Rogan’s life became complicated after that damn umbrella salesman came to town. Rogan and his colleague Siq scurried along a grey brick bridge, peering over the railing at the newcomer.
“What’re we lookin’ at?” Siq asked, shielding his eyes from the rain with a cupped hand.
“There.” Rogan nodded toward the cobblestone road across the canal. Along the row of slanted houses, sheltered by the overhangs, a thin man hunched over a wooden cart filled with umbrellas.
Siq curled up one side of his lip, looking confused. “The umbrella man? That’s why you brought me down here in the pissin’ rain?”
“Where’d he come from?” Rogan asked, wonder in his voice.
Siq huffed. “Who the hell knows. For a town with perpetual rain, he’s clearly in the right business.”
“But nobody ever moves here.”
“Well, he did.”
Sensing his friend was about to leave, Rogan tugged on Siq’s jacket. “Wait for it.” Rogan grinned, watching intently as the old man with a nose as hooked as the ends of his umbrellas went about his business.
“Why would I waste my Saturday staring at—” Siq went silent.
A young woman emerged from around a corner, joining the umbrella vendor. Her skin seemed to light up the grey day, glowing through the droplets of water running off her black umbrella.
“Ah.” Siq grinned as he jabbed an elbow into Rogan’s side. “I take it she’s what we really came to see.”
“Isn’t she spectacular?” Rogan couldn’t take his eyes off her. Seeing her now sent his heart fluttering in a way he didn’t know was possible anymore.
“Yes, yes, good hunting, chap. But please don’t go through this again,” Siq said, a groan in his voice.
Rogan shook his head. “This isn’t like last time.”
“‘Course it is! A lovely new lady comes to town, you throw yourself into her, she shatters your heart, and—”
“I get the idea.” Rogan knew Siq was right. His history was a stream of broken hearts and broken bones. Whenever he let someone close to him, the reality of his situation would come crashing down, putting his latest infatuation in danger. Still, he was swept up by this lady. Whether it was the way she moved, the glow about her skin, the care she took with the frail man. “What do you suppose she’s doing with him?”
Siq grinned. “They’re lovers.” He dragged out the word lovers, letting the “L” hang on the roof of his mouth.
Rogan threw his head back with a laugh. The burst of noise drew attention to them. The lady was staring right at them. Rogan’s pulse rocketed as he flattened himself to the roadway, hiding behind the low wall. Siq slumped down next to him.
“Yes, good plan. I’m sure this doesn’t make us look suspicious.” Siq said.
“Shut up,” Rogan hissed. He slowly raised his head above the wall again, checking out the situation. His eyes popped all the wider when he saw the young woman, umbrella in hand, walking toward them.
“Shut up? What the hell difference does it make,” Siq said. “She can’t hear us over the rain.”
“She’s coming this way.”
Siq grimaced. “Let’s bail. For her sake.”
Rogan took a deep breath, knowing his friend was right. Watching from a distance was about the only pleasure he could allow himself. Meeting this lovely lady would be something he’d have to reserve for his dreams. They remained crouched as they shuffled through the puddled road and escaped off the other end of the bridge.
A week had passed, and Rogan wasn’t able to get the lady out of his mind. He’d asked around, hoping that someone could shed some light on her sudden arrival in town. Of course, he was cautious to never ask about her directly.
“Grager, have you met that old man selling umbrella’s on Nigh Street yet?” Rogan asked the broad, tattooed man standing over a jet black anvil.
The man brought down his hammer, clanging against a sword and sending a flash of sparks fizzing into the air. “What ’bout him?”
“I was wondering if you’d met him.” Rogan spoke a little louder, knowing that Grager sometimes needed things repeated.
Grager pointed at Rogan with the hammer, waggling it in the air. “Stay clear of it. Sellin’ umbrellas in Lumbsport sounds like a cover for something.”
“Siq says it’s a good business idea. Always raining.”
Grager sniffed. “If it’s a lucrative business, why ain’t nobody done it before?”
Rogan hopped up onto a splintery wooden stool, crossing his arms. “Just nobody seems to know anything about him, that’s all. It’s strange. When you’re new to town, you make a point of meeting people. Right?”
Grager brought the hammer down again, then lifted the sword to inspect it. “Some folk are private. Best to leave ’em. Turn too many stones, and you’ll find a hornet’s nest under there.”
A jingle sounded as the shop’s door swung open. Rogan turned, and his breath left him. His eyes widened, his mouth becoming parched.
The blacksmith dunked the sword into a trough of water, billowing puffs of steam. He then turned, tipping his head as he eyed the young woman standing in the doorway. “This is the blacksmith, miss.”
She smiled the most heavenly smile that Rogan had ever experienced. With a smooth gesture, she closed her umbrella and shook the rain from it. “Good. I’m in the right place.”
Rogan nearly fell on his chair. Hopping to his feet, he glanced down to inspect his clothes, smoothing out a few wrinkles. His face warmed as the lady moved further into the shop. She wore sandals, leaving small prints of water on the floor. Her dress revealed only about an inch of ankle, the emerald velvet smoothly stretching over her form. She placed a hand on her hip, hooking the curl of the umbrella handle around her pointed, porcelain elbow.
“My horse needs reshoeing,” she said.
“Your horse.” the blacksmith repeated.
“Yes,” she said, running a finger across the grubby workbench. “Women are allowed to own horses these days. Haven’t they told you?”
Rogan smirked, stifling a laugh.
Grager shrugged. “You just don’t strike me as the type who rides.”
“Do I strike you as the type who moseys into businesses asking for services I have no need for?”
The blacksmith took a deep breath. “Bring your horse over. I’ll reshoe him.”
“I want a quote first. Shop around. You know how it is being new.”
“Then I’ll save you some time. I’m the only blacksmith in town.” He handed the now-cooled sword to Rogan. “The price is the price.”
She shuffled a sandaled foot. “I’m short on coin right now, but perhaps I can pay you in-kind.`
“No.” The blacksmith clapped his gorilla-like hands together, shaking some soot loose. “You will pay in coin. Or you can find someone else to shoe your horse.”
“You said you were the only one in town.”
The blacksmith grinned. “Best get some coins, then.”
The lady looked at Rogan, causing his heart to leap into his throat. The way her eyes sparkled in this dim light of the shop made her seem otherworldly. With a stomach full of butterflies and perhaps other insects too, he willed himself to speak, but his mouth hung open, silent.
The lady eyed Rogan. “Do you speak?”
Rogan nodded. His cheeks reddened.
She raised an eyebrow. “Well, come on, then. Prove it.”
Rogan wobbled on his feet, almost tripping over the stool behind him. “I can speak.”
“Look at that, so you can.”
“I’ve seen you,” he said. He winced at how awkward his own words sounded. “With the umbrella vendor.”
The lady smiled like the devil, her eyes narrowing as she shuffled a little closer to Rogan. He could smell her perfume now, like strawberry jam being cooked over the stove. He took a deep breath in, savouring the scent, holding it in as long as his lungs would allow.
“Have you?” she said flatly.
Rogan tipped his head to Grager. “He thinks it’s a front.”
The lady wasn’t insulted by the insinuation that she might be involved in something illegal. She seemed utterly unbothered that someone might question her morals. She simply shrugged. “And what if it is?”
“Is it?” Rogan asked.
She smiled. “What's your name?"
"Deli," she replied. Taking the umbrella from her elbow, she headed for the exit. "Come with me, Rogan. I want to show you something."
The umbrella was big enough for the two of them, but just barely. Rogan didn’t mind one bit, being squashed in close to Deli as they navigated the shiny, wet streets of west end Lumbsport. It was the stuff of dreams. The dreams he wouldn't dare breathe to another soul, of course. They ducked into a covered alley, a shortcut that Rogan had taken many times when trying to escape after a job. The passage ends about half a block from the place he'd seen the umbrella vendor. With the alley providing shelter from the rain, Rogan reluctantly gave some space back.
"Is he your father?" Rogan asked.
“The umbrella vendor."
Deli choked on a laugh. "Oh blessed, no."
She wrinkled her nose. "Do you suppose I only spend time with family members?"
Rogan swallowed. "So who is he then?"
As they emerged from the other side of the alley, the rain resumed, coming down as hard and as suddenly as if someone had turned on the shower.
"Perhaps he really is a front for all my illicit business," Deli said, grinning while wiggling her eyebrows.
Rogan had assumed Deli was taking him to the umbrella stand. His brow furrowed as they passed by the cart, not even slowing to wave at the old man selling his wares. Rogan raised a finger, his mouth hung open to question but proceeded to follow Deli. She moved at a brisk pace, never taking her eyes from the path in front of them.
The hairs on the back of Rogan's neck stood on end when Deli finally came to a pause. She straightened up, taking a deep breath and looked up at the corroded copper sign hanging on the building.
"Zam's?" Rogan asked. He kept a few steps behind her, not minding that he was no longer covered by the umbrella. Rogan was no stranger to Zam's Lounge for Refined Ladies, but never would he dare attend with an actual lady. "Why are we here?"
"You've forgotten?" she said. "I was going to show you something."
"Don't be bashful," she said, bobbing her head as if to mock him. "Surely, a man in your line of work has been here before."
"You don't even know what my line of work is."
"Ah. Right," she said, bringing a finger to her chin. She was grinning the whole while, making Rogan wonder whether she might know more about him than he had realized. Could this lady have been asking around about him as much as he’d been asking about her?
They stepped through the polished rosewood doors into the lounge. The lazy rhythm of a brass duet drifted through the air, covering up whatever forbidden conversations might be muttered underneath. It was dimly lit, intentionally, only the subtle orange glow of oil lanterns illuminating the place. Rogan stepped onto the burgundy carpet that awaited them inside, shaking the water from his shoes.
"Follow," Deli said. She closed her umbrella and handed it to the concierge. "Hang this for me, won't you?"
Rogan shrank in, his shoulders sagged. He had the impulse to glance over his shoulder repeatedly. They hadn't paid. The entrance fee to Zam's was handsome, primarily to serve as a filter to keep out those who had no business doing business in a place like that. A deterrent for those who could only look but not touch. Smell but not eat. People like Rogan.
The last time he was here, an employer had paid his entrance. The time before that, Siq had given him entrance as a birthday gift. A rather extravagant and awkward birthday gift, but no less appreciated.
Rogan considered a thousand scenarios that allowed Deli to waltz past the entrance without paying an admission. His heart pounded in his chest, keeping beat with the music, or perhaps trying to warn him to get out of there.
Deli led him through the main room of the lounge. Blood red upholstered chairs were arranged in tight clusters, each cluster carefully spaced out of ear-shot of each other. Deli moved past it all, past the bar, past the employee only sign affixed to a velvety rope. They went from the poorly lit room to an even more poorly lit hallway. Halfway down the hall, Deli stopped. She glanced over her shoulder, giving a smile to Rogan so sweet that his teeth could have rotted from his head.
"Shall we?" she said, turning the brass knob and pushing open the door.
Rogan's eyes were ostrich eggs. A cold sweat had beaded on his brow, but he convinced himself it was just rain and should be ignored. So ignore it, he did.
"What do you mean she took ya to a private room?" Siq asked the next day. He was sitting against the cold grey wall of an alcove. "You mean...those private rooms they..." He winked.
Rogan raised his eyebrows. "Yes. Those rooms."
Siq grinned, leaning forward. "And did what?"
Rogan waved off the comment. "You don't want me to tell you any of that."
Siq roared in laughter, jumping to his feet. He walked in circles, shaking his head. "Imagine that. The girl of your dreams just breaks into Zam's and gives you a ride in the private room. And it don't cost you a single credit." He pointed a finger at Rogan. "That sort of treatment normally costs a fortune. Don't ask me how I know."
Rogan dropped his shoulders, turning his gaze down to the road. "Well, we ran into a problem on the way out."
"Oh blessed." Siq ran a hand through his slick hair, rolling his eyes. "They kicked your guys out?"
Rogan shook his head. "He screamed at us. Called Deli down to the dirt. But I'm gonna make good for her. The owner put five kay on a tab for Deli. I'll settle it, though. I felt bad. I mean--"
"Oh," Siq said, his grin returning. He snapped his fingers and jabbed Rogan with a boney finger. "She's playing you. What a sly hawk she is."
"What? No," Rogan said, swatting away his finger. "It's not--"
"She's playing you, Rogan. She's in with the owner. She knew if she could fluff your pillows, then you'd--"
"Stop." Rogan's face went stern, his eyes narrowed. "What I felt was real."
Siq danced, slapping his thighs as he laughed like fireworks. "No doubt it was! She is good, Rogan. Any other favours she ask you for?"
Rogan pressed his lips together. His stomach dropped, not wanting to tell Siq about the small task she had asked of him. Nothing important. Just a trivial errand. "She wanted me to pick up an envelope from that old guy."
"Old guy? The umbrella vendor?"
"Yeah. She apparently left an envelope at his cart and asked if I could go with her to pick it up. No big deal."
Siq drew his mouth into a pinched circle. His brow wrinkled. "Asked you to go with her? To...her own grandfather?".
“He’s not her—I’m not sure what their relationship is.” Rogan wanted to curl up. Any justification he tried sounded stupid. Maybe it was stupid. Maybe he was stupid. "I get that it's weird . . . but maybe she just wants to spend time with me. I'm telling you, Siq. I felt someth—"
"Nah, I get it. She wants you to go with her. Maybe it's billable hours. She's a hard worker by the sounds of it."
By the afternoon, the rain had lifted slightly, leaving no more than a faint mist. Rogan went with Deli to retrieve the envelope. Nausea pressed on his stomach. Siq’s cautionary words played over in his mind. This was a strange request for Deli to make. And if Rogan were in his right state of mind, he might have agreed. He was trained for this, thoroughly engrained in him to spot signs of swindlers and cons. But his brain swam with such infatuation that he ignored his wiser demons. Instead, he walked those slick cobblestones with Deli by his side.
They reached the umbrella vendor. Rogan noticed how old the man looked up close, his face creased with deep wrinkles. Ruddy bags hung under his eyes, streaked with capillaries. The white hairs of his eyebrows were sparse and wildly overgrown. But his eyes were still bright, pale blue sparkles. The vendor first looked at Rogan. Then, the man’s gaze shifted to Deli. It was not the look of a grandfather towards a granddaughter. There was no familial warmth. The sparkle in those eyes snuffed out like a drop of rain landing perfectly on the wick of a candle.
“Do you have it?” Deli asked. Her face was as friendly as ever, but her words were stone.
The vendor breathed in sharply, hissing through his yellowed teeth. “I’ll need a little more time. Business is slow.”
“As you’ve said last week.”
The vendor nodded. “We’re getting there. I promise.”
Deli rolled her head back, sighing deeply. “No. That's enough.” She turned her eyes to Rogan.
A chill sliced through Rogan, and he visibly shivered from her gaze. The pulse in his neck throbbed. “What?” he dared to ask.
“Do what you do,” she said, smiling.
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh, you do.” Her smile faded. “You’re a hitman, Rogan.” She tipped her head towards the umbrella vendor. “And I’m hiring you. Consider it the first of many payments against your tab.”