Thursday, June 3, 2021

The Crimes of Jack Daw

Summary: This is a short story set in Solomon VK’s city-state of Saxherm, which my Weird Fiction City-State Generator helped play a part in conceptualizing. This is a tale of greed and reckoning. What part of you would win out if you lost your memories? Your conscience? Or your id?


Jack awoke to a blade of light across the eyes. He felt a mountain of weight upon his belly, and he glanced down onto the golden part of a head of hair that was laid upon his chest. He glanced out of the second-story pitching hole of the barn he slept in. The bounteous prairie was bathed in the morning dew. Jack crooked his neck away from a shoot of hay that was poking it and stretched his limbs with a quiver to shame a rattlesnake before remembering himself. 

“Dear, dear, the hospitality of you simple country folk,” he said, giving the young woman’s hair a sniff. She was sleeping deep, all swaddled in the salmon-colored dress which Jack had lifted up the night before after espying her making daisy crowns at the edge of her family’s property and approaching her for a lesson. He still wore his crown and planned to keep it, but he knew he’d have to lose his shirt, which she was gripping deeply by its wide-open lapel.

“I’m named for a bird but I’m more like a fish, my dear, of which your cat will attest,” he whispered, slipping himself with utter dexterity from his loose white shirt; guard, thug and farmgirl all had felt Jack Daw slip his shirt and alight from a trap half-sprung.

“A memento of our love, my dear; smell it well,” he whispered as he crouched, making a religious sign over her hand which grasped the shirt.

He lay on the boards and peeked out the barn’s pitching hole. A ruddy, big-bellied man with ham-hock hands and a submachine gun slung and bouncing from his body was stalking through the dewy grass to Jack’s abode in the barn. He wore trousers on suspenders, a sleeveless white shirt and a loose sash with crossed hoes and rifles. A Brother of the Armed Ploughmen! 

“Perhaps if I find a gun they’ll let me join them now, eh, my pear?” Jack whispered to the snoring farm girl.

Jack caught a whiff of bacon on the breeze from the large whitewashed farmhouse which the man had emerged from.

“Breakfast! I’m not so rude as to snuff the hostess’s cooking… I shall have to time this perfectly if I’m to be served.”

As soon as the big man disappeared around the corner of the barn, Jack leapt from the wooden sill, landing on the wet, cool grass below and immediately rolled over his side three or four times with the grace of an acrobat before springing to his feet with the momentum of his landing. Several years ago this would have greatly hurt his legs, but Jack was an old hand at such departures at this point. 

He raced through the open, sparing only a glance over his shoulder to be sure the hulking farmer hadn’t turned around. Jack dove through the parallel wooden planks that made up the farmhouse’s inner fence, more for fun than anything, and rushed to the kitchen door, making an eight-foot slide on his knees through the slick grass before coming to a halt against the whitewashed wall. Jack peered through the lace-lined door window and saw a large, well-appointed kitchen where a woman in a longsleeved black gown was peeling potatoes. He could hear sizzling from a pan inside: perfect cover. Jack opened the door with a single finger upon the brass handle.

“My dear, I shan’t deprive you of the hearty tubers of peonage, it’s that fatty ploughman’s share that my tummy agrees upon this morning…”

He slipped into the kitchen with more grace than a hunter and crept behind the woman like a daddy longlegs.

There was a thick loaf of fresh hardbread sitting on a wooden counter island in the center of the room and Jack took this, tearing it open down the middle but was careful not to rip it in two. He could smell the soft rich white bread within, and thought, “Oh, for rural prosperity!” 

He sidled beside a cast iron skillet that was frying bacon over a split log fire beneath a chimney. They were becoming crispy around pockets of creamy fat.

“Perfection! I cannot abide the thought of these burning…”

He picked up the pan with a dishrag and poured it, grease and all, into the guts of the bread he’d torn open for just this purpose. He glanced at the woman with a look of appreciation before noticing what lay by her knees: jugs of fresh mead in a cabinet below the countertop! Our simian patriarch is an apiarist! Jack exclaimed with inward admiration.

I shall have to violate my own code of good conduct and discretion for a jug of Mrs Rasher’s kneeside reserve! Forgive me, lady of the house, for startling you while you’re peeling potatoes!

Jack stood up, walked up behind her, and rumbled, “‘Scuse me dearie.” She moved to the side without looking up and Jack reached down and withdrew a hefty jug of mead from the lower shelf. It was wrapped in beeswaxed butcher paper with a great bee over crossed pitchfork and shotgun stamped upon it.

“Don’t you think it’s a little early-”

She glanced at him and went pale, her mouth forming a great dark O.

“Never for your cooking, my dear,” smiled Jack and sprinted from the kitchen.

There was a hoarse scream behind him as he blew through the door. He saw the beefy farmer by the barn dragging his daughter out in a headlock, holding the submachine gun in one hand.

“Unhand her, knave, and you may save your breakfast!” yelled Jack and then sprinted for the corner of the house. The farmer raised his submachine gun with one hand and opened fire, pockmarking his wall with bullets as Jack executed a perfect sliding turn and disappeared around the corner, sailing across the daisies with bread and mead jug underneath his arms like a thief of babies, making for the woodline wearing a grin of mad elation.

Jack stood at the edge of the woods gazing upon the rolling spires of Saxherm, city of the hills.

“Oh, my jewels, my crown of darkling jewels, how I yearn for you to suck me into your curves like a lusty mote on a goddess of birth!” 

He reached down and stretched, warm and happy after his morning calisthenics and the rich breakfast that had followed. He still had half a jug of mead and expected he could make it last until he cleared the city gates.

Whistling merrily, he set off and eventually found a path across the bread-soft rolling furrow-fields that he knew must lead to Saxherm. It wandered through tree tunnels hung with charms to ward off ill intent, little scrimshaw ingots and figures dedicated to the gods that protected the city’s laymen and farmers. Jack plucked these down as he walked and strung them into a broad necklace which he laid just above his shoulders. 

Jack strutted into the lowest quarter of Terracetunnel Hill like a plumeless peacock and gazed about him with deep satisfaction at the bustle of crowds and carts as they clattered over the cobblestones.

“I need a bankroll!” he declared roundly to the nearest passerbys, who wore a variety of foreign garb and domestic Saxherm professional iconography. They glanced at him uneasily and he gave them a winning smile. “You need a shirt,” one of them chided him. 

“I want a shirt,” he said to no one in particular.

Jack strolled down the street, charms clattering merrily from where he’d slung them. He leapt up and grabbed a hanging phlebotomist’s sign and pulled himself up onto the cast-iron crossbar which held it aloft, balancing like a gymnast and gazed around the street. People glanced up at him, some with annoyance, others with interest. 

He saw that one of the cross streets wound to a statue garden; perfect! Jack would find his way among the other patricians of this world who must be taking their ease in this bright, balmy morning!

Jack alighted from his post and whistled as he slipped his way through the workaday crowd. Sure enough, there in the square was a richly-appointed man on horseback; he wore a black coat hemmed in gold, white trousers and shining black riding boots that reached his thighs. He doffed a felt-covered pith helmet with a jaunty brim as he spoke with a smile to a pair of well-pedigreed ladies in pastel dresses and enormous hats who stood below with looping greyhounds on leather leashes. 

That gent would have some coin to spare! Jack ducked into an alley where a young bellhop in a tweed jacket and cap was having a smoke. Jack approached him.

“Spare a stick, prefect?”
The young man looked Jack up and down with contempt.
“Fuck outta here, jerkoff.”

Jack whipped a fist across the bellhop’s jaw, sending his cigarette spinning into the depths of the alley. Jack caught him by the lapels as he fell and laid him gently behind a little staircase that led up to one of the buildings. If anyone had seen the strike from the street, they weren’t making a fuss. Jack slipped off the boy’s tweed coat and donned it, picked up the hat from where it was laying on the stones and donned that too, went and got the cigarette and placed it in the young man’s snoring lips.

Jack swept off the hat and bowed. “Thank you for making that easier on me, old boy.”

He donned the hat again and made for the garden, walking between the statues, alternatingly ghoulish and gargoylish and cherubic, these being the quarter’s traditional spiritual overlords. They were hung with garlands, painted with harlequin makeup, and had roses tossed around their feet and such. Passerbies deviated through the garden on their way here and there, running their fingertips across stone horns, swords and tablets of law. 

The horseman was approaching the edge of the crowd now and was about to re-enter the street. Jack appraised him keenly. There! He had a seam in the heel of his boot, which was clad in the golden-framed furniture of a long rolling spur. This was a common way to secret funds for emergency bribery and the like. 

Jack sauntered up behind him and extended a hand. There was likely to be a latch in the front of the heel or some such. The man glanced down and then back, his eyes narrowing and darkening at Jack. Jack began rubbing the horse’s haunch.

“Such a beauty,” he smiled. The man withdrew his boot from its stirrup and launched a kick at Jack’s face, who ducked it with a momentary loosening of the knees and a smooth quickstep backwards.

“M’lord!”  said Jack, “‘Twas but a gesture of affection for this mighty beast!”

The man stepped down from the horse, his short black velvet cloak sliding from the rich, scrollworked leather saddle. He strode around the back of his horse, brushed by its tail, and drew a double-length straight-backed dagger with a wicked tang from a gold-trimmed lined scabbard. His cloak had patterns of gold coins stacked on scales woven into it; a marker of his profession, some kind of pure financier. 

Jack fell to his knees and said with breathy weakness,

“Sir! I am your humble servant! Your slave!”

People glanced at the scene, sucking their teeth or shaking their head, but nobody stopped.

“You like my horse, then, do you, worm?” the man growled.

“Y-yes milord, but it is you who I most fear and adore!”

“What shall we do about your impertinence, then? You are nothing, I am everything. You aren’t fit to shovel Seasong’s turds, urchin.”

The man laid the blade of his knife just below Jack’s ear like this was some kind of criminal knighting. People began to give them a wide berth.

“Sir, I am a worm. Please allow me to kiss your feet with all Saxherm as my witness, your serving man and footstool from now until the grave takes me from you!” 

“I don’t want your service,” he smiled, “but you may kiss my feet, knave.”

Jack placed his palms on the cobblestones and leaned his face near the man’s boots. People were stopping to watch, making quiet expressions of amusement, contempt or pity. 

Jack snapped his knees to his chest and grabbed the man’s spur in a single instantaneous motion, departing the cobblestones for a split second. He launched himself skyward with all his might, wrenching the man from the ground, tearing his trousers open at the crotch as he did so. The knife clattered on the cobblestones and the man grimaced redly as his helmet bounced off the ground. Holding the golden spur, Jack deftly stabbed a finger into the little latch that ran along the man’s heel which popped off instantly along with a fat gold coin that Jack slapped out of the air and into a pocket with one motion

“You-“ the man roared, but Jack cut him off with a wrenching of the ankle. The man screamed, and all the gaping faces around them gave an enormous wince. Jack leapt atop the saddle, kicked the horse in the ribs and yelled, “Yah!”

It took off sprinting through the crowd and people lurched out of the way. This was an unnecessary flourish, he probably could have walked away from the brutal scene with his just desserts, but Jack preferred the crowd’s gaping wonder to its tacit approval.

Jack arrived outside House Draper, an elite couturier serving Saxherm’s rich and famous. He dismounted the horse before it had stopped and wove its reins around a lamppost. He took off the coat after removing a pack of cigarettes and a few copper coins from the pocket and threw it in the gutter. Then he strode past the bay windows which were crisscrossed with wood and walked in through the front doors. He came to a stop on the broad wooden floor, taking in the scent of oiled leather and quality fabric.
An anxious tailor came over to him. The man was wearing an electric blue blazer, black slacks and a raspberry cravat. He bent slightly at the waist and asked Jack,
“Sir, may I start you with a shirt or shall I call the guards?”

“Yes, a shirt, but I’m actually picking up,” said Jack, “I ordered a sash a few days ago and it must be ready by now, mustn’t it? The name was Lord Candledish.”

“I shall check, sir,” the man said with a grimace and went to a locked cabinet underneath the windows. People passed blurrily by and Jack could see the brown smudge of his hijacked horse. 

The tailor unlocked a drawer, drew out a sheaf of receipts, and looked through them using a pair of lenses mounted on his nose.

“Hmm, yes, right here,” he glanced a Jon, “May I see your payment, Lord Candledish?”

Jack drew the thick gold coin with a flourish, whirling it through his fingers like a playing card.

“Ah! Yes, of course my lord, please forgive my manners!” said the tailor, giving a deep bow, “I shall retrieve your sash at once!” He unlocked an enormous arched armoire and drew out a long, black, silk and cashmere sash. It had images of lockpicks woven into it with silver thread, a tradition in Saxherm; the professional wears representations of the tools of his trade.

“And a shirt for the master?” asked the tailor.

“Mmm… something white with lots of ruffles.”

“Yes, my lord.” The tailor found a white shirt that was striped ever so subtly with thread-thin silver pinstripe and had loose ruffles around the cuffs and open collar. 

“That will do. Grace me with it, young man,” said Jack to the tailor who must have been twenty years his senior. The man slid it gracefully onto Jack, who tucked it into his snug black trousers, leaving the collar open and letting some excess fabric billow over his belt. Then he carefully draped the lockpick sash over Jack’s neck, and it came to rest about his shoulder and hip.

Jack sashayed to a spinning mirror that reached the ceiling.

“Hah! I look like a goddamned Starling pigeon! The irony.”

He drew out the coin and flipped it through the air to the tailor, who caught it with both hands cupped in the air and held it up briefly before bringing it to a strongbox chained to a countertop.

“I will bring you your change, sir.”

“No need, my boy. This will be the beginning of a long relationship between you and I. Buy a necklace for your lady or catamite. But I expect that you will entertain special requests in the future,” Jack gave the man a meaningful glance.
“Yes, of course, my lord,” said the tailor, bowing his head.
“I’m off!” Jack declared and strode into the street without another word, standing outside the shop with his hands on his hips, gazing up and down the street with immense pride. A man was looking through the window, and asked,

“You a locksmith?”

“The finest,” Jack grinned and breezed past him, mounting the horse and undoing the tether with a whip of the hand.

Jack rode through a long covered promenade that served as one of the city’s tacit black markets. Shops sat deep into the walls and the place was thronged with unsavory or desperate characters making deals which they ground out like they were clawing through brick with their fingernails.

Jon rode up to his favorite fence, a patrician hobbyist from the Vineforest principalities. The man was sitting in an enormous leaned-back armchair, had an onyx cane with a livid, ornate golden handle, and wore a sea captain’s cap. He was letting a handrolled cigarette languish at the end of a long cinnabar smoking stick; Jack smelled clove in his tobacco.

“I brought you this because I know how you love the races!” Jack called as he clopped through the murky thoroughfare.

The man grinned with the smoking stick clenched in his teeth.

“How hot is she?”

Jack stood up on the horse’s back like a circus boy.

“Hot as hell! This is as close to her as I can stand to be!”

“Any bodies on her?”

“None but my own, though I did toss a lord ass over teakettle in my haste to take a turn on her!”

“Alrighty,” said the fence, “I’m glad you didn’t cut the saddle loose, that thing’s worth more than you’d think. Take her to the stable on the Leopard Park side of the building and tell them Hermit sent you. I’ll count you out some silver, sound good?”

Jack bowed. It was a different name with each of this man’s associates.

“We go hand in hand into paradise.”

Jack sat in Bistro Chevalier, which was situated in the apex spike of a tower at the very highest cluster atop Terracetunnel Hill, some of the finest real estate in Saxherm. This place was frequented by the city’s rich and its gentleman thieves alike, who loved to hobknob and rub elbows, discussing grand heists and cons across the world. Jack was neither rich nor a gentleman thief, but he looked the part as he sat with his feet up on a voluminous cherry table, his boots rumpling the gleaming tablecloth as he smoked one of the earthy cigarettes he’d taken from the bellhop. This was not so incongruous for this place; thieves, footpads and highwaymen leaned, stretched and sprawled throughout the room, accompanied by adoring industrialists and real estate traders.
Jack ordered a stein of wine, a rack of lamb with mint sauce and chutney, a burbling chocolate fondue with apples and a fresh-baked boysenberry tart that had been filled with chilled cheesecake.

Jack cut slices of lamb as he watched the chocolate burble over the rim of its high saucer, spilling in ropes over the glossy skin of the apples below. He picked up the tart in his hand, held it to his nose and inhaled deeply and lustily.

A group of scarred, tattooed men in dark coats had been seated at the table adjacent to his. He recognized this crew; a new gang of dangerous thugs known as the Marlinspikes. Thieves’ guilds and street gangs were generally disallowed by the powers that be in Saxherm, who loved the enterprise and daring of the thieves but didn’t want any organized criminality in the city besides its ubiquitous black markets.

The fate of this fraternity was yet to be determined; they were led by a fearsome creature of nightmare, the brutal strongarm robber Ondrata Anaconda of Sarabande. This hulking, lumbering murderer was said to be unkillable; he had survived many street struggles and bore enormous scars that would have marked mortal wounds on normal men. He was absent now, which was a relief to Jack because Ondrata enjoyed brutalizing other criminals. This was considered a suicidal activity among normal thieves, the underworld being so prone to revenge murders, but Ondrata seemed to be immune to the harshest punishment.

The gang was speaking quietly and solemnly amongst themselves. Jack stopped moving and listened.

“What the Anaconda says goes, unless you feel like getting your head twisted off and used for a butt scrubber. Doesn’t matter if he’s superstitious; they sacrifice fucking kings and queens where he’s from. Humor him, ok? We’ll take more off this gig than we’ll ever miss from the donative.”

“No gig is sure, what I’m sayin. If this goes south we’ll be swingin in the wind. No cash for bribes or bail, nothing to get us smuggled out of town.”

“There’s always more cash. We’ll be fine. We’ll go to fuckin war in the streets if we have to.”

A third cut in.
“You know what I think he’s thinkin? Maybe he wants to make a donation, but maybe he wants to make sure we don’t have anything to fall back on so it’s do or die. Like generals who burn their ships so their boys can’t retreat.”

“Admirals are the ones who have ships, dumbass. Where’s this thing goin down?”

“We’re gonna have a ‘ritual’ at Sphinxmirror Shrine tonight at midnight. Priest’s gonna officiate. Then we bounce.”

“So we’re just gonna leave it there?”

“Yeah. And if you hold out your cut, you know Anaconda’s gonna pull your nasty ballsack off and smother you with it. Human sacrifice.”

“I get the picture. I’ll have my cash. Doesn’t mean I gotta like it.”

“So who won the chariot race?”

Jack’s heart was racing. This was every thief’s dream: robbing the donation vault of some rich temple. But this shrine wasn’t locked away somewhere. It was basically a wooden box in a back alley somewhere. These guys were on a heist and they’d decided to make a sacrifice first like a bandit tribe before the raid.
Jack needed that cash more than the Mirror Sphinx did. He was there.

Jack waited until two in the morning. He didn’t know how long this ritual would last and he couldn’t risk running into the Marlinspikes. The priest, well, Jack hoped he’d be reasonable about the situation.

Finally Jack came creeping through the shadows like a cat on the hunt. He peered over a rotten, broken-down settee and saw the shrine. It was deserted. He moved closer, edging against the walls.

The shrine was a large, yellow box with blood red trim. The side was open and it had a curtain hanging in front of a set of tin platters for incense. There was a mirror behind everything in the shrine. Jack stopped dead and his heart began to pound. There was a large pile of gold coins on a tiny wooden platform at the heart of the shrine. Jon would have to take this shirt off and use it as a satchel. No problem. He’d be wiping his bottom with these shirts now.

He crept forward to the shrine. He knelt. No lie! It was a pile of gold! He leapt up silently and began dancing a jig, careful to slide his feet without raising them.

“You at one with the Mirror Sphinx or something?” came a cynical drawl.

Jack leapt now, suddenly electrified with adrenaline. He whirled around on the alleyway and saw the Marlinspikes emerging from stoops and piles of trash.

Jack knew that this was very, very bad news, but for what it was worth, Ondrata Anaconda was not present. 

Jack said, “You want me to empty my pockets into the shrine, you just say so.”

“You got a horse in there?”

A thug in a ragged stevedore’s coat with nothing but a sauce-stained scarf beneath it stepped forward. He had stitchmarks and distorted tattoos across his chest and belly, and his shaggy, greasy black hair was bound atop his head with twine.

“No, but I can tell you where to find it,” Jack said carefully.

“The horse ain’t shit. What’s important in this town is peace of mind. You know why the Marlins ain’t gotten squeezed out yet, bird boy?”


“Cause we can give the high and mighty peace of mind. They call me Mastiff. Know why?”


“Cause I’m somebody’s attack dog. Ondrata. Lord Carver. Don’t matter. I know there’s a pecking order in this town and I know how to get right up near the top of it. But you, you, Jackie boy, you put your beak where it don’t belong.”

“So what’s next?” 

He shrugged.

“We spring the trap.”

The thugs advanced in on Jack. They seemed to form a wall of lean, hard, leather-clad bodies in the darkness. Jack grimaced and took a step backwards. He turned away from them and slid a hand into his pocket. When they were feet away he whipped his hand out and threw silver coins into their faces; he saw them bounce, shimmering in the wan moonlight. A few of the thugs winced and slowed, but the other half rushed into Jack, who was almost bowled over in the crash of bodies, legs and fists, smelling leather and rank, unwashed wool. He swung and caught one of them across his stubbly cheek, but then one of them slugged him in the gut. He felt like he’d been cut in half and took a step backwards. Another one punched him hard in the temple and he staggered to the side, nearly tripping on their feet. His momentum carried him into the shrine, which he leaned on for a split second. Hands fell on his shirt and tore him away from it, his fingers popping off its corner, and he felt blows being rained all over him. He tried to swing but they caught his arms; he was tasting blood. One of them body-slammed him and he fell sidelong; their boots rained into his body. It didn’t hurt; each impact was like a splash, a register of force

Jack fell onto his back as they stood over him for a moment, their bodies silhouetted against the bone-white clouds. Then one of them knelt over Jack, placed a hand on his chest, and hammered a knife into Jack’s eye. The blade cut through the bottom of his eye and eyelid and deep into his head, blasting a path through to just above his gums. Jack felt this; it was like receiving the mightiest punch that had ever been thrown. The man raised the knife out and dropped a perfunctory second blow through Jack’s cheek, which scraped across his molars and jabbed deep into the back of his mouth, and then a third blow into Jack’s neck, across the esophagus just above the collarbone.

Then the man stood up and wiped the knife on his own trousers. Jack could see who it was in the moonlight: Mastiff. 

One of the gang spat on him, then they gathered up their coins from the shrine and departed. One of them kicked Jack in the head on the way out but he barely felt it.

The cobblestones were strangely comfortable. Jack felt like he needed to stay right there on top of them no matter what. He felt incredibly weak, helpless and desperate.

Every time he tried to look anywhere except straight up he was wracked with agony, like he was worsening his wounds. He could breathe by holding the blood out of his windpipe with his tongue. He siphoned it up and it poured down his cheeks. 

Jack decided it would be easier to breathe if he rolled onto his side. With splitting agony and weakness in his neck, he pushed himself onto his side. His body was severely bruised, perhaps bones were broken, but they hadn’t stabbed him anywhere else and it was easier than he’d expected. Blood gushed from his mouth onto the cobblestones between him and the shrine.

He wanted to see himself. To see his eye, which was blind at the moment. He reached under his head with a hand and pushed himself up enough to see into the mirror in the shrine.

The mirror was clouded in darkness. There were twelve gleaming crystalline eyes in a circle looking at him, and they narrowed in turn as his face came level with the mirror.

Jack’s eyes went wide in half-felt agony.

A voice spoke in Jack’s head with his own voice.

“You have forgotten me, man of Saxherm, but I will help you remember. I will make you forget everything of less importance than my blessing and counsel.”

“No, wait,” Jack said, but the eyes seemed to spin into an infinitely fast whirl that made his stomach churn and his head grow light. Finally his world was obliterated by a screaming wall of force that consumed gravity, time and memory. He floated naively in the void of whirling light, trying but unable to recover what he had known moments before. All became flat, compressed, silent, an objective vision of asensate emptiness.

Jack came back to himself facing the shrine, laying on his side on the deadly-hard cobblestones. The dawn had not broken, but it was heralded by the lavender light now tinging the sky above the gothic arches and stiletto-spires of this city.

He was in agony. Had he fallen from a building? Had he been hit by a shotgun blast?

He grimaced deeply as someone shook his arm with a tight, bony grip.

“I’m alive,” Jack slurred through a maimed and blood-encrusted mouth. He felt like his head was going to explode and he was desperately dehydrated.

“Who did this to you?” came the voice of an old man like the creaking of a Davenport.

Jack thought. He couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember anything. He cast his mind back in panic. He could remember his mother. He could remember a dark, amber-lit room.

At least there’s that.

“Can’t… think,” said Jack. He wanted to say ‘remember,’ but it was beyond him.

“Ah,” said the old man. He shuffled around to Jack’s front. He wore a long, sky-colored robe that ran over the cobblestones. His beard billowed past it like a cloud, though he had a bald pate.

The man knelt and looked at Jack’s face. 

“You’ve been stabbed. Several times, by the looks of it. You may die.”

Anguish consumed Jack’s heart. The priest studied him intently and his face hardened.

“The men who stabbed you. What would you do to them if you were healthy and they were standing before you, disarmed and vulnerable?”

“I’d… I’d ask them what they were after.”

“And say you had no money for food and you were going to starve. What would you do then?”

What was the meaning of this?

“I’d… find someone who needed help and ask them for food in… if I helped them.”

“Mhmm. And who is the most important person in the world to you?”

Jack thought.

“My mother.”

The priest nodded. “I know you. You’re Jack Daw, a thief. You’ve shit where you eat. You steal in this city even though the city fathers have asked that thieves only commit their crimes abroad. You’ve stolen from shrines and priests. You’ve beaten innocent people and stolen from poor as well as rich. Like as not you’ve left bastards and broken homes in your wake.”

“No… I can’t be…” Jack’s last memories were of being with his mother, sitting on a spring mattress with her, loving her, comforting her because she was crying. That was who he was. He wasn’t like the wicked men who seemed to orbit his mother, breaking into their life together in that little room and violating it with their presence. They were coming into focus now, too.

“Your memory has been destroyed, as it has for many people in our city as of late. A tumor of the mind. But if I could have stopped it working on you, I wouldn’t have.”

“My brain… hurt?”

“I can’t say if it was damaged when you were attacked, but others have lost their memories in this city. None of them had been beaten so far as I know.” He peered deep into Jack’s maimed face.

“Help me… please.”

The crouching priest shook his hands free of his robes and searched Jack’s empty pockets, unsmiling. He laid his arms across his thighs and looked down at Jack’s face.

“There’s only one group that would help you, and I am loath to bring you to them. The Sodality of the Broken Threshold. A fraternity of wealthy enthusiasts of thievery. They will take you in because you were a criminal, and soon they’ll have you going back to your old ways for their amusement.”

Jack tried to shake his head and grimaced. 

“No,” was all he could muster.

The priest stood up.

“You chose to destroy other people’s futures for your own comfort and convenience, once. If you could start over and live your life differently, would you? We’ll see. The pressure will be on you to become a criminal once more. We’ll find out if the first time was a fluke, or if you really are evil to the core.”

The priest swept around him and up the alleyway. 

“Don’t try to get up unless the rats start eating your eyeballs.”

An oxcart was brought in from the fields. Ruddy farmers hauled Jack up the lanes of Terracetunnel Hill, and he bounced in agony over thousands of rough cobblestones. Finally at the height of his ordeal, spirelike daggers poking up to mug the clouds came into sight and the sweating farmers brought the cart to a stop.

Jack was carried on a board into a vast, cool hall where water was reflecting against the mosaic ceiling.

Jack heard an interested voice.

“Summon physicians from the Organoterrarium.”

“Yes, milord. Might I suggest the apothecaries of Bloodlet Hollow? The prices of the brethren of the Organoterrarium are regarded as extortionate.”

“Pfft. Perhaps among gong farmers and cricket collectors. Be on your way.”

“Yes, milord.”

A man appeared above Jack. He wore a satin doublet and a free-flowing velvet tabard bearing the imagery of sailing ships. He gazed down into Jack’s perforated face.

“Jack Daw, the Sunlight Sparrow, brought so near to death, but then brought to me… don’t worry, my brave young man. My hard-hearted seneschal nowise in charge of your fate. Once you recover, you will eat and drink with us and regale us with your tales. We will toast you and celebrate you, and when you are ready you will return to the world and continue your daring adventures.”

Jack looked up at him. He wanted to tell the man that he would work for him and pay his debt some other way. The man looked down at Jack with admiration and compassion. Jack said nothing, opening his mouths with uncertainty. Then the man patted him on the chest and walked away.

Surgeries followed. Days of tension and thought. Staring at the glimmering ceiling. Jack knew he lay next to a pool of some kind. 

Soon he learned why. The draining of fluids, clear and bloody. They splashed into pans and onto the midnight-blue tile. Lancets, scoops, forceps. Hell. Torture.

His bed was moved to a garden during the days. Lavender and hibiscus bobbed in the wind and under bees. A little burbling river ran past him; some days the lord of the manor would step over some rocks in the middle of it and come check on Jack’s progress, giving him a bracing smile. Once or twice others came with him; men wearing images of towers and railroads, fire-eyed genteel ladies. 

“Jack Daw,” they would say.

He was grateful for the garden. He’d had no memories but of his mother as the surgeons worked; she was all. He had to find her after he got out of here, but moreover, he had to prove that he wasn’t a violator of human beings. The priest had helped him. The lord had helped him. His mother had dandled him. The men who stabbed him were unreal to Jack. Who did he identify with? The pragmatic priest and the industry of these men, obviously. They weren’t thieves, even though Jack thought they were misguided in their love of crime.

Jack remembered the ogres would bang into his mother’s room. Those were criminals. Jack knew that. And he had become one. But no more.

Finally Jack could speak. He’d lost his eye, but his voice box was intact. One day when the man came by to check on him, Jack looked over at him and said,

“Thank you.” 

The man beamed.

“The honor is all mine, Mister Daw. How are you feeling? How able are you to speak?”

“I’ve been speaking to myself under my breath, sir, just to practice. I’m feeling much better. I can lay still with comfort now, and my body feels like it wants to walk around.”

“Yes, and you must be hungry. How have the eggs been going down.”

“Just fine, sir. I’m grateful for everything you’ve done for me. It would mean the world for me if I could pay you back.”

“Ha! Speak nothing of it, my friend. Money matters little to me now. What means something is adventure! Men like you, Jack, inspire men like me. I am bound by an arena of treaties and taxes. You, you live in the ultimate arena! You are a hunter among predator and prey. Look at you! You’ll have marvelous scars as a result of this, Jack, you’ll be a rugged thief, no more the child prodigy. I wear ships upon my back but you, you have a different mark of your profession.”

Jack looked at the sky in dismay.

“Jack, we’ll have dinner tonight. You’ll meet a number of friends of mine; they’ll be eager to make your acquaintance. Your trial is almost done! Take in your sunshine and look forward to your first solid food in weeks. We’ll have lots of pudding and custard and things of that nature!” The man squeezed Jon’s arm and strolled off for a pair of huge oak doors set into the side of his stonebrick manor.

Jon hadn’t walked for some time out of concern for cut muscles in his neck; while he was as stiff as if he’d been in a cast, when a pair of tunic and tights-clad servants came to help him, he found he could walk just fine. The sun was getting low in the sky and Jack was grateful to leave the cool courtyard. 

The servants opened the double doors for Jack. It was a dining hall with a 20’ table creaking with food and wine before a great roaring fireplace where long logs burned.
There were numerous clean, tidy and well-dressed men sitting around the table, discoursing casually and jovially. They fell silent and stood as Jack entered the room, flanked by attentive servants.

The man who had been hosting Jack was at the head of the table. There was a tall, empty, leather-clad chair to his right.

“Welcome, Jack Daw, to Tradegrift Hall. Your place is ready.”

Jack walked slowly and stiffly to the seat to the lord’s right hand. As he approached the table, lit by candelabra chandeliers, the men began a polite round of applause. The lord smiled. Jack sat, and the rest of the men followed suit.

“You’ve made your closest getaway yet, Jack,” said the man. All of the guests leaned over their plates and looked down at Jack. There was ample food of every description; roast meats in pools of juice, buttery pies with flaking crusts, bowls of pears and pomegranates, stews in silver decanters with ladles hidden in their necks, beds of golden roasted potatoes with savory green beans and soft, round dollops of carrot atop them. 

Jack had a constellation of little dishes around his gleaming, gold-rimmed dinner plate. Steak tartare dressed with peppercorn sauce atop a little golden dais, a chilled custard filled with blended cherry cobbler and topped with a dollop of lemon meringue, a raised bowl of molten fudge treacle with a little pilot light active below it, a golden goblet brimming with mulched pear, and a saucer of tomato bisque spattered with a rosemary reduction alongside a silver creamer shaped like a swan.

“Go head, Jack,” said the man after a few moments. Jack bowed his head gratefully and began to eat the pear with a long spoon. To his deprived palate the pears tasted like they had been engineered by God for maximum deliciousness. The fruit of paradise, locked away from the bulk of mankind by their regular meals.

Everyone else began to serve themselves at once. The lord gave Jack a keen eye.

“So, Jack, we’re all very curious about your latest brush with death! Would you regale us with the tale of this battle against knife-wielding killers?”

Jack finished his bite and said,

“I’m sorry sir, but I can’t remember anything about the person that stabbed me.”

“Ah. Well, you must have been severely concussed as part of the fight, that’s to be expected. Why don’t you tell us about the time that you ran out of the Teamster’s Gala with the donation bowl atop your head? I’ve always been curious about how you got in there in the first place.”

Jack sighed, took a bite of the heavenly custard to give himself a moment, and then said,

“I’m sorry sir, but I can’t remember that either. It seems that my memories have been taken away from me. All I can remember is my mother, and some part of my childhood with her.” Jack looked around at the falling faces of the guests. “The priest who had me brought up here told me that this is a regular occurrence in this city.”

The lord wiped his mouth with a handkerchief and cleared his throat.

“Well, that is a disappointment. I know my guests and I had all hoped to be regaled with tales of your daring exploits late into the night, Jack, but if your memories have been taken, then there’s nothing to be done for it. This has been a blight upon our city since the Dawning of the New Year, and alas, the heroes of the underworld seem not to be exempt. But I have an idea of what we can do tonight to make this interesting for all of us. Gentlemen, why don’t we use our collective knowledge and our own personal repositories of theives’ tales to help Jack prepare his next daring raid?”

The men looked around nodding, relieved.

Jack silently tasted his bisque. He could have drunk a gallon of it in one go.

A man spoke up. “I’ve heard that a Mandrakite frigate will be docking in Cape Cittacotte on the return leg of a treasure cruise a week hence. It’ll be like a floating jewelry casket, Jack, and most likely they won’t have a full complement anymore!”
“Mm, and I know of an expedition that is being planned in Troutbridge for a trek into the Place of Things. They are likely to have some kind of centralized pay apparatus.”
“Oh, and Jack, the Princess of Vineforest is known for commissioning new panoplies of jewelry on a bimonthly basis! Perhaps if you could secretly woo her, you could abscond with a bag of her glitter while she’s told the guards to look the other way!”

Jack closed his eyes and lowered his head. It was time. He looked up and around at the guests with an open face.

“My lords, I appreciate your desire to help me. But I don’t want to rob anyone. Whoever I was before I lost my memory, I deeply regret the things I did.”

They looked at him in stunned silence.

“Please understand that I feel more gratitude for your care and hospitality than I can express. You’ve saved my life, and I will be forever in your debt for that. This… it breaks my heart to think of the efforts and care of so many people wasted because a thief came and exploited the attention they’d been giving to a task. I hope that the sailors from Mandrake found what they were looking for. I hope that the expedition to the Place of Things comes back safely. I hope that the Princess of Vineforest… I hope that her jewelry makes her happy. My lords, it’s not my desire to rob, now. I’d rather give my service and receive no more than what is my due. I hope to give back to you for what you’ve given me, and then someday travel to find my mother.”

The lord let out a little worried laugh and stroked his mustache. “Jack, you are a saucy joker. A true thespian.”

“Sir, I mean what I say. If you value me as a role model, I ask that you allow me to become one of your servants and show you what is in my heart to do. I will repay my debt to you by cleaning your home, tending to your linens, taking care of your guests, and whatever else you ask of me, so long as I am contributing to your lives and not draining others of what they have saved by their labor.”

The lord was sitting very upright and grimacing at Jack now.

“Well. I can’t believe it. What kind of thief are you? One drubbing and you turn chickenshit?”

“I’m not a thief, sir. I’d like to be a servant, or a gardener, or-.”

“Oh, and have you trained as a valet? Do you know the first thing about botany?”

“No sir. But-“

“But do you think that I am incapable of finding professionals to see to the details of my life? They are domestics! They are gardeners! You are a thief! Yet you refuse to do your job, and ask me for another? We are not serving you steak tartare and custard because you are a gardener! Look around you! Do the servants sit at this table or do they tarry in the shadows?”

Jack was silent.

“You were here to serve as an inspiration! We saved you and brought you forth because you did things that other men could not and would not! We brought you here because you were a hero, and now you’re nothing but a caitiff! I haven’t saved your life, Jack, I’ve created a pauper!” 

“You shouldn’t lionize thieves,” Jack said quietly. “You’re businessmen. Thieves should have you as role models, not the other way around. I don’t think you should do this anymore, my lord.”

“And now the cur disrespects me at my own table,” growled the lord, “You’ve lost your memories and yet you think yourself wise. I think it’s time you remembered why you turned to thievery in the first place.” He nodded to the servants. “Expel this wreckage and clear his spot from the table.”

Jack stood up and stepped between the two servants who appeared promptly from the shadows. He walked between them as they guided him through a reception hall that was filled with taxidermied animal heads set over crossed hunting rifles and spears. The servants did not seize him, glower upon him or hustle him in any way. When they reached the fine oak foyer of the house, one of the servants quickly clasped a silver piece into Jack’s hand. Then they opened the door for him.

“Thank you,” Jack said. The servant made no expression.

Jack walked out into the cool street atop Terracetunnel Hill in Saxherm.

He was turned away from business after business, home after home. It was two days since he’d had any food. Still he pressed on. This city had luxury. Surplus. Someone would be able to take him on. 

He stood outside a cordwainer’s shop. There was a big, bald, ruddy man with a thick white goatee and spectacles inside. He wore an apron and was sweeping the floor intently with a broom.

“Hey, sir, sorry, I’ll be with you in just a minute,” said the cordwainer, sweeping the dust away from Jack, “Gotta keep this place tidy or the shoes get messy when people take them for a walk.”

Jack bowed. 

“Ok, what can I do you for?” asked the cordwainer, setting down his broom. 

“Sir, my name’s Jack Dawson. I’m seeking employment and I’d like to offer my services to you.”

“Oh? Who’d you apprentice for?”

“I haven’t been through an apprenticeship, master.”

“Is that right? What are your skills?”

“I have a deep desire to work.”

“Huh. Shoemaking’s a technical profession and you have no skills. What could I use you for?”

Jack remembered how her mother spent the afternoons, making order before the brutal nights.

“I could clean, sir. I could make your floors and shelves beautiful. I could keep your shoes and tools arranged. I could keep your windows clean and sweep up outside your shop. Then you can be more free to focus on your craftsmanship.”

“I can’t pay someone to clean full-time, Jack.”

“I don’t need money, sir. I just need bread and water.” 

The man looked at Jack with confusion.

“Who are you? You’re a rough looking character, Dawson.”

“I’ve traveled far in this world, sir. I’m looking for my mother, who I separated from as a boy. But now I need to put down roots for awhile and gather my strength again. That’s why I’m willing to work without pay.”

“Huh. Well, I’ll tell you what. A lot of folks in my position would say thanks but no thanks, hit the road again. I don’t need the trouble. But I’m a man who’s willing to take a risk when I see upside. Wait here.” He went into the back room of the shop and returned with a steel pitcher of water. “Get out there into the alley and wash your face. Then come back and I’ll have you take over the broom and finish what I started. After that, you’re gonna take a rag and start washing the windows. You do that right, you can come back tomorrow and I might have some food for you. And you can call me Mr. Tumwater.”

Jack bowed low. He went, washed, returned and went to work. It was a mercy.

That night he watched the sun set over Saxherm from the woods of a nearby field. When he went to sleep in a leaf-covered pile of loose earth, freezing and beset by insects, he dreamed of the most beautiful shoe shop in Saxherm.

When he arrived at the crack of dawn the next morning, the shop was yet to open. He was hunting cigarette butts outside of it when the cordwainer arrived, carrying several paper bags.

“You picking up butts?” he asked.
“Yes, Mr. Tumwater.”
“Cut that shit out and come have some fucking breakfast,” said the cordwainer, staring at him.
“Thank you, Mr Tumwater.”
After Jack washed his hands they ate crusty white bread with hunks of cheddar cheese and drank paper cups of water.
“Gonna have you on rotation. Sweep, dust, polish the windows, scrub the floors, clean my tools, arrange the wares nice and neat. Once you’re done with one, just move to the next. We’ll see how you handle that. You do it right, I might have you shining shoes. That’s a position of opportunity for those that don’t squander it. Depending on whether your help increases my clientele, maybe more than that. We’ll see.”

Jack worked like this for a week. The shop began to glow. People walked in just to be somewhere pleasant. The cordwainer started getting more work than he could handle, and turning people down seemed to increase demand for his wares all the more. He bought Jack fresh clothes and a bed for the workshop. He trusted him. Jack began to shine shoes, take measurements and make purchases of leather, wood and lacing in the market. But on Jack’s twenty-first day, the cordwainer came in, slammed the door and screamed,

“JACK! Get up!”

Jack quickly rolled out of bed and came onto the sales floor.


“Jack Daw,” growled the cordwainer, “Thief extraordinaire. One of my clients told me who you are at the bar last night. What’s the meaning of this hoodwink? What are you trying to set me up for?”

Jack was crestfallen.

“Mr. Tumwater, I was Jack Daw. But I lost my memory, and I decided not to steal anymore. That’s why I’m working for you like this.”

“Hm. Well we’ll see about that. You’re lucky they love thieves in this town. I’m not sure what to believe. You already lied to me once.”

“I didn’t lie to you, sir. I believe that I have traveled far, and it’s true that I am seeking my mother.”

“You didn’t tell me the whole truth. Get down to the market and get us some apples and cheese for breakfast. I have to think some more about this.”

“Yes, master.” Jack hesitated, then gestured around the bright, sparkling, well-appointed shoe shop. “This… this is my testament.”

“We’ll see, Jack. It won’t be your final testament.”

Jack walked down the cobblestone street into the canvas stalls of the markets that thronged the gate. He was distracted, and turning a corner, bumped into a large man who was unloading sacks of wheat from a cart.

“Watch it, pu-“ the man trailed off.

There was a lightning bolt and thunderclap as the man’s fist connected with Jack’s face, lurching him from his feet and sending him sprawling onto the cobblestones.

“You little rat!” the man screamed, “Thieving pimp!” A kick bashed into Jack’s ribs and sent him curling into himself, unable to breathe. 

The huge, pot-bellied man straddled Jack and was about to start windmilling him with his fists when a pair of market guards wearing castle-keep livery rushed him and pushed him back off of Jack.

“He fucked my daughter! He- you fucked her, you son of a bitch! She missed her period! Now what? Now what will she do?” the man screamed as the grimacing market guards held him back. Jack staggered to his feet as people gazed from in and around the market stalls.

“Serves him right,” someone commented.

“W- where do you live? I’ll- I’ll try-” gasped Jack.

“Millsberry farm! Millsberry farm! Come out and die, rat fuck! Come out just you and me, piglet!”


“Time to fuck off, loverboy,” said one of the guards, stabbing a finger up the market aisle.

Jack lurched away from the scene, his head ringing. What had he done?

He thought back to his mother, alone in the world but for him.

I created another thief and another broken woman.

Jack walked into a market square and stood leaning against a stand pole in a state of heartbreak. There was a cheerful fountain in the center of the square which he stared at with unfocused eyes. His gaze rose and fell upon several men in dark leather coats standing at a bookseller’s stand. The centermost of them was a head taller than the others and seemed to suffer from some kind of skin deformation; his scalp was incredibly lumpy, and here and there were little flecks of green blading through the skin. 

The big man was gesticulating in the air in a pleased way, as if he was laying out and comparing his favorite kinds of ice cream. Then he lunged across the bookseller’s counter, grabbed the man by his orange wool collar and dragged him roughly over the top of it, spilling books all over the ground. The enormous thug turned with one hand on the bookseller’s lapels, and gestured expansively across the market square. The other thugs took a step back, their hands in their pockets. Shopkeepers were beginning to notice this and the square was slowly draining of pedestrians.
The bookseller was an older man with tousled gray hair, an eagle-beak nose and spectacles. His eyes were wide and he had his hands placed gently on the vast articulating surface of the gang leader’s forearm.

The gang leader’s true terror was on display now. His nose had strange disc-blades of cartilage beneath the flesh on one side. His arms were mighty and gnarled but his fingers were freakishly deformed; spindly, winding, unnaturally articulated. He grinned into the face of the bookseller, and his teeth were a gleaming amber color. His eyes were bloodshot and looked squished in his bald, narrow, goateed head. The trunk of his body was vast but crooked, his waist rising left and his chest rising right. His skin was odd; it looked hard, dry, uneven, like he was wearing some kind of fishscale armor just below his flesh. All in all he gave the impression of a man whose bones had been splintered, but then healed larger and stronger than could be imagined. 
The thug was wearing a pair of weatherbeaten olive slacks and a filthy, ruined white undershirt. He had an enormous sack of coins hanging over his crotch in an ostentatiously vulgar manner, and he had a huge knife that was almost a shortsword tucked into the back of his pants.

He reached down and picked up an ancient tome that had been seeded with postcards, scrapbook pages and photographs by some previous owner. He waggled it in front of the bookseller’s face as he spoke to him before pitching it into the fountain. The bookseller closed his eyes and the square was silent except for the burbling of the fountain and the assailant’s jovial speech, which Jack couldn’t quite make out. The gang leader reached over to the countertop and gathered up a second pair of books with his huge, knotted maelstrom of a hand and pitched them into the water; one was an illuminated manuscript, the other a drafting book which an artist of explosive imagination had filled with vibrant work.

The bookseller began to speak urgently. This was a mistake. He had his fingers tightly steepled and was urgently appealing to the criminal, whose smile turned to a kind of vicious grimace. He put a hand on the bookseller’s shoulder and forced him to his knees with a jolt. Then he took the man’s hair in a bunch, curled up his grotesque knotted fingers and punched the man in the face with a tremendous clapping noise. He withdrew and did it again, and again. With each punch the face became less recognizable and the bookseller more limp. His nose broke, his eyelids went purple, cuts appeared all across his brow, his teeth broke, his lips cut, blood pouring down his chin onto the cobblestones. Jack and the other merchants looked on with horror. The huge thug raised the bookseller’s limp head by his hair a bit and peered into it.

Jack circumnavigated the square and approached the group from behind. One of the crooks standing in the rear had an antler-handled knife in a sheath on the rear of his belt. Jack slipped this out with frictionless quickness and grace: a flick of the wrist sent the knife airborne from its mooring before Jack plucked it out of the air like he was catching a fly. 

Jack pivoted across the man whose knife he’d taken and made a pirouette into the center of the group, extending his leg and arm as he did so; his foot came down parallel to the crammed boot of the gang leader, and his knife came down between the hulking thug’s clavicle and trapezius, neatly severing his subclavian artery.

Jack’s hand rested across the thug’s shoulder. His skin felt like battle armor. He would have been an impossible opponent. Guess I am handsy, thought Jack.

The thug whirled on Jack, his hand lurching to the knife buried in his body. He took a step back, then lunged out and caught Jack by the lapels, his knuckles scraping Jack’s chest like tree bark. The thug’s eyes were wild, and his mouth opened. He pulled Jack in to say something, then fell to one knee. The other gangsters gasped and each took a step inwards or out. The light drained from the ringleader’s eyes and he fainted, falling nose-first with a crack onto the cobblestones between Jack’s legs. Armored skin and terrible hands or no, he would still die in moments.

“You son of a bitch!” one of the thugs yelled and launched a swing at Jack from behind. Jack slipped the blow and hammered a balled fist up into the man’s jaw, who promptly seized up like a mummy and fell onto the stones, dislocating his arm beneath him before launching into a buzz saw snore. Two thugs instantly came at Jack from the left and right of the slain leader; right hand still ringing from his first hit, Jack launched a punch across the left one’s jaw, sending him falling sidelong with his arms out like a scarecrow, and then wheeled a punch with his other hand into the jaw of the second thug, who was jerked upright and then fell on his face like a 2x4.

Jack felt someone punch him in the back and he wheeled around. There was a man with greasy, shaggy hair. He was holding a raised knife. 

“How many times do I have to stab you, Jack Daw?” 

Jack’s eye went wide. 

“Guess I’ve gotta get your other eye!” He advanced on Jack, raising his knife for a hammer blow. Jack walked backwards and bumped into a signpost. Suddenly a vase flew through the air and broke across Mastiff’s head and shoulders. He wheeled around, bleeding from his ear, and a bronze lamp bashed him in the forearm, making him recoil. The merchants were throwing their wares at him and getting bolder by the second, stepping out from their stalls to throw at close range or advancing around the square with candlesticks, kettles, cans of paint.

A young, bald merchant came in and threw a steel wrench into Mastiff’s legs at point blank range, sending him reeling with a bony clang. Mastiff limp-sprinted away from the square. 

A pudgy, bearded merchant came forward towards Jack as the rest came to a stop. “Boy, you’re bleeding pretty good there.”
Jack checked his knuckles. Then he patted his front and back. His back was flowing with warmth. He drew his hands out and the merchant sucked his teeth at the blood.

“Yeah,” said Jack quietly. He thought of his mother, so kind but so poor. He thought of the way he’d left her to find a way out of want.

He walked to the hulking corpse of the gang leader and undid the fat bag of coins from where it lay between his thighs. He looked inside. It was filled with gold coins and weighed several pounds. He closed it and hung it around his neck.

Then he started walking. He walked through the market, and a few merchants who had stall minders followed him. He walked through the inn-lined reception street and a group of children followed him. He walked through Terracetunnel gate and a pair of soldiers followed him, calling out, “Hey, you can’t bleed here!”

He walked along the tree tunnel paths in the amber light of morning. His legs were soaked and tingling with pinpricks. His breath was getting shorter as if his lungs were shrinking. He came to a crossroads and saw many arrowed signs. He followed the one for Millsberry. He walked out into the open through the farmers’ fields. His breath began to agonize him. He approached the whitewashed farmhouse and the brown barn. His legs were unstrung as he reached the barn and he fell to his knees, crawling around it and towards the house. He dragged his form towards the door, towards the familiar scent of bacon, through the ineffable lethargy that was descending upon him.

The door opened. The farmer came out, submachine gun in hand.

“So! You’ve… you’ve come…”

Jon looked up at him, pale and clammy. He took the albatross of gold in his hands. It felt like a vast boulder to his shaking hands.

“For your daughter… your grandchild… and… my…”

Jack fell towards, but he fell with his hands extended, cupping the bag. He was smiling. He fell asleep with his cheek in the grass. The farmer ran his hand through his hair, his mouth slightly open. His daughter ran past him to kneel over Jack.

The procession removed their hats.

Jack’s body lay in state in Tradegrift Hall. The marble slab where he rested was surrounded by candles in the darkness. A number of the city’s lords and magnates stood about, studying the corpse with hands on their mouths and chins.

A man in a black and gold brocade doublet and cape spoke.
“He was our hero before. He is our hero now. But this was a superior heroism. The guards shall imprison the man known as ‘Mastiff.’”
“You’re sure?”
“The death of a man like Jack is not ‘their business’ anymore. The Anaconda Gang are not even thieves since their deal with Lord Carver. They’re something lower than thieves. And Jack was… something higher. I think it’s time we made that distinction. I’ll deal with Lord Carver.”

She dandled little Robert on her knee by the fire. Her father passed through the room on the way to the kitchen, puffing a pipe in his suspenders.

“Mama, you said you’d tell me about papa when I got bigger,” said the boy.

She smiled and looked into the fire.

“Your father loved you very much. He wanted the best for you. He was a good, brave man, and he wanted to show you what that meant. In fact, he sacrificed his life for it.”

“How can he show me that if he’s gone?”

“He’s not gone. He’s right here in the story I’m about to tell you. ”


  1. There's something very telling about a farmer carrying a sub-machine gun (in my mind's eye, a sleek black metal thing with a folding stock, like an MP 40) as he might an old shotgun.

    1. I especially enjoyed the visual of the gun glancing off his frame (I read it as it bouncing off a belly more muscle than fat, what I have come to think of as "the martial paunch") as he stomped along. For some reason those little details make it feel real to me! FWIW whenever I think of old submachine guns I instantly picture a Sten gun, but that might just be me - it's probably a tad late for the S&S interwar tech level, but maybe just barely.

      HCK - this was a heck of a lot of fun to read, nice work man!

    2. We’re not in Kansas anymore. We’re in Kansas- on steroids

      Thanks Dan, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Setroxia’s story is up!


Art - First Run