Making Your Name


#1

Altrega Beach was, as all people knew, the Slum of Slums. There might have been slums in other parts of the Web that had more poverty and worse conditions, but being that Altrega Beach was located in Albrook, the largest city in the Web, it naturally got a promotion over others. The refugee crisis was an ongoing issue, and in the years since the Leviathan War, the tent city had evolved into a dense conglomeration of prefabs built on top of prefabs and cheaply constructed multi-story buildings. Utility services were of varying quality, where they were available at all, and of course, there was the rampant crime. This had led to common protection rackets throughout the town. Ostensibly, the Garlandini Family were the only ones who should have been doing it, but it wasn’t unheard of that other outfits might try it out.

The block had a number of high-rise apartment buildings. Despite the somewhat superior construction of the structures, they were still plagued with drafts, leaking ceilings, and brownouts. Sewage would periodically overflow due to shoddy plumbing. Many flats were infested with either insects, rodents, or other small vermin. The walls were thin enough that tenants could hear almost everything that went on in their neighbors’ flats. Theft was common and widespread, so nothing valuable was left in the open or in easily found hiding places.

One of the buildings had the rather misleading name of the Bridgeview. (There was no bridge and there was no view.) The Bridgeview had seen a lot of changes in its tenants over the years since the refugee crisis had started. Alia Caldwell had managed to get a flat for herself and her daughter only six months before, and she’d seen many of her neighbors come and go. Some of them had moved out for understandable reasons, such as the general squalor. Others had simply… gone missing, and after a couple of weeks’ absence, someone else would move in and replace them. Had there been any better alternatives, Alia would have taken them in an instant. But, well, Alia was in a tricky situation.

The issue facing Alia today were the pair of tattooed brutes looming in the hallway outside her door. They had been pounding on the door with enough force to shake the doorframe, so she’d finally opened it, but kept the chain latched so she could address them. Now she was wishing she could have just left the door shut and pretended no one was home. Alas, the noise had woken Elly, who was still wailing in her arms.

“I don’t know what you want, please go away,” she repeated herself for what seemed like the hundredth time. Unfortunately, the two men weren’t budging. The smaller of the two (who was still much larger than her) was the one doing most of the talking to her, while the larger was more talking at her in angry Scandish.

“Very dangerous people in Altrega,” the smaller repeated himself again. “You have children, da? Could be people try to take them away from you. Steal from you.” He smiled, or at least showed his teeth. “Good to have protection. Toly and I, our friends too, we keep you safe.”

Alia had been warned about this sort of thing by her neighbor when she’d moved into the Bridgeview. There were all kinds of bad people who lived in the Bridgeview, and sooner or later, someone would offer to “protect” her from them. The best thing to do, she’d been told, was let the landlord deal with them. Alas for Alia, she’d never actually met the landlord, she’d sublet from a drunk slob who had moved out two weeks later. She’d tried to call him when the next month’s rent had been due, but the number he’d given her had been disconnected. She hadn’t dared try to ask about what she should do about the rent, lest the landlord throw her out.

All of which didn’t really help her here and now, with the two thugs on her doorstep. She tried to repeat herself once more, but the larger one, Toly, shouted even louder in Scandish. The smaller brother, who’d only called himself Taly, turned and barked something at him in the same language, then turned back to Alia. The non-smile had vanished. “You are not safe,” he said, all false friendliness gone from his words. “You pay us, or…” He shrugged, giving a click of his tongue. “…example, da?” And he showed his teeth again, and the look in his eyes was one that conjured up all kinds of bad memories in Alia’s mind. She was trembling as she tried to muster up a response.

Then a different voice cut in from the hall. It sounded tired, as if the person speaking had just woken up. “What inna name of every god is all the goddamn racket for? Cryin’ out loud, it’s flippin’ noisy out here.” The two brothers glanced away from Alia, before Taly twitched a shoulder, and Toly lumbered off, growling at the interloper in his native tongue. “Eh?” came the new voice again. “What’s that? I dun speak goddamn Scandish, you wanna mumble threats, try doin’ it in Common, it’s basic flippin’ decency.”

Taly was still glowering at Alia. “Pay,” he growled at her. “Or, example, yes?” His eyes flicked from her face to the squalling Elly meaningfully. Alia paled and tried to slam the door shut, but he’d thrust his steel-toed boot into the door jamb to prevent this. He showed his teeth again, but there was no amusement this time, just a threat. There was a pair of thumps from the hallway, the latter much heavier, and the floor shuddered briefly. Taly smirked briefly. “Maybe I give you day to reconsider,” he chuckled. “Toly and I, we use neighbor as example, da?”

Then it was his turn to go pale as a hand grabbed a pistol from Taly’s waistband and put it to his temple. “Or maybe I give you day to reconsider,” came the voice from down the hall, mocking his accent. “Maybe I let you pick your brother up,” the voice had dropped the Scandish accent now, “and you fff–” Alia caught a glimpse of a face peek around Taly’s head and see her, and Elly, and the voice corrected, “–find your way out of here. That’d be a good goddamn idea right now, right?” She glanced past both Taly and the newcomer and saw Toly groaning on his back on the hallway floor.

Taly grunted in agreement. The man behind him stepped out of Alia’s view down the hall again. The Scandian started to turn, but the interloper cocked the gun and shook his head. “Uh-uh. Don’t turn around. Take two steps this way… thaaat’s it. Pick your brother up and get out of here.” Grunting, Taly heaved his brother to his feet, an arm over his shoulder, and the two staggered off to the stairwell.

Once they were gone, she saw the interloper come into view. He was much younger than she thought, average size but well-built. Underneath his faded gray ball cap, His head was shaved to stubble, matching his five-o-clock shadow. He wore a U of A Screaming Eagles t-shirt and gray track pants with dirty trainers. He finally looked at her, pulling his cap up, revealing eyes a dark green shade. He nodded to her, then glanced at the gun still in his hand. He made a show of ejecting the magazine and emptying the chamber, pocketing them and then offering out the now-empty gun to her. “You all right there, miss?” he asked, a vague Viperese accent now more evident as Alia could listen more carefully.

She nodded, shushing Elly, who was still all sniffles and blotchy faced. Alia looked back up at the man. “Thank you,” she said, “but they’ll just come back again.” She looked away, back into her flat, which still had what few boxes of things she’d managed to take with her when she’d come here. “I… I’ll have to find somewhere else to live–”

“Nuts to that.” Her neighbor shook his head. Realizing she wasn’t going to take the gun, he stuck it in his waistband. “They bother you again, you call for me, yeah?” He raised his hands, then gave a brief smile. “I’m Baz. I live down the hall, in 623.”

“Alia,” she said. “Really, I appreciate your help, but you’re not going to be there all the time, and they’ll come back and they’ll be in a worse mood for your trouble.” She eyed him a bit. “You must be stronger than you look. Toly must’ve been twice your size, but you laid him out.”

Baz grimaced slightly and flexed the fingers of his left hand. “Ah, I’m gonna have to get my hand looked at later. But it’s just a matter of knowing where to hit a guy.” He mimed swinging a left hook. “Hit 'em in the right spot, and pow, nighty-night.”

She regarded him a bit. “Were you in the army?” His build did suggest some kind of background like that, though he looked too young for that to be the case.

He scoffed a bit. “What, me? No, ma’am. Military life’s not for me.” He read her look and said, “I just hit the gym now and then.” He flexed slightly and then shrugged. “Plus, I’m from North Viper. You don’t learn how to fight down there in Silk Street, you don’t live to majority.”

They spoke for a few more minutes, during which Alia never took the chain off the door. Baz admitted that the Bridgeview wasn’t the place he would have liked to live, but given the options, it was not horrible. They eventually bid goodbye, with Alia promising Baz a hot meal out of gratitude for his aid.


#2

Volk Investigations was a private investigative company located just outside the Corporate Enclave on a street bordering Little Tasnica. In a city as diverse as Albrook, it was where people went to hide, and if a private citizen needed someone found or checked out, Volk could do that for you. Founded by a grizzled Forest Clanner called Zec Upakovka, a Great War veteran, it had expanded enough to have a small staff to handle a variety of cases. Some of their investigations didn’t even require its workers to leave the office, since there was a wealth of information available online. There was a handful of workers in the office whose job was to handle this aspect of the business, and when necessary, pass their findings onto one of Volk’s investigators to do necessary footwork on the street. They were called the net-crawlers.

Jimmy was one of these, working part-time, largely on weekends. A young man who wore black-rimmed glasses, he was a student at the university, and the job helped pay some of the bills. When he wasn’t doing his OmniNet searches on his computer at his desk, he was working his way through his homework, reading through textbooks and books on the law and criminal justice. This differentiated him from his fellow net-crawlers, who spent their downtime between jobs watching cat videos or posting on social media.

Jimmy glanced up from his homework when Mr. Dahler approached their work area. Dahler was one of the company’s licensed investigators. “Got what should be a quick one for you, boys,” he said, holding up a form. “Nadine took this one,” Nadine was the receptionist, “and passed it to me, but I’m still working that Eire Poultry & Pork Products case, and this looks like your basic SWO.” SWO (pronounced “ess-woe”) was the office abbreviation for ‘spouse walked out.’ “Here, Jimmy, you can run this for me.”

Jimmy took the form from Dahler. “Sure. I can handle that.” Most of the simple cases the net-crawlers handled were easy because the person they were searching for wasn’t fully blocking their social media postings, or simply had changed social media handles, but were still posting pictures of themselves online. “All goes well, we’ll find the deadbeat by dinnerti-- oh, it’s the wife we’re trying to find?” Most SWO cases that Volk handled were the wives, left with children, looking for the husbands who had left them, mostly so they could get child support.

Dahler nodded. “Came blustering in earlier this afternoon. Wants to find her so he can secure visitation rights or something.” He shrugged and raised his hands. “I dunno. Not our place to judge what’s going on behind closed doors, or why she left or anything. He paid up front. Nadine might want to give the wife a number for a good lawyer once we find her, though.”

Jimmy nodded as he set the form down and pulled up his search applications and typed in the SWO’s name: Alia Caldwell.


#3

It was a slum, Altrega Beach, and thus its inhabitants were always looking for a way to ease the pain of living there. The drugs trade was thriving, as tenants and refugees sought distraction in the form of dust, snow, baje, or even pyra. And for those who didn’t want the harder stuff, there were plenty of dives and seedy clubs for the ones who preferred to drown their sorrows in their alcoholic drink of choice.

This one was called the Hanged Man, and it was proud of its low-class status. The horribly stained floor was only cleaned so that when one of its denizens passed out, they would not land in a puddle of blood, urine, or vomit. The blackboard above the bar, where other establishments might list the daily cocktails on offer, offered only an invitation for the reader to commit an unspeakable act on themselves. If one were to ask for a drink with a little straw hat, the barman was likely to ram it into one’s eye socket. If the drinks didn’t kill you, the regulars probably would.

The Hanged Man’s main attraction was not in its libations, but in what went on in the basement, which was known to regulars as the Gallows. Fight clubs could be found anywhere in the Web, and Albrook was no different. For the most part, the cage fighting at the Hanged Man was open to anyone. You paid a fee, you got in the cage, and you fought. Bets would be placed on the fight before the bell, and the winner would get a cut of the profits. The loser got their part of their fee back, and depending on their condition, would be stabilized by an unlicensed medic before being sent on their way or otherwise just dumped in an alley.

At present, two men were circling in the cage. Both were stripped to the waist and were barefoot. The larger of the two men had the puffy build of the “swole,” with a shaved head and tribal-style tattoos adorning his body. He carried himself with the knowledge that he looked badass and only idiots would step up to him 'cuz he would obviously stomp them into a bloody smear. Before climbing into the cage, he’d taken off a Scourge brand name t-shirt and a gold chain necklace. The name he’d given to the barker was Sedge. Sedge was a regular to the cage fights, having won a few rounds on previous visits.

By contrast, his opponent was much smaller. He was giving up a few centimeters of height, and was nowhere near as jacked as Sedge was. He was not, however, scrawny. He had muscles, but they were more compact, denser, making the trunk of his body look thicker. He was free of tattoos, but had a bandage across the bridge of his nose, and when he’d climbed into the cage, he’d simply taken off a plain shirt and a watchcap. He was a relative newcomer to the fights, and this was his first time in the cage. The name he’d given the barker was Jack.

While Sedge spent the betting period pumping himself up and posing intimidatingly for the yelling crowd, Jack simply stood back and limbered up, going through a series of stretches with an almost languid, detached air. When the bell finally sounded, Sedge had moved in and swung a hammer of a right hook, but Jack had ducked underneath it and came back up with a couple of open-hand slaps across the jaw that had surprised the big man.

The fight that followed was an interesting one to the rabid crowd. On paper, Sedge should have been the winner. He had size, strength, and reach. But Jack proved elusive, using his smaller size and greater speed to stay one step ahead of the big man. Jack would deliver a few sharp blows at points, but Sedge did finally manage to trap him against the cage wall, clamp his meaty hands around the back of Jack’s head and started driving his knees into his midsection before bodily hurling Jack across the threadbare mats that lined the bottom of the cage.

Jack just rolled back to his feet, a little winded, and gave an appreciative golf-clap as he got back up. “Not bad,” he grunted as Sedge closed in again. “Not bad.”

“Hold still, little bitch,” the big man growled. “I’ll make it quick. Faster this ends, more money I get.”

Jack blocked the kick that got aimed his way, then sprang to his feet with an uppercut across Sedge’s cheek. “Really?” the smaller man inquired. “Didn’t think that was the rule here.”

“Isn’t,” Sedge snapped, trying to grab him again. “But I know some Thebans wanna bring me in, and they’ll pay me more if I put you down faster.”

“Well,” Jack drawled as he ducked under another swipe. “Let’s give ‘em somethin’ to think about.”

With that, he snapped out a kick that caught Sedge in the side. There was no smack to accompany this, just a deep thud. The front row of the crowd heard the sound and let out a groan. Slaps and cracks sounded painful, but mostly just stung. Thudding blows like that were the ones that hurt the most. For his part, Sedge took a step back from the impact of the blow, scowled… and then doubled over in pain, dropping to a knee. “Fuck!” the big man groaned. “The fuck’d you do me?”

“Liver shot,” Jack said, dancing back. “And now, I’m gonna hit your off switch. Good night!” The last thing Sedge saw was Jack’s left fist shooting out and connecting with the side of his jaw, and then the big man slumped over on the mat, drooling.

While the bell rung and the barker was announcing his victory, Jack went over to the cage exit, where the medic tilted his head at him. “Y’all right?” he asked. When Jack shook out his left hand and flexed his fingers, the medic just nodded and tossed him an ice pack, then a small bottle of pills. “OTC painkillers. G’wan and collect your winnings.”

Jack dry-swallowed a couple of pills and put his shirt and shoes back on. The fight overseer, a nondescript man who called himself Tyler, tossed him a brown paper sack, containing the cash of his winnings, then walked away. But on his heels were a pair of men dressed in rather finer clothes than one usually saw in Altrega Beach, much less in the Gallows. One had a neatly trimmed beard, sans mustache, while the other was clean-shaven.

“Help you gentlemen?” Jack asked as he laced up his shoes.

“Marcus Antilles.” The bearded man introduced himself and held out his hand. Jack shook it, giving his name, glancing at Antilles’ companion. “This is my brother Titus. We had been intending to offer Mr. Sedge an opportunity, but…” He trailed off as Sedge was roused inside the cage, only to vomit from the lingering pain in his liver and the probable concussion from that final knockout punch.

“…but we are now considering extending it to you instead,” Titus concluded.

Jack rolled his neck a bit and regarded them for a moment. “You’re from New Thebes, aren’t ya?” When they nodded, he regarded them again, then looked at the cage. “Funny thing,” he remarked. “I always thought it was just a rumor that there was a gladiator circuit in your part of town.”

“It is a rumor,” Marcus confirmed.

“Such a thing would be illegal,” Titus added.

“And yet,” Jack said, “here you are, and by your very words, implicitly stating that there is a gladiator circuit, to which you are, again, implicitly offering me an invitation.”

The Brothers Antilles were silent at this, and stood back respectfully as Jack stood up, stuffing the bag of his winnings down the front of his pants. He tugged his watchcap over his head and nodded to them. “Sorry, fellas, not interested. This is just a side gig of mine. But hey,” he looked back at the cage, where Sedge was finally being dragged to the door, “feel free to give Sedge a job. Non-existent gladiator circuits need meat for the butchers to slaughter.”


#4

There was a knock on the door. On the other side, when it was opened, stood Baz, a bottle of sparkling cider in hand. “'Ey up, how’s-- er.” He paused as he looked at who had answered the knock. “Did I knock on the wrong door?” The woman standing there was peering at him suspiciously and was most definitely not the young mother he’d met the other day. For one thing, Alia didn’t have tattoos running up the sides of her neck or a half-shaved head with multi-colored dreadlocks.

“Who are you, then?” the stranger demanded.

“Er,” Baz scratched the back of his head. “Sebastian Bashka, from down the hall? I thought this was Alia’s place…”

“Who is it, Jen?” called a familiar voice from inside the apartment. Jen glanced back, then looked him up and down again. “Some guy named Sebastian? Says he’s from down the hall?”

“Sebastian? You mean Baz?” Another face peeked around Jen. It was Alia. “Oh! That’s him, Jen, you can let him in.”

The other woman gave him the hairy eyeball again, but she unchained the door and opened it wide, but did not step out of his way. Baz took her in more fully. There were piercings to go with the tattoos and punk hairstyle. She wore baggy, torn pants and a pair of spiked boots, and a tank top under a loose black t-shirt sporting a familiar logo. Baz stared at this for a moment. “Oi!” she snapped. “You starin’ at my tits?”

Baz blinked and snapped his eyes up. “What? No! I was lookin’ at your shirt! ‘Web of Metal’ 43, took me a moment to recognize the logo, you kinda stretched the shirt all outta sorts.”

Jen cocked a pierced eyebrow. “You like metal?”

Baz flashed the ‘metal horn’ with his free hand. “Subversive shit for a Viperese kid, but loads better than the shit you get in the District.” He scratched his head. “Haven’t really caught up with the latest metal releases. Money’s tight, and pirating music off the net gets your computer messed up with malware.”

Alia had moved back into the kitchen, from which savory aromas emitted. “Jen’s in a band,” she offered. “Hope you don’t mind, but I invited her to stop by.” She poked her head out of the kitchen. “No offense, Baz, but I have trust issues and wanted someone I knew here too.”

“Hey, understandable,” Baz called back. “I did kinda knock out a big damn Scandian meathead and put a gun to another one’s head.” He paused and then looked at Jen. “Also,” he called to Alia, “I’m still kinda in the hallway.”

“Jen, let him in.” The punk did so, still eyeballing him. He’d swapped out the track pants for a clean pair of khakis and a clean pair of trainers, and exchanged the Screaming Eagles t-shirt for a blue button-down. He still had the ball cap on, but he took this off as he stepped inside. Jen shut the door behind him and continued to glower at him. “So you live here, do ya?” she asked then. “What kinda work you do?”

He regarded her warily. “Got a job in a call center.” He held a hand to his ear like a phone, affecting a bland, friendly tone. “Hello, sir or madam, I’m calling from NetCom Services and we can save you hundreds on your phone bill!”

“You’re a telemarketer?” This did not seem to improve Jen’s opinion of him. “I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have Alia poison your food.”

Baz spread his hands. “It’s a job that poisons my soul, it does. But it’s a paycheck. Beggars can’t be choosers in Altrega Beach.” Most respectable businesses looked askance at Altrega Beach residences on their job applications. He looked at her. “So you’re in a band? A metal band, I’m guessing, based on your look?”

Finally, Jen stuck out a hand with black-painted nails and a death’s-head tattoo. “Jen Bradley. Aka Jenna Cide from–”

“–from The Howling Wraiths,” Baz said, shaking her hand. “Sorry, I recognize you now. I think the shock of seeing a quasi-celebrity hanging out in the Bridgeview surprised me.” He set the bottle of cider on the table in the dining area. “Big fan of the Thousand Screams album.”

“We’re working on a follow-up,” Jen remarked as she arranged the plates on the table. At the far end of the table sat little Elly in her high-chair, babbling pleasantly. “But we’re having some disputes with the label. They want us to tone back on the invective, we tell them to fff–” she glanced at Elly, and amended this to, “–find a rope to piss up.” She finished arranging plates and started distributing flatware. “So what’s this about you knocking out thugs and pulling guns on them?” she asked.

Baz considered the knives in her hand. “They were making a racket,” he explained. “And trying to hit folks up for protection money. When one of them came up to me and tried to put his hands on me, I laid him out. Swiped the other one’s gun and made him back off.”

Jen looked at his left hand, which had bruises on his knuckles. “And where’s that gun now?”

He shrugged. “Pawned it. I don’t like guns.” She eyed him again, and he said defensively, “Look, I got out of Viper the day after Gail Courtry died, and the city was a war zone before that happened with the gang wars goin’ on. I had nightmares with gunfire in them for a couple years afterward. Last thing I want is to bring that back in my life.”

Alia emerged from the chicken with a deep pan, filled with pasta, drenched in a creamy sauce with chicken, bacon, cherry tomatoes, and cooked spinach. Elly was given a cup with dry cereal, which she alternately munched on or threw around. Everyone sat down and started serving themselves. “So how’s the infamous Jenna Cide meet a single mother in Altrega Beach?” Baz asked.

There was a pause before said single mother spoke up. “I do tailoring work,” Alia explained. “Mending and sewing, some crafting. Made some nice side money for a while, but I haven’t had a chance to do as much since Elly was born.”

“I had this hooded cape thing I was gonna wear to one of my gigs,” Jen picked up the thread, “but it tore on some of the spikes. I needed a patch job, like pronto, and I heard from a friend of a friend about Alia. And so.” She gave a thumbs-up. “Got someone who doesn’t bat an eye at the weird things I want her to make for my stage get-ups.”

“You meet all sorts in Albrook,” Baz chuckled.

Dinner was generally pretty calm after that. Jen eventually cooled her attitude toward Baz, and they shared stories about music and movies they enjoyed. They told jokes and continually checked their language in front of Elly, especially when Baz recounted some irate customers he’d had to call from his job.

Soon, the meal was over, and Alia’s guests had to take their leave. Jen had to meet up with the rest of her band, and Baz had to get up early to try to job hunt. “The last thing I want is to be stuck doing telemarketing the rest of my life.” Alia and a sleepy Elly had bid them farewell, and so Jen and Baz were left standing in the hallway. Jen’s friendly demeanor immediately chilled as she gave him another look.

“What now?” he asked her.

“What’s your angle here, laughing boy?” she demanded.

Baz blinked a bit. “What? You think I’m interested in–” he gestured from himself to Alia’s door. When Jen just cocked her eyebrow at him, he shook his head. “Let me reassure you by saying I’m not looking for a relationship right now, and furthermore, Alia’s not my type. She’s a nice woman, clearly down on her luck, but I don’t think she needs the complication of a relationship right now either. Friendship? Sure, we’re neighbors, it’s the right thing to do. But me hooking up with her?” Again, a shake of the head. “Not happening, or at least, not for the foreseeable future.”

Jen tapped her foot on the floor a bit as she considered his words, then nodded. “All right. You might just be genuine. But if you do anything to hurt her, laughing boy,” she pointed a finger threateningly, “you’ll only ever be able to sing soprano.”

“Noted,” he said agreeably. “And you’ll use my skull as a prop on stage?”

Jen just pointed her finger again, then nodded goodbye before she turned and walked off down the hall.


#5

“Say, Jimmy?” The net-crawler looked up from his textbook as Nadine approached. A shaggy-haired man with a downcast expression followed in her wake. “I have a client here. Mr. Dahler was working his case, but he told me to talk to you about it?”

Jimmy rose from his seat, setting the book aside. “Okay? I work a lot of cases for him, your name sir?” He offered his hand out to the client.

“Bobby,” he replied, shaking it. “Bobby Caldwell.”

There was a moment’s pause as Jimmy clearly shuffled through his thoughts for a moment. “Caldwell-- oh! Right, the SWO.” He realized he was still shaking the man’s hand and released it. “Apologies, sir! Jimmy Calavera. And apologies again, SWO is just our in-office acronym for your kind of case, where a spouse walks out on the other.” He gestured. “Please, take a seat, I’ll have to pull your case out of my records here.”

Caldwell sat down heavily. His clothing matched the man’s expression, drab, almost seeming to sag off his awkward frame. As he sat back, he dug into a pocket to pull out a pack of cigarettes. Jimmy glanced up. “Oh, apologies, sir, but you can’t smoke in here. Mr. Upakovka is very sensitive to that sort of thing.” Caldwell scowled for a moment, but shoved the pack back in his pocket. With a few more keystrokes, Jimmy had what he was looking for. “Okay! So, apologies, sir, this might be prying, so you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but may I ask why you’re looking for your wife, Mr. Caldwell?” His voice was bland, forthright, but he spoke in an oddly clipped way.

“Well, she’s my wife,” he said, a little defensively. “And she up and walked out on me, along with my 18-month-old daughter Eleanor.” He scratched at his unshaven jaw and added, “I got rights. She can’t take my daughter away from me.”

Jimmy adjusted his glasses as he considered his responses and settled for, “Well, I can’t really speak with real authority on this, but if she does file for divorce, chances are good that the judges will give her custody over you.” He considered the information on his screen. “I see you’re currently between jobs, Mr. Caldwell?”

He grunted. “Not by choice. I worked down in the AH as a longshoreman, but there was an accident and I fucked up my back.” Caldwell grimaced and adjusted his sitting position. “They put me behind a desk while I was going through rehab, but I… I got a drinking problem. Lost my job six months ago. I don’t got a lotta office experience, and a laborer who can’t do labor can’t get hired.”

Jimmy nodded sympathetically. “I know the feeling. I was lucky to get this job, only got it via a reference from one of my professors at the university. I know there are plenty of people struggling to find jobs in town right now. But that’s one of the issues you might face if your wife files for divorce. Unemployed, with a history of substance abuse issues… there aren’t many judges that’ll take your side in a custody battle.”

Caldwell scowled. “I didn’t come here for legal advice,” he snapped. “I came here because you people said you could find my wife so I can get my daughter back.”

The net-crawler nodded. “Right. Of course. Apologies, sir. I was just… never mind.” He clicked on his computer and said, “Well, your wife Alia was hard to track down. She doesn’t have much in the way of a social media presence, just an image blog where she posts pictures of the costumes and sewing she does, and the contact info is only a phone number, which she’s changed several times. I did a quick check, and all those phone numbers were to disposable pre-paid phones.”

“No shit,” Caldwell’s tone was acidic. “I know about her fucking blog. I try to call her from the phone number on that, and she tries to block me calling!”

Jimmy pushed his glasses up and blinked briefly behind the lenses at him. Caldwell suspected the twerp was one of them autists or whatever from the way he talked and stared at him. “No need for the swearing, Mr. Caldwell. I was explaining that because of that lack of presence, and the fact that she’s altered what she has online to prevent you tracking her down by your own means, made it harder to find her. My research is incomplete, but I did, today, find out what she’s been doing to get a paycheck, since her last blog post said that she’s taking a hiatus from her sewing and crafting.”

Caldwell leaned forward. “And what’s that? She takin’ up whoring? She exposing my daughter to that?”

Jimmy frowned at him. “What? No. My research points to her having moved to Altrega Beach–”

“What!? She took my daughter into that hellhole!?”

Jimmy frowned again, but ignored this outburst. “It gets harder to track her credit cards down there, since so many places operate on a cash-only basis. But, some careful work on my part points to her having taken up a job as a bartender-- still trainee status-- down in that neighborhood. I’ve seen a number of cash deposits made to a new bank account she set up, frequently made from a bank a couple of blocks away from her new place of employment.”

Caldwell grabbed for Jimmy’s computer monitor, to try to turn it toward him. “Where? Where’s the bitch hiding?”

Jimmy pointedly yanked it back to face him, giving him a stern look. “Give me a minute, Mr. Caldwell, and I’ll give you a print-out. My report’s incomplete, mind you, so–”

“That’ll do, I can take it from there,” Caldwell insisted. “I got nothin’ but time.”

Jimmy nodded and printed out a brief report, pulling it from the tray. “In that case, I’ll ask you stop with Nadine on the way out and pay the balance of your invoice on your case. Good luck, Mr. Caldwell, and be careful. Altrega Beach is home to some dangerous people.”

“Not as dangerous as me.” Caldwell snatched the paper from him, glaring at it. “Altrega Beach, huh? Thanks.”

Jimmy watched him go and called out as he headed into the foyer, “Goodbye, Mr. Caldwell.” He pulled his textbook back over, and resumed his studies.


#6

Bobby Caldwell was not in a great mood as he walked from the nearest train station into Altrega Beach. He wanted to take a cab, but there weren’t many cabbies willing to drive into the Slum of Slums, and the unlicensed ones were as likely to rob you blind once they got you into a dark alley somewhere in the slum. While his back was nowhere near as bad off as he’d suggested to the four-eyed twerp at Volk Investigations, it still wasn’t happy that he was standing for long periods, much less walking around.

It was only after he’d walked a few blocks into the slums that Caldwell realized that he hadn’t bothered to check where the bar was. He glared at the report he’d gotten from the twerp. No address? Gods damn it, how the hell was he supposed to find the damn place? There was a business card stapled at the top with the extension for the twerp’s phone. He stabbed the numbers into his own and tried to ignore his aching back.

Finally, the line picked up. “Volk Investigations, Jimmy Calavera speaking.”

Caldwell’s frustration boiled over a bit. “You didn’t include the address for the bar, you little shit!”

There was a pause, and he could picture the twerp pushing his glasses up again. “Oh, Mr. Caldwell, is it? Apologies, sir, but I did tell you my report was incomplete. You insisted you ‘could take it from here.’ And, if I recall, you said you have ‘nothing but time.’”

“Well, I don’t like wasting it,” he growled. “Get me that address!”

“Apologies, sir,” Jimmy repeated, “but you have already concluded your account with us. Your case is closed. If you want to make use of our services again, you’ll need to re-open your case, and there is a fee for that.”

“Fine,” he spat. “I’ll pay it, now give me the–”

“Apologies, sir,” the voice was still level and calm, “but fees must be paid up-front, and you have to meet with us in-person. There are forms to fill out as well.”

Caldwell was choking with anger by this point, and Jimmy concluded, “And I can infer from your tone of voice that you’ve already gone down to Altrega Beach. By the time you could make it back to our offices, we’ll have closed for the day.” More incoherent noises from Caldwell sputtered down the phone. “I would recommend going back home, Mr. Caldwell, and get a good night’s rest. It would do you a world of good. Have a nice day, Mr. Caldwell. Goodbye.”

The phone’s case creaked in Caldwell’s hand as he screamed in fury at the now-silent phone, and he threw it on the ground, shattering it and sending plastic and electronic components scattering. A few denizens looked around, but seeing an angry man spitting and sputtering with rage, they kept their distance. His back spasms weren’t helping his mood as he glowered around the slums. He spotted a bodega and stormed in that direction. Some aspirin would help his mood. Barring that, a bottle of alcohol.

He went through the aisles and found the stuff he needed. He considered getting booze as well, staring at the ones on offer on the shelves, but then he heard something. There was some chattering by the registers, the babbling of a young child. Then a voice he would always remember saying, “Come on, Elly, time to go!”

By the time he made it to the front, she was already out the door, pushing a stroller with one hand while carrying a sack of groceries with the other. She didn’t see him as she moved out of sight. Caldwell watched her go, then shoved aside the goblin stepping up to the counter. “I’m in a hurry,” he growled, shoving his money at the clerk, who decided against being a stickler. Bobby Caldwell looked about to explode, and the worker wanted him gone. He grabbed his change, dry-swallowed three pills and lurched out of the shop.

He saw her rounding a corner ahead of him, but the aspirin wasn’t fast-acting stuff, so he was forced into a slow jog rather than the sprint he wanted. As a result, by the time he got to the corner, she was already entering the Bridgeview ahead of him. And by the time he reached the building, the elevator was already on its way up, stopping on the 6th floor. As luck would have it, the other elevator was opening. He shoved a short, dark-haired man out of the way as he got in and jabbed the button for the 6th floor. The short man was glaring at him, but Caldwell gave him a rude gesture as the doors shut.

When the doors opened again, he emerged into the hallway and he could see Alia pausing in the turn of the hall to adjust her grip on the groceries, shifting them to her other arm. “Alia!” She looked up to see him, and the blood drained from her face. “Alia! Give me back my daughter!”

She gave a scream when he lunged after her, hurtling down the hall to her apartment, scrambling to open her door and then bustle herself and a now-crying Elly into the room. He made it to the door just in time to hear the deadbolt shoot home. He hit the door with his shoulder and then his fist. “Open the fucking door, Alia!”


#7

Jen Bradley was coming to the Bridgeview to check in on Alia again when she spotted a familiar figure jogging up the street in a gray ball cap. They stopped outside the building as they saw one another. “Baz,” she offered.

“Jenna,” he nodded back to her. A backpack was slung over his shoulder. When she looked at it, he shrugged. “Reading material. Books on law, taxes, stuff like that.” Off her reaction, he shrugged again. “Told you. Don’t wanna be stuck as a telemarketer the rest of my life. Expanding my skill base, and all that.”

She nodded. “Stopping in to check on Alia and Elly. You talked to them since the other night?”

“Only nodding hello as we pass each other in the halls,” he admitted. “I don’t think our schedules overlap that much.”

They stepped out of the way as a burly man shoved open the door of the Bridgeview, then bodily hurled a shaggy-haired man out into the street. Between them, a shorter man emerged, pointing a finger at the ejected wretch. “Don’t ever show your face around here again, fucking pissant.” He looked up at Jen and Baz, giving them a look as if daring them to comment. But when they did nothing, he just nodded and left back into the building with his muscle.

Jen nodded after him. “Who was that?”

“Landlord,” Baz said. “Sure, he barely keeps the building together, and he doesn’t usually care what goes on between tenants, so this guy must’ve done something to piss him off.”

But Jen was looking down at the wretch, who was painfully turning over. She recognized him. “Holy shit. Alia!” She turned and ran into the building. Baz looked briefly at the bleary Bobby Caldwell from under the brim of his ball cap, then followed her. She wasn’t bothering with the elevator, instead sprinting up the six flights of stairs. Baz was moving a little slower, but by the time he got there, Jen was already in Alia’s apartment.

The door was knocked askance on its hinges, and a brief look showed the drywall around the frame cracked from the force of Bobby Caldwell’s heavy blows. They found Alia huddled in the far corner of the bedroom, clutching Elly tightly, waving a kitchen knife defensively in front of her. When she saw Jen and Baz, however, she dropped the knife with relief, sobbing. “He found me, Jen. Bobby knows where I am.”

It took some time for Alia to calm down, but Jen helped by pouring her a stiff drink and having her lie down, reassuring her that she’d look after Elly. She sat with Baz in the dining area, rocking the sniffling child in her arms. “Alia never really talked about what went on between her and Bobby when I first met her a year ago. I mean, to look at them, they were a happy couple. He made enough money down in the AH to put a roof over their heads, and she made some on the side with her sewing and what-all.” She sighed. “But there were times I suspected that he was not the nice guy he pretended to be. It wasn’t until summer came along after I met them that I twigged what had made me suspicious.”

She looked up at Baz. “Alia never wears short sleeves, have you noticed?” When Baz shrugged, she nodded. “Right. You’ve only known her, what, a week? And it’s colder out, so you wouldn’t have seen it. Well, maybe she’ll show you when she comes back out.” Jen sighed. “Bobby was a real piece of work. I’m no psychologist, so I couldn’t explain why he did the things he did to her, or why she stayed with him throughout it all. Maybe it’s traumatic bonding or something. I read that online somewhere. In any case, it wasn’t until I told her she needed to get out-- especially since there was no guarantee that Bobby wouldn’t turn his attention to Elly.”

Baz had started drumming his fingers on the table, and the look in his eyes was not a pleasant one. “Police?” he finally asked.

Jen just scoffed at that. “In Albrook? With all the shh–” she glanced at Elly, “–shameful stuff that goes on all over the city, they wouldn’t bother with a ‘domestic dispute.’ They’d tell them to hire a lawyer and work it out themselves, 'cuz that’s a civil matter, not a criminal one. Never mind him sending her to hospital once with a sprained wrist and almost tearing a ligament.” She blinked hard and sighed again. “She wouldn’t let me deal with him, 'cuz me and the rest of the band would’ve strung him up and used him as the effigy in our shows, set him on fire and then piss on his ashes–”

She stopped herself and blew out a breath, clearly trying not to get wound up. “Sorry. I have bad memories of my own. My dad was a real piece of work, too, and Mum wasn’t much better. I got out soon as I could get the money together. Wade, our drummer, he and his family took me in until I could land on my feet. I offered to give Alia shelter-- all of us did-- but she wouldn’t hear it. She wanted to stand on her own two feet, when she finally got the guts to leave him.”

Baz was aware of the ache in his fingers as his drumming got harder, and he clenched his bruised fist tighter. He took a breath of his own and he nodded tightly. “Well, the landlord’s banned him. He gets caught in here again, landlord’ll do worse than burn him alive. That gives Alia a safe space.”

“She can’t stay cooped up all the time,” she pointed out. “Bobby’ll just find her when she goes out to get groceries or to go to work. He doesn’t really see her as a person, but as something that belongs to him. Elly too. He doesn’t like it when his things get ideas of their own.”

He stood and made a face. “I knew that kinda b.s. too. Guy who supposedly took care of me back in Viper? Real piece of work, as you’d say. Real piece of work. Smacked me around a few times, and he just laughed about it. Had his cronies smack me around, too.” He paused. “Nothing as bad as what you or Alia went through, but… same ballpark, yeah?”

Alia emerged from the bedroom. She had a tired look on her face, but her eyes were fierce as she glared at Baz. “Does this look like the same ballpark?” She pulled one of her sleeves back, and he sucked in a breath through his teeth. All the way up her arm, there were burn marks, small circular ones. Baz didn’t have to ask to know how she’d gotten them. He looked up at her, then looked away.

He looked out the window for a moment, then turned back to them both. “I… have stuff I need to do. It’s important.” He tossed Jen a set of keys. “Alia, you, Jen, and Elly can stay in my flat tonight, if you don’t feel safe in here. I’ll knock the beat to ‘Firesong’ when I get back, okay?” he added, mentioning the name of one of the Howling Wraiths’ more well-known tracks.

“Where are you going?” Jen asked as he turned to go.

“I think I know where the bastard might be going.”

He was at the door when Alia shouted, “STOP!” She hesitated as he turned back to her, but then she drew herself up and said, “I don’t want you getting into any trouble on my behalf. I don’t even want the prick dead. So don’t go looking to kill him.”

“Don’t worry,” he assured her. “Nobody’s gonna die tonight.”


#8

Bobby Caldwell had peeled himself off the pavement, but attempts at returning to the Bridgeview had been met by the landlord’s muscle waiting for him in the lobby. He beat a hasty retreat, and instead stalked around the block for a while. By offering a cigarette to a refugee sitting under a cardboard lean-to, Caldwell had gotten directions to the nearest bar. He needed the extra painkilling effect of alcohol to ease the ache in his back. But even the closest one took him some time to reach, since he had to stop periodically to wait for his back to stop hurting. Thankfully, by the time he reached the bar, the aspirin had finally kicked in.

There weren’t bouncers for the Hanged Man. If you weren’t tough enough to survive the fight you started, the regulars would sort you out and scrape what was left off the floor and dump you outside. So no one gave the angry-looking wretch a second glance as he stormed up to the counter and demanded a shot of whiskey. He’d knocked it back and was getting his second one when a couple of burly sorts flanked him on either side.

“Fuck sake,” Caldwell groaned. “Can I get a fucking break today?” He glared at the two. “What do you want?”

“You’re an angry man, aren’t you?” This came from a nondescript man behind the brutes. He stepped forward. “You can call me Tyler. I have an outlet for your aggression, if you’d like. As a one-off bonus, I’ll even waive our usual entrance fee.”

“What is this?” he growled at Tyler. “Some kinda scam?”

“It’s a fight club,” the organizer replied. “I’ve got a guy you can face. Looks about your size, you could take him.”

Caldwell considered this. If his back weren’t giving him problems, he’d absolutely take up Mr. Tyler’s offer. But between his back spasms, and the bruises he’d gotten from the Bridgeview landlord’s muscle, he wasn’t feeling very up to it. So he let Tyler know with gentle tact and diplomacy. “Go fuck yourself.”

He turned back to the bar, but Tyler’s muscle grabbed him under each arm and hauled him off of his feet. “You misunderstand,” Tyler said. “I wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”

Caldwell wasn’t silent as he was dragged down the stairs into the Gallows. A rowdy crowd was clamoring and shouting as a fight was concluding in the cage. Tyler and his goons deposited him by one door to the cage as two more goons dragged out the fight’s loser and threw some sawdust on the sticky floor of the cage. “Look,” Tyler said, “you’ll get paid for this.” He held up a small brick of bills. “Thanks to some associates, this is being offered as the basic purse for participating in this fight.” He waved it in front of Caldwell, who nodded warily. Tyler put it away, then produced a much, much thicker brick. “And this is the basic take if you win. You’ll get a cut of the betting profits, too. So relax, you’ll get something out of this.”

Unhappily, Caldwell nodded. “Fine. Not like I got a choice, yeah?”

“That’s the spirit,” Tyler said. “What’s your name? Where you from?” He told him. Tyler wrote this on a card and handed it to one of the goons, who handed it to the barker, a loudmouth in a sparkly jacket and top hat. Caldwell started to climb into the cage, but Tyler added, “Shoes off. Shirt, too. House rules. But once you’re in the cage, it’s all legal.”

Caldwell stepped out of his shoes and threw his shirt on the floor, emptying out his pockets of his wallet, cigarettes and lighter as he looked across the cage. His opponent had his back to him and was limbering up with general ease. He was already sans shoes and shirt, but still had on a watchcap.

“ALLLLLL RRRRRRRIGHT!” the barker shouted out. “Next fight! This fight is being brought to us by our fine associates at Carthage!” This got a whoop from the crowd. The barker twisted one end of his waxed mustache and grinned. “First, making his debut down here in the Gallows, from the Harborside, ladies and gentlemen and other assorted gender assignations, this is Bobby CALLLLLDWELLLLL!”

Caldwell just glared sullenly around the cage at the jeering crowd. With his shirt off, the scars of his accident were evident on his back. He gave the crowd a rude gesture, then turned to look at his opponent, who still hadn’t turned around. The barker cleared his throat. “ANNNNNND! His opponent, the lean, the mean bone-brrrrreaker from the streets of Olivawk, this! Is! JAAAAACK MAAARRRRROOOOOW!”

At last, the other man in the cage turned around. He pulled the watchcap off his head and ran his hand back across his close-shaven scalp, then smoothed down the bandage across his nose. But Caldwell had little more chance to get a look at Jack Marrow, as the man started circling him at speed, hands rising and lowering in front of him, as if looking for an angle for a grapple. Caldwell had to turn in a circle of his own to keep the man in view, grimacing at the pain in his back.

“Somethin’ the matter, asshole?” Jack asked him as he made a couple of jabs, which Caldwell hastily blocked. “You look distracted.”

“I got shit on my mind, okay?” Caldwell made a couple of feints of his own, to which Jack just leaned out of the way. Then the other man lunged in and grappled with him, arms locking around his head. Caldwell tried to force him off, then tried to deliver some body shots, only for Jack to just turn his body so his fists slid off with little more than glancing blows.

“What is it?” Jack inquired. “Problems at work?” When Caldwell just growled and tried to force his arms off of him, Jack smirked a bit. “Aw, domestic troubles, is that it?”

“Fuck you!” Caldwell bodily shoved Jack into the side of the cage, jostling him loose, then delivered an uppercut into the jaw. He managed to put enough force into it that Jack hit the cage again, then stumbled on top of Caldwell’s personal effects. The ex-longshoreman tried to stomp down on him, but the Olivawkian rolled aside, then bounced back to his feet, none the worse for wear.

To everyone’s astonishment, Jack had come up with a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. “Hey!” Caldwell snapped. “Those are mine!” Jack just smirked at him and lit up a cigarette, which dangled from his lips as he tauntingly held the pack and lighter out for him. Caldwell lunged, but with a flick of the wrist, both went sailing up and over the cage wall, landing in the crowd, which gave a roar. Caldwell looked around and saw the barker, who just grinned impishly and sang out, “It’s all LEEEGALLLL!” prompting another roar from the crowd.

Glaring, Caldwell made a number of wild swings, but Jack ducked and weaved, evading all of them with barely any effort. He jabbed out a few times, and Caldwell felt his teeth rattle as the blows caught him on the cheekbone and split his lip, and then an open-handed slap on the side of the head made his ears ring. Jack blew some smoke and then ducked under another lunge, but this time ducked his head and jammed it into the shaggy-haired man’s sternum. As he recoiled, Jack rose up, hitting a cross-armed thrust into the collarbone and throat, sending him staggering back against the cage wall.

Bobby Caldwell tried to make sense of what was happening. He hadn’t wanted this fight, even the organizer’s promise of monetary reward for participating wasn’t going to make this worth it. But his rage at the humiliating beating he got at the Bridgeview, along with his being press-ganged into this cage, plus the way Jack Marrow seemed to be toying with him… all this rage was occluding his rationality. Adrenaline was finally kicking in along with the shots of whiskey and the aspirin, and the pain was fading as the fog of fury descended.

This meant that Caldwell exploded off the cage wall and suddenly had Jack playing more defensively as he made short jabs, but kept the distance short, preventing the more experienced fighter from getting too far away. A feint of a hook and Jack was ducking, which is when Caldwell cracked him in the jaw with a knee. The cigarette fell, but even as he stumbled, Marrow caught it with his other hand. The furious man tried to close the gap again while his foe was distracted, but Jack spun aside and delivered a spanking kick into the backside, sending Caldwell sprawling onto Marrow’s effects. As he did so, Jack did a dance step and posed with a snap of his fingers. “Olé!” he called out, getting another roar from the crowd in the Gallows.

Then he turned as Caldwell hurled his own shirt into his face. Momentarily blinded, this was all Caldwell needed to grab one of Marrow’s shoes and smash him across the side of the head with it, knocking him over. When the crowd reacted with a jeer, Caldwell sneered at them, glaring at the barker and shouting out, “It’s all LEGAL!”

He swung the shoe down at Marrow, who had thrown the shirt aside, but the other man knocked it aside and rolled away, getting back to his feet. He still had the cigarette in his hand. Caldwell tried to stomp down, but this time Marrow grabbed his foot and kicked out his other leg, sending him toppling onto his back. He let out a shout of pain, but then Marrow was standing up, still holding onto his foot. The Olivawkian looked down at him as he put the cigarette back between his lips, then braced his foot on Caldwell’s other knee. Then, without another word, he wrapped his arms around the foot he held and wrenched the leg sharply to one side.

The sound of Caldwell’s knee snapping was almost drowned out by the screams of pain. But despite the brutality of the act, the Gallows thrummed with the roar of the crowd. Marrow dropped Caldwell’s leg, and took a moment to puff on the cigarette as he stalked after the crawling wretch. He sucked in air as he held up his hand beseechingly. “W-wait–” But Marrow just grabbed his wrist and twisted it, yanking him over and turning him onto his belly. Then the Olivawkian braced his foot against Caldwell’s shoulder and pulled back on the arm.

Another horrific popping sound. Another scream. Another approving roar from the crowd. Caldwell was sobbing in agony as Marrow dropped his arm, looking up at him. “Pl-please–” but he got no further before the heel of Marrow’s foot connected with his eye socket, then lifted before stomping into his cheek.

“You don’t get to surrender yet,” Jack Marrow said simply. He stomped down a few more times on Caldwell’s head, until blood was freely flowing from his broken nose and torn lips. Then he bent down, wiping blood from the man’s forehead before extinguishing the cigarette right in the center.

“NOW you can give up.” Marrow rose, wiping blood off on his pants, then walked over to his discarded shirt. He started to put it on as the barker announced him as the winner. The crowd parted to let him by, over to a bench, where he sat down to put his shoes back on.

As he did so, Tyler came by, tossing him the paper sack with his winnings. Before he could go, Marrow took out a roll of bills from the sack and tossed it back. “Get him to the hospital,” he said. “Don’t just dump him out.” Tyler looked about to argue, but then the Brothers Antilles walked up. With a nod, the Gallows organizer departed.

“Fine work,” Marcus Antilles remarked, nodding to the cage. He paused a moment, then said, “I’d put some ice on that eye, if I were you. Looks like he got you good with that shoe there.” When Marrow just nodded, he went on, “I’ll admit, when you approached us about arranging this … show for us, I had many questions, but…” He glanced at his brother.

“But I think these don’t matter,” Titus Antilles concluded. “We saw to it that Mr. Caldwell there was brought down to the Gallows, thanks to a quiet word with Mr. Tyler, and you performed magnificently.”

Jack Marrow nodded as he finished lacing up his shoes, tugging on his watchcap. “Sure. And the next time you need a fighter at Carthage, you got one.” He shook their hands and started to leave.

“May I ask, Mr. Marrow,” Marcus stopped him. “Why him? Why that poor bastard?”

“I have my reasons,” was all that Marrow would say before he left through the still-shouting crowd.


#9

Jen Bradley was sitting on the couch in Baz Bashka’s apartment. There wasn’t a whole lot in the way of decor or anything. Then again, most of the Bridgeview was that way. Decorations were liable to get stolen. There was a cheap TV mounted on the wall and some basic furniture. A bookshelf sat in one corner, with a variety of volumes on various subjects, plus some cheap novels. While Alia and Elly slept in the bedroom, the punk had taken the chance to look around. But there wasn’t much else there. The cupboards had basic foodstuffs in them.

She was watching The Week in Mockery, snickering at the skewering of current events by the comedian panelists when the knocks came on the door. Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat-tat-TAT. She got up and checked the peephole, then opened the door to let Baz in. “About time you got back,” she said. “It’s been hours!”

“Took me a while to find him,” Baz replied, setting his bag down by the door. He kept his ball cap on as he walked over to the fridge and took out a bottle of J. Koch. He offered it to Jen, who declined. He shrugged, using the edge of his counter to pop the cap off the beer and took a long swig. “But I did. He won’t be bothering Alia anymore.”

She eyeballed him. “What, did you call the cops on him?”

He snorted. “What, the cops, do something in Altrega Beach? Please. One, it’s Altrega Beach. Two, like you said earlier, it’s a domestic thing.”

Jen regarded him for a moment, then peered more closely. “What happened to your eye?” She glowered now. “Did you get into a fight?”

He didn’t look at her as he took a swig of his beer. “Altrega Beach is a dangerous place, even for someone like me.”

“‘Someone like you?’” Jen rose from the couch, turning off the TV. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Baz didn’t look at her. “I have certain skills. You pick up a thing or two, the life I lead.”

“You’re not that old, laughing boy,” Jen pointed out. “You look like you should attend classes at the university. What kind of life could you have led, you’re not old enough to have led one yet!”

Baz glanced at her. “I’ve done some traveling. I learned some skills. Now I’m here. And by happenstance, I found myself in a situation where some of those skills could be put to use. For a positive outcome.”

Jen threw her hands up. “Fine! Don’t tell me, laughing boy. Be all mysterious and shit. I’ll find out eventually. I know people, I can find things out.” She pointed a finger at him. “But again, you hurt her–”

He raised his hands. “I know. Singin’ soprano.” He glanced at his bedroom. “Let 'em sleep. Landlord should probably get the door to her apartment fixed by tomorrow evening.” He stretched with a groan. “Sleeping in the arm chair’s gonna suck, but you can have the couch.”


#10

There was a lot of pain in Bobby Caldwell’s life when consciousness came back for him. One eye was swollen shut and his breath came in strained wheezes, but he could see his leg was immobilized, in a plaster cast. His arm, likewise. The beeping of hospital equipment went on quietly in the background. It was getting on into the evening, he could tell, and then he saw the shape sitting in the shadows of his dimly-lit room. He tried to speak, but his throat ached and all that came out was a croak.

“Evening, Bobby,” the figure said. “You been out since they scraped you off the mat inna Gallows last night.” It spoke with a coarse Pellanese accent.

Caldwell croaked again, and the figure nodded. “Yeah, 'course I know about it. I was there.” The figure finally leaned forward, and there was the face with the bandaged nose and the watchcap. “'Ullo again, Bobby,” Jack Marrow said with a grin. Then he tilted his head to one side. “Wossa matter? Oh, izzit the accent?” With that, he slipped into the more Tasnican accent he’d spoken with in the Gallows. “This better? I know it’s probably hard to concentrate too much right now, on account of all the painkillers they got you on right now.”

Caldwell’s functioning eye glared at him, and he wheezed as he tried to sit up, but sank back when the pain was too much. Marrow leaned his head to one side. “You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here, but I’m guessin’ you’d probably use saltier language than that.” He sat back in his chair, back into the shadows, pulling off his watchcap as he did. “Well, that’s where it gets complicated, Bobby.”

He took something out of his jacket and then leaned forward again. He peeled the bandage off of his nose and then put a familiar pair of glasses on. When he next spoke, it was in that bland, clipped way that Caldwell remembered. “You probably recognize me more like this, don’t you, Mr. Caldwell?” Jimmy Calavera said. When he saw the bewilderment in Caldwell’s expression, Jimmy nodded. “Yes, I thought you might.”

He sat back in the chair again, removing the glasses and putting them away. The coarse accent came back as he went on, “I’m a complicated man, Bobby. I ain’t gonna explain it to ya’s, but I got my reasons, leadin’ a few different lives like this. I s’pose one reason is, it’s an experiment, to see if I can pull it off. So far, I 'ave done. And the various part-time lives I lead, well, never the twain shall met, or 'owever that poem goes.” He pointed at Caldwell. “Until you came along, Bobby. There I am, mindin’ me own business at Volk Investigations, and whose name comes across my desk, but the name of your wife, 'oo 'appens to be one of my neighbors.”

The figure drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. “Now, if it were up to me, Bobby, I’d’ve just let the folks in the Gallows dump you out in the street and let you suffer and probably die without 'elp. But, well, yer wife asked me not to kill you. Mebbe I’m soft like that, 'cuz I listened to her.” He rose from the chair and leaned over Caldwell’s hospital bed, and the look in those dark green eyes was a nasty one. “But I will tell you this, Bobby-- if I ever find out you’ve so much as looked at your wife again, I’ll break your other leg. And gods forbid you ever try to 'urt her again, 'cuz they’ll 'ave to clean up what’s left of you with a sponge.”

The young man stood back and pulled a gray ball cap on, shouldering a backpack as he rose. “Goodbye, Bobby. If you’re smart, we’ll never see each other again.”


#11

It was not well known outside of Pell, or even outside of the neighborhood called Eldersden therein, but there was a tradition among the young men born there, in particular those young men born to the “Eldersden girls.” The girls were practitioners of that oldest profession, and however careful the girls were, they did occasionally give birth to children. Some of the girls went on with their jobs, others found less insalubrious work and raised their children. And their children grew up, as children do.

But these children were in a strange place, socially. Virtually every Eldersden girl abandoned whatever family name they might have carried, to avoid the stigma attaching itself to said family. They generally adopted an initial, which would become their new surname on the streets, like Sharon Kaye or Tessie Bravo. When their children were born, they would adopt the same surname while they were still young. Those that got out of Eldersden usually would adopt some other name for themselves.

Among the young men born to the Eldersden girls, this was especially true. It had started as a means by which to avoid the social stigma, but in time, the practice of “making your name” became a rite of passage for the Eldersden lads. One needed look no further than local legend Allan Seabairne to see how this worked. He had been born in Eldersden with the surname Sierra. He’d run with various gangs, but it wasn’t until he left the city to “make his name” by joining the merchant navy, during which time he was press-ganged onto a smuggler’s crew. When he returned to Pell, he was using the name Seabairne, and the rest is history.

The practice continues to this day. Not every Eldersden lad necessarily becomes as legendary as other Pellanese notables like Allan Seabairne or Mister Bones, and indeed, the majority of them end up as just another gang member, but “making your name” remains a major part of an Eldersden lad’s life.

The young man known variously as Baz Bashka, Jimmy Calavera, and Jack Marrow sat on the train the next day, wearing his gray ball cap, bookbag on his lap. He was tapping his foot to the beat of the music in his earbuds, re-listening to the Howling Wraiths’ album, A Thousand Screams. Nobody paid him a second thought, which was how he liked it.

His phone warbled, so he paused the song and flicked out his earbuds. He checked the screen and smiled faintly before answering. “'Ullo.”

“'Ow’s me favorite nephew?” came the familiar rough voice of his uncle.

“Classes’re goin’ well,” the young man on the train replied. “Interestin’ lookin’ at the law from the other side, as it were. And the jobs’re payin’ out too.”

“Yeah, 'bout that,” his uncle grumbled. “Wot’s this I ‘ear about you not stayin’ on campus? Livin’ out in the slums? You’re supposed ta be an ordin’ry uni student.”

The young man sighed. “Look, the sorta circles we move in, you gotta have connections. Ain’t gonna make no connections if’n I’m stayin’ on campus alla time. Intern work gets me the legal kindsa connections. Gettin’ down and dirty inna fight clubs and such gets me the other kind. I still make time to do some socializin’ stuff on campus, but it 'elps that I pass meself off as a slightly weird kid with possible autistic spectrum issues. No one thinks too much of it that I do me own thing.”

His uncle grunted. “Well, keep yer 'ead down, Sean. No need ta attract too much attention to yerself.”

“That’s not my name,” the young man formerly called Sean Kellington replied calmly. “And I’ve been keepin’ me 'ead down me whole life. I know 'ow to survive.”

“'Course you do,” his uncle chuckled. “Well, stay in touch, boy. Keep makin’ your name. And come 'ome for Raineremass.”

The young man bid farewell and stood up as his train arrived. He removed the ball cap and put on the black-rimmed glasses. He smoothed down his hair and adjusted his more respectable clothing, a Screaming Eagles shirt under a neat, unbuttoned overshirt. His bookbag was carried close to his body, and he adjusted his stance slightly. Where before there had stood a well-built young man with a confident air, there was now a somewhat awkward university student who didn’t always meet people’s gazes. He walked from the train station to the U of A campus, nodding to the occasional classmate who recognized him.

He walked into his Introduction to Law class, where Professor Dodgson looked up. “Morning, Jimmy.” Then the professor looked at him a little more closely. “What happened to your eye?”

“Slipped in the bathroom,” Jimmy Calavera replied, in the bland, oddly clipped tones of a young man carefully speaking to avoid some speech impediment. “I’m fine. It will go away in a day or two.”