Sunday, May 22, 2011

short story: Above the Crowd

It’s been a while since I posted a short story . . . so I thought now was a good time.

Ever been beat by a girl? Your male pride kicked squarely in the man parts?

Sit back and enjoy the ride through the eyes of Jake, the best assassin and thief around . . . or so he thinks.

Above the Crowd
by Paul Darcy

The dying man, face masked by shadow, hung upside down from the rafters. The acrid scent of fresh-spilled blood permeated the air while multitudes of flies buzzed in chorus. Jake, the best in the business, hadn’t known anything was amiss until he’d arrived in the dark bedchamber to assassinate this man himself. He surveyed the scene with an irritation bordering on anger. Someone took down his mark! Someone was out to undermine his reputation.

A drop of blood struck the floor.

Jake cleaned under his short fingernails with the point of his dagger. Its honed steel edge was clean, and he hated that. He’d failed. Could he, in good conscience, even consider collecting his standard fee?

Pulling a small figurine out from an inner pocket of his tunic, he caressed it with thumb and forefinger. “Ibrilis,” he whispered, “who committed this slight against me without my knowledge? Please, guide my hand so that I may find the truth.” The figurine was a representation of Ibrilis, god of thieves and assassins. Made completely of polished obsidian, like Ibralis’ black-as-night cloak of office, the figurine reflected the room’s dim light like a beast’s black pupil.

Jake tucked the figurine back underneath his tunic. Then, leaving the mansion through the access panel in the roof, he ascended into the chill night air. On the roof’s cold slate tiles, he sat for a moment in silence and surveyed the city scape.

The rooftops were Jake’s home. He avoided the streets below, which were crawling with unhealthy humans trying to get by, waiting for somebody like him to send them on their way, for a price. The moon, a mere crescent, made for the perfect night to travel above the city unnoticed.

Jake suddenly caught a motion out of the corner of his eye two roofs away. He stopped, tense, alert and aware. Still as a gargoyle, he sat using every sense to study his surroundings. Three seconds of intense concentration revealed nothing but the cooing of pigeons, the soft sigh of the wind, the scent of wood smoke, the faint stamping of horses hooves somewhere below in a nearby alley. Apparently, nothing up here but Jake and the birds. But Jake trusting his instincts. He wasn’t the best and survived the longest because he’d ignored them. Someone, likely the usurper of his contract, was up here with him.

In a flash he was off, making of himself a moving target, harder to hit. Harder to hit, but not impossible. He knew this from experience, having been several times both hunter and hunted.

Jake’s soft leather shoes touched down on a roof ten paces away, the space below stretching twenty feet down to the hard, cold cobblestones. At a full run he took to the air once more. On his left several rooftops away, a flicker of shadow passed before the crescent moon, then was gone. After jumping six more rooftops, he slowed, stopped, and positioned himself with his back against a chimney. The exertion left him breathing hard. The entire time his dagger never left his hand.

His chest expanding and contracting smoothly, Jake scanned the immediate rooftops for signs of pursuit, anything out of the ordinary. But, as before, he could sense nothing amiss. The rooftops appeared as desolate as death itself. With satisfaction, he reminded himself that no person could follow him across the top of the city. Noone could match his skills on the rooftops.

Beginning to relax, Jake took a long deep breath. A slight smile formed on his lips, then froze in place. Cold steel pressed against his throat. He knew enough to surmise that any sudden movements could end his life. Unmoving, he cursed himself for being taken completely unawares. Damn this person was good. Too good. And he should know.

“Hello, Jake,” came a sweet woman’s voice. It was not a voice he recognized. His silent curses intensified. Not only was he trapped, but he was trapped by a woman. Then it struck him. Nobody knew his proper name. Reaper was, or so he thought, his only moniker.

He contemplated a sudden strike. With a quick twist he might be able to strike out with his dagger before his throat was fatally slit. At the slight tensing of his muscles, he felt added pressure from the blade and knew his immediate thoughts were anticipated. He could feel the slight discomfort of a shallow razor-sharp cut on his throat. That plan would fail. He must try another method of extrication.

“Let’s talk about this, shall we.” Jake said, doing his best to conceal any signs of fear in his voice. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down against the cold blade as he swallowed. A small trickle of blood dribbled down the inside of his neck creating a warm wet finger pointing toward his heart.

A sweet chuckle escaped his captor’s lips. “Yes, we shall.” Quick as a cat, she flicked the blade from his throat. Before he could react, the woman sprang to the top of the chimney he leaned against. Jake wiped the blood from his neck. The wound was superficial. Peering up into the night, he wanted to see who could have taken him so easily.

A woman, slight of frame and clad in black, perched on the lip of the chimney several feet above him. She appeared to be studying him, waiting perhaps for him to make the next move. Smiling down at him, she made Jake uneasy. He gave up any thought of sticking a dagger in her. She was too quick, too alert, and he was a fast learner. Conversation might prolong the moment, allow him to learn who he was dealing with, maybe help him regain his balance.

“You seem to know my name,” he said, “but I don’t know yours.” He didn’t expect an answer, but if she did he expected her to lie.

“Bri,” came her instant reply.

Jake racked his brain for any reference to a thief or assassin by that name. Nothing came to him. The closest was Brak, but he was a large fierce man from the northern wilds, and this person, no matter how clever the disguise, was certainly not he.

“Well, Bri,” he said, “what can I do for you?”

Bri flipped her dagger from hand to her fingertip quicker than Jake’s eye could follow. He was about to spring to one side if she made ready to throw it, but instead she kept it balanced, spinning, on the end of her middle finger. Her smile broadened, revealing white teeth reflecting the moon’s pale glow. “Well,” she said flippantly, “I hear you’re the best. Care to put that to the test?”

So, Jake’s reputation was not unknown to this woman. “What did you have in mind?” he asked, mesmerized by the spinning blade balanced on her finger. He could perform that trick as well he knew, given enough time and practice. It seemed a pointless exercise, but he did have to admit that it was impressive.

“A little competition between us,” Bri said flicking the dagger, in the blink of an eye, back into a sheath just inside the folds of her cloak. “Three categories, best two out of three wins it. The reward for the winner is that the loser will do, to the best of his or her ability, what the winner wants. What say you?”

Jake thought a moment about her proposal. If he won he would demand of her the reasons for taking out his assigned victim and who, if anyone, had put her up to it. He was convinced she’d done the job, and he wanted answers. He assessed her: small, attractive and obviously skilled. But he seriously doubted her ability to beat him in fair competition. In the past he’d been challenged by, but never bested, by another assassin or thief. Whatever the test of skills, Jake was the best in the land, and he knew it.

“Very well,” he agreed. “What are the categories?”

She was obviously pleased that he’d accepted the challenge for her smile broadened making her more attractive. But Jake knew the prettiest snakes and spiders were often the most deadly poisonous. “First,” she said, “a footrace across the roofs. Second, a dagger throw. And lastly, lock picking.”

Jake relaxed. He’d have no problem with those, he thought. “When do we begin?”

“Now,” she said laughing, “first one to the water tower wins the footrace.” And with that she leaped clear of the chimney and was off. Cursing himself for letting her get the jump on him again, he raced off across the rooftops faster than ever.

Knowing the rooftops as he did, Jake took the quickest and clearest route to the water tower. The entire five minutes it took him to cross the town on the rooftops he did not see or hear her once. She likely ran into one of many dead ends and was struggling to find another way around. His grin grew as he saw the water tower three roof jumps away. She was still nowhere in sight.

With a last great leap, he cleared the final roof and alighted on the railing surrounding the tower.

He looked back towards the roofs, waiting for her to come into view.

“Not bad,” Bri’s voice emanated from behind him and higher up the tower, “but I win.”

Incredulous, Jake turned around and spotted her crouched further up on the tower supports. Not possible, was all he could think while his outward expression betrayed no hint of inner turmoil. He’d raced straight here, running full out, hadn’t slipped up once and followed the quickest direct path. He was also a head taller than her and could not believe that she could have outrun him, however athletic she was. Despite his disbelief, here she was. She’d obviously tricked him. The horse he’d heard earlier in the streets below. Of course! That must be how she’d beaten him here. Overlooking the obvious, he’d fallen for her trick and was made to look a fool.

Bri jumped down beside him, and he reflexively placed his back to the structure, dagger at the ready. Observing his reaction with insouciance she smiled and said, “All right, if you insist on going first. The target is over there.” She pointed and he followed the line of her delicate finger. Discernable in the dim moonlight, he could now see what she was pointing at. The target, a small wooden plaque, was perhaps two hand spans in diameter and painted white. A blood red dot marked its center.

“Three tosses,” Bri instructed. “Closest to the center wins.”

There could be no tricks this time, and Jake was an expert marksman with a throwing dagger. No man ever bested him in such a competition. Of course, he’d never competed against a woman before, but that should not affect the outcome.

Settling his nerves, Jake approached the calm inside himself which served him best during tests of skill. Taking one deep breath and exhaling it in a controlled manner, he threw his first dagger and watched it plunk into the wood, three fingers below center. He pulled another dagger and let fly with improved aim. This one impaled the target a mere finger span to the right of the red dot. Concentrating harder, and settling deeper into calm, he loosed a third dagger. With complete satisfaction he watched it impale the dead center of the target cleanly piercing the red spot. Let’s see her best that, Jake smugly thought to himself.

“My, you’re an accurate one, aren’t you?” Bri’s tone was glib, but Jake knew there was no way she could do better than perfect. She possessed a lot of bravado and bluster, but the blades would decide. Despite his self assurances however, he felt uneasy by her self-confident manner.

He moved aside making room for her to throw from the same spot. Bri smiled, pulled out her first throwing dagger and again twirled it on her fingertip. Impressive, he thought, but her fingertip was not the target.

Quick as a cat she let fly her dagger and he heard it thunk into the target. Jake grinned. It was a good hand span to the left of center. She looked at him with a false pout, pulled another dagger out from under her dark cloak and tossed it. It whistled through the air and again thunked into the target. It landed closer to the center this time, but was still three fingers above the red dot where Jake’s dagger triumphantly jutted out.

“Never was much good with my off hand,” she remarked pulling out a third dagger. This time, instead of her right hand she switched to her left. She adroitly flipped the blade around in a kind of hand-dagger-dance. The motion of her hand and the spinning blade were faster than Jake could follow. At the end of a complicated series of moves, Bri caught the dagger by its blade, arched her elbow back and let fly the weapon. This time, instead of a wooden thunk, he heard a metallic clank and watched in disbelief as his dagger was bent away from the middle of the target and hers was there in its place. A moment later his blade, knocked loose, fell out of the target altogether and clattered on the cobblestones in the street below.

“Well,” she said with obvious glee in her voice, “seems we both hit dead center. You were first to the mark though, so I’ll concede this one to you.”

Crestfallen, Jake could think of no appropriate comeback. By rights it was a draw, but he went along with her logic. She must have, after all, cheated on the footrace. He observed her face, eyes reflecting the crescent moon in each iris making them appear catlike. Judging by her body language and impish grin, Bri was enjoying herself, and he, wanting to dislike this upstart, found himself strangely intrigued by her instead. One category to go. He would not let himself be bested by a mere woman.

Jake followed her to the target where they gathered their daggers in silence. The one on the cobblestones below he left. Retrieving it would feel to him like an admission that she’d beaten him, again. Good throwing daggers could be replaced. His pride was not so easily restored.

“Ready for the last test,” she said, then quickly added, “of skills in our competition?” This time the look she flashed him was that of hunger, like a trapper finding his snares loaded with game. He suspected it was the same look she gave her victims the moment she slipped a dagger between their ribs.

Looking away from her Jake said, “Why wait,” with all the bravado he could muster. Lock picking was another formidable skill he possessed. His long years of practice had honed this particular talent to near perfection. No prison cell or lock made could defy him for long.

“I have a matching pair of Helkin locks,” Bri said, and Jake heard a rattle. Looking at her outstretched hand he could see identical locks displayed in her open palm. Exquisite, delicate and perhaps the best made in all the land, Helkin locks were known for their near unpickability. He’d beaten them before, but they were devilishly hard to crack. The Helkin’s small keyholes allowed little room to maneuver picks.

Bri extended her hand further towards Jake allowing him first choice of locks. Seeing no difference, and knowing their craftsmanship, he arbitrarily picked the one closest to him. Her other hand emerged from underneath her cloak. In it she held an exquisite gold-handled lock pick set. He pulled out his own trusty steel picks and waited, flexing his fingers in preparation.

“Go,” Bri said. Jake bent over his lock and set to work. She yawned loud enough for him to hear and out of his peripheral vision he saw her casually sweep a lock of hair from her face. Already he had three of his smallest picks working away at the Helkin’s inner mechanisms. She had yet to insert even one from her set. Trying to distract and fluster him, he suspected, but he would not allow her antics to disturb his concentration. He settled deeper into calm and ignored her as best he could.

Inside this lock Jake knew there were four separate tines that needed to be depressed before the inner cylinder would turn allowing him to ratchet it open. He’d already fixed two in place but the third was causing him difficulty. After a moment of fine manipulation he noticed that Bri finally decided to begin. He managed to secure the third tine. One more to suppress and then he could insert his dummy key and pop open the lock. With the skill and precision of a fine jeweler, a scant moment later, he set the forth time in place. No sooner had he inserted his dummy key when he heard the snap of Bri’s lock and looked up to see it open and swinging from her index finger which she was pointing at him. Her smile was positively radiant.

“I win,” Bri said. He snapped open his lock. This was impossible, being bested at what Jake thought was his game, made to look an amateur. But scanning Bri’s face he detected an expression he was not expecting. She was delighted to be sure, but she was observing him as if he were a treasure beyond compare instead of a humiliated foe.

“I’m impressed,” Bri said and sounded sincere, “you really are the best, and the best choice by far.”

Jake was confused. “What are you talking about? I’m ready to uphold my end of the deal, so ask what you will of me, and be done.”

“Oh, don’t be upset, Jake,” she said then she sidled up beside him. “What you have done is almost beyond compare. In fact you beat me in all three categories, though only by the smallest of margins.”

“I don’t understand,” he said, “the foot race, the dagger throw and this,” he said holding up his own open lock.

“You will,” she said. And then Bri winking at him. Jake tried but couldn’t fathom what new mood possessed her. He was an expert judge of human character, but the loss of the competition and her mysterious demeanor were throwing him off.

Bri jumped from her perch and alighted on the nearest rooftop. “Follow me,” she said, and took off at a full run. Like two scudding clouds in a windstorm they raced across the top of the city. She was indeed fleet of foot and agile, but Jake, wanting an end to this mystery, used his formidable skills to keep a mere pace or two behind. It became obvious within a short while that she was leading him back to the place of his failed assignment. There was no doubt in his mind now, she was the usurper of his contract and she wasn’t finished with him yet.

Back at the scene of the crime, Jake watched Bri slip through the open access hatch in the roof of the estate. A moment later he followed her inside.

The darkness of the room was almost complete, but he could see that Bri was standing beside the inverted hanging figure. With her head cocked to one side, she studied the dying man. He joined her. It took a minute for his eyes to fully adjust to the dim light. The buzzing of the flies droned again, as if they were unusually near his own ears. He heard the soft splat of blood as it joined the large pool now at their feet.

Bri stepped aside and Jake, closer now to the hanging body, could discern the features of the victim. Blood trickled up the neck, a thin line of darker shadow on shadow, over the ramp of the chin, crossed the gap of a slightly open mouth, marking a trail across the curve of the cheek where it pooled for a moment in the left eye socket until it gathered enough to form a drop. Even upside down he knew those features well. He’d seen them every day in his polished brass mirror while shaving.

He took a reflexive step backwards before controlling himself. How could this be?

As if she’d heard his thoughts, Bri spoke softly beside him, “yes, it is you.”

Turning to her, Jake’s blood ran cold. Beside him stood not Bri, but the cowled figure of Ibrilis, black as night in the glistening robe of the King, or as he now knew, the Queen of thieves and assassins. He knelt down on one knee before her in reverence.

“Please don’t,” she said. “I was once as mortal as you. I too failed to win the contest against my predecessor. Of course it’s not possible for a mortal to defeat a god, but you did extremely well, considering. Better than I did, in fact, over a hundred years ago,” her voice trailed off and for the first time he detected an undercurrent of pain and suffering beneath her sweet flippant tones.

“What do you want of me?” he asked, rising to meet his deity.

“Well, Jake, you did agree to the contest. And I did beat you, so I ask you to do one thing for me.”

“What would that be?” he asked. His rattled nerves were settling somewhat, but he still stood in awe of Ibralis.

“I want you to take my place,” she stated, matter of fact. “One hundred years is quite enough, even for a god.”

Jake looked back at his body, his mouth mimicking that of his corpse. He could form no words in response, his mind taking in and coming to grips with what Ibralis had offered him. In the deathly silence one final fatal drop of blood struck the floor, the sound like that of a dagger piercing flesh. Striving all his life to prove that he was the best, to garner the admiration of his god Ibralis, it would seem that he’d succeeded beyond his wildest imaginings. Time appeared to stop.

Jake gathered his courage, “yes,” he said. Then louder, “yes, I will.”

He turned to look at Ibralis, but she was no longer there. The silence of her passing was deafening. Even the flies had ceased their buzzing, frozen in the moment. All that remained of her was the cloak discarded on the floor, a larger stain of black mimicking the one under his corpse.

With a flourish Jake lifted, then donned, the cloak of Ibralis. With one incredible leap he was outside running faster than the wind, the city a blur beneath him.

As Jake’s body grew cold, his spirit soared above the crowds.

The End

Until next Sunday . . .

1 comment:

  1. Zilla's Other Half10:27 am

    Yup - do like that one.