Soldier of Fortune: Chapter 12

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“You were dodging during the Occupation?” the girl said, clearly impressed. “You’re even older than I thought.” 

This time he did laugh, but the laugh was wet and turned to a cough, and Elvis, disturbed by his chosen person’s obvious distress, crawled along the edge of the tub to press his head against Gideon’s leg. 

“Good boy,” Gideon said, stroking the draco’s head. “It’s okay, you did okay.” Yes, he’d be feeling the slices from Elvis’s talons for a month, but it beat drowning. 

He glanced up, saw the girl watching their interaction. 

“So, one dodger to another, why did you target me?” Because it should have been obvious to the rawest thief he wasn’t rolling in starbucks. What could he possess that she’d have wanted enough to scale a building in the rain? 

Even as he thought this, her eyes darted to Elvis, then to the floor, and the bruise deepened with her flush. 

It was the blush that told him. “You wanted Elvis. You wanted my draco.” He thought about that. “Why did you want my draco?” 

“Not me,” she said quickly. “Ellison’s the one wants it and he only wants it because ain’t no one else in Nike has one, they’re that rare.” 

“And rare means pricey,” he said, quietly furious with himself for not giving a second thought to traipsing the streets of Nike with Elvis perched on his shoulder. 

By doing so, he’d basically invited every thief in the city to come after the draco. The smart thing to do would have been to let Elvis take flight and tail Gideon to the inn. 

Of course, had he done that, there would have been no dodger at the bathroom window when the morph took effect and he wouldn’t be standing here, in a tub, with a towel wrapped around his middle, making himself dizzy playing what-if. 

He looked at the girl who was watching him, balanced forward on the balls of her feet, ready to run. 

“Tell me about Ellison,” he said.

“Naught to tell,” she said, looking away. 

But not running, which was something. 

“Okay,” he said as, with some care, he stepped out of the tub where he imagined he looked the utter dodo. “I get where you’re coming from, but this is where we are now. First, don’t worry about me calling the cops. After all this?" He indicated the tub he’d likely have drowned in without her, “There’s no way I’d swear a complaint. I also won’t let you go back empty-handed, but your fagin’s going to have to make do with whatever cash I can spare, because taking Elvis is not an option.”

“Then I’ll be out!” she protested in a voice sharpened by fear. “S’what he said when he marked you. To come back with the draco or not at all. If I don’t bring Elv—that draco—then I’m as good as dead.” 

“That’s not—”

“Not gonna happen? Is that what you think?” She lifted her chin, all youth and defiance. “Maybe you was a dodger, maybe you wasn’t, but you ain’t one of Ellison’s—”

“Aren’t,” Gideon murmured. 

“—hive,” she continued over his grammatical distress. “Ain’t a dodger in Nike ever left Ellison’s protection before graduatin’ and lived to tell it.” 

“It’s not supposed to work that way.” Even as he said it, Gideon knew it was an asinine statement because obviously—

“That’s how it is,” she confirmed his thoughts with a weary certainty. “I do what he says, or I’m done.” She gave Elvis, peeking from behind Gideon’s leg, another look. “Guess I’m done.” 

“No, you’re not,” Gideon said. “I won’t let that happen.” From her expression, he figured his promise sounded as asinine as his previous statement. “I know I can’t ask you to trust me—”

She snorted, he presumed in agreement.

“—but you’ve got to trust me. If only because, even if I did let him go, Elvis wouldn’t leave me. You’ve seen what he can do when he’s motivated.” He pulled the damp cloth from his shoulder to display the evidence. “And he likes me.” 

Something in her eyes told him she thought it might be worth the risk. Or maybe she’d just like to see Elvis have a go at her fagin. Either way, there was still something he didn’t understand, and he found he needed to. “If you’re so sure this Ellison will put you out, why didn’t you just let the morph finish the job?” 

She shrugged, scuffed her feet, and, for once, looked her age. “I may be a dodger, but I sure as comb ain’t no killer.” 

A distinction Gideon could appreciate, but it also got him thinking. “I’m not sure whoever dosed the soup was, either,” he said. “Morpheus is a sedative, not a poison.” 

“And?” she asked, then slapped herself on the forehead. “And no way the fop would know you’d be nutter enough to eat your dinner inna tub!” 

“Yes. Not exactly how I’d put it, but yes. Wait,” he held up his hand. “What fop? I thought you didn’t know who did it?” 

“I don’t know, know. I just seen the bloke leaving while I was out there.” She pointed to the window. “Poison-green jacket and sick yellow pagri. Couldn’t miss ‘im.” 

“And his fashion sense makes you think he did it?”

“No.” She huffed, he presumed at the idiocy of adults. “I think he done it—” 

“Did it,” Gideon corrected automatically. 

“—because he was following you, too.”

“Huh,” Gideon managed. For a guy less than two days out of prison, he was proving awfully popular. 

“Bugger tried to warn me off’a you, too,” the girl continued, puffing up some at having been able to shock the seemingly unflappable man. “Gave me a ‘hands off’ sign,” she said, then went on to describe her rival’s actions, from the way he’d changed his clothes in the alley before entering the hotel’s front door, to his departure just as she’d reached Gideon’s window. “I wasn’t planning on coming in so soon,” she admitted, glancing at Elvis, then the tub. “But then I did.”

“Huh,” Gideon said. Then he tilted his head. “Are you hungry? Because I’m hungry.” 

Her mouth actually dropped in surprise. “Didn’t you just eat?”

“Temporarily.” They both looked at the trash bin. “Besides…” he stepped around the girl, to where his clothing lay neatly folded, “whoever dosed me might be coming back.”

“But whoever dosed you would be thinking you’re out cold,” she turned to watch him. “Why not stay here and, you know…” She punched a fist into her hand as she added, “Give ‘em a good pounding for their trouble?”

“Because as much as I’d enjoy it, I’m not in full pounding form just now.” He reached down to pick up his pants and, as if to prove his point, he overreached, missed the trousers, and almost fell over. 

He didn’t look, but was fairly certain she was rolling her eyes. 

“Here.” She grabbed the pants and handed them to him.

“Thanks.” He took them, straightened up, and waited.

She crossed her arms over her chest and waited, too. 

“Do you mind?” he asked, making a “turn around” gesture with the pants, so the trouser legs seemed to perform a little jig. 

“Mind what?” The girl looked confused, then the crystal flared. “Ohhh.” She drew the word out into three syllables, then grinned. “Afraid to show off the goods? Ain’t you never been to the Fujian baths?”

“Often enough to know they have age restrictions. How old are you anyway? Eleven? Maybe?”

“Thirteen,” the girl responded, unoffended. “Best guess, any road.” Still, in deference to what she obviously considered unnecessary modesty, she did turn around to stare out the window where the rain had finally ceased. 

Since Gideon was already dry (and cold… so cold), he dressed quickly, hands still shaking somewhat as they buttoned up the trousers. He ditched the padding over his shoulder before donning the shirt—it wasn’t the first time he’d have gotten blood on his clothes—and, anyway, it didn’t look as if stitches would be necessary. 

By the time he got to the boots, he could tell right from left, which was nice, and soon he was sliding his arms into the coat and clicking for Elvis. 

The girl turned in time to see the draco land on his right shoulder. “So,” she said, “where we going?”

He was encouraged by the we. “Don’t have a clue. Got any suggestions?”

She considered him, then seemed to come to a decision. “I know a place, nothing too posh, mind, down on Marlow—oy!” The street name turned into a squeak as Elvis gave a massive leap from Gideon’s shoulder, wings brushing the girl’s hood on the down-sweep. 

In one flap, he was at the window, where he scented the air briefly before turning his eyes downward and letting out a low keen that was the draco equivalent of a canine’s warning growl. 

“Keepers!” the girl said, obviously impressed. 

Gideon said nothing, but moved to the window himself, where he stood carefully to the side so anyone looking up wouldn’t see him. “Ah,” he said. “Of course” 

“What?” The girl joined him, trying to peer around the tall man and the draco. “Of course what?”

“That.” He nodded towards the coach and four pulling into the square. 

That there was a horse-drawn carriage at all was impressive, as, while equines were numerous in rural areas, in the cities most citizens used public trams or rickshaws. The moderately well-off might spring for a battery-powered car or cycle, but only ristos had the ready to support livestock that had no purpose other than to look good. 

So the fact that the four horses drawing the Rolls were perfectly matched blacks was additionally impressive, as were their deep red traces, and the carriage itself, which was big enough to hold six comfortably, eight if you weren’t prudish. 

“Nice,” the girl said, standing on her toes to better see the vehicle, “if you’re into that sort of thing.” 

Looking at the family crest emblazoned on the glossy black door, Gideon could say with absolute certainty, “They are.” 

“That’s a Rolls,” she pointed out. “A Rolls Royce with the Rand family crest on it.” 

He glanced down at her. “You know the Rands?”

“Everyone knows the Rands. Family owns a good bit of Avon.” 

“Of course they do.” 

“What’s it mean, them being here?”

“It means,” he said as the horses rounded the square to pull up at the hostel’s entrance, “it’s time to find the back door.”

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