Hugh Redland

Hugh Redland“You look like a man who gets what he wants,” the shifty uttered in a low voice, his hands wrapped around a mug on the table before him. Like any good information broker, he kept his hands in plain sight, but picked a dark corner in the drinkery to obscure his features. If asked later, no one in the establishment would know exactly what he looked like – plain clothes, plain hat, drank what everybody else drank, and paid in street-coin.

“Don’t waste my time,” Marshal Hugh Redland growled, his tall muscular frame blocking any quick getaway the shifty might attempt. “I might drag your ass to prison simply for interrupting my day.” He made two fists and pressed his knuckles down on the wooden table until it creaked. “You’re here because of something you want.” The light from the single candle on the table flickered, its reflection dancing across the silver badge on his chest.

“It would be more correct to say I’m here to get what my employer wants,” the shifty said, “and perhaps what he wants is of interest to you as well.” He moved one hand into the candle light and casually motioned to the seat on the other side of the booth. The cheap fabric of his sleeve pulled back just enough to reveal a jewel-studded bracelet. It was a practiced move to show his credentials – the best shifties made the best money. Shifties also knew it was a bad idea to flaunt their wealth. He pulled his hand back and the bracelet disappeared.

Rather than take a vulnerable position in the confinement of the booth, Redland walked to a nearby table and grabbed a chair. He placed the chair backwards against the booth’s table and settled onto it. He shifted in his seat so the grip of the titanium pistol on his thigh knocked conspicuously against the chair. The shifty wasn’t the only one who knew how to present his credentials.

“Are you familiar with the man called Fourteen?” the shifty asked.

“Nope.”

“It’s not his real name,” the shifty said. “His real name’s pronounced Shiv, but he spells it X-i-v.”

“Call him Susie for all I care. Jump to the part that concerns me.”

“Mister Xiv wants to hire you, but he’s wary about being seen in public.” A piece of paper slid into the candlelight. “Meet him here in precisely an hour if you’re interested in a job.”

“I have a job,” Redland replied, tapping his badge.

“Then perhaps he can help you with your job,” the shifty continued, “or perhaps he can help you…supplement your income. Either way, you need to see him for the details.”

Redland took the paper. It gave a location inside the cliff wall that surrounded Ovalsheer, a bad part of the city called Lightning Alley. The Alley had been a thriving neighborhood once, but had become unlivable in recent decades because of increased magnetic activity. Something about deadly electro-geysers erupting from the ground made regular folks uneasy. “You must think I’m stupid.”

The shifty paused. “I agree, going into Lightning Alley is generally considered unwise. Xiv understands any misgivings you have. However, he assures me that you’ll be in no danger of electrocution if you arrive at the correct time. He wanted me to give this to you as a guarantee of safe passage.” He slid a brass door knocker across the table. “You recognize it?”

Redland took the object and turned it over in his hand. The name Andrews was inscribed into the decorative ring. “From the Founder’s Mansion?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, you have my attention.” The Founder’s Mansion was a museum full of artifacts from Earth. Looters would have a field day stripping it clean of historical treasures, but no one could get in due to the electrical discharges constantly shooting from the ground. It would be the perfect spot for a hideout. If Xiv had figured a way to run his operation from Lightning Alley, he would be a force to reckon with. “Assuming this knocker’s real,” he said, “it still guarantees nothing. Nobody can predict electro-geysers.”

“I’d normally agree,” the shifty replied without missing a beat. “I made the same point to Xiv’s lackey when he approached me. He took me to Lightning Alley and walked in to retrieve that damn knocker himself. He spent a good fifteen minutes in there, then walked out without a single burn on him. If you agree to meet Xiv, I’ll tell you how he did it.”

Xiv’s name had come up during various investigations around the Sheers Territory. Redland knew about him, despite telling the shifty otherwise. He didn’t know if Xiv had any direct involvement with illegal activities, though he certainly interacted with a variety of underworld types. Those who met him described him as a map maker, but Redland didn’t buy it. He made it his mission to discover if Xiv was really some kind of criminal ringleader. “Okay, I’ll go.”

“Enter Lightning Alley by the Kepler Street entrance,” the shifty instructed. “Walk straight past the third building and take the blue flagstone path on the right to Xiv’s hideout. Take no other path. Keep in mind that arriving late would have unfortunate results.”

“Anything else I should know?”

“Take the knocker with you and present it to him when you arrive. That’s all the information I have.”

“That’ll have to do, then,” Redland said. He blew out the candle, grabbed the knocker, and walked out of the drinkery.

An hour later, Redland stood outside the entrance to Lightning Alley and eyed the scorched neighborhood within. Static discharges crackled from lamp posts and other metallic objects, and the smell of ozone filled the air. No one had ever figured out why the area was so affected by electromagnetic disturbances while the rest of the city seemed immune. Local storytellers spoke of a curse placed on the Founders, but Redland refused to believe in such hokum. Still, the well-defined edges of the blackened ground worried him. He tossed a coin a few meters in to see if lightning consumed it, but felt little relief when it lay on the ground unaffected. The hair on his arms stood on end, reinforcing his instincts not to enter, but he had questions that needed answering. He checked his watch – it was time. “That shifty’s gonna be sorry if this doesn’t pan out.” He set off down the charred remains of Kepler Street.

Almost surprised to still be alive when he reached the third building, Redland found the blue flagstone path just where the shifty described. He followed its winding course through the neighborhood until it finally reached the Founder’s Mansion. The building had experienced its share of lightning strikes over the centuries. A sprawling, two-story building with broken windows and fire-damaged walls, it looked as uninviting as any other structure in Lightning Alley. The exception was the pair of doors leading into the building. They were undamaged, standing wide open as if to welcome him.

The interior of the mansion was in worse shape than the outside, with evidence of numerous fires and dead birds that had been electrocuted while making nests in the rafters. There were still museum pieces left in protective glass cases around a large anteroom. Books, metal trinkets, and a collection of glossy objects that looked like playing cards had been insulated from electro-geysers since the Founding and remained in pristine condition. The wooden floor was burned and rotten, however, too hazardous to cross for a close look. “What a shame,” Redland said as he surveyed the old treasures.

He turned his attention to a gaping hole in the floor. Blue stairs, similar to the flagstones outside, led into darkness below. After taking another look around, Redland descended. The stairs took him deep below the mansion to another large room, this one surprisingly well kept. Affixed to the oiled hardwood walls, sap lamps bathed everything in a soft yellow glow. The floor, inlaid with blue tiles, seemed to have been freshly waxed. A glass partition separated the room into two halves. On the far side of the glass, Redland could see stacks of books on a desk. The books had been pushed aside to make room for a map which lay unrolled in the center. An impressive collection of weapons adorned the wall behind the desk, which included a number of antiques the marshal didn’t recognize. Trophies, he guessed. Xiv was no simple map maker.

A hidden door in the far side of the room opened. A hooded man entered and walked around the desk. He glanced once at Redland before rolling up the map and setting it aside. Redland sized up the man he presumed to be Xiv. The hood concealed his face, but his thick arms and wide chest suggested someone quite powerful. He was also quite a bit taller than Redland, something the marshal was not used to seeing. When the man walked to the glass partition and slid it aside, Redland got a look at his face. The man had the sharpest blue-green speckled eyes he’d ever seen. They were cold, but intelligent. His face was wrinkled, framed by a silver beard; a strange contrast to his otherwise powerful features. He waved Redland in.

Redland knew by the man’s eyes that he belonged to the T’Neth clan. Known as the most brutal killers on Arion, no one was ever known to defeat one in single combat. As if that weren’t bad enough, they always travelled in pairs. This man’s partner would surely be waiting in the next room, ready to be summoned if the meeting went wrong.

“Xiv, I presume?” Redland didn’t extend his hand because the T’Neth were known to abhor physical contact with others.

The man nodded and sat behind his desk. The T’Neth were also known for saying very little.

The hidden door opened and another hooded T’Neth appeared, confirming Redland’s suspicions. He brought a chair with him and sat it down. He was younger than Xiv, not quite as tall but still an imposing figure. He gestured to the chair and walked back through the door without a word. Redland sat down and heard a deadbolt slide into place when the door shut again. He doubted he would be allowed to see any more of the hideout than what he was currently being granted. That suited him fine. He rarely felt intimidated by those around him, but the T’Neth could put a scare into just about anyone. The closer he stayed to the exit, the better.

“You asked to see me,” Redland stated. He passed the brass door knocker across the table.

“Yes,” Xiv said. He took the knocker and placed it in a drawer. “I am told you are familiar with the lands between here and the Jovian Sea.”

“I’m the marshal for the alliance territories on this side of the Crumbles. It’s my job.”

“You also know the land of your adversaries, the Jovians, yes?”

Redland leered at the T’Neth. The implications of Xiv’s question were clear – he knew of Redland’s travels beyond the Crumbles. As illegal as such activities were, and as often as he had taken liberties with his freedom as marshal, he was still surprised that word had reached the T’Neth, and that they had interest in him for it. His answer could incriminate him, so he decided to play coy. “You interested in making maps of the Jovian Nation?” He pointed at the rolled up map.

“I am not a map maker,” Xiv stated.

“What are you, then?”

“An inspector,” Xiv answered.

Redland paused. He hadn’t expected the T’Neth to identify himself as a lawman. Inspector Xiv? He’d never heard of any formal law enforcement operations run by the T’Neth. It would explain why Xiv’s name appeared in so many investigations, though. If it were true, it changed the game. “Got a badge?”

Xiv said nothing.

“Just a little professional courtesy would be nice,” Redland said. He hoped his insistence on the matter would not jeopardize his health.

Xiv continued to stare at Redland.

“Okay.” Intimidating presence or not, Redland didn’t appreciate the lack of communication. “Why am I here, Xiv? Or should I call you Fourteen?”

“A T’Neth is missing.”

“So investigate it. What do you need my help for?”

“You track. We are not…good at it.”

“I’m not good at being patient, Inspector. Spill it or I leave.” He looked over his shoulder to make sure the glass partition was still open. A quick exit might be needed.

“Ten years ago, one of our children went missing,” Xiv explained. “We suspect a Jovian has her, or soon will.”

“You lost a kid ten years ago, and you’re just now searching for her?”

“We thought her dead,” Xiv replied flatly.

“You want me to go to the Jovian Nation and rescue her?”

Xiv nodded.

“Do it yourself. The Jovians don’t like us Alliance types. If I got caught, it’d spark a war.”

“You have distaste for war?” Xiv asked.

“War is not the problem. Dying is.”

“War is inevitable,” Xiv said. “Your presence will neither hasten it nor delay it.”

That made Redland lean forward in his chair. “What do you mean, war is inevitable?”

“That is the T’Neth judgment.”

“Based on what?”

Xiv ignored the question. “Time is important in this matter.”

“I don’t care what’s important to you,” Redland shot back. “Tell me what’s important to me.”

Xiv considered for a moment. He pulled a large sack from a drawer and dropped it on the desk. Gold coins tumbled out, spinning and bouncing brightly in the light. “This is important to you?”

Redland stared at the gold. The T’Neth had always been a mystery, yet here he sat before one, being offered a working relationship. If he refused the job, the communication would end right there, and another opportunity might never present itself. Not only that, Xiv might kill him on the spot if they didn’t reach an agreement. On the other hand, taking the job might open doors for him in the future. “I’ve tangled with the Jovians before,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll have any trouble with them.” He stepped to the table and rolled one of the coins in his fingers. “Tell me what you want.”

As the T’Neth spoke, Redland found himself wondering if he was in over his head. Working for Xiv would be risky. If the man was half as cagey as he seemed, the job would entail more than just a rescue – it would advance the T’Neth agenda somehow. The trick would be to discover what that agenda was. As Xiv explained what he wanted, the marshal nodded and put a smile on.

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