Needles had never really been Twigs’ thing, even when they weren’t almost as thick as his little finger.
‘Are you going to do it, or do you need me to?’
Twigs glanced over to where his partner sat back on her heels drumming her fingers on her knee.
‘I can do it, I can,’ he looked back to the enormous needle in his hand, ‘I’m just not – erm – I’m not quite sure,’ his voice wavered.
‘Is this your first time?’ she asked and rolled her eyes.
‘No, no, it’s not! I’m just – could you show me where to, you know, put it in?’
‘This is your first time,’ she sighed and held out her hand, ‘just give it here, I’ll do it. You’ll only make a mess if you do it.’
Twigs handed over the needle. He leaned back and looked around at their dingy surroundings. The crowded buildings left them in a murky twilight even at the height of the day. No one ever really came down these little alleys unless they were doing something they shouldn’t be. He supposed that’s why his partner had chosen the place. Shiv seemed to be something of an expert at this sort of thing.
‘Are you going to watch so you know how to do this?’ Shiv was staring at him with one eyebrow raised. Twigs swallowed and leant forward again.
‘Do you need me to get you a sick bag?’ Shiv asked with a smirk.
Twigs opened his mouth to respond. On second thoughts, he’d better not. He set his jaw tight.
Shiv took hold of the unfortunate soul by their feet, dragging them through the dirt. Once she was happy with their position, she proceeded to kneel unceremoniously upon his chest. Twigs cringed as Shiv shifted her weight over the body with no regard for where her knees dug in. She pushed his lolling head over to the side to expose the blue-grey skin of his neck. She measured three fingers down from his ear hole and pressed the needle to his skin. It didn’t slide in easily like Twigs had expected. Instead Shiv had to push until it made a kind of squelchy pop and entered his neck. Twigs felt his gorge rise and had to swallow very hard. He would be thinking about that noise all day.
Shiv pressed the button on the vacuum chamber and the transparent tube filled with an inky liquid. Once it was full she pulled the needle out and pressed some cotton wool to the puncture wound. She examined the contents of the tube in the dim light.
‘That should be enough,’ she dropped the cotton wool and packed away their liquid loot in a cooler box. She stood up and brushed off her knees.
Twigs followed suite, he looked down at his shoes, they would need a good clean tonight.
Shiv began walking towards the alley entrance. She tapped the screen of the computer on her wrist, already getting ready for the next part of her contract.
‘Wait – we’re just going to leave him here?’ Twigs asked. He looked over at the hulking unconscious mass.
Shiv paused and looked back at him.
Twigs hesitated by the body.
‘But, shouldn’t we…you know, help him?’
‘Help him? No. Unless you want to be here when he wakes up?’ Shiv laughed. ‘I’m sure he’d briefly appreciate you holding his hand before he crushed it.’
‘I don’t mean that.’
‘I imagine that he might not be in the best of moods, plus he’ll be confused and confused hunders are just so much more hassle. I mean, they’re not bright at the best of times. When they’ve been knocked out and had their blood taken, they’re even worse,’ Shiv trailed off with a shrug.
‘Ok, ok, I get it. How can you be so calm?’ Twigs scurried to catch her up as she reached the edge of the alley.
‘How did you get hired?’ Shiv shook her head.
‘It’s just a trial, I’m not “in” in yet,’ Twigs said as he reached her.
Shiv stepped out into a quiet side street. A few people passed them by with their heads bowed. Either no one knew or no one cared about the sleeping hunder just a few paces away from them. Twigs would normally have been one of them, keep your head down, keep to yourself and trouble will keep away. This, whatever “this” was, was definitely not the norm for Twigs.
‘How did you get in?’ Twigs wondered aloud.
‘I was selected for my talents,’ Shiv answered.
Shiv looked at him out the corner of her eye.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean that to sound like that. I’m not implying that you don’t have any talents. I’m sure you’re very talented at lots of things. I mean that you are talented, obviously.’ Shut your mouth Twigs, just shout your mouth, he thought to himself, too late as usual.
Shiv just shook her head.
‘I just meant which ones specifically?’ Twigs was starting to realise that there was something that made him feel more ill than needles.
Shiv just smiled knowingly, and they continued to walk in silence.
They emerged onto a busy street where the sounds of haggling customers and shouting merchants were rich in the air. Every species you could think of wandered up and down the street, barging their way to the stalls and shoving their way through the crowds. Market Street was a cacophony of smells fighting for attention. Spices, incense, frying food, wood smoke and the scent of hundreds of different people from all walks of life, hit them like a brick wall as they entered the hubbub.
The city’s security system was making its presence known in the area too. The bio-electronic sentinels waited silently amongst the crowds; their black visors scanning everyone for a face which was recognised by the database as a wanted person. Twigs hesitated.
‘You’re not on file, are you?’ Shiv asked.
‘No, of course not, they don’t hire anyone who…oh, you’re joking,’ he forced a smile.
Shiv rolled her eyes and pushed Twigs into the surge of people. She followed at her own pace. The tide of bodies seemed to flow around her, whilst it crashed into Twigs from every direction. Angry voices followed him as he bounced along. The heady mix of smells along with the constant bumping and shouting was enough to make anyone dizzy.
Twigs felt an iron grasp around his wrist. He was jerked away from the chaos and plunged into another narrow side street. A rat the size of a small dog scurried away from them. The street was so narrow it was impossible for two people to walk side by side. There were overflowing bins barring their path, forcing them to squeeze by with their backs against the wall. Admittedly it was more of a squeeze for Twigs than Shiv. He breathed in as much as he could and thought about his under used gym card lying at home.
He made an attempt at avoiding the vile fluids coating the ground as Shiv nudged him along. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible. No amount of cleaning would get this out, his new shoes would be ruined.
‘I’m sorry, I would have taken us the more scenic route if I’d realised you cared so much,’ Shiv laughed as Twigs cursed at his foot which was now ankle deep in a pothole.
About halfway into the filth of the alley a giant of a man emerged from an underused doorway. His skin was grey, black glasses covered his eyes, although Twigs could just detect the hint of his red irises beneath. Shiv smiled and tapped the cooler box. The giant nodded and stepped aside to allow Shiv through the door into the darkness beyond. Twigs made to follow, but the man barred his path with a saucepan of a hand, complete with claws.
The things have claws now? Great, Twigs thought to himself.
Shiv glanced back over her shoulder, undeterred by the hulking man between them.
‘Wait here,’ she instructed.
‘Sure, I’ll just wait here in this pool of rat piss, I’m sure you won’t be long,’ he sighed.
The door closed behind them leaving him alone in the alley with the giant rats.
The building was an old concrete affair. It was nothing special. There were no visible external defences that Twigs could make out. Graffiti covered the walls. The windows up above were all broken with only thin pieces of plywood covering them. It was just his luck that there were no visible ground level entrances other than the one Shiv had disappeared through.
Twigs checked the alley. It was empty apart from the rats and the bugs. He grabbed one of the bins and pushed it against the wall. He clambered on top of it, accidentally placing his hand in something he’d rather not mention. He had to force his stomach not to eject its contents while he wiped his hand off as best he could on the wall.
The window ledge above him seemed a long way up and at least a few months’ worth of gym membership away. Still, he’d get nowhere if he didn’t try. With a jump he grabbed for it. Missed. He planted his feet on the bin lid and focused. Again, he jumped, this time his hands caught hold of the plastic ledge. It threatened to crack under his weight as his feet scrabbled for purchase on the rough wall. He heaved himself up, once again regretting his procrastination that occurred whenever exercise seemed to be involved. Still, now was as good a time as any to start.
Once he was up, he simply knocked the plywood out of the way. It wasn’t even nailed down, it had just been propped up against the window frame. He flinched as it clattered across the floor. Twigs paused, holding his breath and listening. The only things he could hear were the muffled noises of the market and his own straining heartbeat.
He slid into the room, his shoes crunching on broken glass, at least it wasn’t the worst thing he’d stood in today. It looked like it used to be an office of some sort, old desks and ancient box-type computers sat in abandoned cubicles all around him. Dust coated everything. It wasn’t exactly the kind of place he had imagined. It was low profile though, he’d give them that.
Twigs exited the office room and found himself in a corridor. The other offices held nothing but the same – dust and junk. There were still no noises and no sign of anyone coming, so he headed for the stairs.
The stairwell was pitch black. He pulled out his torch and clicked it on. He flicked it around, debating whether to go up or down. Considering the lack of security he’d come across so far, he guessed that down would be his best bet. His footsteps were muffled by the layer of dust covering every step, it looked like no one had been this way for years. He couldn’t help doubting himself as he crept down into the darkness. It all seemed too easy. Nothing had ever been this easy for him. But what if he was right?
A noise behind him made him jump. He swung around and shone his torch at the source of the noise to see Shiv leaning over the bannister above him.
‘Having fun?’ she asked.
Twigs breathed out a breath he didn’t realise he’d been holding in.
‘What are you doing here?’ she asked.
‘I wanted to um,’ Twigs started.
‘You wanted to “um”, interesting. Why don’t you “um” outside?’ Shiv swung over the bannister and landed neatly beside him.
Dust spiralled into the air and threatened to make him cough.
‘Where’s the client?’ Twigs asked.
‘You wanted to see the client? You didn’t think this was some sort of super-secret headquarters for them or something did you?’ Shiv scoffed at him.
Twigs looked down at his ruined shoes. Shiv descended the stairs and held the door open for him. He had no choice, he ducked under her arm to go through it into the run-down reception area. She was right, there was no secret base entrance, no grunts and no client. The only things here were shadows of a lost time.
‘I must admit, it was a valiant effort. Coming through the window just to catch a glimpse of a client. Like they would come here personally!’ Shiv kicked him out of the back door into the alley. ‘Oh, and whatever that is on your hand – it stinks.’
Twigs felt the heat rise to his cheeks.
‘How am I supposed to do anything useful if you won’t let me come with you?’ he snapped.
Shiv gave him a look which almost sent the blood straight back out of his flushed face again.
‘Lesson one: how to insert a needle into a hunder. Lesson two: stay quiet and do as you’re told. Or was that lesson one?’ She wondered as she squeezed her way back along the alley. ‘I forget. Anyway, all you need to do is listen to me and don’t do stupid shit. Oh, and you’ll never get to meet the clients.’
‘What, why?’ Twigs cried as he tried to hurry after her.
‘Because the clients only meet with people they trust,’
‘That’s not fair, I’m new, how can I get them to trust me?’
‘Think on it, that will be your homework, Twigs.’
He shuddered, there was something about someone like Shiv setting homework that made him think of the kind of lesson that involved physical pain. Even boarding school hadn’t been that bad. She stepped back into Market Street and melted into the crowd. Twigs cursed himself before allowing himself to be carried away by the tide of people.
‘Everything went smoothly?’ Reigner asked. He slowly drew on his cigarette and blew the smoke out through his nostrils. The smoke spiralled up to the dark ceiling, as if searching for the light.
‘Pretty much,’ Shiv replied, sitting down in the only free chair in the office, across the desk from Reigner.
‘Pretty much?’ Reigner raised an eyebrow above a glinting red eye.
Shiv explained how she had found him snooping around in the drop building. Reigner leaned back in his chair and nodded.
‘To be expected, I suppose. He didn’t see anything?’ he asked. Shiv shook her head. ‘Good, then there is no problem.’ Reigner drew on his cigarette again and released the smoke from between pointed teeth. He put it out in an ash tray shaped like a bird’s skull perched on the edge of his desk.
‘Are you sure about him? He isn’t exactly the usual type?’ Shiv asked.
‘Do not doubt me,’ Reigner warned with a growl. ‘Keep him close and see what happens. I’m as interested as he is.’
‘Easier said than done,’ Shiv sighed.
‘What? Is babysitting too difficult for you?’ Reigner grinned, his fangs catching on his lower lip.
Shiv glared back.
‘I wouldn’t put babysitting as one of my listed talents. Of course, I can do it, I just can’t guarantee I won’t kill him,’ she shrugged.
Reigner laughed and tapped his desk twice with a long finger. The surface lit up with an interface, with a slide of his finger he pulled up a file with only a set of numbers for a title. He opened it with another double tap. It was the same as the last she had seen; no trademarks, no names, no trace of any kind. Even the address of the sender was encrypted beyond any normal levels. This time the instructions were different though.
‘One phial bjern blood. One phial xeratt blood. One phial vampyr blood. Subjects must be healthy. 3 phials. 3 days. The Old Docks: Dock no.6’
Shiv read the instructions through a couple of times and then looked to Reigner. He swept the message towards Shiv and her wrist computer picked it up.
‘You sure you want me to take him on this one?’ Shiv asked, she didn’t like having an unknown variable messing with her contract.
‘Are you questioning my authority?’ Reigner gave her a crimson glare.
She sighed and got up.
‘Fine. What’s the payment?’
‘Three times the last. The credits will be transferred to your account upon completion. Don’t make me regret assigning this to you, Shiver.’
Shiv held her tongue. Reigner handed her a silver case which contained the needles and vacuum tubes she would need. She took it from him and turned to leave. He watched her as she paused and turned back.
‘I don’t suppose you want to volunteer?’ she asked tapping the case.
Shiv smiled and left the office. Twigs was waiting outside, fiddling with his sleeves and looking at the floor like a naughty schoolboy waiting to see the head teacher.
‘Come on, we have work to do,’ she said. He straightened up and followed her, a new spring in his step.