If you asked him he'd be hard pressed to describe how he knew. A subtle shift in ambience. A difference in the way one person spoke to another. A normally gentle word cut off in haste which signified apprehension. A delay in a response that signified a lie. There was something big brewing, Kraigen had been around long enough to understand the rhythm he knew it second-hand. It was deathly quiet now, the urban equivalent of the forest when all the animals go hush. That eerie unnatural quiet, everything is tense, waiting for the master to appear. The lumbering bear, the dragon. The calm before the storm.
Kraigen was lord of the underworld there at New Coast. The master of the thieves' guild. Maybe grand master was a more appropriate title. Or duke, or king. He deserved every accolade that words could contain, at least for his ability to play the game. You didn't become master of the thieves' guild if you didn't understand strategy and all the rules of the people who lived by none.
Kraigen played to win.
The storm was brewing, the battle was on.
Questions poured into his agile mind. What had they planned? How much did they know? How long had they been considering this?
Kraigen sniffed the air, his tongue darted out to test the ambience once again. He poured over the data in his mind, the behavior of all his companions. He watched the images flicker behind his eyes and he took note of posture, body language, anything he could remember. Simultaneously he made a list of all the possible conspirators.
After a few moments, he smiled slightly. The images told him that they were restless, but they weren't confident. They weren't ready to come after him. They didn't know. That was the main thing. The one weakness that would immediately tear him down. Kraigen's secret. Thank God they didn't know.
Unless there was somebody more clever, Kraigen
suspected Martin was the leader. Yes, Martin was the first to come to mind.
Martin, he thought, good, he could handle him. The thing that scared him was the possibility that there was somebody behind in the shadows. Somebody pushing Martin, somebody counseling him to give false signals. Somebody who knew Kraigen's secret and who was playing him like an instrument?
Kraigen stopped himself and took a breath. His last thought was ridiculous and paranoid. He purged it from his mind. He had to stay focused, he had his weakness to overcome. Nobody knew, that was impossible. If they knew he would already be dead, and he wasn't so there was no point wasting his time considering the possibility. He had limited time and must stay focused. He must unravel the entire plot and destroy it. He must cut out the cancer with one precise stroke while leaving the web of his underworld as undisrupted as possible. He only had one stroke.
It was Martin, and he didn't know anything. But Kraigen was sure it was Martin. There was a swagger in his step, a boldness to his statements. He was beginning to question the phantom. He was growing ambitious and comfortable, looking to better his position.
It was always the same, thought Kraigen, always. The phantom kept them in line. The invisible authority. They came to the thieves' guild because they had nowhere else to go. Lost on the street. Out of work, whatever. It was fear that kept them in line initially, fear of their new situation, fear of what they would become. Fear and the ever-present drive for survival. They'd scramble and scrounge for an existence and just the harshness of the life would weed out many. They'd be caught and hanged, or they'd merely fall off a roof in a too-hasty escape. The pitfalls of the nature of the thieves' life often worked for Kraigen, there were many conspirators who had simply fallen without his raising a hand. Many dark seeds that never found the time to take root. Killed between the moment of adaptation and the moment of occupational competence.
Kraigen had been on the streets long enough to have seen it all. He knew almost from the first meeting which ones would last, which ones would fail, and which would eventually come to challenge for power.
Martin, that cocky little brat. He'd been running the roofs for four years now. He must be about twenty. Young and handsome, he had a natural charisma and a dashing way about him. That was exactly the problem. The other thieves were looking up to him. They admired him. Even the older, more sensible ones who had lived and prospered under the invisible hand of the phantom for many, many years. The docile laborers, the ones that composed the majority of the flock.
Docile, yes, they'd never threaten Kraigen, but they could be seduced by a new hero, and Martin was becoming that hero. He had to act before the idea of Martin as their leader even entered their head as a possibility. If he hadn't noticed the change before that benchmark he would have been in real trouble. His authority was tenuous, and he lacked the resources to correct an all-out revolt. But the situation wasn't so dire, Kraigen new his limitations, he could not be caught unprepared. He'd grown up on the street, and the street takes no pity and gives no second-chances.
The situation was this, the docile ones were watching Martin with two minds. One that admired him openly for his escapades and the dashing figure that he cut. Another that waited for the phantom to come, as it had always come, when a figure such as Martin arrived on the scene. The docile ones had learned the laws of the street, they knew and did not challenge them, for they were keen on succeeding in the business of their survival. But Martin was new to the game and young. Like all youngsters he considered the apprehensions of his peers partly with respect, and partly as something to be overcome. He didn't take them with the seriousness of one who had seen them in operation first hand. He had never been witness to the work of the phantom, and neither had any of his generation of thieves. It was time for a demonstration.
Kraigen sat back and relaxed. He was in time, the fight was on. The threat to his authority. It was Martin, and he would handle it immediately. One precise and merciless strike.
Martin slipped from a rooftop and landed neatly in an alley. It was still early, only ten or so, and he didn't have to be too concerned with constables yet. He made his way to the boardwalk and slipped in among the people. There weren't many, but there were enough to conceal him.
He made his way down to the docks where the contact waited. The old cripple. He was the master's only confidant. All of the jobs for the whole city came down through him.
As always, Martin's mind turned to the mystery of the master of the thieves' guild. Martin had an agile mind, and though the old timers cautioned him harshly against any thought contrary to the established law, Martin couldn't resist the temptation. They told him to mind his words, that he'd be swept away, that the phantom could read his thoughts and other rubbish like that.
Who was the master? Where did he hide? And how did he get his messages to the cripple on the wharf? The cripple, Martin's nose wrinkled in disgust at the thought of him. He had been propped up next to the main sewage pipe for the city for as long as anybody could remember. He stank both from his constant exposure to his rotting environment and what Martin feared was the rotting of his own flesh. The cripple was clearly paralyzed from the waist down, and seemed to have only partial movement of his right arm. Martin suspected he was a leper but nobody had confirmed his guess. Whenever he brought it up to the old timers they went as white as sheets and waved at him franticly.
Do not question anything! They would say, People who question disappear. Then they would spend the rest of their night slamming beer after beer and staring, terrified, into the shadows.
Their timidity disgusted Martin. How could they not wonder? How did the master get his messages to the cripple? Some said it was by bird. Other's said he tapped it with a secret code that traveled the length of the city sewer pipe. It was said that from the cripple's place near the grand sewer pipe you could hear a hard rasp against metal from any location in the entire city. If that were the case, the master was clever, he could send his messages and never have to do it from the same place twice.
But inevitably, most of the thieves hushed up and looked terrified at this kind of speculation.
Still Martin wondered. He felt it was more likely that somebody came and told the cripple directly, perhaps even the Master himself. Every thief talked to the cripple eventually. He was the portal to the whole underworld.
Martin turned a corner and was assaulted by the stench of the sewage. He had to suppress a sudden urge to vomit and chided himself for still not having become accustomed to the location. Stealthily, he made his way over to the cripple.
The cripple was easy to find, he was always laying out on a heap overlooking the bay. Shrouded in dirty gray robes, he looked like a giant insect larva waiting to be plucked and devoured by a passing sea-gull. There was nothing hidden about him. He was right out in the open. Everybody in the city knew he was associated with the thieves' guild, though they were unclear on the extent, but there was nothing they could do about it. The deputies had taken him in for questioning once. They'd observed him in a solitary room for more than a week but he had never done more than mumble unintelligibly. The sheriff came to the conclusion that he was an invalid, capable of repeating something he had been told, but not any real thought, no good in apprehending any criminals. Eventually they'd just returned him to his lonely post. He was just one invalid among many, the sheriff had explained, an innocent with several unfortunate qualities that could be used to the advantage of the unscrupulous. Detaining him would just be a burden to the city, and there was no real cause to execute him. The crime had continued during his absence which proved that the master of the underworld had more than one mouth when he needed it. So the cripple had been returned to his lonely post, and there he had stayed.
Martin hesitated for a minute and looked at the broken figure of the man. Pathetic, bundled, a sorry excuse for a human. All the questions he wasn't supposed to ask came flooding to the surface of his consciousness. For a brief moment he struggled, there was something, something he didn't quite understand. Something not quite right. The calm before the storm.
He glanced around. A gust of wind blew up and tussled Martin's hair then continued on to lay back the robes of the cripple. Martin stood and stared, his mind was empty, he felt on the verge of a thought, but at the last moment he cast it away and strode forward. He wasn't supposed to think, he reminded himself. Just this time he'd listen, he had work to do this night.
He reached the old man and stood near him. The bundled body seemed closer to the opening of the sewer pipe than he remembered. Martin wasn't aware that the old man could move himself. The pipe was huge, maybe ten feet in diameter, and there was a constant stream of dark, foul water pouring out from the opening. Martin stared out into it as he waited for the cripple to speak.
The wind tussled his hair again. He realized, almost with surprise, that the cripple still had not spoken. He turned to look at him with apprehension. He hated gazing into that rotten face. So pitted and scarred with age and abuse.
The cripple was sitting right on the lip of the sewage pipe. His body propped tenuously over what was sure, to him, to be a fatal drop. The wind picked up again, and Martin watched with a kind of horror as the body began to sway.
There was no thought of consequence when Martin leaped over and caught the body of the cripple tightly. There was no fear of retribution should the cripple die while in his company. He had merely acted on reflex. He knelt over the bundled body, a hand on each shoulder. He was about to say something when he realized he couldn't draw breath.
Martin looked down in surprise and saw a dagger firmly imbedded in his chest held by a strong right hand. His vision was already turning black as he felt himself be heaved over the lip of the sewage pipe to go crashing down into the water. There was nothing else, the foul water closed over him, but he was already too close to death to pay any attention to it, and a second later he achieved his destination.
Back up top, the cripple wiped his dagger clean on some papers and tossed them in after the body. He replaced the dagger under his folds and was pleased to note that not even a drop of blood had fallen. The possibility of blood always concerned him, he felt it was a potential clue that might betray him in the future, but he had killed enough times that his strike was true and clean. Still, he maintained his position by considering factors hundreds of times that other people would simply dismiss.
And why not? He had the time. He couldn't walk, or move, or do virtually anything. He had only his mind and the little scraps of information he managed to pick up. But they were enough, and nobody had come close to figuring out his secret.
Kraigen smiled from beneath his gray robes. He was the master. True the master of filth, the master of refuse, and he sat on a throne of garbage, alone and ignored, but he wielded a weapon of fear and controlled an army of thieves. He stayed where he was because he could spot the conspiracies before the conspirators, and he acted with precision and brutality.
The game played out in his mind. It distracted him from the pain of his broken body. It staved off the looming, ever-present, specter of insanity. The pieces on the great board, and himself so exposed. But they'd never defeat him, they took him for granted, they underestimated him, and he had forged their oversight into a hammer and used it to smite their wills and make them his.
The phantom had taken Martin, the young ones would learn the lesson, and Kraigen would stay master until the sewage finally reached up and grabbed him and swept him out into sea.
Ben Jonjak is also the author of The Night the Hunter Came which appeared in the January 2002 issue of Aphelion. His novel, "Thief" is listed at barnesandnoble.com (ISBN: 0595228844).
URL: Barnes and Nobel
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