The Children of Stron – part 17

Table of Contents (spoilers)

read part 1

read part 16

Terrence took them back to his private office lounge above Terry’s Bistro. Eli came with them. As with last time, the space was unoccupied when they entered. It was getting dark outside, so Terrence waved his hand over a small crystal set in the wall to turn a number of glamoured lightglobes on simultaneously.

Terrence set the sack on his desk and held his hand out to Eli for his crossbow. He pulled the quarrel out of the channel and then shot the bow empty to uncock it. The sound of the action was very loud in the quiet room. Then Terrence put the crossbow back in the weapon rack and unbuckled his weaponbelt, which they now saw had a small quiver on the back of the right hip. He draped the weaponbelt over his office chair, leaving the rapier and dagger on it.

“Okay, Eli, I’m sure ye got shit ye wanna do. Ye can go. Good work,” Terrence said.

“Ye want me to ask Murrow to come up?” Eli asked, glancing significantly at Choke and the others.

“Nah. We’re alright, man. These are good boys. They aint gonna do anything stupid.”

“Okay, then. Thanks Terrance. Have a good night,” Eli said as he left.

“You too. Good work!” Terrence called after him. “He’s the one that had the idea to bring ye guys in to send at Murray,” Terrence said to the lads once Eli was gone.

“Really,” Choke said.

“Yeah. We noticed ye wandering around on the strip from right here,” Terrence gestured at the windows to his side. “We were saying that ye all looked like real tough motherfuckers. As a trio, a real fuckin problem for someone. Then we saw Olivia and Deloris set their hooks into ye. And Eli said to me: ‘we pull them outta whatever bullshit the girls tangle them up in, and we could get some good muscle for ten coppers on the silver.’”

“Did he now,” said Choke.

“That he did. That he did. And he was exactly right. That’s why ye always gotta keep yar nose to the street. Never know what scent ye might pick up,” Terrence finished with a feral smile. He opened a drawer in his desk and came around to the lounge with a small case. He set that on the lounge’s low table.

“Have a seat boys. What can I get ye to drink?”

“I think what we had before, sir,” Pinch said, glancing at Choke and Knuckle to confirm.

“Whiskeys it is, then. And call me Terrence, I said.”

“Right. Sorry, Terrence. Yeah whiskeys.”

“And water, please. It’s been a long, dry day,” Choke said.

Terrence nodded. “Sit,” he directed the lads again, who were still standing awkwardly near the lounge seats. He went to the bar as they did, and gave a chord on the wall a pull before coming over with a bottle and four crystal tumblers. He poured them all a good measure of the golden liquid and raised his in a toast.

“To a successful job! Good work, boys!” Terrence said with a grin.

They all clinked glasses and took a sip. Choke suppressed a shudder of revulsion at the drink, but the others seemed to quite enjoy theirs. Just then, the waiter from downstairs came up and Terrence sent him back down to fetch a jug of water. They sat in silence sipping their whiskey until he returned with the jug and cups.

“That’s good, fresh rainwater, by the way. No river water in this joint,” Terrence informed them.

“Well that’s a relief,” said Choke.

“Oh, ye have no idea, man. It aint just chamber pots getting dumped in there, believe you me. Anyways, let’s settle up here and then ye can tell me all about the job. I wanna hear every fuckin detail.”

Terrence opened the case in front of him, which was about half filled with sideways stacked silver and gold coins in little troughs.

“Okay. So ye owed me five silver and forty copper, right? Job paid two gold and forty copper. So now I owe ye fifteen silver.”

“That’s correct,” Choke said.

“I guess yar gonna want that all in single silvers, huh?”

“Yes, I think so. Anything bigger than that will be difficult to spend in the country.”

Terrence nodded and counted them out three stacks of five silver pieces. Then he paused.

“Now, I guess yar probably wondering what I’m gonna do about ye bringing me twice the weight that I expected. D’ye reckon that means that I owe ye another two gold, or something?”

Knuckle looked like he might actually say something about this, so Choke quickly cut him off:

“No, Terrence. We don’t think that. The job was to go and get a package, which we did. There was no stipulation about how much it was meant to weigh. So you don’t owe us anything more.”

“That’s right. I don’t. Me getting double what I paid for is between me and Murray. And fuck him. That’s a tax on being an asshole. If he has a problem with it, he knows where to find me. But since I’ve done so well for myself by you here, I would be a right prick if I didn’t express my gratitude to ye for it, wouldn’t I? Especially since ye did such a fine job convincing Murray and Lenny to be reasonable. I heard that Lenny’s face looks like a fuckin pumpkin right now. That’s good work!”

Choke winced at this. “It’s fine, Terrence. We just did what we had to do.”

“Yeah, ye sure did. And not anything beyond that. Which I especially appreciate. That’s the thing that most young talent can’t seem to manage in this game. They take things too far. Don’t know when to stop. This was a tricky job with that, and ye handled it perfectly. I appreciate good work. So here’s a bonus.”

Terrence counted out three more stacks of four silver. Then he shut his coin case and gestured for the lads to take their money. The twenty-seven silver was by far the most money any of them had seen in one place (not counting Terrance’s case they had just been looking in). They each grabbed their nine silver coins, giving Terrence thanks for his generosity as they did.

“Watch out for pickpockets, huh?” Terrance quipped as they pocketed the coins.

“Yeah, no shit,” Knuckle muttered.

“Before we go on, Terrence, and we’re more than happy to stay and tell you whatever you want to know. But, we weren’t able to pay Penn earlier today for his help in finding the Double Horseshoes. We promised that as soon as we settled with you, we’d do so with him,” Choke said.

“Yeah, I heard about that. He was pretty vocal about it. Don’t worry about it. Eli covered ye,” said Terrence.

“He did?” Knuckle said. “So when the asshole was giving us a hard time about it out back, he’d already been settled with?”

“Yeah,” Terrence laughed. “He’s a prick like that. And I guess he thought there was a chance that ye’d come across some coin already and maybe he could get paid twice.”

“Fuckin weasel!” Knuckle said.

“Yeah, what is the world coming to with the youth of today, huh? It’s almost like they lack suitable role models, or something,” Terrence laughed.

“Indeed,” said Choke.

“Okay, then, yar all paid up. So we’re square now, right? None of ye have anything ye wanna say to me before we close the books on this caper?” Terrance asked.

The lads all shook their heads.

“Good. So, let’s get loose, huh? Then I wanna hear about yar day.”

Terrence stood up and went to his desk to put the money box away. He came back with a small wooden box and one of the fabric wrapped packages from the sack. Taking his seat, he pulled his sleeve stiletto and carefully worked the wax seal free to unwrap it. Inside was a solid brick of black, putty-looking substance. Terrence cut a corner off the brick and worked it between his palms to warm it up and soften it. He rolled it into a perfect sphere about the size of a big grape, smelling it and his hands the whole time.

“Mmmmmm… that’s good. Yeah, this is the real shit. Murray wasn’t bullshitting on that front,” Terrence said.

“What is it?” Pinch asked.

“Hashish. Hash. Ye’ve smoked hemp before right?” answered Terrence.

Both Pinch and Knuckle nodded. Choke shook his head. While it was common for folk to smoke hemp, the Brothers at the orphanage disapproved of the practice, asserting that it made people indolent and oafish.

“Well, this is from the same plant. But it’s a whole other deal, right? The shit grown up here is good for making rope and fabric, sure. But the buds are weak as shit for smoking. The Alquinians cultivate proper cannabis for their puff. Real pungent shit. Hash is made from the resin of those plants. Basically, it’s the concentrated good stuff. Fuckin lovely.”

Terrence threw his hash sphere to Pinch who smelled it. He handed it off to Knuckle who did the same before giving it to Choke. Its earthy, spicy aroma was deeply satisfying. Choke gave the sphere back to Terrence, who set it down on the table next to his stiletto. Then he opened the box and extracted a wooden pipe, a candle in a little stand, and a box of sulfur matches.

Using his stiletto, Terrence scraped out the bowl of his pipe into the box before lighting the candle. Then he speared the ball of hash on the tip of his blade and stuck it into the candle flame. Once the hash was burning merrily, he held it up over the middle of the table for them all to admire. With a flaming sphere on the tip of his weapon, Terrence grinned at them with the countenance of a devil.

Terrence blew out the fiery ball and inhaled the smoke that came up off it. He held that deep in his lungs as he deftly exchanged the stiletto in his right hand for the pipe as he plucked the still smoking sphere from the weapon with his left. Using his fingertips, he feathered the hash; breaking it up into smaller chunks and pieces into the pipe. Then he smelled his fingers with a deeply satisfied look.

“Okay. Let’s smoke up!” he exclaimed.

Terrence lit the pipe with the candle and puffed on it aggressively. The clouds of smoke he exhaled soon had the room smelling like a church in full incense. When he had his fill, Terrence held the pipe out over the table in an offer to whoever wanted to grab it. Knuckle did not hesitate.

The pipe had gone out, so Knuckle relit it to take his turn. He coughed hard as he handed the pipe to Pinch, who did the same. With Pinch holding the pipe out to him as he hacked his guts out, Choke hesitated.

“Choke! Don’t be a fuckin pussy! Seriously,” Knuckle said.

Until that moment, Choke had no intention of partaking, but Knuckle’s use of his nickname disarmed him. In his own way, Knuckle was extending his hand in friendship. A friendship Choke had thought he lost at the riverside that afternoon. Choke took the pipe.

This was, of course, the very first thing that Choke had ever smoked. As the smoke bit into his bronchus and lungs, he immediately gagged and coughed. However, unlike Knuckle and Pinch before him, Choke coughed with the pipe still firmly sealed in his lips. Like a tiny volcano erupting, Choke blew the pipe’s entire contents out the end of the pipe and into the air.

“Fuck, man! What the fuck!” Terrence yelled as he flailed out of his chair with a big, smoldering chunk of hash in his crotch.

Having been seated directly next to Choke, Pinch got the worst of it, with a number of bigger pieces hitting him in the face and landing in his hair. Knuckle took just a couple of seconds to start laughing.

“The fuckin rug, man!” Terrence barked as he stomped out the glowing embers he could find burning holes in the attractive carpet under their feet.

Choke was largely oblivious to all of this as he collapsed on the floor next to his chair in a paroxysm of coughing.

“Shit, he’s gonna yack!” Terrence yelled. He ran over to the bar and grabbed a spittoon which he set down next to Choke’s head.

Choke availed himself of this immediately as he coughed out long, ropey strands of sputum. Knuckle continued to laugh uproariously at him.

Seated between his two friends, Pinch was the only one of them that had any notion of how much peril they were in just then. He was sitting, transfixed in terror like a rabbit, watching Terrence for any further reaction to Choke’s terrible blunder.

Terrence was standing over them with a deep scowl on his face. Then he seemed to finally notice Knuckle’s continued booming laughter. It won him over, and he began to laugh himself.

“Okay, yar cut off, man!” he said, pointing down at Choke on the floor. “Stron’s cock. What a fuckin dumbass.”

“Yeah, yeah. He’s such a dumbass! Yeah. That’s why I’m… uhhhhhh… Woah,” Knuckle said slacked jawed, as his laughter faded and he lost all track of everything.

Terrence laughed. “Yeah, yar cut off too man. How you holding up, Pinch?”

Pinch rubbed his cheeks. “Yeah, I’m okay, I guess. But this is pretty heavy man. I don’t think I’d wanna try to do anything complicated right now.”

“Nah, yar fuckin doing good, my man. Trotting out the word, ‘complicated,’ and all. For first timers that was a heavy dose! Who knew it, Pinch! Turns out yar the heavyweight with the smoke. Here, we’re all gonna want more water, especially that daisy there,” Terrence jerked his thumb Choke’s way. He topped off all of their water cups and handed the jug to Pinch.

“Go downstairs and have them fill that up for us, would ye?” Terrance asked Pinch.

Pinch did as he was told. He just managed to do it without forgetting where he was or what he was meant to be doing. On his way back up the stairs with the full jug, it occurred to him that Terrence might have used the errand as a pretext to get him out of the room. Knuckle and Choke might already be dead! And he was now walking up there like a lamb into a slaughterhouse to get his throat cut. Standing on the stairs contemplating this terrible fate, Pinch almost turned around to run away into the night. Thankfully, just then, Knuckle started laughing loudly upstairs. Still extremely shaken, Pinch hurried and set the jug on the table before taking his seat.

Choke was back in his chair, with his head down between his knees and the spittoon between his feet.

Terrence was seated again too, looking annoyed as he poked around in his pipe with his stiletto. He nodded his thanks to Pinch as he returned.

“Fuck man,” Terrence said to the top of Choke’s head. “Whatever the reason ye got that handle of yars in the first place, ye sure lived up to it tonight. Choke is right. What a fuck-up.”

“I am really sorry, Terrence,” Choke said, finally raising his head. “I’m sorry. Is your rug okay?”

“My rug? Fuck the rug, man. Those never last long here. They’re always getting stained by someone or another. That was just a waste of good puff, man.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, ye said that already. Whatever. It’s fine. But that’s enough smoke for all of us, I think. I wanna hear about yar day, boys. Can ye manage that?” Terrence asked.

Pinch looked from Choke, who was spitting into the spittoon again, to Knuckle, who was staring off into space with a profoundly stunned expression.

“Yeah, I can swing it,” Pinch said.

Taking a moment to collect his thoughts, Pinch began telling Terrence about what had happened at Double Horseshoes Freight. Terrence listened intently with a happy smile, and offered positive commentary here and there, so Pinch soon warmed up to the storytelling and began to enjoy himself as he embelished. As he spoke, Knuckle began interjecting commentary when he thought Pinch had left out something important. After the third of these amendments, Terrence smiled at him.

“Yeah, Knuckle, I don’t think ye need to talk. How’s about ye just sit quiet and listen, huh? Thanks,” Terrence said, friendly enough, but with enough intention to make sure Knuckle shut the fuck up. Which he did indeed.

“Okay, go on, Pinch. Yar doing a good job,” Terrence said.

As Pinch continued, Choke was able to slowly gather himself. He was quite stoned and uncomfortable, both physically and psychically, but found he was just able to manage it. He marveled at Pinch’s ability to communicate so effectively in this condition.

Pinch told Terrence basically everything, just leaving out Knuckle’s burp performance and them asking the barge ox driver for directions. When Pinch had finished, Terrence sat with his eyes closed and had a real long think about the story. Then he laughed.

“That was fuckin great! Man I’d love to have been there to see ye bust up Murray and Lenny like that! Fuckin assholes. So, Choke: what the fuck went on up there? Ye told Murray ye wanted my package and he still wouldn’t give it to ye?” Terrence asked, since Pinch had only related that he had left Choke alone with Murray and he had shortly come down from the office with the package.

“Yes. I told him I just wanted what you were owed. But he was pretty out of it at that point. So I just grabbed the biggest package in the lockbox,” Choke winced again as he recalled cracking Murray over the head with the prybar.

“Well, I can’t complain with the result. Okay, good job. You guys must be fuckin hungry, huh? I know I am. Got the munchies now! Let’s strap a feed bag on!”

Terrence went to pull the service chord again. He ordered dinner for all of them, along with a full coffee service. Then he packed another bowl of hash which he smoked with Knuckle and Pinch as they waited.

“Ohhhhh, perfect!” Terrence said as the waiter brought up the big coffee tray. “Coffee is the perfect thing to round out hash, man! Bumps it up a bit, ye know? So’s ye don’t get too sluggish.”

Choke was getting quite sleepy by that point, so he decided to relax his prudence further and partake of the coffee. It was every bit as good as everyone had been telling him. Following this, they tucked into a hearty meal of roast beef, gravy, and mashed potatoes with a jar of spicy horseradish on the side.

“Fuck, this is hitting all the spots!” Pinch moaned through a mouthful of food.

“No doubt, huh?” Terrence agreed.

When the dishes had all been cleared away, they sat with another coffee that Terrence had tipped some whiskey into for them. The mood was very relaxed, with no one feeling compelled to break the silence. Finally, Knuckle did so with a big burp. Pinch, and then Choke, began giggling and then laughing uncontrollably at this. Knuckle joined them.

“Did I miss something?” Terrance asked, bemused, as the three lads laughed hysterically. “Fuck, you kids are just precious. Look at ye big, stoned, hick killers. What a fuckin sight.”

“I’m sorry. It’s a stupid joke. Nothing to get, really,” Pinch finally managed.

“Oh, ye don’t say? Anyways, I’m glad yar having a good time. Ye earned it.”

“Oh, this has been great, Terrence! Thank ye. Really! Much appreciated,” Knuckle said.

“Yes, just so. Thank you,” Pinch seconded.

“Indeed. Thank you, Terrence. You have been a good host,” Choke finished.

“Nah, it’s nothing. This has been fun. And ye earned it. Gotta ask, though: When ye busted outta the joint, why the fuck didn’t ye just come straight back here over the bridge? I don’t get yar thinking there,” said Terrence.

The three lads all blinked at each other stupidly as they contemplated this. Choke finally responded:

“Well, Terrence, when we got out in the street, there was a huge crowd of dockworkers and townsfolk and even city guard out in front of the docks. And that was right between us and the bridge. So we didn’t want to ride through that. I’m still confused as to why the guard didn’t intervene right then, actually.”

“Oh, right. Ye boys aint city kids. Tell me, in the country do the town guards and the sheriff and the like, do they actually do their fuckin jobs, or something?” Terrence asked earnestly.

“Mostly they do, yes.”

“Huh. Well, that’s a mindfuck. Yeah, forget about that here. Unless yar fucking with proper citizens, of course. And then only if the guard have all the advantages. But with guys like Murray, or me, forget about it. When ye pay the guard not to look into yar business, they don’t come a running when things get hairy. Ye gotta handle yar own business. Just keep what ye gotta do as private as possible and they won’t do shit, generally.”

“Well that’s food for thought,” Choke said. “Anyways, we did not know that. And even if we did, I think riding right through that crowd would have been a bad idea anyway. We had no idea where and when Murray’s backers might pop out, right?”

“True enough,” Terrence conceded.

“Then keep in mind that we don’t know the city. So we ride along to the next big intersection, and run into some gang, like Pinch told you. At that point I thought that even if we lost them, they are going to know that we need to head to the bridge. They could head us off there. There’s only the one, right?”

“True enough. Okay, I get it. And I do appreciate your discretion in not starting a street fight. If ye’d killed anyone over there, it would’ve been a whole different scene.”

“Like… how?” Knuckle asked.

“Okay, I see ye boys are in need of an education here. So here ye go: In Strana, we got three parts of town with gangs in them, right? Bridgetown. The northside. And the westend. The eastend is where the quality hang their hats, and the guard over there is the gang. Whole different deal,” said Terrence.

“We know about that. We went to visit the cathedral yesterday,” Pinch said.

“Okay, then ye saw what I’m talking about. But here in Bridgetown we got a bunch of little gangs. And they all kick up to me. I don’t control them, but they’ll do as I say, mostly. And I get my piece of everything. It’s the same way on the northside with the Dwarf. There’s a bunch of different gangs and outfits, but they all kick up to him because he runs the docks.”

“A Dwarf?” Pinch asked.

“Not a Dwarf. The Dwarf. Dan the Dwarf. He aint a Dwarf, but he looks like one, and is about as hard to kill, the prick. Then on the westend there’s a bunch of pissant bullshit. They run scared of the guard and don’t step in front of me or the Dwarf when we wanna do business there. But they don’t kick up to either of us.”

“Okay, well thank you for the lesson, Terrence,” Choke said.

“No problem. Now, Murray pays protection to the Dwarf. So if ye’d killed someone, either one of Murray’s people, or one of the Dwarf’s, then there’d be beef. I can’t clip no one on the northside unless I clear it with the Dwarf first. And he can’t clip no one here in Bridgetown unless I say so. This is how we prevent a war, which is bad for everyone’s business. Right?

“So if ye’d killed someone, it woulda been a problem,” Terrence continued with a significant look. “Then I’d have three options, basically. One: I’d have to hand ye over to the Dwarf for punishment. Two: I’d have to pay him a penalty in coin. Or, three: I’d have to tell him to go fuck himself and wait for him to retaliate by clipping one of my people over here. Which he would do for sure. We can’t let that kinda thing slide.”

“Okay, I get that. But if Murray was paying protection to the Dwarf, who runs the docks, then why didn’t anyone from the docks fuck with us?” Pinch asked.

“Ah. Good question! Welcome back to the land of the thinking, my lad! The Dwarf levers the docks, sure. But he don’t got nobody there on location that would step into something like that. Especially not against three fully-armed warriors like yarselves. No way. The workaday muscle we keep around at street level is just to keep the rabble in line. There’s no way any of them are gonna start shit with trained soldiers. If someone like you crosses the line, they’ll lay back in the cut and send word up the ladder about it. Then, if something needs to get done about it, someone serious will make a project of it,” Terrence said.

“Someone like Eli?” Pinch asked.

“Exactly. Or me. In this game it’s important to keep yar hands on the tiller as much as ye can. Keeps everyone else in the organization focused.”

“So, Terrence, is someone serious over there in the Dwarf’s organization going to make a project of us?” Choke asked.

“No. No way. Ye didn’t kill anybody, right? And my beef with Murray was legit. So it aint gonna be a thing.”

“If that’s the case, Terrence, then why was everything on such a war footing here this afternoon? You all were ready for something, clearly,” said Choke.

“Yeah, that’s so. It never hurts to be careful. There’s no telling when someone’s gonna do something stupid. And the Dwarf easily coulda sent someone over to demand a sitdown over it, and ye don’t wanna be seen to be laying there with yar ass hanging out, right?”

“I suppose not. Okay, so just one more question then, if I may, Terrence,” Choke said.

“Yeah, for sure.”

“So, Murray is a teamster, right? We might not have a problem with the Dwarf, you say, which is a relief. But what about the teamsters? Guilds stick together, as you must know, and they are a tough bunch.”

“Well, now, that is a thought. Didn’t consider it, since roads out in the countryside aint something I gotta worry about, generally. Or ever.”

Terrence sat and puzzled over this for a while. When he finally spoke it was with much less assurance than he had previously:

“Yeah, I don’t think ye got anything to worry about.”

“Are ye sure about that, Terrence?” Pinch asked.

“No. But teamsters are just a bunch of fuckin mule drivers and half-rate thugs. Ye three are trained warriors. Murray’s an asshole who crossed the line and got what was coming to him. Who’s gonna wanna get killed on account of someone like that? Just keep yar heads down getting outta town and ye’ll be fine.”

“Okay, then. Well, thank you, Terrence,” Choke said, not feeling the slightest bit assured, but knowing full well that there was nothing more to say to Terrence about it.

“I’m just happy that the package turned out to be real!” Knuckle blurted out.

“Fuuuuuuuuuck, Knuckle. What the fuck man? Don’t say that to…” Pinch drifted off into a deep sigh.

“What?” Knuckle asked.

“What do ye mean yar happy that the package turned out to be real?” Terrance asked, staring at Knuckle intently. Then he figured it out and began laughing earnestly.

“Oh, that is funny,” he finally said. “Ye guys were worried that I sent ye over there for a fake package so that ye’d fuck Murray up for sure, weren’t ye?”

“Listen, Terrence, we didn’t—” Pinch started.

“No, ye don’t need to worry about it. Ye had no reason to trust me, that’s for sure. And that scam is pretty clever, after all. For you to think up. But, and no offense, it would be real fuckin stupid of me to try it.”

“How so, sir?” Pinch asked.

“Okay, say I wanted them dead, or real fucked up. So I send ye off to retrieve a fake package. And yeah, it might go the way I want. Maybe ye don’t believe them when they say they don’t know what the fuck yar talking about. But maybe it doesn’t go that way. Maybe they convince you there isn’t a package. Because there isn’t one, and truth always sells better than lies. How are ye gonna feel about that, d’ye think? I’ve been leaning on ye. And now I just fuckin lied to ye and sent ye into peril on a fool’s errand. And ye just met Murray. It’s a fresh slate with him. Who are ye going to be more inclined to help at that point? He’d be able to point ye right back at me, and ye’ve got a reason to come back here and talk to me. Ye could walk right in and get up close. Think on that,” Terrence said quietly.

The lads all did think on that. They realized that in the deep water they had been adrift in, Terrence was a creature that lurked in depths they could not even fathom.

“Yeah. Real fuckin stupid. Right?” Terrence said with a smooth smile. “So listen up, kids, school is now in session. In this game, ye can’t just focus on yar enemies. Ye gotta think about what yar friends will do.”

The lads all pondered this for some time.

“I don’t follow you, Terrence,” Choke finally said for all of them.

“That’s okay. Yar all good boys and have been raised up by good and honorable men to be used in a just cause. There’s no reason ye would get it. Let me ask ye something: in this city, for a man in my position, who do ye think is the most dangerous person? Who is most likely to kill me?”

“The Dwarf, I guess,” Knuckle said.

“Or one of his men,” Pinch amended.

Terrence gave them a thumbs down. “Try again.”

“Eli,” Choke said.

That earned him a grin and a thumbs up.

“Eli? But he’s yar man!” Knuckle said.

“Exactly. He has access to me at my most vulnerable. And he’s in a position to step smoothly into mine without the organization missing a beat. What did I say? Think about what yar friends will do. So as a leader, I cannot fuck around with my people in a way that will increase their resentment towards me. Shortsighted. I need to keep him believing that his life is better with me alive.”

“And how does that end?” Choke asked.

“The same way it does for anybody. There’s only one destination in this life.”

Terrence let that sit for a while before he shifted into a more businesslike posture.

“Okay. School’s out. And I think it’s past yar bedtime. Ye all look wasted. I’ll put ye up in the hotel tonight. We’ll have Murrow take ye over there. If ye want any girls, let him know. I aint gonna pay for that, but ye’ll be getting a good rate. Just remember to tip them. Alright?”

Terrence stood up, prompting the lads to do the same.

“So that’s that. Also, just so ye know, if ye ever want any more work, just swing by Terry’s downstairs and ask for me or Eli. There’s always odd jobs for capable men like you. Don’t hesitate. Right?”

“Thank you, Terrence. We appreciate everything,” Pinch said. Both Knuckle and Choke nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, right. Oh, shit, I’ve been meaning to ask since ye came back from the job. What Stronian order was it ye said trained ye up?”

“Brothers of the Holy Stone,” all three Pekot lads chorused in unison.

“Duly noted. I’ll be putting them on my list of organizations not to fuck with, then,” said Terrence.

“Yeah. That would be wise,” Choke said.

“Okay, then,” Terrence said, gesturing for the exit. “Let’s go and get ye settled-in for the night.”

read part 18

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