Runner up – Back To the Deep End
Back To the Deep End, written by Sue Wilson.
I am down at the Dock watching the river go by. It is running high and fast and the ripples of brown water carrying detritus from upstream; logs, bottles, plastic, bags. Occasionally they vanish, sucked under by the current, some times reappearing a few feet away, other times being lost forever. Others spin round and round in the eddies set up by the angles around the dock gates. It is almost hypnotic – I could watch this all day.
“Cale! There you are!”
Only apparently I can’t.
I turn from the river to see Jake pushing his way through the tourists drawn to the new museums. They move out of his way with the same motion zebra use when a sated lion stalks through their herd; cautious but not quick enough to attract attention to themselves. I’ve seen that so many times before; it is an effect he has on people without either party really knowing he does it. Something about his bulk and the way it moves that triggers caution in his ‘prey’- keep your head down, hope the predator passes by, or picks on some one else. As he gets closer I can make out the grin on his face. I’ve seen that before as well; It means finding me has pushed some unpleasant task from his to-do list on to mine. I grimace and for a moment consider launching myself into the river as an alternative to what ever task he is bringing me; but having my stomach pumped is not on my lists of fun recreational activities, unlike some I could mentioning this city, and given the thickness of the ‘Water’ there is a high danger I’d just bounce.
Instead I face him.
“What do you want Jake?”
“Boss sent me to find you. Do you never answer you phone?”
I half heartedly reach into my pocket and pull it out. The screen black and dead despite thumbing the button. I grimace at him. “Damn, must be broke again.”
He takes the hand set of me, pressing the switch on the top before the button on the front. The screen flashes black, the logo swirling into existence. “Not broke. Off.” He pushes it back into my hand and a blue bar tells us both I have had thirteen missed calls, six new voice message, and 26 texts. I drop it back into the pocket.
“It’s my day off.”
“We don’t have days off.” He turns back towards the bridge still full of tourists. “And you are needed.”
I shake my head but follow anyway, slowly. “I am not needed for anything Jake.” I stop half way across leaning in the railing and looking down at the swirling fluid below.
He stops too, also on the bridge. That is why his hand is on the railing. That is why his knuckles are white. That is why he is glaring at me; because he knows I am doing this deliberately to wind him up. But then I know how to – too much, appropriately enough, water under the bridge. I look at him, lifting my head slowly from the brown murk.
“Why am I needed?”
“It’s china town.” he says. No he spits it. Gritted teeth, clear reluctance.
I stand upright with a sigh. “Fuck off.”
“Cale I’m under orders from the Boss. Find you. Get you back to the Cavern for briefing. He said by any means necessary, you know what the means and I don’t want to have to do that. Not to you Cale. It is china town.” he shrugs. “No one else can do it.”
“That’s not true.”
“Ok there is no one else he trusts to do it.” Jake steps closer. It brings him to the centre of the Bridge. He is deliberately putting himself in a place of weakness to show me he is serious. It is an expression of trust that I know he would never display for any one else. I look into his eyes, the soft fawn colour large in the bright sun. I hate this. He is turning the tables on me, using my knowledge of his weakness as his bargaining chip not mine. This is why we stopped playing poker together. You can know some one too well and I know he is telling the truth. So he knows that he has to. There is too much blood on the stones between us.
“This is your chance to get back in.” Jake softens his voice, he is trying to sweeten the deal.
“Who says I want back in?”
“You don’t want to be out do you?” There is sympathy in his eyes now. “You know how short a life that would be.”
That’s worryingly like a threat. I guess that shows on my face as he quickly adds. “I’m not saying any ones gunning for you Cale. But you know how it is, we don’t do ‘Neutral’ well in this city. If you are out you’ll be seen as Ex-Breed…” he stresses the ‘Ex’ then shrugs, because honestly no more words need to be said. He is right. Everyone with a beef against the Breed will want a piece of me to make the point.
I look away. “Shit.”
He knows he has me, but he still looks me up and down. “Come home Cale.”
I look at him. I study his eyes, his jaw. Looking for that twitch of a tell he has had since we were kids together in the dingle. Any indication that this is not on the level. Any excuse that will get me out of this, but it is not there. I swallow and nod. “Ok.”
The ‘Home’ in question is down a narrow alley off a pedestrian shopping area. This is not where I grew up exactly but it might as well have been. As the Cavern is the base of operations for the Breed, I have spent the more time here than I have sleeping. The entrance is through a nameless metal door most people believe to be the fire exit for one of the shop units. Jake opens the door and then herds me down the narrow brick corridor, barely wide enough for his shoulders; but then Jake is a big lad, all the Hardman line are. At the end, down six brick steps so it is out of view of the alley even when the door is open, there is a black painted metal door. Normally it is kept shut, but today it stands wide; an indication that some one has entered just before us; and the sounds from beyond echo up to the corridor towards me. My spine shivers as I recognise the voice; Sandra.
“Thomas. Is there a body in that Ikea bag?”
“Might be….” I can almost hear his sneakers squeak on the concrete floor as Thomas squirms before her. “But… well what else could I do? I couldn’t just leave it there. And its not like I could dump it in the bin is it? I mean with the teeth marks and all… If some one found it we’d only have to…”
“That’s MY Ikea bag.”
Thomas stops. The plastic rustles. “Sorry Sandra.”
“You better get me a replacement.” She is waging her finger as we enter the main dispatch hall. “And I don’t just mean that one washed out. I mean a new one!”
“Oh come on Sandra, That’s fifteen miles away.” Thomas complains. That’s not as pathetic as it sounds, Thomas is not old enough to drive yet, so getting out to the retail park is no easy task for him.
I look down at the bag in question; the matted furry tail of a cat sticking out of it. Dried blood on the tip. For a moment I wonder if it is one of Stephan’s cats. If it is Thomas has much worse to fear than Sandra. Still even he is not so stupid as to go hunting in the Anglican Graveyard, even if he was dumb enough to… Well that’s a memory I don’t fancy revisiting, so tough; But it is intimately connected to why he is carrying the body of a half eaten cat in a bag after last nights full moon. You can fill in the blanks yourself.
The lack of Sandra’s reply to his whinge warns me and I look up. Our eyes meet; her expression is cold. “What is HE doing here?”
“Hello Sandra. How are you doing?” I try my trademark lady-killer smile.
“What the fuck do you care Tien?” Ah she knows me so well.
Thomas sees his chance and flees. I don’t blame him. No one wants to be around for this train wreck.
“He is with me.” Jake says. He might as well not bother.
“You are not fucking welcome Tien.”
I shrug. This is not news. This is why the phone was not turned on. This is why I have not turned up for duty for over a month. It is also why, until Jake found me by the river, no one seemed to care about that.
“I SUMMONED HIM.”
As a child I read Pratchett, I think every one did. Death always spoke in Capitals. I used to wonder what that would sound like. Then I met the sheriff. Trust me – there are some questions you do not want the answers to.
We all turn to look at the man in the door way of his office. We have to. The Sheriff has that effect on you. I think its something engrained; may be even genetic all thing considered.
“Cale Tien. You are late.”
“Sorry sir.” I walk down the brick steps and past Sandra’s desk, taking care to stay out of harms way. It is unlikely she would take a swipe at me in front of the boss, but I’m not giving her the chance. Those well manicured nails are not just for show.
The sheriff stands to one side so I can pass through the door. Then he indicates to the seat in front of his desk. Like the meek little puppy his wolf presence makes me I slink in, my head down, chastened.
“Thank you Jake, You may return to your duties.” He says with a nod. Then he closes the door isolating us from what ever is happening outside.
He sits. He doesn’t have to actually stand over me to make me feel like he does. “So Mr Tien. Explain to me why I have to take one of my best warriors off his patrols to come and locate you?”
I shrug. “Because you knew I’d tell anyone else to shove it?” Honest – it is the best approach.
“Jake and I have history. You knew I would listen to him. Any one else…” I swallow and look up, for once meeting the Sheriff eyes. I am always surprised with how ‘human’ they look – considering. “Well, I’d assume they were getting me off to some where they could give me a good kick-in’…. Sir.”
He nods. “I am aware of your recent… indiscretions Mr Tien.” He leans back, the pressure in the room lessening. “I am also aware you told the little lady you were not interested in her offer.”
Hmm that’s interesting. Only Cass and I know I turned her down. I guess she would have told G-Man, but it would have gone no further than that. She needs her competitors to believe she still has a pet Bulldog to call on. I owe her that much at least so I’ve kept my silence. Despite the trouble it has caused me with the Breed.
His eyes drill into me. Ice blue, cold, He isn’t looking at me. He is looking at something inside my head. His focus about 3cm behind my eyes. It’s so intense it should be painful.
The focus flicks forward to my nose.
“So your loyalty to the Breed has been tested, has it not Mr Tien?”
I frown. “I guess.”
“And you have thrown your lot in with us.” He leans forward, tenting his fingers in front of his face, his elbows resting on the desk.
I grimace. I hadn’t actually thought it through that far. I said “No” to Cass’s ‘offer’ because I could see it for what it was. She expected me to be her ‘heavy’- the muscle on her arm to deter trouble. I’d be a trophy at best. It’s not a role I’d be happy with. But I was also not sure that I wanted to keep running with the Breed either; especially after the way they had ostracised me when word got out about my relationship with Cass.
He leans back again. “Hmmm. Still a conflict.”
I shrug “I’m just not sure where I stand sir.” I glance to the door. “Sandra is not the only one to feel that way.”
“They think you sold out. You have done nothing to refute that belief. Do you blame them?”
“I guess not.”
“You still have feelings for the lady and her pet?”
Pet. Hmm. G-Man wouldn’t like that, however true it may be. It occurs to me that I only just avoided her leash myself. “I must do.” His gaze challenges me so I continue. “Cass, G-Man and I go back a long way Sir. We grew up together, like family. You don’t just thrown off something like that. They were there before I started with the Breed…”
“The Breed is in your blood son.” He says firmly.
I can’t deny that. None of us can. Thanks to his influence, we are the product of four hundred years of selective breeding; the best humanity has to offer. Well, as Simon is fond of pointing out, the best you can get from Scousers. But a lot of interesting bloodlines have come through this port over the centuries, my father included, so we still stand by the claim.
“Before I started my training.” I clarify. “Before I discovered who I was.”
He nods. “And before they discovered who they were too. A lot has changed for all of you. I appreciate it is not easy.” He pushes his chair back and stands. “You are doubly susceptible to the Lady’s charms. She knows you well, and you are…” He looks down his nose at me, “Rather promiscuous, or so I am lead to believe. That is unfortunate, but not unusual.”
“Sir.” Great have a dig at me because I can’t land a stable girlfriend; what does he expect with the hours he forces us to work? They are not exactly conducive to a social life, and a man has needs.
“So.” He turns to me. “Consider this a gift. A chance to prove to yourself and to the others. An opportunity to clearly identify where your loyalties lie.”
“China Town. We have been asked by Grandfather to provide a representative. A neutral to oversee a dispute they have. To hear the evidence and depositions then decide the truth and what action must be undertaken by the guilty party to provide suitable redress.”
I frown. The job itself is common for the Breed; disputes between the ‘forces’ we oversee often need adjudication before they blow up into something more serious that would attract mundane attention. However, this is unusual. China town is a closed shop. They deal with their own affairs. It is an unwritten understanding with them that both with ourselves and the mundane emergency services respect. For our presence to be requested is almost unprecedented. Some thing momentous must be going on.
Still I manage to reduce my questions to “Sir?”
He looks at me. “They need one of their blood but not of any faction. Your father was Chinese…”
“We were not exactly close.”
“In this issue, that is a strength Tien.” His eyes hold me.
I bite my lip. I know little of my father beyond his name and the fact, with some good reason, he debunked out of Hong Kong before it was handed back to the Communists – which was pretty much all my mother knew about him too. It took the Sheriffs influence to get his name on my birth certificate. I believe he had to get Grandfather’s permission; At least I guess he would, given how nothing happens in China Town without Grandfather’s say so. However, despite my face (which was oriental enough to attract the bullies fists), China town was as much a closed gate to me as to any ‘Westerner’ whilst I was growing up. Early in my training with the Breeding got a ‘Crash’ course in Cantonese, but my accent is so bad I could never pass for local, even if they didn’t know me. Still that hasn’t stopped me being sent in as messenger boy in the past.
“You do not have any contracts within their walls, no boons debts or oaths that one faction could call upon for influence.” The sheriff studies me carefully. That look again that goes behind my eyes.
I shake my head, “My only Boon is with Cass and that is very specific. She has no interest or dealings with China town.”
He nods. “Then we may rule that as unimportant.”
“I don’t understand sir, surely Grandfather is neutral. Doesn’t he typically over see disputes in his domain?”
“That would be inappropriate in this case Mr Tien.” The Sheriff stands up, moving over to the innumerable wooden draws of card files that he uses to record all our missions. He opens one of them, removing the card and adding a few notes before return to face me, the card still in his hand.
“Grandfather is one of the accused.”