Mackenzie Hartwell flipped the light switch in her boss’s office and jumped back in fright. “Holy crap!” She yelped.
Stevens Craig sat with his feet on his desk. He fastened his arms behind his head, making a mess of his sandy brown hair. His chair tilted at a dangerous angle considering he had his long legs completely stretched out in front of him. It was an impressive balancing act, though his well-muscled frame kept him firmly in place.
It was rare that he could surprise Mackenzie, so he relished the moment.
She remained stock-still at the door, faintly out of breath, with her hand on the light switch. “Hey boss,” she said. “What are you doing back so soon?”
“I got him.”
Mackenzie’s breathing returned to normal as she shifted into her usual posture of slight indifference. “You usually find them, but do you mean you actually bagged this one? You know, for money?” Her voice belied mock surprise.
Craig nodded. “Real scum of the world this one. Didn’t stand a chance. Made it easier.”
Mackenzie plopped down on the overly plush chair by the side of the door. Craig frowned. That chair was reserved for clients, but he didn’t make a fuss. She was his best employee, only employee honestly, and she put up with a lot from him.
“And you collected the bounty?”
“Of course, I did. Why are you so worried about that?”
“I like to get paid.”
“I pay you.”
“You’ve paid me. That’s not the same thing,” she quipped. Uneasily, she stood up and smoothed out her gray pencil skirt. “Speaking of, you owe me two months’ salary.”
Craig sighed. He put his feet on the ground closer to the chair and quit tilting the chair back. He reached in his pocket and pulled out four gold coins. Each of the coins measured about two inches around. He set them on the desk. Nudging them in Mackenzie’s direction, Craig said, “And there’s a bonus in there for you. Couldn’t have tracked the dirt worm without your help.”
She gathered the coins and carefully placed them in her handbag. “Really? Full coins. You’re going to make me get change, aren’t you? I swear.”
Craig rolled his eyes but resumed his leisurely pose. “That’s what the banks are for. Plus, it’ll help you budget. Never got into all that, but I hear it’s important.”
“You wouldn’t know a budget if it jumped out of a bush and nipped you in the heel,” Mackenzie retorted. “Oh, speaking of nipping, Mrs. Ragginold called.”
Craig’s muscles visibly tensed for a moment. “What did the old lady want?”
“She’s ready to take a look at the beach front property you promised her last month. She also couldn’t wait to see, and I quote, her ‘tall, dark, and dreamy realtor with the rump of an Atlantian Prince’ tomorrow at nine.”
Craig was handsome and somewhat charming, but he only knew that because Viv, his wife, used to tell him those things. However, Mrs. Ragginold liked to mention his looks frequently, and it always made him uncomfortable. “Kind of lonely, isn’t she? And pushy.”
“If you would just bring in better bounties instead of playing counselor and letting the little fish go, you could knock off the side gig. Might make Viv happier too.”
Craig shook his head. “Viv wouldn’t be happy with all the money in Atlantis and the Green coast combined. She’d still find something to gripe to me about.”
Mackenzie’s face flattened, and her playful tone turned serious. “You should still close the deals you can close. I’m tired of delayed paychecks.”
Craig set his feet down again with a thump this time. He gripped the table. “Mac, I’m doing what I can,” he snapped. “It’s not easy balancing everything, but I get it done. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stick around. There’s the door.” He pointed.
Mackenzie stepped back, her face souring and upper lip trembling. Through the lenses of her square, semi-stylish glasses, he could see the water works coming, and he instantly felt terrible. He shouldn’t have lashed out at her like that. His problems got the best of him. He stood up and walked around the desk toward her.
“I’m sorry,” he said as he wrapped her in a bear hug. She was a head shorter than him and thin as a schoolgirl. He nearly suffocated her in his impromptu embrace. “That was out of line. You know that I appreciate everything you do around here, right?” Her raven hair bobbed up and down on his chest.
Her muffled response was inaudible, but he understood. “I know, I’m a pain sometimes,” he said.
She pulled away, and Craig noticed there were no tears on her face. He looked down and saw no moisture on his shirt.
“You are getting much better at that. Been practicing?”
Mackenzie’s entire demeanor changed with a smile and tilt of her head. “Taking drama classes at night. Really think it was good?”
“I believed you.”
“Yeah, but you believe any sob story.”
“Didn’t believe Sean Hendrix when he told me about his sick family. And his dead dogs. And his poor wife and kids who would be without a provider if I brought him in.”
“No, that’s because we tracked down his family in the Golden Hills, and you knew he was lying.”
“Still, I should get some credit. What are you going to do with your share?”
“You know, crazy things like pay bills, buy food. Maybe I can start paying for my drama lessons now instead of sleeping with the instructor.”
Craig winced. “You shouldn’t joke like that.”
“Who said I was joking?” she said with a wink and turned on her heel toward the door. She snatched her jacket from the coat hanger and said, “Lock up for me? See you tomorrow!” With that, she was out the door.
“If she wasn’t a natural tracker…” Craig fussed and walked back to his desk. He rechecked the time for his appointment with Mrs. Ragginold and grabbed his jacket to head out the door. He dipped his hand into his pocket and moved three gold coins out of his way as he dug for his keys to lock the door.
Dusk settled over the city of Tag Tamar and crept into the small streets between the four-story buildings. A car shot past him down the road, taking up the entire space. Craig shook his head. That guy was just asking to get in an accident. The streets between the buildings in the commercial district were known for being a little too cozy when some jerk decided to disobey the speed limits. The district was five miles by five miles and based on the old-world ideal of quaint downtowns.
It was made for walking, not for driving, and the city politicians always defended it as friendly booster of civic connection. Craig knew better. When you cram buildings closer together, it makes for more energy efficiency, which means they save money on their power bills to Atlantis. Close quarters also made it the kind of place you didn’t want to be alone at dusk.
There wasn’t room for much parking inside the district. There was room at Central Parking, but it wasn’t worth the coins. That’s why he parked in the less convenient but far less expensive North Garage. Craig didn’t mind the walk, and anyone that messed with him found out quickly why that was a terrible idea. He set out to tackle the four miles to the parking structure.
Craig didn’t live in this neighborhood anymore. Usually, residents of Tag Tamar lived inside the city close to where they worked. It made sense and saved money. Viv couldn’t wait to get out of the city though. They moved out into the suburbs years ago in an effort to make her happy and get some space for kids. At least, that’s what he thought would make her happy when they decided to move out there.
Neither of those things happened.
A slammed door and the turn of a lock to his right broke Craig’s silent self-pity. He stopped and scolded himself for not checking the time when he left. It was Sigmund, the Haberdasher. Sig closed up his shop at the same time every night, like clockwork. Sigmund looked up at Craig with his beady eyes and rubbed his long, angular nose. Craig was a good foot taller than Sigmund, but he could swear the haberdasher was looking down on him somehow. The hat maker ran his hand over his sparse, dark hair before placing one of his overly embellished top hats on his head. His thin lips curled into a smile as Craig stopped out of politeness.
“Say, Stevens, my old pal. How’s the hunting business?”
“Can’t complain Sig,” he lied. “Did you know that I also do real estate?”
“Ah yes, I heard something about that. Too many jobs, like so many people these days. I don’t suppose you can complain about that business either?”
Craig’s tight-lipped smile was his only response.
“Walking to the North Garage I suppose, old pal?”
With a sinking dread, Craig responded, “I am. You too?”
Sigmund laughed. It was a sound not entirely unlike a bag of hacking cats. “No, no, that’s much too far to wear such finery in a place like this. I park in the Central. It’s a bit more expensive, but the perks are nice.”
“I suppose they are. Well, have a good night.”
“Although,” Sigmund said, raising his voice. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to walk together. Central Garage is on the way to North after all.” He allowed a dramatic pause before declaring, “Fine, you’ve talked me into it. Let’s be off!”
Craig sighed subtly as he fell into step beside the little man. This was a habit of Sigmund’s, and Craig was just that night’s unfortunate walking partner. Like most haberdashers, Sigmund tried his best to project a fine, sophisticated front to entice his customers. While this only made him a bit of a snob, it also put a target on his back in a neighborhood that wasn’t exactly up and coming. Sig liked the added protection of a walking partner, Craig especially, since he knew how to handle himself.
Craig casually glanced at Sig’s clothes, a habit he couldn’t shake, mostly confirming what he already knew. Sig’s attire must have been fine once, bought at considerable expense and meant to last, but it had lasted longer than intended. The dark green coat had a washed-out matte finish and stray threads crept around the edges of the cuffs and hem. His black shoes, padding softly against the cobblestone of the narrow street, were shined to a gleaming finish, but the wrinkles and loose leather showed their age and an inability to pay for repair. The one thing Sig always had was his hat.
No surprise. It was old-fashioned and much too garish for his taste, but Craig could admire the intricate Atlantian embroidery around the brim.
Sig caught him looking.
“I could make you one, you know, for ten percent off. Friendly discount, of course.”
“No, just admiring the details.”
“Rare that a man in your position can appreciate such things. Yes, I get the fabric from a little shop uptown. Comes right from Atlantis itself. Accept no substitutes, I say. No finer patterns in the Realm.”
Craig didn’t mention he’d seen plenty of nicer patterns in the more upscale sections of the city. “I suppose as a society gets decadent, it has to be good at something. Might as well be pretties and baubles.”
“Baubles! Pretties! My good man, you don’t strike me as an atheist, not with your reputation. I expect a moral man, as well as a man of action, such as yourself, would better appreciate the light and goodness that Atlantis brings to the world!”
“Funny, I never pegged you for a True Believer. I lay at your mercy for any offense to your soul.”
“Mercy is yours, and all offense forgotten,” Sig replied automatically. “Strange that you know the proper way to apologize to an Atlantian Believer. Very odd for an atheist.”
“Not so much. I get around and hear things. Just being neighborly.”
“Yes, I suppose you are. Speaking of neighbors…” Sig leaned toward Craig with an air of conspiracy. “Did you hear the Leaders of the North Atlantic Realm are hosting the Queen of the Southern Seas? They are endeavoring to solve the centuries-old conflict peaceably. I hear from very reliable sources that war is the only logical step if this conference fails. Isn’t that intriguing?”
Craig knew about the meeting. In fact, he knew all the players in the North Atlantic Realm and the Southern Ocean, as well as the Confederate Southern Alliance in what was once South America and parts of old Africa. He just didn’t care anymore. At least, he tried not to care. It was a different life.
“I do my best to keep my nose out of politics as long as politics keeps its nose out of my business.”
“Why that’s preposterous!” Sigmund spluttered. “You must care about the politics of your Realm. It’s a vital component of every true citizen’s life. For instance, what if we do go to war with those despicable creatures in the Southern Ocean? Or worse, with the Confederate Southern Alliance? You might be called up, drafted and impressed into service. That would mean something to you, wouldn’t it?”
“I suppose I would deal with it if it came up. No sense worrying until then.” Craig shifted his body slightly away from Sig’s spittle.
Sigmund leaned in closer and lowered his voice. “Well, I think it’s terribly interesting. My only regret is that Atlantis refuses to intervene beyond facilitating some meetings. They could end all of our suffering in a day, less even. But they must have a plan for us all. We simply have to have the faith to carry us through the darkest of times.”
Craig’s mouth retreated into a thin line as he bit his tongue.
“So, you really don’t care much about politics? Or religion? What do you care about, my good man?” Sigmund boomed, throwing his arms wide.
Deftly avoiding Sig’s flailing limbs, Craig responded, “I’m simple. I hunt bounties and deal in justice where I can. And, if I can sell a townhouse at the beach for more than I paid for it, all the sweeter.”
“Such a narrow view,” Sig chided with a shake of his head. “So very pedestrian. You should get out more. Broaden your mind.”
“It works for me. I don’t need much.”
“The world may call upon you to enhance your sensibilities sooner than you like. Ah, this is the Central Garage here.” As he departed, Sig called back, “Do read a paper one of these days. It will do you some good. Until tomorrow, my old pal.” With a wave that was half salute, he was gone.
Craig walked the rest of the way to his garage in silence. His eyebrows furrowed in concentration and worry. He elongated his already considerable gait to get to the garage quickly. He needed his car.