“Are you coming tonight?" Siq asked while scrubbing mud from his shoe, shaded by the arched bridge overhead. The tattered rag he was using was nearly as dirty as the shoe, so progress was slow.
Rogan stared off in the distance, his eyes glassy. Siq wasn't even sure he had heard the question, so he waved a hand in front of his colleague's face.
"Hello?" Siq said in a sing-song voice. "Where's my best mate to?"
"Sorry." Rogan shook his head, drawing in a deep breath. "What were you saying?”
Siq rolled his eyes, groaning. "Blessed soul, Rogan. You've been absolutely useless these past weeks. You can't even listen properly anymore.”
"Are ya?" Siq flung the rag. "I need you with me at the theatre tonight."
"Right." Rogan's head bobbed. "Yes, I remember you telling me about that."
"I bloody hope so. We've only been planning this job for a month. Where's your head at?"
Rogan tipped his head, shooting a glare at his friend. Siq knew exactly where Rogan's head was and why he had become horribly unreliable over the past month. "You got to ditch this woman," Siq said. "It's been bad news ever since she showed up."
Rogan again let his head bob. "There's nothing I can do."
"Of course there is! Ditch her."
"Why? You love her? Is that it? For blessed sake, Rogan. You only just met--"
"It's not that."
"Then what?" By now, Siq was on his feet, anger starting to swell in his chest. He'd known Rogan to get swept away with girls before. This was nothing new. But he remained loyal to their jobs. He never lost focus, not like this. But ever since this new girl came around, Rogan hadn't been himself.
Instead of answering, Rogan turned away. The silence hung in the air, filling the echoey space beneath the bridge. The only sound was the soft bubbling of water passing by in the canal.
"Silent treatment now, huh? That's perfectly mature of you." Siq crossed his arms, pressing his lips together. "This is a big job, you know. Five thousand. You ever do a job that size?"
"You know I haven't."
"Exactly. So give your head a shake and focus."
Rogan paused. "I don't think I can make it."
Siq's eyes widened. "Excuse me. I’m not sure you heard me. Five. Thousand. Is that not enough for you?"
"I have to check with Deli."
Siq whipped his hands through the air, shaking his head. "Absolutely not."
"I won't tell her about the job. Just that we're going to the theatre."
"You do not need your paramour's permission to hang out with your friend."
"It's not hanging out."
"She won't know that," Siq pointed out. "Besides, the more people who know where we are, the more difficult this becomes."
Rogan let out his breath. "Then I can't come."
Siq started counting out slowly on his fingers. "Four jobs, Rogan. This is the fourth job you've opted out of. I'm making a fortune over here, and my best friend in the world can't be bothered to share in the wealth."
"Don't." Siq held up a finger. "If this is how it's gonna be, I can't want to hear that name. We ain't never let a girl come between us, and I'll be damned to start it now."
Rogan's mouth hung open, about to reply. Siq didn't want to give him the satisfaction and cut him off.
"Ya know what," Siq said, "You can't opt out of this job, because I'm revoking the offer. How about that?"
"You don't want the money? Fine. I'll keep your share if you really don't want it. But this more than money." Siq took a step toward Rogan, patting a flat hand against his own chest, and then against Rogan's. "It's about us. Best friends. Partners. Working together. Surviving together. Like we always have."
Rogan frowned. He kept looking away, unable to make eye contact with Siq. "I wish I could go. I really do."
Siq waved a hand, walking in the other direction. "Don't sweat it. I'll just have to assassinate the merchant myself."
"Wait." Rogan's body was rigid, his eyes glistened as if there was something inside him struggling to get out. Something dark and horrible, something that Rogan wouldn't--or couldn't--say. Silence hung for a long moment. "Call off the job," Rogan said at last.
Siq blinked a couple times. He wasn't sure at first that he heard his friend correctly. Call of the job? They never called off jobs. Reliability was their calling card. Once someone hired them for a job, it got one. One hundred percent of the time. Siq wasn't about to let that kind of pristine reputation tarnish now.
"Have you lost your damn mind?"
"Please," Rogan said, face frozen. "Just this time. Skip this one."
Siq chuckled, shaking his head. "I have no idea who you are."
Evening darkened the city of Lumbsport, and a dense fog weighed heavy in the air. The scent of muddied water wafted from the canals as Siq made his way toward the theatre. Alone. He was irate, fists clenched and bulged eyes, still unable to believe that Rogan had bailed on the job. More for me, Siq told himself. I work better by myself anyway; who needs that flake. Though Siq knew he was lying, it made it easier to cope with being alone.
The outdoor theatre was a massive A-framed structure covering the stage, with rows of seating stretching back from the structure in tight, quarter-circles. A tall security wall wrapped the entire area, not so much to prevent unauthorized viewing of the plays but to prevent underlings like Siq from milling about with the upper echelons of society. The High Houses. The politicians. And the wealthy lumber merchant that Siq was here to visit.
Siq tipped the hat of his stolen military uniform as he approached the gate.
"Excuse me, sir," said the attendant at the door. "Are you here for the performance?"
Siq feigned shock and insult, slapping a hand to his chest and raising his eyebrows.
"Excuse you, indeed! I'm working here, man. Can't you see?"
"Apologies." The attendant shuffled his papers, his eyes darting around. "...nobody told me. Are you...security for the new deputy?"
Siq forced down a grin. He absolutely loved it when someone else provided him with his cover story. "Obviously, I am! Are you stupid, man?"
The man quickly flicked his arms, ushering Siq inside. "Sorry, sir. So sorry."
Siq lifted his chin. "I would hope so. A good evening to you." He strode through the gate and took a deep breath, filling his chest with air. He could hold the suppressed grin no longer, allowing it to blossom across his face. Now inside, he scanned across the restless crowd taking their seats.
He patted at his breast pocket, feeling the hard lump of the dagger concealed there. It's all too easy, he thought, moving in amongst the crowd. The play wouldn't start for another twenty minutes, but that wasn't the reason most of these people had come. The astronomical ticket prices for these shows were not a reflection of the quality of production but merely a filter to keep out a particular type of person. The theatre was a place of business and chest-pounding, mostly. An opportunity to show how important you are, a refined furnace for forging new business alliances. That's why the lumber merchant would be here.
Siq strolled toward the stage, casually turning to face the crowd. His eyes flitted from one person to the next, studying each face. Where the hell is he, Siq thought. These guys are always early, that's when the best deals are done. Finally, he saw him. Siq touched at his breast pocket again, nodding to himself for reassurance. It was time to move.
Siq strode towards the merchant, careful not to go too quickly and draw attention. The murmuring of surrounding conversation blurred together into white noise, but Siq narrowed his eyes, hoping to focus on his target and nothing else. The merchant was speaking to a young woman. She looked vaguely familiar, but Siq couldn’t place her. She was tall, thin, exquisitely dressed. The merchant seemed to touch her with far too much frequency for mere acquaintances. His hand kept finding the bare spot on her back, where her gown hung open. Siq saw the woman lean in and whisper in the merchant’s ear before she spun away, heading towards the stage.
Maybe she’s an actress, Siq told himself. Perhaps he had seen her in another production, and that’s why she looked familiar. Why else would she be heading backstage?
A moment later, Siq stiffened, the hairs on his arms prickling. The merchant was moving. Siq watched as the merchant excused himself from his conversation and quickly shuffled from his row, heading to the aisle at the opposite side of the theatre.
With eyes fixed on the merchant, Siq followed his movement, trying to track where he was going. Backstage, he determined. A smirk crept across Siq’s face, knowing the target was following the woman, perhaps to enjoy some private time backstage.
Siq followed, keeping a reasonable distance. His eyes trained forward, glancing only occasionally to keep sight of the target. The merchant was, indeed, moving backstage. It was rare for the high society folks to go back there, and little need: nothing but actors and stagehands, nobody with whom these people would typically have dealings. Except for deals of a conjugal nature.
Siq briskly cut across a row of seats, not wanting to leave the target out of sight for too long.
"Sorry, sir," an usher said, holding up a hand. "Backstage is off-limits."
"That bullshit, I just saw--"
"Sorry," the man said again. "Without a pass, I can't let ya through."
"Okay." Siq flung open his jacket, ripping the knife concealed in the pocket and pressing it against the usher's stomach. Siq leaned closer, hissing at the man. "Here's my pass. We good?"
The usher went pale, nodding his head frantically, otherwise unable to speak. Siq grabbed him by the shoulders and tossed him aside, striding past with long steps.
Backstage was dark, and it took a moment for Siq's eyes to adjust. He heard talking. A woman's voice, perhaps the same woman he'd seen speaking with the merchant. Then came a man's voice. Siq strained to hear the words.
Siq pushed aside a curtain, moving further back into the darkness. He saw the form of a person. Man. A tall man. But he couldn't be confident it was the merchant. His hand quivered as he tightened his grip on the handle of the knife and willed himself to reach out with the other hand. Grabbing the man on the shoulder, Siq spun him around.
Siq gasped, staggering backwards, his eyes wide and trying to suck in as much light as possible in the dark space. He was convinced that his eyes were playing tricks on him. How can it...
"Get out." The voice was cold. Stern. Familiar.
"Rogan," Siq breathed. "What the hell, mate. Why are you...what are--"
"I told you to call off the job."
Rogan burst into a sprint, vanishing from the room, leaving Siq to wonder if he had ever been there at all. Just as a bell began to ring backstage, indicating an emergency, Siq saw the body on the floor. Breathing heavy, confused, Siq gave his head a shake. He knew he should leave before security showed up. But he had to check the body. A man, face down, centered in a dark and spreading pool of crimson. Siq knelt down, needing to be sure. Though he knew exactly who it was. He rolled the man over, revealing the face of the merchant. Expressionless. Void eyes. Pale skin. A knife wound to the heart.
"That bugger beat me to it," Siq said, letting his shoulder slump in bewilderment. The room was soon filled with security officers, guards studded with military garb, and dragged Siq away from the corpse.
"Why, Rogan?" he wondered aloud. The shackles clamped around his wrists with a dreadful click. "Why?"
As Siq waited in the cold darkness of his cell, he thought through his friendship with Rogan. The jobs they'd run together, the boyish foolishness they'd carried on with, and the girls--oh, the girls--that Rogan had so famously brought into their perilous world. Siq knew that somehow she was involved in this. Rogan would never betray him. Of this, he was confident.
At that moment, it struck Siq. He groaned, throwing his head back and rubbing his eyes. How could he have been so dumb? The woman he saw at the theatre was Rogan’s newest infatuation. He had only seen her once, from a distance, but he was certain now. That’s why she looked so familiar. It was no coincidence that she was there immediately before Rogan killed the merchant.
What leverage did this new girl have against Rogan? Must be something horrible, making him outcompete his own crew for jobs. Whatever it was, it could be broken. This could be fixed.
Siq crossed his arms, leaning back against the stone wall. He couldn't help when a smile flourished across his face. This woman, whoever she was, would pay. Not for stealing the job; that’s just business. But to mess with the bond between Siq and Rogan was unforgivable.
"What is ya grinning' for?" barked a grizzly cellmate.
Siq took a deep breath. "I've decided to make a career change. I got something bigger to go after now. Besides, I ruined my perfect record."