Over a Barrel: Part 1

Author’s Note: Now that The Huntsmen is concluded, the next few weeks will be filled with short stories that fill in the time between longer arcs. They fit in with the overarching storylines and aren’t true stand-alones, but they’re a bit of play, some exploration, and general shenanigans.

PS: The following contains the views of Walter Raphael “Rafe” Greyson and does not reflect the policy, position, moral, or hygienic standards of Storm and Ash, its author, editors, or any of its support staff. Methods described herein may be unethical, illegal, or simply unwise, and we accept no liability for those who chose to act on any information this post contains. Failure to ignore this warning may result in lawsuit, arrest, prosecution, possession, sexually transmitted infections, fleas, excessive daemonic interest, incursion of Anatolian or Phoenician deities, wrath of Loa, bad poetry, involuntary transmutation or transformation (arboreal, animal or otherwise), IRS/HMRC audit, injury, or death. 

I knew it was going to be a bad night when it opened with my mistress leaving me.

Not that either one of those points are technically true: Millie wasn’t my mistress in any conventional sense of the word. And, as I told myself, it wasn’t so much that she was leaving me as the King’s Head.

Family business not, for a change, demanding my presence elsewhere, I had gone down to my pub of choice for a pint and a meal. I’ve been known to wax poetic about the Head’s lamb stew (a dish deserving of a Herrick if ever there was one), but they also make these amazing little fried concoctions out of potatoes and cheese and chopped onion. I think the real trick is that they roll them in cornmeal before they…

Right. Sorry.

I had come in for a bit of supper, and occupied my usual booth, when Millie sat down next to me. I liked Millie quite a bit, and we had been, well, friendly for several months now.

“I was hoping I’d see you tonight,” she said.

“Were you then?”

She smiled at me then, and I knew what was coming. “I’m leaving tomorrow. Getting out of the business while I still can.”

I frowned. “It’s never been business between us, Millie.”

She smiled again, and patted my face. “Of course not, Rafe.”

“And besides, you’ve been out of the business a while now, haven’t you?”

She didn’t say anything to that. She just looked away from me, watching the crowd for a while.

My stomach dropped. I’m not a fool often, in spite of what you may have heard, but what I lack in frequency I more than make up for in magnitude. I had never offered her a penny, and she had never asked. I hadn’t wanted to cheapen her, or us.
She, like most women, had a nasty habit of wanting to eat. I took pride in saying no woman had ever been worse off for knowing me, and it was still true. But Millie was no better off, either.

“Where will you go, then?” I asked.

She shrugged. “My brother’s wife isn’t well. She doesn’t like me none, and I can’t say I’m fond of her either. But she’s family, and there’s four little ones to look after. I guess they think I’ll be earning my keep well enough now to take me on. It’s better than the street,” she said, sitting up straighter now, “and it can’t be any harder work than the late shift at this place.” She smiled up at me, and it lightened my heart a little. “But I will miss you.”

I was, uncharacteristically, at a loss for words, and the bartender was scowling at her now. “Off I go, then,” she said, rising. “I’m off at midnight, if you’re still around.”

If I’d had an ounce of sense I would have left then. I could have come back later, when Millie got done, or I could have let that be goodbye. She’d have understood. But my mood was gray now and headed towards black, so I stayed to have another drink.

Little did I know my problems hadn’t even begun.

It’s one of those ridiculous things to say, isn’t it, that I knew she was trouble when she walked in the door? The only women I usually see at the Head are the girls who work there in one capacity or another. We certainly never saw women of her class. She was tall and slender, with the kind of hairstyle you can only wear if you can afford to keep a maid specifically for the purpose. Her dress, a dark wine, silk number, was expensive, and her bag was heavy with jet beadwork. She was perhaps forty, but without a hint of gray in her dark brown hair.

But it was her demeanor that set off alarms. This was a woman used to power. And that was a type we didn’t see here at all. She paused briefly at the entrance to look around, until she spotted me. She met my eyes and held them as she walked the length of the bar. She moved with a sensuous sway to her step that reminded me of the snake charmers in the souks of Marrakesh.

She should have attracted me. I should have been absolutely fascinated. God knows she was my type. Until you got to the eyes.

“You’re Rafe,” she said. A statement, not a question. I just looked at her. She sat down across from me. “I need an object retrieved, and I hear you’re the man to do it.”

“I might be,” I said. The ground was dropping under my feet and my stomach was dropping even faster, and I was scrambling to right myself. “It all depends on the details.”

“It’s an easy job. Minimal security, and what warding there is I can give you a device to get past. It pays a hundred pounds, plus you can keep the ward-breaker.”

No. Oh, hell no. “Absolutely not.”

She raised a perfectly groomed eyebrow. “Why not?”

“I don’t steal from mages. It never pays.” And you’re paying too much, I thought. You want this too badly.

She smiled indulgently, and pulled off her black lace gloves. She made sure I saw the tattoo on her wrist.

Fuck me.

“You’ve got the reputation for being very good at what you do, Rafe,” she said. Her tone was a balance of conspiratorial and condescending, the governess who knows you put the frog in her bed and wants you to confess. “In fact, you’re suspiciously good. That kind of talent will attract attention. And I don’t think any of you want that.”

I was liking her less by the second. And if you’ll recall, I didn’t like her at all to begin with. “So it’s the whip in one hand and the velvet glove in the other? Not really my style, darling.”

“That’s not what I’ve heard,” she said, a cheshire cat grin on her lips.

Don’t ask. It’s not what it sounds like, I swear.

All right. Maybe it was. Let’s stay on subject, shall we?

“So do we have a deal?” she asked.

I don’t respond well to threats. But this bitch had managed to find the only one I couldn’t ignore. I didn’t know what kind of deal Casmin had running with the Brotherhood that kept Stephen out of their notice, but I was willing to bet it wasn’t a family package. I didn’t have an ounce of magic, so they shouldn’t have been able to touch me. Shouldn’t. But Willamina did, and if half the rumors about the Brotherhood were true they’d be willing to try anything to get what they wanted.

“Apparently,” I said.

And if I had my way, it was the last deal she’d ever cut.

“Good,” she said, and smiled with too much warmth. She pulled a small pouch out of her bag and handed it to me. “Set this on the door before you open it. The rest I’ll leave up to you, but the sooner the better. The flat should be empty tomorrow after nine; that’s when the owner always goes out. The item you’re retrieving is a statue of Isis, twelve inches tall. Unless I’m very much mistaken, you’ll find it on the bookshelf in the front parlor.”

Oh, fantastic. Not only was I robbing a mage, I was getting drawn into a lover’s quarrel. This kept getting better.

“Here’s the address you can deliver it to,” she said.

“And what name should I be asking for?”

She patted the back of my hand, and I fought not to recoil from her touch. “You can call me Emma.”

2 thoughts on “Over a Barrel: Part 1

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