Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Professional Mr. Ford

            Her thoughts were her own, at least. Sweet Clara could be reasonably sure of that. She played her part without error and without hesitation. That was the way that the system worked. Had Mr. Thall not shown up that night, she now was quite sure, she would have died. She did not know how, but that was how this sort of thing worked. When a god appeared to a homeless whore, it was a last-chance scenario.
            She wasn’t sick, but she believed that gods could tell the future, or at least they could see enough to know what would have laid ahead for her. She would have caught something, or she would have eaten something poisonous. She would have been taken by some vicious thug or some drunken “gentleman” and the enforcers would have found her washed up on a riverbank or thrown in a dumpster.
            Thall had rescued her from her fate.
            The business was distant. She did not feel it strongly, most of the time. She dealt with rough people, but they gave her a respectful distance. They knew that she was protected by a powerful employer.
            It was raining, and the light coming in through the windows in the house on Vinebarrel Street was a gloomy grey. She drew the curtains in the sitting-room. The yellow glow of electric light was frankly more pleasant than what could be found outside. There was a strange feeling in her stomach – a liquid, sloshy feeling. She could not remember when it started, but she had come to associate it with her house.
            She did not go out often. It was not appropriate. She was playing a role, but except when she was asleep, or when she was sure that she was totally alone, that she could let the act fall.
            She desperately wanted to dress in simple clothes and go to a pub. She wanted to talk to real people, not these hired killers. There was another contractor coming that afternoon, and so she would soon have to change into that uncomfortable but flattering dress. She’d dealt with this one before. He was a lustful one. Rather attractive, at least in a physical sense. There was something animal-like about him – an attribute many women might find enticing, but as an experienced professional, Clara recognized him as a beast.
            He walked in at three in the afternoon. He wore a long black coat and heavy boots. His hair was long for a man, and a rich chestnut in color. He lips curled into a smile when he saw her.
            “My, my, it is always such a pleasure to see you, Sweet Clara, a bright spot on a dreary day,” said Ford. He was tall and Clara was certain he used a trimmer to maintain a permanent five o’clock shadow. He had the vestiges of a Redlander accent, though he had spent enough time in Retrein to pick up much of the local cadence. “Do we have another customer?”
            Clara nodded silently to the chair opposite her. There was a small tea-table next to the chair that had an envelope with the instructions.
            “And here I was hoping we could have a nice conversation,” said Ford. He glanced over to the third chair – the one with the straps – that sat by the wall. “Well that is downright intimidating. Either that or you’ve got some interesting tastes. And if it’s the latter, you should know that I’m totally into it. Provided it’s you in the chair, mind you.”
            Clara ignored this. She didn't like to think about what was in that chair. “My employer has authorized a five percent increase in remuneration for this one.”
            “Tough bastard, then?”
            “In recognition of your previous contracts and a show of good will, with the hope that you’ll continue to consider us for your services.”
            Ford laughed. “Hell, I ain’t going to complain if you offer me a bit more cash than before. But a man in my line of work gets suspicious when he gets a raise without asking for one first.”
            “I’m afraid I don’t know enough about the contract itself to offer any explanation.” That was true. Thall had sealed the envelope before handing it to her, with the strong implication that she was not to peek. Still, this was unprecedented, and Ford was probably their most reliable contractor, which suggested to her that the target was high-priority.
            “Can I read it here?”
            Clara shrugged – partially to retain her seductive air of indifference (as Thall had instructed her) and partially because she honestly did not know whether Thall would prefer he not do that.
            Ford read the note – a rather simple card. His cocky smile faded instantly. He seemed to read the note several times. He put the note back in the envelope and leaned back in his chair, his mouth agape.  Then, Ford laughed, but quietly and with a higher pitch than his familiar chuckle, saying “Well, that explains that.”
            Clara suppressed the urge to ask him what explained what.
            Ford tossed the envelope back on the tea-table. “Ok, well, this has been good work, and I appreciate… uh… but if you think that I’m… I mean, five percent is not even remotely close. Try five hundred percent. Try five thousand percent. No. You know what, money’s no good if I try something as stupid as this. I appreciate the… offer… you know, and… the… Ok. Well. Goodbye.”
            “Mr. Ford, you aren’t leaving are you?” said Mr. Thall.
            Even Clara did not see him enter the room. But he was standing there, in the doorway between the sitting-room and the foyer. He was, as always, impeccably dressed, and was just now taking off his hat and handing his cloak to the valet.
            “Who are…?”
            “My apologies, Mr. Ford. I’m Henry Thall,” he said, and extended his hand for Ford to shake.
            Ford reluctantly took it. “A… uh…”
            “Pleasure to meet you as well, Mr. Ford. Clara here has provided you with your instructions?”
            Ford nodded several times. “Yes, well, you see… Look, mister, I don’t mean any disrespect, but this guy’s a whole different league. I mean, RAS folks, that’s one thing, but this guy has real connections. It’s just not feasible, if you understand what I mean.”
            Thall’s friendly smile disappeared. “It is feasible.”
            Ford took a step back, perhaps unconsciously, because his back hit the doorframe. “I… again, I really want to make it clear that I do not mean to say… with all due respect. You know I have nothing but respect for…”
            “Spit it out,” said Thall.
            “This guy’s out of your league.”
            Thall smiled politely. “And what league do you suppose I belong to?”
            “Well… I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s the… you know… them!”
            Thall nodded solemnly. “So you will not be persuaded? You’re not interested in this contract?”
            Ford shook his head. “I would be delighted to take out as many old arcanists you want me to. If you’ve got more of that kind of work, I’ll take it. But this, Mr. Thall… I don’t know what league you’re in, but it’s way, way out of mine.”
            Thall took a deep breath. “Very well. I suppose that we all have our limits. I appreciate your candor, Mr. Ford.” Thall glanced to his left, and there was a faceless man standing next to him.
            “Oh well. He’s all yours,” said Thall, and Ford looked terribly confused, looking past the faceless man, at Clara.
            He doesn't see it, she realized.
            The faceless man placed both hands on Mr. Ford’s head, and the assassin shuddered, nearly losing his balance, his eyes rolling back in his head.
            Clara sat up in her chair. She had seen the faceless men now and again, but they had never done anything but stand there. She felt frozen, horror filling her veins with ice.
            The faceless man was gone as quickly as he had appeared, but where his hands had touched the sides of Ford’s head, the hair had turned a dull grey. It might have looked distinguished, like a man just becoming old enough to have that refined look, except that the grey was noticeably in the shape of the faceless man’s hands.
            Ford twitched, and he swayed, as if he were going to fall over, but Thall held him there, holding all of Ford’s over-six-foot body up with one hand. He then whispered in Ford’s ear: “Kom tillbaka från mörkret. Du kommer att göra som jag säger nu . Du kommer att döda mannen med de sex mynt.”
            He released Ford’s body. Ford swayed, but he did not fall down. Clara’s breath caught in her throat when she saw that all the color had left Ford’s eyes, and their vacuous stare looked out of irises that were a cloudy grey.
           “I’m glad you’ve had a change of heart, Mr. Ford,” said Thrall.
            Ford turned and walked out of the building. Thall smiled and turned back to Clara. “What an evening, eh? What would you think of dinner and a show? Come on, Sweet Clara. Let’s hit the town. We have cause to celebrate.”