“Are you awake?”
A simple enough question. The assassin could just hear it over the rattling of the train as it swayed through the night. It was barely audible over the howling wind that picked through the holes in the decaying window seals, or the steady poking of rain on the cabin roof. Had Maurice Jordan really been asleep, he might not have heard it at all.
But he was awake, and had been now for a short while, ever since his ears picked up the sound of the younger assassin, his travelling companion, shifting on his bench seat after three-quarters of an hour feigning sleep. At last the move was being made. The move Jordan had been expecting for a few days now.
He sensed the presence hovering over him, felt the younger man’s cold blue eyes roving over his body, noticing the steady rise and fall of his breathing, mimicking sleep. The younger man wasn’t able to control his own breathing to the extent that it raced in and out with his excitement; again, Jordan couldn’t hear it over the background noises of the steam train and the storm outside, but could sense it. What he felt next confirmed the thoughts that had been playing in his mind for the last three days. There was a hiss, the younger assassin’s in-drawn breath, and the baring of a blade, no doubt the stiletto hidden in the youth’s boot, the one he would think Jordan was ignorant of.
Oh the folly, Jordan whispered in his mind. He was waiting now for the moment when the youth would have to lean over to deliver the deft cut, opening a small fissure in Jordan’s carotid artery. That was when he would spring his own counter, the little device his young and foolish companion knew nothing about.
But the movement never occurred. Instead, there was the question.
“Are you awake?”
Why? Jordan asked himself. He was yet to stir; his breathing was still counterfeiting that of heavy slumber. His mind was working, though. Why would he be whispering in the night? Why would he make naked his blade only to inquire if Jordan was awake?
Arrogance? Jordan was, after all, an old man in young Melvin’s eyes; an old man who had berated and ridiculed him, who had shown him up on more than one occasion. Inexperience, then? Sheer foolishness? Whatever the case, Jordan wasn’t going to die that night. Melvin’s mortality was still in question.
The eyes roved some more. Jordan felt them moving languidly over his prone body as if Melvin had all the time in the world. He wondered vaguely if there was a smile on Melvin’s face. It wasn’t unusual for assassins to enjoy killing. There weren’t too many emotions that compared with blood lust.
Seconds passed. Slow seconds. Melvin moved not an inch, seemed content to just watch, riding the bumps of the steam train as it powered through the night. What is he waiting for? Jordan wondered.
Then it happened. The moment Jordan had been lying in wait for. Yet another sharp intake of breath and then the movement, Melvin leaning forwards, his expensive cologne wafting into Jordan’s serene face.
There was a sudden lurch, a loud keening screech like a screaming woman. Melvin was thrown off balance, had to push a hand out to balance himself. That hand pushed into Jordan’s stomach, giving him cause to rise. The young assassin hit the floor and the stiletto bounced from his grasp. He was quick to fetch it, but not before Jordan traced its destination beneath the folds of his cloak. With a final jerk, the train ground to a stop, but not without comment from Melvin.
“What the fuck?” He sprang to a window, ripped open the curtain covering it and tried in vain to peer through the glass into the dark world outside.
While he did this, Jordan sat up, disarming the device that would have sent a heart stopping electric pulse through Melvin’s body. He watched his young charge at the window for a few seconds before speaking. “An unscheduled stop. Could be trouble.” It was a deliberate goad that worked like magic.
“The Bounty Hunters don’t know about us,” Melvin growled.
“It need not necessarily be us they’re looking for.” He pushed his face harder against the window, turning it this way and that to try and see what was out there. “This storm be damned,” he grunted. “I can’t see a thing.”
The words were tough, but Melvin still sounded like a kid. He said he was twenty-two, but Jordan wouldn’t have put him a month over seventeen. And pounding on the window and cursing the storm with every uncouth word under the sun did little to dispel that image. He had probably been a street urchin with nothing to lose when the Black Hoods recruited him. It was not an uncommon practice to scout up-and-coming rogues amongst the neglected portion of society. After all, folk such as these, living on their wits for much of their lives, had to learn quickly the arts of stealing, of knowing where to put a knife for maximum damage (and not all knife thrusts needed to be terminal to serve their purpose) just to survive. On the streets, it was the quick or the dead. There was no time for forgiveness, or sharing, or God. The only person you could rely on was yourself. You played tough, spoke rough and slept with one eye open if you wanted to wake up the next morning.
Yes, this Melvin was definite street brat pedigree. Thin to the point of emaciation, but wiry and strung with the fast muscles necessary for a snatch and grab. Underneath his cloak and fancy clothes would run a network of scars encompassing the whole gamut of street life calamities: knife wounds, animal bites, general wear and tear scratches, pockmarks from the various plagues and ailments that swept through the street populations. Then there was the smell. Try as he could, Melvin would not succeed in removing the smell of the street from the pores of his skin. The expensive colognes and perfumes could only hide the truth for so long, but someone like Jordan, with the heightened senses of a Black Hood professional, could spot the façade for what it really was.
He had it figured within the first moments of their being acquainted. All Melvin had to do was flap his trap and Jordan had him. He recalled a popular saying, “that you only can make one first impression,” and found that in this instance Melvin’s first impression left a bad taste in Jordan’s mouth. The young charge had thrust himself up close to Jordan, all expensive custom-made cloaks and top range cologne, eyeballing him the whole time. Up close Jordan could spy the constellation of freckles above his right eyebrow, could see each individual sprout of hair around the young man’s mouth, fashioned into the goatee style popular amongst the bourgeoisie, even though all Melvin had amounted to was what was insultingly called bum fluff. Melvin tried a smile, but it was false. It was the smile of a liar, a common urchin, a twist of thin lips and a flash of teeth. His eyes stared, straight into Jordan’s, trying to pierce the elder assassin’s eyes. Eyes a few shades shy of a crisp blue spring sky. It was then, at that exact moment, that Maurice Jordan knew that Melvin would want to kill him.
The handshake was the clincher. It wasn’t the standard handshake of acquaintances, but rather, a play at power. Melvin pushed his hand forward, palm downward so that when Jordan grabbed it, he’d already be in the submissive position; a tried and true ploy maybe for someone who is only fresh on the traps. Being a seasoned veteran, Jordan was quick to counter, allowing Melvin to grip his hand in the inferior position, but then snaking out his free hand and gripping Melvin’s hand at the wrist. All Melvin could do then was squeeze Jordan’s hand a little tighter than was normal. In the company of the Black Hoods, it was all he could do. That and pass his name, which was the point of their shaking hands to begin with. Even this gave away the boy’s petulance.
“Melvin,” he grated.
“Just Melvin?” Jordan enquired.
“Well met, Just Melvin,” Jordan said, aware without looking that the other experienced Black Hoods had seen and appreciated Jordan’s outplaying of the young buck’s handshake power play. The mockery of the greeting was the icing on the cake. “I am Maurice Jordan.” It was always polite in these circles to give your name, your full name, even if it was an alias. A man lacking a family name was always seen as being suspect.
In effect, Melvin’s start with the Black Hoods wasn’t off to the greatest of starts. Sure, he got full points for trying, but just like you can’t half pick a pocket, you don’t have any avenues to make another first impression. Mental notes would have been made. Melvin’s climb to the top was apt to be slow and painful… that is, if he survived this train ride to Ma’arnar.
Forty hours in the same carriage… listening to god-awful stories of supposed bravery, treachery and heroism! If half of the tales were true, then young Melvin, who claims to be twenty-two but who looks barely past his seventeenth year, would have lived at least a dozen lifetimes. Sure, you were allowed your quota of bragging rights and claiming the deeds of some of your closest companions, but what it all amounted to was a snot-nose trying to impress a hardened veteran or, in the vernacular, the snot-nose trying to give the airs of having gone at least twice around the block, sans training wheels. That in itself wasn’t a crime. Hell, when Jordan was seventeen he would have chewed the legs off a few millipedes in his life, but he would never have deigned to change the plot of the story. That was what Melvin tried to do, at every available opportunity.
It started as soon as briefing had finished. This wasn’t a short process and Jordan was sure that he wasn’t the only one who noticed their young charge’s attention wander every so often. On the surface the plan was simple. And it was only at this surface level that Melvin seemed to want to understand the plan. The details, researched thoroughly for well over a year and a half, were vitally important and not merely for the sake of making the ultimate statement, but also to ensure that no complicity can be traced back to the heart of the Black Hoods. Venturing too far from the scheme would surely sour the operation to say the least. Worse yet was the fate of having a fellow member sent out to “clean up,” a euphemism for having your throat slit from ear to ear and your body secreted in a shallow unmarked grave. Jordan might have been without friends, family or gods, but that didn’t mean he didn’t fear the spiritual consequences of being buried without consecration. The idea of being picked over by carrion feeders didn’t sit well in his thoughts either. Hence, the maxim had always been to stay with the plan: the plan first, the plan last.
But not for Melvin.
They were each given a plain brown envelope with a ticket for the Ma’arnar Express Locomotive inside. Here was the first bone of contention.
“Economy Class?” Melvin bawled. This was the first time that Jordan heard that little whine in his voice, a whine that he’d not take long getting sick and tired of.
“What of it?” Jordan had replied.
“Do you know what this means?”
Jordan told him he didn’t and that’s when Melvin pouted. The little dip shit actually pursed his lips in a seventeen-year-old-balls-barely-dropped pout. “This means we have to travel with the… the peasantry!” When Melvin said the last, his face looked as if he’d just inadvertently eaten shit.
Melvin fetched an exaggerated sigh of exasperation. “If we’re going to take the loco to Ma’arnar, why don’t we do it in style? Exchange these crummy tickets for First Class. Even Business Class would be a damn sight more befitting our status—”
“—and what exactly is our status, Melvin?” Jordan asked.
But before Melvin could answer, Jordan shot out a hand and stopped him. “If you’re saying we should get preferential treatment because of who we are and what we do, then I suggest you shut your mouth and listen. Listen for your life son, because if you don’t, yours isn’t going to be a very long one.” Melvin was about to gripe, but stopped, shut his blithering mouth. The pout returned for a few seconds, and yes, even back then in those early minutes of their awkward relationship, Jordan wanted to wipe it off his face with a good backhander.
“Our first task is to get to Ma’arnar without being recognised. Forget what needs to be done in Ma’arnar. We need to concentrate on the here and now. To do that, we need to travel low key. We need to associate with people who aren’t going to ask questions, or talk about politics, or business or fashion, because these people are human sponges and they soak up everything. Names, faces, facts. What’s more, they know other people and they talk. Those in Business Class will want to engage you on market prices and trading deals. They will want to sound you out, assess your level of potential threat. And all the gods know that you’ve got as much savvy as a toad and will draw attention to yourself for that alone and attention is the last thing we need!
“As for First Class… you might think you’d fit in with your silly pseudo-beard and your fancy dress and your… toilet water… but wait until the name dropping starts and you’re left there with your blithering mouth open like a damned flytrap! If businessmen are sharks scenting blood for the kill, then the First Class are piranhas looking to strip you to the bone. We’ve no traffic with either class because we’d stick out like the proverbial sore thumb… draw attention to ourselves. And as I’ve said… the uppie’s all like to talk.”
Melvin digested that for a few minutes before altering his plans somewhat. “Can we go at least Third Class?” he said, sounding at least half-reasonable. “Maybe get a bunk cabin to ourselves… for maximum privacy?”
That had been the only concession Jordan had made because it seemed sensible. Instead of contact with Melvin’s dreaded peasantry, they simply opted for their own company for the overnight jaunt to Ma’arnar. If Jordan had realised what he was letting himself in for bunking with Melvin, then he’d have stuck to the original plan…
…but part of him was curious to see when Melvin would pluck up the courage to carry out his unspoken threat…