31 January, 2008

Brick Chapter One

My name is Brigham Something-or-other. That’s right; I don’t rightly know what my last name is. My father’s name was Olaf, or something, but he sold me to pay off his gambling debts before I ever thought to ask him what our family name was. Actually, I don’t even use Brigham any more. It wasn’t a name befitting a man of my station. I guess I should start this over.

My name is Brick. I am a thug. A very good thug, if I say so myself. I stand just a little over six feet tall and weigh a very muscular two hundred and thirty pounds. I am very proficient in a variety of weapons, many of which I carry about with me wherever I go. At the start of this tale, I am about to enter a merchant’s shop in company with one of the younger members of the Organization. Strapped to my back is the biggest sword you are likely to see. Hilt and blade, it is about as long as I am tall. I rarely use this weapon, but it gets a reaction. Next to it is my working blade, a much smaller, but still sizable, hand-and-a-half broadsword. Heavy enough to work well with two hands, it was also light enough to use one handed, in conjunction with the large round shield that was also strapped to my back. On my arms I had strapped two pairs of knives, one on the forearm and the other just above the elbow, hilts pointed down for easy drawing. None of the knives actually matched another, but they were all of the heavy fighting type. They also made for good bracers in a pinch. On my waist I carried an axe and a war hammer, though I never really expected to get in a fight with anyone too heavily armored. They were for effect, just like the big sword. I also had a couple of smaller dirks stuck into my boots. A leather gambeson sewn with a few bits of metal was all the armor I wore. With all this hardware, I struck a pretty intimidating figure. To round it all out, I could scowl with the best of them. I was also very good at looming. Which is just one talent my job description calls for.

My companion, on the other hand, carried no visible weapon, and I’d be surprised if he had more than a knife hidden somewhere in his slightly upscale clothes. He was dressed as a moderately successful merchant, which were the kind of people we were visiting today. He was neither short nor skinny, but looked like he was both as he stood next to me. Mismatched as we were, we proceeded into the interior of the shop. I entered first, eclipsing the sun through the doorway for a few moments as I paused for effect and scowled at the world within. It was a fairly small specialty shop, with only samples of the wares on the uncluttered shelving. Delicate porcelain sat in unassuming, yet attractive poses in the confines of this surprisingly well-lit place. My eclipsing maneuver was spoiled by the light streaming in from a skylight. The shopkeeper looked up from the counter and asked in a doubtful voice, “May I help you?” I didn’t respond, just stood aside so that my associate could walk in. He did, and, with a smile, began the job that he had been sent to do. I had done this so many times that the script was almost second nature. I moved off and began to examine the merchandise, always in view of the merchant. I picked up a few pieces at random, studying the patterns in the porcelain, and carefully put them back, never looking at the conversing pair at the counter. My associate was just as careful to never acknowledge my presence in the store. It was a very carefully choreographed scene.

In spite of myself, I began to be drawn into the works I examined. This store had some really nice pieces of very fine porcelain. I found myself in front of a small alcove, staring almost reverentially at some obviously very select pieces. A couple of mirrors hanging from the ceiling directed the light form the skylight into this alcove. I very carefully reached out and picked up the plate that held center court in the display and held it up to the light. It was almost translucent, it was so thin. It had blue and gold leaf scrollwork patterned all around the rim, in lines some of which had to have been painted with a brush that had a single hair. How the craftsman had gotten the gold leaf so fine, I have no idea. The center held a pattern I recognized as a mandala, a geometric pattern that was supposed to represent the entirety of the universe. I had seen several examples in a book I had once read, and this one was at least as beautiful. This plate was a work of art.

As I was doing my job to keep the merchant nervous, I kept my ears on the conversation taking place. It was not going well for my friend.

“I am sorry good sir,” said the merchant in a plaintive voice, “but I simply don’t have that kind of money. I have very high margins in this business, yes, but very few sales.”

“You seem to be doing quite well for yourself,” said my friend, gesturing at the fine merchandise in the store, “There are some very high-ticket items on display here. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.”

“Indeed it would, sir,” replied the merchant, “but I must trust to the Gods to protect me, as all of my money is tied up in this ‘high-ticket’ merchandise.”

I almost snorted in laughter at this last statement, which would have been a disaster as I was still holding the plate. A good sneeze could have shattered it. The negotiating went on a little more, my associate coming out rather shorter than the bosses would like, when I decided to throw him a line. Still holding the plate, I abruptly turned towards the counter and walked slowly towards the pair. The conversation died as they watched my approach. The merchant had been keeping an eye on me during the whole time, but he was old enough to know how the dance went. At least he thought he did. I was suddenly throwing in a step that he hadn’t encountered before. He grew noticeably paler as he watched this ox carrying the most expensive piece in his collection. I arrived at the counter and very carelessly waved the plate at him.

“How much fur dis pretty plate,” I demanded, very ingenuously. The merchant spluttered. My associate turned to me, a little puzzled, but quick.

“Now Brick,” he said, as if to a small child, “You know you shouldn’t interrupt when I’m talking business.”

Furrowing my brow in a worried expression, I said “Oh, sor-ry, I forgot.” With that I grasped the plate with both hands and went into looming statue mode. My grip on the plate was in truth very gentle, but looked like I was about to snap it in half.

“Now,” my companion said, turning back to the merchant, who couldn’t seem to take his eyes off the plate in my hands, “where were we?”

Back outside we paused for a moment in the street, basking in another victory. If you haven’t already guessed, we were in there to collect an insurance payment. With enough money, we insured that we wouldn’t bust up his merchandise. To be fair, and before you judge us too harshly, we also insure against all the other accidents of life with the same policy, and we rarely hesitate to make good on a claim. We just give the merchants little choice about paying the premiums. It was a service the Organization offered to all the finer establishments in our fair city, and just one of quite a few activities we engaged in. In addition to being a thug, I was also a guard, a bouncer, a debt collector, an enforcer, a courier, a negotiator, a mover of heavy objects, a remover of obstacles, a surgeon, and in fine, anything the Organization needed me to be when they needed muscle. I was also something of a secret weapon, because most people can not believe that muscle can think. Even some of my employers are sometimes surprised by it.

“Thank you,” my associate said, once we started walking back towards the office.

“Don’t mention it,” I said. “He’s a tough customer; been playing this game for a long time.”

“Well, thanks anyway. I don’t think I would have gotten quite so much from him without you.”

“Just doing my job.” And I was, more than he thought. Before we had left, Rico, one of the bosses, had pulled me aside and told to keep an eye on this fellow. He was new to being a boss, and showed some promise, but was still learning the ropes.

Back at the office we separated, him to go upstairs to make his report, me to go round back to the barracks. My intention was to head for the training yard and see if I couldn’t find someone to spar with, but I had just managed to get my shield and swords into my locker when one of the boys we used as messengers found me.

“Hey, Brick,” he said by way of greeting.

“Hey, Fish,” I said, using the name he had earned when he was caught poaching pike out of the palace moat.

“Boss Hannigan wants to see you,” he said. Hannigan was more or less in charge of the muscle. He probably had another assignment for me.

“Ok,” I said, and finished stripping myself of my weapons. I also went ahead and changed into some clean clothes, replacing my barbarian style kilt with more serviceable pants, and my jerkin with a fresh shirt. I decided against polishing my boots and just gave them a quick brushing.

I was glad I changed when I arrived at his office. Waiting outside in the reception area were two people, one cloaked and hooded, the other wearing plain but well-cut clothes, who turned out to be clients.

“Hey, Mary,” I said to the secretary shared by Hannigan and a few other bosses, “Is Hannigan in?”

“Hello, Brick,” she smiled politely, “Mr. Hannigan is expecting you. Go right in.”

With another glance at the two waiting people, I walked into Hannigan’s office and closed the door behind me.

"Ah, Brick," he greeted me in his normally loud baritone, "Sit down. I might have another job for you."

"Thank you," I said, and took a seat in front of his desk. "This job have anything to do with the mysterious strangers out there?" I asked, hooking a thumb at the door.

"Yes, actually," he said. "I know you only got a glimpse of them, but what was your first impression?"

I thought for a moment, then said, "Well, a man and a woman, upper class but trying to appear lower. The man knows how carry himself. He could probably hurt me in a fight, but I think I would probably win. That would make him a fighter by profession, but if he's a soldier then he's definitely an officer. Didn't see much of the girl, just her hands, but they looked young, and the nails were well manicured. My guess; she's the daughter of a noble, and he's her bodyguard."

Hannigan was nodding when I finished. "That pretty much agrees with my assessment," he said, "but here's the kicker; they're trying to pass the girl off as a boy, with the man as 'his' uncle. They came here to hire a guide and a guard to take them to Denlas." That raised my eyebrows. Denlas was the capitol of the neighboring kingdom, Stunael, and the road connecting the two cities, called the King's Road on both sides of the border, was well maintained and heavily patrolled. Two people traveling alone needed neither guide nor guard. There was even a regular coach service between the two cities at a surely affordable rate for these two.

"Yeah, I know," said Hannigan, knowing where my thoughts were going. "It turns out that they would rather avoid the King's Road, and are planning on taking as many back ways as possible." I grunted my response to this. "This whole thing kinda stinks, and I wanted your opinion before I agreed to anything."

"Alright, let's bring them in and talk."

Hannigan pulled the string that would ring the bell to summon Mary. She poked her head into the office and Hannigan asked her to show the two "men" back in. I stood up and moved around until I stood just behind and off to the side of the desk, freeing up the two chairs in front of it. They came in, the warrior striding in and assessing me without expression, the girl shuffling in her heavy cloak. Hannigan invited them to sit, and they did, but I was having a little staring contest with the guard as they did. He broke it off first, without looking like he did, and fixed his stare on Hannigan.

"Well?" he said, "Have you decided to help us?" His tone was annoyingly imperious, and I took an instant dislike to him.

"That depends," I answered, "on what you want of us exactly." I kept my tone even, but cool.

"We have already stated what services we will require: a guide and an additional guard to travel with us to Denlas," was the curt reply.

I was about to respond with a remark about his manners, which would have lost us some business, to say the least, when the girl placed a hand on the man's arm and spoke in an artificially low voice. She said, sounding like a diplomat, "I believe what the gentleman meant, Uncle, is that they would like a few more details." The hood turned towards me and I got a glimpse of a delicate chin. "We will be most happy to answer your further questions, sir, but first, may I ask your name?" Nobly born, for sure. Even a rich merchant's daughter would not speak so well.

Hannigan answered her question before I could. "This is Brick. He will be your guard if we come to an agreement." The man began to scrutinize me more closely. I resisted the urge to flex my arms a little, and ignored him.

"A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Brick." she said, "I am called Johnny, and this is my uncle, Thomas."

"The pleasure is mine," I replied, just as warmly as she, "but please, just call me Brick. I am no 'mister'." I gave her a wry grin.

"Very well, then, Brick. Ask your questions, and we shall answer them as best we can."

"Thank you," I said. I paused a moment, trying not to mess up this opportunity to begin again. "I suppose," I said, slowly and thoughtfully, "the first question would be: how important is it, that you be disguised as a boy?"

Several things happened at once, or rather, did not happen at once. First, Thomas nearly left his chair in a lunge towards me, and I nearly brought my foot up to kick him back into it. After that, we almost went at each other like two starving ferrets over a single prairie dog. Except, before either of us could quite begin to react, "Johnny" laid a hand on Thomas' arm and laughed. It was a light laugh, and not falsely pitched, a laugh of wry amusement and perhaps self-deprecation.

"Is it really that obvious? Am I truly so poor a boy?" she said. She had spoken in a more natural timbre.

"Forgive me, Miss," I said, again impressed with her manner. I affected a formal bow and said, "It is not your acting abilities, but rather certain qualities that simply can not be hid." I think her manner was catching.

"Such as?" she asked, in way that showed real curiosity.

"Well, for starters, your wrists and hands. They are too delicate for a man's hands, and the proportions are wrong, even for a young boy. Also, the way you sit. Few men would ever assume the posture that you do, but it is common to women. And the way you walk and move, there is a little too much grace and, forgive my forwardness, too much movement of the hips, for a man." There were of course other, smaller distinctions, but they were hard to quantify, so I did not mention them. "In short, miss, you are a woman, and there is no way to hide it."

"I see," she said pensively. We all waited for a moment as this sank in, then she said, "Well, then how would you suggest I disguise myself?"

"That depends on quite a few factors," I replied, "such as who you are hiding from and how they would recognize you, as well as the actual route we will be taking, and the speed at which you wish to travel."

"Then let us discuss those details, and formulate a plan," she said. And we did, at length. We soon learned that she wanted to avoid royal guards, but how easily they would recognize her was in question. She was a regular at court, but had little to do directly with the guards. It was possible that some of the higher ranking officers would know her on site, but she got rather vague at that point. They were also very adamant about avoiding the Royal Road, but gave little reason for it. In the end we decided that we, Thomas, myself, and whoever our guide would be, would pose as three brothers whose father had just passed away, and whose farm was sold to pay the debts. The girl, who gave us the name Jean, would be the wife of one us, and Hannigan agreed to let us take Fish along as their son. I suggested Fish for several reasons. One, I wanted to work with him some, but also because he really was a gifted poacher, and people rarely suspect a group with a child of any wrong doing. For a price, which Hannigan negotiated, the Organization would provide a wagon, and four horses to pull it, as well as all the other needed supplies. It was late afternoon when we ended our discussion, and one of the boys came to show Thomas and Jean to some lodging for the night, and to take them to Mirna, our resident seamstress, to fit them for appropriate clothes.

After they left, Hannigan and I exchanged a look, thinking similar thoughts. "Well," said Hannigan, then stopped. "Yep," I replied. There were a lot of unanswered questions here, but as fishy as it smelled, the money was too good to pass up. After another moment of musing, Hannigan said, "I need to talk to some other bosses about who your guide is going to be. Why don't you see procurement about the supplies?"

"No problem boss," I said and left the office. The headquarters of the Organization were quite large. Taking up a whole city block, they contained the office building we were just in, which had about four stories above ground plus a couple of basement levels, the barracks and mess for any member without private accommodations, stables, warehouses, and practice yards, as well as several shops that served as fronts for the rest. You may ask yourself how such a large facility had been overlooked by the law. The simple answer is that it hasn't. A more complex answer would include something about how we are unofficially tolerated by the powers that be, because of certain services we provide them. The Organization is not just a parasite, it is a symbiont. One small example I could give of this relationship is the information we often pass along. Whilst robbing people, one can often get a good look at their secrets.

Procurement was a warehouse and adjoining stable where all supplies used by the Organization were stored when not in use, and doled out when needed. It was run by several clerks, most of whom seemed to believe the supplies were their own belongings and were always affronted when anyone asked to borrow anything. I had learned long ago that being friendly only wasted their time and mine. Before I went, I wrote up a list of everything I could think of, being sure to include a few farm implements to bolster our cover story. I walked into the warehouse office and went up to the desk. I was in luck; the clerk on duty was one of the indifferent ones, not one of the nasty ones.

"Good afternoon," I said.

"Good afternoon," came the reply, without raising his head from the ledger he was writing in. "What can I do for you?" He sounded bored.

"I just got a new assignment, and I need a few supplies. I have a list right here." He looked up and took the list without comment. He read through it carefully, then said, "Authorization?" I gave him the mission code and Hannigan's name, which he carefully wrote in the ledger.

Then he began on the questions. I was ready. "What kind of wagon?" "Medium freight smuggler, and I'm going to need these supplies packed in the smuggling hold." "Horses?" "Draft is preferable, but they need to be broke for riding, not just pulling." "Saddle sizes?" I had to guess on those. "Ornamentation?" "No." The questions came for while as he tried to find the specific object I wanted. Many of the questions seemed repetitive to me, as I thought he could find a theme and go with it, but clerks are notoriously thorough, and I guess there was good reason for it. Finally he asked, "When do you need it?"

"As early in the morning as you can."

He frowned in thought. "This is rather short notice, and there are several items here that we do not have on hand. We will need to go to the shops for them in the morning." I asked him to point out which items, and after further discussion found suitable substitutes that were on hand. How he knew the entire contents of the warehouse is beyond me. He thought a little longer. "I believe we can have the wagon packed and the horses hitched by the second bell. Will that do?"

Two hours after sunrise. It was a little later than I wanted, but good enough. "Alright," I said, "and thank you." I left him poring over his ledger. I headed over towards the barracks. Along the way I whistled over another little boy and sent him off to find Fish for me. He caught up with me as I was doing some preliminary packing for myself, going over my weapons and other gear.

“Hey, Brick,” he said, coming up to me.

“Hey, Fish.”

“Someone said you was looking for me.”

“That’s right. Go pack your things. You’re coming with me on an assignment.” I dropped that little bomb very casually, trying not to laugh. Boys generally don’t go on assignments, and he’s not even close to the right age for graduating from errands. In fact, I would judge his age to be between about ten and twelve. Hard to tell with an orphan. I should know. His eyes went wide as my words sunk in.

“Wait, what?” he asked, the confusion plain on his face.

I grinned at him. “Pack your things, some clothes and such. Maybe any snares you have made. You’re going to work with me for a few days.”

He seemed to be in shock. I could see his thoughts working out what this would do for his stock with the other boys. “A few days?” he said, “Where are we going?”

I put on a sterner expression and said, “Never mind about where we are going, just go on and pack. If you need help, come see me. And come see me when you think you’re done packing, too. I want to inspect what you think you will need.”

“Yes, sir!” he shouted and ran off as quick as he could. I laughed as he went. Kids can be a lot of fun. A worrisome thought broke through my mirth. I hoped I wasn’t getting him into anything too dangerous. Sobered, I went off to find some food in the mess, then returned to my preparations. It was going to be an early and long day tomorrow.

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