Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 28

“Again,” he said to the barman, resting his empty glass on the counter.

The man filled it with another measure.

“I’m looking for a man called Bishop.”

Silence, complete silence, instantly cloaked the room.

“I understand he drinks here,” Hawthorn said, unperturbed by the shock he had inflicted on the locals.

The barman gave him a look of utter contempt and turned away, busying himself with something behind the bar.

“We don’t like people asking questions. Maybe you’d better piss off before you get hurt.”

Hawthorn turned around to locate the speaker.

One of the players had left his seat.

Hawthorn leaned back, both elbows on the bar. The speaker glared at Hawthorn truculently, waving a fist that looked as if it could be used for hammering in nails. The bully had a broken nose and a cauliflower ear suggesting boxing was not entirely foreign to his nature.

Hawthorn sighed. He considered going through the preliminary ritual of exchanging insults but, you know, he just couldn’t be arsed. He came off the bar astonishingly quickly for such a heavy-set man and threw his Tonk into the bully’s eyes.

Whatever they cut Tonk with in this bar clearly stung because the bully screamed and raised both hands to his face. This left his midriff invitingly exposed. Hawthorn was not the man to look a gift horse in the mouth. He dropped his right shoulder and punched his fist a good six centimeters into the bully’s relaxed stomach muscles.

The creep folded, releasing a woomph of air like a large ruminant passing wind. In doing so he stuck his chin out at waist height. Sometimes all your birthdays come out once reflected Hawthorn, drawing back his fist.

“Good night, arsehole,” he said, and struck.

He put his full one hundred and twenty kilos behind the punch. The bully’s head rocked, not fast enough to stop his jaw deforming and breaking with a sharp crack. He flew across the room into a sitting customer and the two cartwheeled in a crash of breaking wood.

Hawthorn clenched and unclenched his fist to restore the blood flow. He was, he thought, getting too old for this. He sauntered over to where the gamers sat and took the vacated chair. After all, the previous owner had no further use for it.

“Who feckin’ said you could sit down?” a youngish thug on his right said.

Hawthorn ignored him. He carefully observed the small man sitting opposite him. Dark hair flopped down over one eye. A small forked goatee beard without moustache lent the man a satanic appearance.  Without taking his eyes off the small man Hawthorn inclined his head to indicate the thug.

“I didn’t see your hands move. Are you working that dummy with your foot?” Hawthorn asked.

The thug stood up. His hand hovered in what he no doubt took to be a menacing manner over the hilt of a knife worn in a sheaf fastened ostentatiously to a strap across his chest. The knife would no doubt serve to intimidate mild mannered shopkeepers and bespectacled clerks. Hawthorn worried more about weapons that he couldn’t see.

The knife-bearer sat down when none of the rest of the party stood up to back him.

“What’re you playing,” Hawthorn asked, examining the hand of the man he had replaced.

The counters were stood up on one end so the other players couldn’t see the symbols on them.

“Thrones and palaces, no limit, winner takes all,” the small man replied.

Hawthorn nodded. He swept the previous player’s coins onto the floor, replacing them with a handful of his own.

“You’re familiar with Nortanian Rules?” the small man asked.

“I’ll pick them up as we go along,” Hawthorn replied.

Thrones and palaces was played in a series of rounds. Each player took it in turns to match or raise the bet of the preceding player so he could select a counter from his hand and place it face up on the table. Players tried to create combinations of tablets superior to all others by the end of round five. Rules governed what counter could be played depending on what was already displayed and what the previous player had elected to do. Nortanian rules turned out to be much the same as other versions.

The barman came round and refilled glasses including Hawthorn’s. Hawthorn played cautiously while he got the feel of the other players. Anyone who thinks a competitive gambling game is a question of luck is doomed to be fleeced. He won and lost by small amounts but generally was slightly down.

When Hawthorn judged the time right he made his strike. His hand of counters at the time was no better than others he had received in earlier rounds and worse than some.

He jacked up the bet sharply and placed a counter. A couple of players dropped out rather than match. On the next round he doubled the pot and only the small man and the young thug on his right stayed in. So far there was little advantage in the counters displayed by any of the players. It would come down to the last play.

Hawthorn doubled once again on the final round and the small man threw in his counters. He sat back, sharp eyes watching. Hawthorn and the thug placing their last counters on the table, covering them by hands palm down while they made final bets.

Convention decreed that the challenger reveal his counter first. Hawthorn turned his hand over to reveal a diplomacy counter. The thug laughed and slowly and slid his hand back still palm down to display an assassination counter. Assassination nullified diplomacy giving the thug the game.

Nobody saw Hawthorn move until the thug screamed. He seized the thug’s wrist with his right hand. With his left he ripped the thug’s own knife from its holster and stabbed down hard. The sharp blade point thrust through flesh into the wooden table: that was when the screaming started. The thug struggled but Hawthorn kept his hand pinned like a beetle to a board.

The small man scratched the side of his nose.

“I take it that you’re not just a bad loser?” he asked Hawthorn,

“I’m not a loser at all,” Hawthorn replied.

He worked the knife free of the table and used it to hold the sobbing thug’s hand out revealing a raid counter pinned to the underside of the palm by the blade.

“He’d two playing pieces concealed in his hand,” Hawthorn said. “I take it cheats are disqualified even under Nortanian rules?”

Without waiting for an answer he scooped up the pot and put it in his pocket. The small man sighed.

“Zitter, now you’ve embarrassed me. If you’re going to cheat at my table then at least try not to get caught. That palm slide trick wouldn’t fool my old mum.”

The small man waved the injured thug away.

“Get out of my sight. We’ll discuss this later.”

The color drained from Zitter’s face. Perhaps it was just a shock reaction to loss of blood but Hawthorn doubted it. The small man didn’t raise his voice or threaten but the menace in his tone glittered like the sun on jagged glass.

Zitter stumbled away clutching his wounded hand in the other.

“I take it you are Bishop.” Hawthorn said flatly. It was a statement not a question.

“You talk like a toff but you behave like a man who knows his way around. What do you want?”

“Business,” Hawthorn replied. “I have some business for you.”

“I suppose I’d better hear you out while I still have some men left. Not that they’re much bloody use.”

Bishop looked at his remaining “soldiers” with mild distaste. They dropped their eyes rather than meet his.

“You can’t get the staff these days,” Hawthorn said, with a cruel smile.

“You have my attention,” Bishop said.

“War is coming.”

“So?” Bishop asked, shrugging.

What has war got to do with me or my business the shrug said. Wars came and went but the underworld prospered either way. Business was business and customers were customers. Who cared about the cut of their uniforms?

Hawthorn took a sip of tonk before replying.

“My principal will be taking an active participation. He will require information about his enemies’ intentions which I believe you through your business contacts will be admirably placed to provide.”

“And why should I do that?” asked Bishop.

“I can think of two good reasons,” Hawthorn replied. “First because I will pay well for accurate, timely intelligence and secondly…”

Hawthorn paused and gave a humorless grin.

“You will have made a friend with a long memory who intends to be on the winning side. I always pay people back, one way or another.”

Bishop looked down at the blood-stained gash in his table.

“So I see.”