Boss Man didn’t bother watching the car leave, taking Freya back to Kapla Furnace Village. There was risk in this action, but he was no stranger to risk. But he needed forward momentum. This was a revolution, albeit a secret one against an organization most people didn’t think existed.
His circumstances were not ideal, but they were necessary. They would leave the desert eventually, but he had only just started to plant his seeds. They might not bear fruit for some time.
The camp was oddly friendly, the people oddly warm. He had not intended that, and in fact it made him suspicious. Still, he would adapt. That was the key. The House planned. It planned extraordinarily well. But he adapted, and up until this point, it had kept him alive and free.
Chaffi was an early recruit. When Boss Man had been in the House, he was high enough to understand that they had not had much luck recruiting among the djinn. Boss Man knew of Mr. Flow, but he was a rarity – a djinni who preferred living among the “jengu.”
He had given the House’s pitch many times before, but with Chaffi, he had favored a different approach. He told him a story. The story of Boss Man. A man whose real name was Jac Epping.
The camp they were in was really within the borders of Arizradna – even though the cities and towns didn’t reach this far into the desert, the borders of the world’s oldest country encompassed them. That was by design, actually, to take advantage of the defensive magic that kept the Arizi from needing a real military.
But if you went a couple thousand miles east, you’d get into the Grimelands. Great metal structures rose from the ground as if they had grown from seeds, and the air was full of dust and smoke. In the Grimelands, if you spent much time near these structures, you’d start to get an oily residue on your skin. People avoided it, but a place that people avoid becomes very attractive to someone who wants to avoid people. Over centuries, the Grimelands became something of a country in and of itself, though no one could tell you where the capital was or who was in charge. And it was there that Jac Epping was born.
He hadn’t really known his father. Ky Epping worked for the Imperial Rail Company, shoveling coal because back in the Grimelands, they still used that. IRC was a relic from a far earlier era, and its tracks were the skeletal remains of the Red Empire that had died centuries ago.
Ky had been up at the engine when bandits blew the track. Forty men, women, and children died, including Jac’s father. It was barely considered news.
So Jac and his mother Hope moved to a town called Bitter. She had been harsh and drank a lot, but she also made sure he learned his letters and math. She wanted good things for him, even if she was a difficult woman to live with.
Jac helped on the Namrys’ farm to supplement the family income. The IRC barely gave Hope any compensation for Ky’s death, and they cheated her out of his pension.
He was just a couple days from turning twelve when the Folstom Brothers came calling on Hope Epping. Jac was too young to understand what they wanted from her, though he suspected later it might have been something about debts.
When Vin Folstom suggested that she could pay those debts through alternative means, she declined with vigor. Unfortunately, Vin had little compunction about taking with force that which he could not procure through other means.
It was unfortunate for Vin because he had ignored the hand-cannon Hope Epping had in her kitchen, and when he made his advance, he was left with a fist-sized hole in his chest. It was unfortunate for Hope Gepper because there was more than one Folstom, and when Sal saw what she had made of Vin, murder filled his heart, and this time she was not quick enough on the draw. Jac Epping was orphaned.
And he knew that this was what had happened because he had seen it. When the Folstoms came, his mother had instructed him to hide beneath the floorboards.
He left Bitter and made his way to Smokestack, taking up his own job with the IRC. However, thanks to his mother’s lessons, he was able to get a better job at a desk, working out timetables and keeping the ledgers.
It was during this time that a man Jac would only ever know as “Sootgrin” came to talk to him about scheduling. Sootgrin – a name Jac would never understand, given the man’s pearly whites – told him to change the schedule of two trains, ensuring that one coming into Smokestack would leave before the other arrived.
At the time, Jac assumed that Sootgrin was an important person at the company. He had seen him on occasion, and he believed that Sootgrin matched the description of the company president – an older man, tall and thin with long white hair and a long white mustache.
Jac figured out a way to change the schedules of the trains without upsetting all the other schedules and eagerly made it to impress this Sootgrin. It was only after he had submitted the new schedules that Sootgrin informed him that he did not, in fact, work for the company. And if Jac didn’t want his bosses finding out what he had done, he would have to do more tasks for Sootgrin.
Jac was only thirteen at the time. He naturally did what Sootgrin told him to do. But Sootgrin did not simply make demands. He also instructed Jac. He taught Jac to forge a signature. He taught him how to lie convincingly. In spite of the fact that he was being blackmailed, Jac came to like the old man. In fact, it no longer felt like he was being blackmailed. Sootgrin started to feel like a grandfather.
When Jac turned sixteen, Sootgrin gave the pitch. He was an Agent of the House. And regardless of the House’s agenda for trains in the Grimelands, Sootgrin’s main task was the training of a new recruit. In effect, he had already been a House Agent for three years, but now Sootgrin felt it was time to make it official. Jac got the codename Mr. Key.
And for a time, life was pretty similar. Then, one day, Sootgrin abruptly announced that it was time to quit. The House was no longer interested in trains, or at least these particular trains that came out of Smokestack. So they left and traveled east to Gessan Province in the Redlands.
Jac’s work for the House got more interesting, but also more dangerous. He remembered in particular a time when he and Sootgrin had assisted in a bank robbery. They weren’t there at the time of course – the House preferred to keep its Agents somewhat removed from such overt acts. Still, they provided logistical support. They put the gang in touch with a safecracker and taught the robbers about the way that the bank’s security cameras could be bypassed. Then, when the day came, Mr. Key found out that the robbery had turned into a bloodbath, and that the robbers were all dead.
To Jac’s shock, Sootgrin did not seem shocked at all. He indicated that this had, in fact, been the intended outcome of the robbery. Jac demanded to know what the purpose of such a thing was, but Sootgrin managed to explain it without explaining it in such a way that it was not until years later that Jac would think to question what they had done again. Essentially, Sootgrin reasoned, the House knew what it was doing. Did he know the specifics? No. But the House always thought thirty steps ahead. They had reasons, and Sootgrin had faith that they were good ones.
Jac became more comfortable with their activities over time. His protests died down and he began to simply do his job. And apparently he and Sootgrin were showing a level of competence that was rare even within the House, because before too long, Jac found himself traveling the world, participating in delicate and important operations. He saw the installation of a House Agent to the Arizradna High Council. He helped to thwart a potentially disastrous Vistani invasion of the Wastes by leaking their invasion plans. He had the son of a general in Sarso committed to a mental institution, despite the fact that the young man was perfectly sane.
The House was built on compartmentalization, and so it was difficult to trace its actions to motivations and causes. But as Mr. Key became more prominent within the organization, the silhouette of its larger form had begun to reveal itself to him. The chains – wholly separate and distinct at the House’s lowest levels, became tangled and interconnected the closer one got to the top. And looking down some of the chains that led back to the Grimelands, he made a fateful discovery.
Sal and Vin Folstom were both House Agents.
Jac thought it had to be a coincidence, and that their actions were probably not much more complicated than they had seemed. Though Mr. Key had become an exemplary Agent, the House was not devoid of ineffective brutes at its lower levels.
When he approached Sootgrin with what he had discovered, however, he did not get the reaction that he expected. It was not surprise. It was not skepticism. It was not even worry that Jac had been looking in places he shouldn’t have been looking.
No, it was guilt.
Sootgrin was a talented liar. But Sootgrin was also the person who had taught Mr. Key how to lie, and also how to recognize one. The more he attempted to deny it, the more he attempted to divert the conversation, the harder Jac pressed, until finally, Sootgrin confessed.
The House had sent the Folstom Brothers there. The Folstom Brothers had killed Jac’s mother on orders. And it was because of Jac. They had seen in Jac the potential to be a remarkable Agent. A potential, Sootgrin informed him, that Jac was fulfilling – exceeding every expectation. The House sought to create the ideal environment in which Jac could be recruited.
All this, when Jac was not yet even twelve.
He let Sootgrin live, though he felt now that that had been a mistake. But he cast off his allegiance to the House. He saw now just how deep its callous cruelty ran. Jac had his own subordinates, but he knew to be careful around them. The House had a practice called “Breaking the Chain,” in which an unsatisfactory Agent might be cut off from the House in varyingly severe manners. If an Agent was cut off, their subordinates might share their fate, but alternatively, the higher-ups might instead have one of those subordinates eliminate the Agent in question and take their place.
In Jac’s case, it was a woman he had recruited designated “Sieve.” After leaving Sootgrin, he quickly called up his immediate subordinates (he was a prominent enough Agent that each of his subordinates had their own, and some of them had their own as well.) When he arrived in the basement of an Omlos grocery store to speak with them, he found that two of the five were on the ground with their throats slit, and a third, Sieve, was there with a bloody knife.
He discovered Sieve’s presence when her knife slashed him along the face. They fought, but in the end he prevailed, leaving the knife embedded in her chest.
He decided at that point that Omlos, and indeed all of Narcia, was no longer a safe place for him. So he smuggled himself out of the country on an airship bound for Damana. Then he traveled back to his homeland where he would begin to recruit this small force he had managed to put together. And in time, if things went well, he would destroy the House.
Mr. Key had learned a great deal while under the House’s employ. He did not condone their ethics, but he could not deny the effectiveness of their methods. And so, Mr. Key became Boss Man, and he began recruiting his own Agents. But his Agents would get to know the story of Jac Epping. He would ensure that they understood the stakes of what they were doing here.
But Boss Man had a secret. It was a secret he could not tell anyone, and in fact he tried not to avoid thinking about it himself. Compartmentalization was crucial in the world of cloak and dagger. It was a challenge, though not impossible, to do so within his own mind.
There never was a man named Jac Epping. There was never an Agent called Sootgrin. There was never an Agent named Mr. Key. And Boss Man had never set foot in the Grimelands before the previous summer.
Boss Man had his reasons for doing what he was doing, but for now, he would keep them to himself.
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2016)