‘expensive’ flour was stored in, and how to recognise the sacks, the markings were slightly different to normal ones with a red circle marked on the top corner by the side of the trader’s logo.

I checked the other offices but found nothing interesting, although I did place a small timed explosive in the top drawer of each desk set to go off in twenty minutes, by which time I’d hope to be on my way. I grabbed the unconscious guard by his collar and dragged him to the stairs, out of the danger area for the explosions to come.

Dropping down the rope I stood for a moment in the shadow, waiting for the workers to exit and the guards to look away. I drew a water arrow and strung it to my bow, firing a quick succession of them to put out most of the torches around the room. The people swore at this, assuming that, since they all went out together, a gust of wind had got in and blown the torches out. They called out to each other to reassure themselves and, finding all was well, relaxed back against the walls to resume their sentinel.

I would need to be careful for the next part of my plan and drew my blackjack in readiness. I crept about the room, avoiding the patches of light coming from the windows and few remaining torches, silently relieving the burden of their purses, and their consciousness, from the guards scattered about the bays. I piled their bodies by the main stairs in a nice dark alcove where nobody would trip over them by accident before making my way outside. If I took out the guards walking out here then someone would notice, inside in the dark the workmen wouldn’t notice the lack of unmoving shapes but they would expect to see patrollers.

Waiting for one to pass I crept along behind him until I reached the correct window. Stopping here I started to work on the lock, the clicking sounding incredibly loud to my ears, but muffled by the harsh sound of the guard’s footsteps on the gravel. The frame lifted easily enough and I eased it down behind me once I was inside, barely avoiding the next guard. I jammed my knife into the frame as his steps slowed, approaching the window cautiously. I heard him mutter as he noticed the collection of footsteps, wondering if someone had broken in, then he rattled the window but my knife held it firmly. He strolled off happily enough, assuming that whoever had been here had been scared off when they’d heard him coming and bragging to himself about his skills.

I soon filled my pack with the items lying around; jewellery emptied straight from the boxes, goblets stacking in the bottom and several golden masks slotting down the side of my quiver. I checked the smaller door from the inside and discovered a simple lock fitted on the wall by its side. Picking this allowed me entry back into the main warehouse area without anyone noticing me.

I moved onwards to the loading bay containing the spice shipment, wedging several large explosive devices between the bottom-most sacks with fuses leading to the windows. I waited by the door to the bay, slipping out as the group of workers entered, chattering amongst themselves. They didn’t notice the fuses, or the shadowy figure flattened by the doorway as they left. I moved outside, finding a quiet spot in the shadow of a pile of crates to plan my move.

By my guess I had about ten minutes left before the explosives in the desks detonated so made my way to the water’s edge. I removed my clothing, equipment and pack, prying one of the larger crates open and storing them inside. I prepared some more explosives, a fist-sized package for each ship complete with barbed hooks to fix them firmly to the timbers. I lowered myself into the water slowly, gasping slightly as the icy chill struck me. I swam over to each ship quietly, the mines being placed just under the waterline of the hulls before I returned to my clothes and inventory. I hauled myself onto the stone quay, quickly dressing and re-equipping myself as I waited for the timers to set off the explosives.

The blasts shattered the windows along the gallery level, smoke pouring out of the broken panes and causing the workers to rush from the ships to the dock to point and wonder what was happening. I drew my bow and set four fire arrows on the top of the crate beside me. Pulling them back different distances before release meant that they all struck their target at the same time. The small blasts were soon drowned out in the massive explosions as they set off the mines, rupturing the hulls of the ships and allowing water to pour in.

The patrollers ran from the front of the warehouse, calling the workmen to them and trying to get them to recover the cargo quickly before the ships sank. No one was sure if there were more mines on board though, and were quite understandably cautious when it came to their own skins as opposed to someone else’s money. I walked happily around side of the warehouse, all the guards drawn off and the crates blocking me from the view of anyone on the dock itself, if anyone could tear their eyes away from the conflagration that was Reindhart’s fortune.

It turns out that several influential ‘businessmen’ were very disappointed in our mutual friend. It seems that he’d borrowed quite heavily for this shipment of spice, and had promised considerable return in investment for his backers. Unfortunately the loss of his cargo made this impossible, although it had not fully destroyed his business.

And who knows, if some evil-minded person hadn’t also destroyed every one of his shipping permits, not to mention the majority of his ships, then he might have been able to recover from the loss, given time. Sadly the people he owed money to weren’t the patient kind, and he soon vanished from the city, leaving only a deserted mansion, a large amount of creditors and one fairly wealthy thief in his wake.

If you liked this story, a vain hope I know, drop me an email about it? ben.hodges@talk21.com
Any input would be appreciated, thanks, Ben.

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