Fletch pulled his collar up and hunched his shoulders against the damp. The heavy shadows of the covered porch offered invisibility, as well as protection against the steady torrent of cold rain. It seemed to be the only type of weather the topside had to offer these days. That fact made living under ground more appealing than normal. His gaze drifted upwards. Galamore still perched on the rooftop, the last remaining sentinel in the city, and still nothing more than concrete. He scowled and looked back down the dark street.
This weather kept most everyone holed up. The only people who ventured out on nights like this were ones after something in particular, and who didn’t fear the shadows — people like Fletch.
And that bit of dangerous street slime moved with careless ease out of the alleyway across from Fletch’s vantage point, and strolled directly toward him. The man sniffed as he stepped onto the porch beside Fletch, and turned to face the deserted street.
“Nice night for a walk,” he said, his voice an echo of the rumbling thunder.
Fletch glanced down at the shorter, wider, and infinitely more dangerous man. “Yeah, if you don’t mind being wet and cold.”
“Then what, besides your insatiable thirst for death, brings you out tonight, laddie? Jackie-boy got you on an errand?”
Fletch snorted. “I think you know better than that.”
Something in the tone of Bosner’s voice caused Fletch to slide his hand toward the sheath at his left hip. He backed a step, muscles tightening as Bosner turned and stood toe to toe with him.
“As long as you live in Jackie’s house, you’re Jackie’s boy,” the man said, and his breath smelt of stale cigars and fine booze. “I’ve got no cause to believe otherwise. Nor does he or you wouldn’t still be breathing.”
“I’m nobody’s boy,” Fletch said. He curled his fingers around the knife hilt.
Bosner’s light eyes glowed white in the dark under his hat. “Go ahead, pull the knife.”
He made it sound like a purr, if deadly jungle cats purred, and Fletch twitched but otherwise didn’t move. Bosner’s wide face split into a grin.
“Look at you, steady as rock, with a head just as hard.” He laughed, and slapped Fletch on the shoulder. “I like you, lad. I really wish you’d come work for me where you belong. Your talents are wasted on Jack.”
Bosner turned away and started off the porch.
“C’mon, I’ll buy you a drink,” he said over his shoulder. “And you can ask me what it is you want to know badly enough to risk your life for.”
The Slab had once served as the city morgue. It now served alcohol. Or what passed for alcohol for those with something to trade for it.
Bosner didn’t need to trade for it, or drink it. He owned The Slab, and a healthy stash of actual booze worth more than all of Greylands put together. He poured two glasses and shoved one to Fletch across the small table.
“So, what is it you want from me?”
Fletch glanced around the room, and turned his chair so he could take in all seven of the patrons without having to crane his neck.
Bosner chuckled. “Paranoid?”
“Cautious,” Fletch replied. “There’s a difference.”
“True enough.” Bosner emptied his glass in one short swallow, refilled it and had another. “If memory serves, the last time you came looking for me you wanted a book, of all things. What is it this time? Someone to teach you how to read the thing?”
“I need some information,” Fletch said, ignoring the barb.
“Why is it I only see you when you’re after something? It hurts to know I mean so little to you.”
Fletch frowned. Movement behind the bar drew his attention, and he turned to watch as a well-toned woman fixed herself a drink. She wore her dark hair pulled back in a tight braid that glistened in the dim bar lights, and the way she moved put Fletch on high alert. She assumed a position of casual watchfulness against the back rail, her drink in one hand, the other resting lightly on her hip. She had the look of someone in charge, not one of the employed women. Obviously one of Bosner’s highly touted, yet totally superfluous body guards.
“She’s not available,” Bosner said, following his gaze.
Fletch swiveled his attention back to the other man. “I’m not interested.”
“Ah, that’s right. Ripe young stud like you doesn’t have to pay for his pleasures, do you?”
Fletch lifted his glass and took half the contents in a long swallow, savoring the smooth burn of quality whiskey as it slid down his throat and warmed him from the inside out. At the right market, he could get two months of food for what that glass contained.
“So? I’ve other things to see to tonight,” Bosner said into the silence. “What information is it you want so badly?”
“Mosh brought in another stray tonight,” Fletch said. “I need to know her history.”
“Why don’t you just ask her?”
Fletch glanced back at the woman behind the bar. Something about her set the wind up his back.
“Ah,” Bosner drawled out the sound. “Jackie’s warned you off, has he?”
“Look,” Fletch focused on his reason for dealing with the man. “I don’t think she’d be forthcoming, that’s all. Most street rats have fabricated so many stories they couldn’t tell the truth if it slid up their pants and bit ’em in the ass.”
“Since when do I pay attention to street rats? I’m not the one keeps those kinds. That’s Jackie’s domain. My tastes run elsewhere.”
“True. But you keep your eyes and ears on specials. This girl’s got something. I just need to know her real story.”
Bosner rubbed his jaw and studied Fletch. “Something I’d want?”
And the dangerous part about asking Bosner for anything came slithering to the surface. The book hadn’t intrigued him, but it still cost Fletch more than he wanted to pay. If the girl became something Bosner took interest in, Fletch wouldn’t be able to afford a dirty hair off her head.
“I doubt it.”
Bosner grinned. “Laddie, when you say that, it means you’re worried it is.”
Fletch pushed out of his chair. “You know what? Just forget it.”
Fletch complied without thinking. Then again, it hadn’t been a request, and he needed to remember whose territory he’d put himself in.
“Nothing’s free,” Bosner said. “Especially my time. You’ve taken up almost an hour of it already. That alone will cost you. So you may as well give me whatever you know on the rat, and I’ll find out the rest.”
Fletch forced himself to relax. His muscles were starting to ache from being in fight mode all night. It didn’t help that as soon as he stood, the woman behind the bar had gone on full alert. She resumed her casual pose once he sat again, but both her hands were now free.
“I don’t know much about her,” Fletch said. “Her name is Alexis. Her brother got his brains splattered in some grocery earlier today, which is when Mosh and his pals grabbed her. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s late teens. Hard to tell with all the grime on her.”
“That’s not a lot to go on.” Bosner topped off both their glasses and Fletch gratefully took another drink. “What are you hoping I’ll find?”
When Fletch failed to answer the man narrowed his light eyes and studied him as though trying to read his mind. Fletch stayed steady under the scrutiny, though it took effort both to hold the gaze, and to keep his hands away from his weapons.
“You’re after ghosts again.” Bosner sighed and shook his head. “Laddie, why waste your time?”
“It’s my time.”
“That could be better spent on other pursuits.”
“Are you going to help me or not?”
Bosner’s gaze flicked to the woman behind the bar and back again. “Sure,” he said. “And in exchange, you’re going to help me.”
“Yeah.” Though the agreement left an even more sour taste in his mouth than normal. “So, what do I owe?”
“I need something recovered.”
“From the Shadows?”
Bosner shook his head. “The other direction,” he said, and held his glass up. “Swim toward the light, laddie!”
Fletch’s hand froze, his own drink part way to his lips. He set the glass back onto the table — hard. “You’re fucking nuts. Send one of your own boys.”
“Much as I love ’em, my boys are a little too rough around the edges for the Tracks. You though, you’re smooth as oil, aren’t you? It’s why Jackie loves you — never been caught. Rarely even come close.”
“Because I’m not stupid,” Fletch said. “Crossing the Tracks, that’s stupid.”
Bosner shrugged. “You want your information, I want my confiscated goods. You aren’t scared, are you, laddie?”
“Hells yes! And not ashamed to admit it.” He’d be crazy not to be scared. He’d only ventured across the Tracks once, the memory made his blood run cold.
“I’ll make sure you’re outfitted with everything you need. I don’t want you getting caught, any more than you want to be caught. Maybe I’ll even send Shade with you.” He nodded a gesture toward the bar. “I think she likes you.”
“I work alone.”
“You work for me now,” Bosner said, and made no effort to hide the threat. “That means my rules. My orders. My way. You got that? Till I consider your debt fulfilled.”
Fletch rolled his shoulders back and brought his chin up, his jaw went tight with the effort not to say something likely to get him killed.
Bosner smiled. “Oh yeah, laddie, you stepped in it alright, and it don’t scrape off.”