From the author: This story was written for a shared-world anthology, one intended to have a plot arc through it. I tried to advance that arc while also giving my readers some fun things to enjoy, and bring in a character from an earlier story.
The Wrong Way to do the Right Thing
By Marie Vibbert
Everyone in organized crime is damaged in some way. Fortunately, I like my damage. It’s the people damaged enough to rise to the top you have to watch out for. People like Horst.
We were in his club. It was mid-afternoon, no one there but us gangsters – me, Horst, two goons and the bartender. Outside it was pissing rain so hard we could have been in any city on the inland sea. Horst stood with his feet wide, arms crossed, like his scrawny self could ever be intimidating. He scowled at me. “Daicey Crane.”
“That’s my name,” I said, but I looked at the goon behind him. Tall. Nice cheekbones. Bored. This one was the real threat.
Horst stepped closer. “I sent you to do a job.”
“And I did a job. This is the part where you pay me.”
“No. You ruined everything. The cops are breathing down my neck. I can’t move product. I can’t do shit!”
“You said, ‘kill these guys.’ I killed those guys.” He winced at my words and looked around like he was afraid someone heard that. In the club he owned. The empty club. Yeah. “After-effects aren’t my department.”
“You stupid BITCH. I knew I shouldn’t have hired a woman.”
I sipped my ice water. In other cities, I wouldn’t have been the only chick in the place. “It’s not my fault if you didn’t make yourself an alibi.”
“Frey,” Horst said. Cheekbones perked up. “Take out this trash.”
Frey stepped to the side so he had a clear line of sight to me. “Sorry about this,” he said, reaching into his tunic.
I threw my glass at Frey’s face and kicked Horst in the gut. He folded. Took Frey down with an elbow to the neck as I passed him on my way out the door. Shots fired, but I didn’t worry about them until I was far enough away to stop and check myself over.
A graze, on the thigh. Blood soaked my tights. Maybe the rain spread it out, made it look like more. It didn’t matter. I was penniless, jobless, and on the wrong side of the law AND the mob in Gallamastra. So add that to the list of cities I had to put behind me.
Where was I? An alleyway. Near the city wall. On the wrong side of that, too.
I dropped from a crouch onto my ass. Horst owned the hotel I was staying in. Where I’d left my stuff. Horst’d be watching the gates, too. Stupid walled cities. Stupid gun shops not accepting credit from the creditless. Stupid assholes who refuse to pay an honest hitwoman. If I had a rope… but I didn’t have a rope. Or a plan.
Maybe I shouldn’t have gut-kicked the mob boss. Horst couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper sack. It wouldn’t do my future employment any favors, either. It had felt good, though.
My first commander, back in the Bendaba border patrol, said I’d beat a wall down with my forehead rather than walk around it. He wasn’t wrong. So of course I decided to talk to Horst.
The apartment across the street from Horst’s club was decorated in thrift-store chic. Flimsy yellow curtains in a pattern popular ten years ago. They made a pretty bandage on my thigh –blood roses and lemons. I had to tear strips because none of the drawers had scissors. The carpet smelled of piss. The phone worked though.
I watched Frey through the scope on my gun. He looked up and down the sidewalk, talking over his shoulder to a heavyset Brow in a suit.
Most Brows are pacifists, but gangs like Horst’s recruit them for their muscle. This one had even more heft than usual, broad shouldered, his wrists thick in bunched-up cuffs. My friend Brikka would like him.
The phone picked up. “Daily’s Pub.”
“Put Horst on,” I said.
“Who is this?”
“The woman with a long-range rifle pointed at your head.”
Frey and the Brow ran back into the club like they are pissing themselves.
Sometimes, I love my job.
There was a crackle of static and the sound of the telephone receiver hitting a counter and being picked up. Horst’s voice, even whinier on the phone, said, “Daicey?”
“The rifle gave it away, didn’t it?”
“You’re dead, slut. DEAD. I’ll have this call traced, and then…”
Like he’d know how. Like he’d have to. His goons had figured out I had to be across the street. Idiot. “I did a job, I expect to be paid. I’m open to negotiating price or additional work opportunities.”
“I don’t have any money since my fucking product is rotting on the wharves.”
“We both know that isn’t true. I’ll give you two days to calm down, then I’ll meet you at Paddler’s on the wharf. No more than one goon. I’ll allow you that. Goons are like accessories: can’t match your purse to your shoes without one.”
“I don’t wear a fucking purse. Here’s my idea. My killers sweep the area for you and tear your stupid ugly pale…”
Horst trailed off, and I didn’t blame him. I’d moved my eye from the scope to follow the odd sight of people running down the street. Just a handful, but panicked. They weren’t running FROM anything. They were going in different directions. Someone screamed.
“Two days. Paddler’s. Four.” I dropped the phone and exited the apartment from the same window I’d entered.
Whatever was going on in that neighborhood, I didn’t want to be part of it.
It wasn’t just that neighborhood.
By the time I’d made my way via rooftops-and-alleys to the docks, it was clear something very big was happening. People had dragged their televisions onto windowsills and gathered around front stoops. It was like when that big power station blew a couple months back. What ever happened with that?
My destination was a warehouse converted into a nut-roasting factory on a steep street near the docks. Ground-level windows were replaced with garage doors that were rolled up to let the heat escape. Inside it was stifling, and the smell was strong enough to straighten your nose hairs.
Good, though. Lately there was a richer, sharper scent as they’d started a sideline in coffee roasting.
The first shift workers were trickling out. At the rear entrance, I followed a familiar form, a cap mashed low on her thick forehead ridge. Brikka was tall for a Brow, but just as barrel-chested as the squattest of them.
Brikka spun around and glared right at the pipe I ducked behind.
There was a pneumatic tube tree on the side of the factory. Buildings in Gallamastra were seamed with them like birch leaves. Copper and brass, mostly, and not thick enough to hide a body.
I stepped out. “You always know when you’re being followed? Is that a Brow thing?”
She snorted, shook her head, and continued on her way. I fell into step beside her. The roasting plant formed one side of the alleyway, windowless on this side. You could feel the heat through the bricks.
“Need something?” she asked.
“You don’t seem surprised to see me.”
She shrugged. “When someone who makes it out of a dockside flop shows up again, they need something. Your job not work out, flat-face?”
“How would you like to help me get paid and remove a pimple from the face of humanity at the same time?”
She stopped walking and squinted at me.
I shifted uncomfortably. “What?”
“I can get you back into the packing room if you need cash. I don’t want a roommate. There’s nothing else I can do for you.”
“I won’t ask you to do anything illegal.”
“Good, because I won’t.”
Jeesh. The people I hang out with. Like killing Horst was anything short of community service. “You’re the only person I know in this town, Brikka. I need someone to watch my back, and a place to stay. Two days, and I’m out of your hair.”
No one can give sarcastic side-eye like a Brow. “Yes,” I said, “I can’t afford the flop house right now.”
Brikka seemed to be thinking it over. That’s when the explosion sent pieces of brick wall at us. I threw myself at Brikka. Instinct. Too much time under fire. Next thing I knew, Brikka was looking up at me, dumbfounded eyes wide and white against the red dust on her skin. Something heavy had hit me in the back; I felt the aftershock of it, but I hadn’t noticed the hit itself.
Brikka reached around me. The heavy thing was a chunk of fat metal pipe, a piece of pneumatic tube, which might have saved us, actually. Brikka chucked it sideways. The pipe hit the ground with a clang that drowned out even the dopplering alarms. Brackets twisted out from it, looking as insubstantial as insect legs.
It hurt to stand up. The top was gone from the roasting plant, letting unexpected light into the alleyway. The rain clouds were breaking apart, spilling sunlight through cracks. Twisted pipes gleamed in an open smile of brick. The far side of the building must have been completely gone.
My hand was bleeding. I’d grabbed sharp metal to pull myself to my feet. The street I’d just walked down was gone, buried in rubble.
“Yeah,” Brikka said, “You can come with me.”
I frowned into my beer. “Can’t I get whiskey?”
“I have a feeling I’m out of a job for a while,” Brikka said. “You’re spending the night on my floor and I’m buying you one beer. Sorry, but that’s all I can afford, even for someone who saved my life.”
“Don’t read too much into that. I kill people. Saving them seems hypocritical. Sometimes, I accidentally do the right thing.”
She smiled and shook her head.
She wiped foam from her lips. “You’re sorta doing the right thing again, talking me out of thanking you.”
“Maybe I was banking on some sort of mystical tribal blood-debt thingamabob.”
“I grew up here in Gallamastra. Stop trying to be offensive.”
“I like the face you make.”
She slammed down her empty mug. “Mystical blood-debt repaid. Get out of here and find some flat-face to help you.”
“Come on, Flat-face or Brow – it’s just bullshit. People are people. Like how every tiny city clings to its culture, like they aren’t all related to each other. Anyone with a mind to can walk clear across the world. I’d have done it already if I’d stuck in a straight line.”
Brikka held her hand in the air, signaling the barkeeper, a Brow like her. It was a Brow pub. The bartender talked to her in some other language, she answered in mine, “Nah, close it.”
“Seriously, Brikka. The world is not going to miss this man. What if he blows up another factory? What if you’re in it?”
She looked at me like I was mentally deficient. “You think that was Horst?”
“He has his hands in coffee, and it was a coffee roasting plant. Not a lot of math to do, there.”
“CC’s is a legitimate business. It had nothing to do with Horst.”
“Well, then, maybe he wanted the competition out,” I said.
“And you want to fight this man who can destroy buildings just to raise the price of coffee? Either you’re wrong or you’re in over your head.”
“He’s a coward, trust me. The only one I’m worried about is this pretty boy he has pulling triggers for him. Frey.” I took a sip of beer and savored the memory. “Damn but he was fine looking.”
Brikka looked like it was taking all the strength she had not to spew beer all over the bar. She mashed her hand against her nose and made a choked sound.
I rolled my eyes. “I’m allowed to ogle the bad guys,” I said.
Brikka shook her head. “It’s not that. I know the guy. Well, I know of him. From Tazerac. That’s bad news.”
“Pretty and on the other side is always bad news.” I toasted and drank to inland boys. I knew he looked inland. I’m always falling for boys who look like home. Like that sad boy on the docks in Orris. Hope he found what he was looking for.
“Don’t you know anything about Tazerac? They’re stupid loyal when they’re under contract, and Frey is.”
That was true. Tazeracian’s fetishized contracts. It was like their religion. They even got married under contracts. I found that out the hard way. Had more than one boy’s momma chase me out of Tazerac with a shotgun in her hands. Me a stranger in their lands willing to sign off on anything because I thought they were suckers to take my word. I snickered. “It’s poetic: a Tazeracian contract killer. Get it? Contract killer?”
“I’m beginning to think you have a death wish,” Brikka said.
Maybe I did. I shrugged. “It’s not like I was planning on seducing him away from Horst.” Hoping, not planning.
“What are you planning? Because if I’m involved, I want a plan.”
“Four o’clock tomorrow, he meets us here at the pub. I station you with my spare gun…”
“It won’t be loaded.”
“Look, I need the appearance of having backup or they’ll walk all over me. This Horst guy – he’s obviously a chicken.”
I drained the last of my beer. “Leave Frey to me.” Brick wall, meet forehead.
Frey lived in a modest town home not far from Horst’s club. One of those tree-lined streets that surprise you with gentility around the corner from gambling and litter.
I recognized the security system. You’d think a hit man would have invested in better. Two wires snipped and I slipped in an upstairs window. Frey’s voice wafted up from below.
“No, boss. Why? Because Daicey Crane doesn’t have a coin to her name, much less enough ordinance to blow up CC’s roaster. Anyway, why would she? Whatever this is, I have a feeling it’s tied to the explosions in other cities. This is bigger than Gallamastra. Someone’s taking out factories just to do it, not chasing after your roasting contracts.”
It’s a special joy to eavesdrop on someone and find they are talking about you. I leaned against the wall at the foot of Frey’s stairs. My trigger hand throbbed under Brikka’s bandage. Not that I had anything to shoot. I could just see Frey’s shadow appear and disappear against a wall. He was pacing back and forth with the phone to his ear, tugging the cord at the end of his circuit when he turned. I wondered if he had a contract back home or a mother with good aim.
Back home – my first home – men and women were equal. In this useless city, the men walked around like they owned the place and the women let them. In Tazerac it was different - the women gave the orders. Didn’t mean Frey wouldn’t shoot first and ask questions later, but there was a chance he’d hear me out. Then shoot.
“Yes, sir. No. Of course you’re the boss. Yes. Listen, I have to go. No. Nothing. I’ll call you if I learn anything at all about CC’s. Right. We’ll get them. Goodnight.”
I timed my entrance for the chime as he slammed the receiver down. I suspected Frey might be a slammer. People who are that controlled have to have outlets.
I had a perfect opening line. “Why do you work for such a buttmunch?”
Frey spun around with one hand in his jacket, but seemed to think better of drawing his gun. He let the hand fall. “I thought the pay would be worth it,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“Thought I’d seduce you away from the buttmunch.”
Frey scowled. “I’m under contract.”
“So I hear.” I let my eyes drag meaningfully up and down his front. “Got any loopholes I could exploit?”
A touch of smile graced his lips. “Does this frontal assault tactic work for you?”
“Mostly I’m too impatient to come up with anything else.” I took a step closer. “Don’t suppose torture or threats would work?” I’d brought my knives.
“Torture doesn’t work,” he said, with a disgusted look. “And there’s nothing you could threaten me with.”
Darn. I was betting he’d be even prettier tied up. “Doesn’t it bother you? I mean, hell. Being where you’re from, and having to work for a guy like Horst.”
Frey stepped back before I got into touching range. His eyes were on my hands. Clever as well as pretty. “What does where I’m from have to do with it?”
“I’m from… well never mind where I’m from, but I know Tazerac enough to know you gotta be clenching your teeth every time Horst goes on about women not knowing their place.”
“I really don’t care. People have dumb opinions everywhere. I signed a contract and it’s not up for renegotiation for another year. Also, I rather like my house, which you broke into.”
Time to back off. I turned half away from him like I didn’t even care if he drew a weapon. I pretended to admire the room. He might like it, but he hadn’t decorated it. The walls were blank plaster. “Look, I heard you talking. This explosion at CC’s… it nearly killed me and a friend of mine.”
“It wasn’t us.”
“I figured that from Horst thinking it was me. I think you have more enemies than you thought. Your boss might want to hire on another gun instead of making me his enemy.” I turned my back to the wall, hands behind, all demure. “I honor my contracts, too.”
“I appreciate that. But if Horst wants you dead, I will kill you.”
“I’m much more useful alive. Tell him that.”
“I will. Now, kindly leave my house?”
I curtseyed. “If that’s all I can get, that’s all I can get.”
He took me to the door. A real gentleman. As he held it open, he said, “Horst IS a buttmunch.”
“Not relating to anything specific at all, gorgeous, just asking, but what happens to your contract if Horst dies mysteriously?”
Frey grimaced. “One year extension, automatic, to avenge him.”
“Yeah. I really should have asked for more money.”
I kissed his cheek, and he stopped just shy of pressing his gun to my side. Overall, I call that a success.
Brikka and I got to Paddler’s an hour before the rendezvous. I had a fresh bandage on my thigh, under my pants, and let my wounded hand go bare so as not to appear weak. It wasn’t bleeding anymore, if I didn’t move it.
Paddler’s was a great place for an ambush. A converted boat repair barn, it had half-hidden walkways along the roofline and cozy booths draped with nets. Made me wish I had some bullets.
Brikka declined my invitation to hide up on the catwalks, arguing that since she didn’t have a gun, her only use would be as a very visible, intimidating presence.
“You sure you wanna do this?” I asked, giving her one last out.
She curled her lip and said, “Your jokes aren’t funny.”
I ordered a glass of water and sat so I could see the door.
Frey came in first, followed by the buttmunch, followed by two more goons. I stood up. “I said one goon each.”
Horst stopped three feet in front of me, hands on his hips. “My city, my rules. Where’s your goon? Let’s see him.”
I jerked a thumb over my shoulder at Brikka. “You’re looking at the heavyweight champion of Wymiren. Don’t piss her off.”
Horst actually doubled over. “A Brow? You brought your cleaning lady? It’s stupid when women think they can fight.”
Brikka cracked her knuckles and muttered something under her breath in a language I was temporarily glad not to know. I smiled. “Glad you’re in a friendly, negotiating mood, Horst.”
“You’re wounded. You got a girl Brow as your only backup. Why should I even listen?”
I lifted my pistol, which I’d been carrying under my tunic. “I still have a gun.”
“You have four seconds to convince me not to soak the floor with you.”
“I’m a good shot. You need all the help you can get with whoever this is muscling in on your territory. Or I could find out who they are and see if they want to hire a hitwoman who knows where you live.”
Four clicks of safeties being drawn back. So there was another goon already up in the catwalks. I gave Brikka a dirty look.
“Two seconds now,” Horst said, smugly.
“I want to go after these guys. The ones who blew up CC’s. Give me some upfront money for expenses, and when you are a very satisfied customer, we can talk about contracts.”
Frey gave me a look that was hard to interpret. Like I had just brought up his favorite kink in front of his mother. I winked at him, hoping he’d take it as an inside joke.
I said, “I used to work at CC’s. I want to find the guy who blew it up. Don’t you? A little bird told me it hurt your business too.” I resisted the urge to wink at Frey again. Horst looked really confused, so I pressed it. “I can’t help but notice more than two seconds have passed. So do we have a deal, or don’t we? What do you say?”
Horst looked at Frey. He was unsure, I could tell, but he was too much a buttmunch to ask advice out loud.
Frey never took his eyes off me. He was the only goon who hadn’t drawn his gun. He didn’t have to.
“What do YOU say?” I asked again, looking right at Frey. He looked like a stone-cold killer, of course. My shoulders ached with tension.
Frey said, “It’s a better offer than we deserve, boss.”
Horst chewed his lower lip. I prepared to dive to cover. He pulled out his wallet. “How much are we talking about for an advance?”
I quoted about twice what I’d need to get a start. Horst threw it on the floor. Cute.
I felt Brikka’s hand on my shoulder as the goons filed out. “You’re doing the right thing,” she said.
Relief made me want to sink right down to the ground and sleep. Instead I had to keep it together while Horst and his crew vanished so they wouldn’t see me bend to pick the money up.
When I was sure I’d heard the last footsteps retreat from the wooden catwalks, I picked up the cash. “What makes you think I’ll do what I told him?”
“Because I’m standing behind you, and I know you don’t have any bullets. Yet.”
I peeled the top bill off the stack and handed it to Brikka. “You and me, kid, we’re going to do great things in this town.”
Brikka snorted, but she took the money.
It was a start. Hell, I might even take on whoever blew up CC’s. After I killed Horst. If I did it right, just perfectly right, I had a feeling Frey – and Brikka – might forgive me.
Feel a little incomplete? Want to know what happened, what the explosion was caused by?
The anthology is available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Pangaea-Dominjaron-Michael-Jan-Friedman-ebook/dp/B01MU1BY17
This story originally appeared in Pangaea: The Rise of Dominjaron.