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The Good Doctor

Shattered Steel Part 1: Gravestone (Fallout Roleplay)

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The Renegade


The secret elevator's mechanical hum was louder than the ones Gregory had grown up with. Wherever they were, he hoped that the walls were thick enough to keep the sound from drawing suspicion. He wasn't too worried, though. Their hosts hadn't even let them pass through the underground tunnels that led them here without first putting on blindfolds. These people were careful.

The ascent didn't take long, and when the bell dinged and the doors opened, Gregory and the weasel-looking man named Walter stepped out. Tristan, Josiah, and the rest would join soon, but this Big Max character wanted to meet him one-one-one first. Most likely to make sure it was really him. Smart.

They were in a hallway that stretched left and right. Walter led him left, to a plain room with a rectangular metal table and eight chairs, three on either side and one on each end. All of them were empty save for the chair at the right head of the table. It was occupied by a red-headed woman who stared at him with hard, incisive eyes. When she spoke, her voice was clear and had an air of authority behind it. "So my daughter wasn't wrong. You are the man from posters." She motioned to the head chair on the left, opposite her. "Please, sit with me."

While Gregory took his seat, the woman turned to Walter, who was still waiting in the doorway. "We'll be fine, Walter. Go ahead and start bringing up the rest." She returned her attention to Gregory as a faint smile revealed itself on her lips. "You know, there isn't a rebel soul in Wellstone who didn't buy the papers back in the day just to see if your name would be in them. Everyone wanted to know if the Renegade Paladin was still at large, or how many Knights he'd outsmarted this time. I won't lie, it's exciting to finally meet you, Mr. Thatch."

Gregory could not tell if the woman was being genuine or just trying to flatter him. If it was the latter, then she may as well give it up now. "I was under the impression that I would be meeting Big Max."

"You're looking at him," she answered, her smile suddenly not so faint. Seeing what must have been clear surprise on his face, she continued, "The alias of a man wasn't my idea, but it has turned out to be a good one. It's kept the gangs and security confused, and hopefully the Brotherhood too, sooner or later."

Once again, Gregory couldn't help but appreciate the effort that these people put into staying hidden. For him, walking the city streets was a risk, but this woman's enemies didn't even know her sex. "Probably sooner," he answered. "But we can wait for the others to get here to talk about that."

"Agreed. In the meantime, perhaps you could tell me about yourself."

"It sounds like you already know the important stuff."

"I know what everyone knows. About the attacks out east and the Brotherhood's failed pursuit of you in the Lost Lands. I don't know anything about why you left them in the first place, or what possessed you to take up arms. You're old enough to have been with the MLA. What were you doing back then?"

"I was still with the Brotherhood, then."

"Killing MLA?"

Gregory glared at her and didn't answer. It was very clear that she already knew the answer was 'yes'. And although her tone was not accusatory, the words themselves certainly were. He had no intention of sitting here and be put on some sort of moral trial. "And what were you doing back then?"

Her expression darkened. "I was barely more than a child when the Brotherhood declared the war had ended and that the last of the MLA's leaders had been killed. It was the only time I'd ever seen tears in my father's eyes. He sacrificed... a lot for the cause." She gave Gregory an earnest look. "I'm not here to judge you, Mr. Thatch, or pry into matters you don't wish to share. I only ask these things because I want to know what kind of man I'm about to be joining up with. What kinds of things he's capable of and if they can help us now."

"You're joining up with a man who wants to topple the Brotherhood of Steel, and knows enough about them to make that happen. Is that enough for you?"

"My daughter told me about your goals." She shook her head. "If the MLA were proof of anything, it's that outfighting the Brotherhood is not going to work. I just want them out of my city, and for that damned gulag to be shut down."

"It's a start." Gregory did not bother to hide his disappointment. He would have to keep that in mind, going forward. These rebels would make for useful allies, but their goals did not align perfectly with his. In fact, they would probably see him as an enemy if they knew his entire plan. "Maybe some day, you'll see it differently. But for now, I'm happy to help you fight for Wellstone."

As he finished speaking, the elevator dinged outside, announcing the arrival of more people. Tristan and Josiah entered the room soon after, along with the rebel Ben Fisher (still wearing pieces of his Halloween outfit: a Mafioso gangster), one of Max's people, and the old man from South Union who styled himself 'the General', leader of the Valiants gang. Everyone was still greeting one another when the next group arrived, consisting of Felix, Walter, another of Max's men, and a younger redheaded woman who could only have been Max's daughter.

There were lots of first-time encounters among the group, and the introductions between the various attendees varied from excited to awkward to a slightly aggressive. Two of Max's men (named Calvin and Dwight) paid their respects to Gregory by relaying wildly exaggerated stories they had heard about him for everyone to hear. Ben and Walter glared at one another but did not speak. The girl, whose name turned out to be Sally (or at least that's what she called herself), confirmed Gregory's suspicions by sitting to Max's right and calling her 'mom'. Tristan gave a cigarette to the General and the two got to talking about South Union gang politics. Bold as always, Josiah approached Big Max herself and struck up a conversation that seemed to amuse her greatly, though the only words Gregory picked up over all the chatter were 'happy Halloween'.

It took a good twenty minutes before everyone started to settle in and get ready for business. There were only eight chairs, so Felix, Calvin, and Dwight stood in the back. Josiah and Tristan sat to Gregory's left and right, respectively, while Walter took the empty seat to the left of Max. The General sat between Tristan and Sally, and Ben Fisher sat between Josiah and Walter. Once everybody in the room was situated, Gregory realized that most of them were either waiting for him or Max to kick things off. Amidst the softening chatter, he looked across the table and met her eyes. She gave him a nod.

Gregory cleared his throat, and to his surprise, most of the others stopped talking at once. All eyes quickly turned towards him. He gave an appreciative nod. "Well it looks like we all know each other now, which might have been more than half the battle." A few of the others chuckled. Indeed, simply finding one another had been no easy task. Gregory continued. "But the festivities outside won't last all night, and for some of us, those crowds are our ticket home, so let's get to talking business. Most of us here are in agreement, more or less, in our stance on the Brotherhood and our view of them as an enemy. We may not see them that way for the same reasons, but it doesn't matter, because none of us stands a chance against them on our own. And so we work together."

He looked towards the General, whose pronounced frown could have put even his own to shame. "Some of you have already met the General," Gregory said, hiding his annoyance at the fact that he had no other name by which to call the gang leader. "Unlike the rest of us, he does not intend to participate in this war." Some Max's people immediately looked concerned, but he continued before they could complain about the man's presence in a rebel meeting. "He is here because I owe him a favor, and as it happens, the repayment of that favor stands to benefit all of us. Isn't that right, General?"

"That's right," the old man answered gruffly, and immediately followed up with, "And while you're all listening, I was never here, understand?"

"Yeah, me neither," said Sally, with a snicker that implied little respect for the man's age or pretend rank.

"Or me," agreed Ben Fisher.

"Hell, I'm on the other side of town," Walter joked and several of the others laughed. The General, however, did not.

"Alright you smart asses. Do you want to hear what Thatch and me came up with or not?"

Big Max raised a hand for her people to settle down. "Go ahead, General."

The old man grunted and continued. "You all know well and good that South Union is run mostly independent of the rest of this city. We've got a sheriff who ain't good for shit and is more like a tax collector. We Valiants are the strongest and we control the most turf, but we've got rivals down there who wish it weren't so. Namely the Red Thumbs, the Carnivores, and the Henderson family."

The General paused as if to let that information sink it. The silence was immediately broken by Walter, who gave an insolent shrug. "So?"

From the look on the man's face, Gregory had little doubt that the General would have gunned Walter down then and there had they been in Valiant territory. But in here the gang boss was alone and he had no choice but to keep his cool. "So if you lot help me put an end to that, South Union will be open to you. All of it. My men will take over the whole territory. We'll be the police, the government, the ones who set the taxes and decide who is and is not welcome."

"You're crazy if you think the Brotherhood would just stand by and let that happen," said Walter. He looked around the room as if hoping for someone to agree with him. "We're not gonna entertain the idea of getting involved in a fucking gang war are we?"

"The Brotherhood have never cared about the gangs in South Union," said Ben Fisher. "They pay their tithes and are left alone."

"Exactly," said the General. "I'm sure they'll send someone down for a chat to learn what happened, but I'll make sure they know that my boys are still loyal. We will keep paying them, hell, maybe even more than before, and when the dust is settled, nothing will be different on their end."

Gregory nodded. "But on our end, we'll have a safe zone to the south that's a fair deal bigger than the back rooms of clubs and restaurants. As long as we don't make too much noise, the South Union will invaluable."

Josiah piped in. "And what's a few gangs to us, anyway? The Valiant could damn near do this on their own, but with us it'll be easy. As in, 'no casualties' easy, if we plan it right. It's a lot to gain and the risk is low."

"And how do we know that Mustache here isn't just baiting us into a trap?" Walter gestured at the General. "It would be pretty damn easy to have us do his dirty work, let us move in, and then tell the Brotherhood exactly where we are. Boom. War's over. We're all dead. And Barnaky makes him the richest man this side of the river."

Gregory noticed from the look on her face that Max had been quietly wondering the same thing. She and the others were now looking at the General expectantly, but it wasn't him who answered. Instead, Felix spoke up for the first time that night. "Because the General knows better."

Walter had to peer over Gregory's shoulder to see Felix in the back of the room. "What's that mean, exactly?"

"It means," growled the Valiant leader, "that you've got no fucking cause to worry, okay? I do know better, as a matter of fact. I'm not delusional about the circumstances I'm in. If I betray you, I'll have some of the most dangerous people in the city gunning for my head. And I sure as shit don't want that one-" He pointed at Felix, "-coming after me."

Gregory fought the urge to smile. Two days ago, after plans had been made to meet with the General but before he and Gregory first met face-to-face, Felix had tracked the man down in South Union and taken him aside for a little chat. Gregory did not need to ask for details, as he had every confidence that his friend would ensure that their message struck home with the gang boss. Now it was evident that it had.

"There's also the fact that he's not so sure we'll lose," said Josiah. "And I'm sure that when the Brotherhood is gone, the new leaders of Wellstone -whoever they might be-" He cast a glance in Max's direction that did not go unnoticed by her or the others, "will remember those who helped them before the end. The Valiant stand to gain more at less cost by quietly helping us than they do by betraying us and sealing their own death warrants."

That seemed to satisfy Big Max, at least enough for her to consider the proposal. She looked from Gregory to the General. "We have our own plans for the eastern districts of the city. Plans that have been long in the making. But free movement through South Union could be valuable for the south and west. I say we do it."

Tristan, Josiah, and the General all looked pleased. Walter still looked skeptical but he kept his mouth shut. Ben remained stoic and Sally seemed disinterested.

"That settles that," Gregory said, turning to the General. "We'll be in touch, but now it's time for you to go."

"With pleasure." The General pushed his chair back and stood up none too slowly. It was evident that the man was all too happy to put some distance between himself and the danger that came from being in a room with their ilk. Just after the heavy metal door opened for him, he turned around and addressed the room. "Good luck," he said to them all, and then he took his leave, muttering. "Bunch of crazy bastards."

No sooner had the door shut again than Gregory spoke up, looking directly at Max. "How many fighters do you have?"

"Right now? Several dozen, but they're not the real army. Just smugglers who are getting things ready. Our real strength is our control over the Industrial and Steel Districts. I could snap my fingers and half the factories would stop altogether."

"But that would cause the Brotherhood to move against you hard."

"Exactly. There are thousands of people in this city, especially in the east, who could be rallied to fight against that, but they need an organized resistance to latch onto. Otherwise, it will just be chaos."

Gregory already had ideas for that, but all in good time. "What about weapons?"

"That's mostly what we've been smuggling. I've got friends outside the city who have been supplying us, and we've been stockpiling them here in the city."

Gregory's brow raised. "Friends?"

She nodded. "Yes, friends. Some group out of the east. Real mysterious bunch who don't tell me much 'cept that they're former MLA."

Gregory would have to look into that. Perhaps the next time Max met with these 'friends', he could tag along. 

"There's also the sewer thing," the girl, Sally, suddenly broke in. 

Gregory looked at her curiously. They had been brought here through a tunnel in the sewers. Did she mean to say that they had more of these passages? "Sewer thing?"

"Yeah," she said, looking much more enthusiastic than before. "They run all over the city, and we use them to hide and get around. But right now it's mostly just in the Market and Steel Districts. The rest is real sketchy, all either blocked up with rubble or filled with ghouls and shit. We ain't put in the time to try getting through some of the worst area, but if we did, it could get us a ticket to parts of the city we ain't been able to reach in the past."

"Those sewers are dangerous," Max explained. "We've lost people trying to explore them. It's a maze down there, with lots of ferals and other things. It hasn't been worth it."

Gregory thought about the sonar map on his Pip-Boy. It could make the 'maze' problem trivial. Before he could respond, however, Ben Fisher spoke up. "I know a guy in Junker Town who can help with that. Sewer ghoul, but he ain't feral. At least not when I saw him last."

"Passages below the city could be invaluable," Gregory said. "We'll look into it."
While Max seemed a little weary, the others mostly seemed accepting of the idea. For her part, Sally practically beamed. They continued to talk about the sewers for a little while longer, with Max's crew filling him in on the ways they use them, and what sorts of things his people should watch out for moving into unfamiliar tunnels.

They also told him more about their smuggling operation, and the guns and ammo they had stashed all over the eastern districts. He was surprised by the sheer number. According to Max, there were nearly six thousand firearms hidden in a city that had banned all guns. As far as he knew, there were only two groups in the Lost Lands who had that kind of ordinance: The slavers out of Columbia and the mutants of Gateway City. However, he was familiar enough with those groups to easily rule them out as the rebels' mysterious benefactors. Both hated the Brotherhood, but they had no connection with the MLA and little love for Wellstone. The mutants were especially stubborn in their refusal to help anyone but themselves. It had taken a lot of effort on his part to even get an audience with their leader some years ago.

Over an hour had passed when they finally decided to call an end to the meeting. Now that they were well acquainted, they would be able to meet one another in the future with more ease. Gregory's family knew where to find Walter and even what parts of the eastern districts to go to and what words to use if they wanted to ask for Max or her daughter. When the call was given for everyone to leave, Sally clapped her hands together and gave a cheerful "Happy Halloween!" and the amused assembly responded in kind. The corners of Gregory's lips twitched upward. It was a bright note to end on.

As the others got up and started to shuffle on out to the hallway, Max stood up and waved Gregory over to her. She looked happy, even grateful. "I had a good feeling about you, Mr. Thatch. Even disregarding the stories. And maybe I'm wrong and you're just a crazy person, but you honestly do seem to know what you're doing."

"I've been at this for a very long time."

"So have I. It's just... Never mind." She shook her head and chuckled. "I'll just say that I respect your confidence and leave it at that. It's reassuring to work alongside people who actually have hope."

There were lots of words to describe how he felt about the Brotherhood situation: Hatred. Rage. Vengefulness. Too many people were going to die for him to call his feelings something sweet like 'hope'. Still, he accepted the compliment, even if it did make him feel somewhat guilty. "We've got a long road ahead," he said. "But we're already on the right track to win. The Brotherhood has no idea what's coming."

She nodded, oblivious to his rueful thoughts. "I kept quiet before, because of the General and because I didn't know you yet, but you might as well know that my real name is Julie Gillard."

"I take it your daughter and the other one's names were fake too."

"Walter really is just Walter. The man has always been a little too full of himself to go by anything else. But my daughter's real name isn't Sally, you're right. It's Sarah Jane."

Gregory nodded. He didn't feel much need to know their real names, but he appreciated the woman's trust nonetheless. "If that's all, Miss Gillard."

"Not quite." She smiled. "I think it would be good for you to meet our host."

They allowed the others to take the elevator back down to the basement and the hidden passages down below, then got in and pressed the second unlabeled button from the bottom. They rode downward in silence, and when the doors opened, they found themselves facing what looked like just a small, empty room with a stairwell beside the elevator and a keypad on the far wall. "Just knock on the wall," Julie told him. "Three times."

Gregory walked forward to the wall and gave it three raps with his knuckles. A few moments passed, and then he heard a low mechanical click, followed by the wall itself starting to shift forward. Just as the elevator doors closed behind them, a section of the wall opened up in front of them, revealing a cozy office with a big wooden desk at the back and an attractive, dark-skinned woman sitting behind it. After a moment, Gregory recognized the well-made costume she wore as a detective from the old world comics. A tentative smile played across her lips. "I suppose this means things went well."

"Very well," Julie answered from behind him. She walked up to his side as he entered the secret room. "We've got some new friends and have made some new plans. Mostly thanks to this man."

"Exciting news all around." As they sat the woman's eyes locked onto Gregory, looking him up and down before lingering on his face as she spoke. "Is there anything you'll need from me?"

Gregory regarded the woman. Even if she were not the owner of a large building with working elevators, it would have been obvious that she was upper class. "She never told me your name."

"Clara," she said. "And yours?"

"Gregory Thatch."

Her eyebrows arched and she said, "My my, new friends indeed. I'd love to hear more of this plan you've concocted, but I think it better we keep a lid on that. But if you need a place to stay or additional funding, simply say the word."

"I will, thank you."

"Anything new from downstairs?" Julie asked.

"Maybe. Are either of you connected to a strip club in Pennway called the Inglenook?"

"It's owned by a friend, yes."

"The daughter of the Van Silvers, the movie theater family, works there. Apparently she's been speaking out against the Brotherhood. I had one of my employees advise her against doing that, but I worry about the scrutiny it might bring on the place. Your friend would be advised to fire her, I think. Anything more drastic would only arouse suspicion."

"I'll tell him," Julie said. "We don't need that kind of attention."

"Is there any chance the girl could be useful to us?" Gregory asked. 

"Possibly. I didn't ask the man I sent because he's not involved in this side of things. I would prefer your friend handle that. Connecting me to her would only endanger both of us."

"Of course," Julie agreed. "We'll take care of it. Thank you for looking into this."

"Don't thank me yet, because there's something I need. I have a plan in motion but it needs a little kick to move it along. I assume you were the one behind that shootout in Forgotten Homes, Mr. Thatch?"

Gregory was surprised that as one of Big Max's people, Clara did not already know the answer to that. Information in their group must have been heavily compartmentalized. "Yes," he replied, his curiosity piqued.  "That was me."

"I need something to happen in the Pennway District. Nothing so large. In fact, I would prefer it if there's questions about whether it was rebel activity at all. A building burning down, or an explosion that could simply be an accident. Just enough to make the Brotherhood think your activities could expand into Wellstone proper. Is that something you can do?"

"I could. But I'd like to know why."

Clara glanced at Julie, who seemed to give Clara a look he couldn't see, judging by her small nod. When she looked back to Gregory her smile and cheery demeanor had fallen away like a discarded dress. "I've been cultivating a friendship with General Stillwell for several years now."

Stillwell? Gregory could hardly hide his surprise at hearing the name of his old commander. He had long known that the man retired to Wellstone, but his location had been a well-kept secret. He didn't interrupt, however, and allowed Clara to continue.

"Between his illness and your activities, I believe the Paladin Lord will want to move Stillwell somewhere safer and more comfortable. He apparently idolizes the man. I've already told him I would gladly take the General in. I hope that whatever you do will give Ogawa the final push to move Stillwell in here. But I must stress it needs to be small, otherwise he'll move the General into their fort or send him to Chicago."

"He wouldn't make it to Chicago," Gregory promised. "But we'll be careful. This isn't an opportunity I want to pass up. Does Stillwell have many friends? Visitors?"

"Before the Paladin Lord arrived he made regular visits to the Artistes, and to here. Age and the Paladin Lord's protectiveness has kept him confined to the house in recent weeks. I was able to visit him once but it required scheduling my visit in advance. I know a few other Brotherhood veterans have visited him as well."

"If he moves here, we'll be able to find out if it's anyone noteworthy. But they won't relocate him without protection," Gregory noted. "You'll have Knights hanging around this place day and night."

"They won't be a problem, so long as you make sure the various elements of this rebellion know the General is off limits. The last thing we need is for him to become a martyr."

"Of course. There's nothing to be gained by killing an old man." No matter how much I'd like to. "My people know better."

"And I'll make sure mine do too," Julie said.

"Thank you both," Clara said. "Now, I should probably get back to my party. Is there anything either of you need before I do?"

Julie looked to Gregory, and he shook his head and replied, "No, but it was good to meet you, Clara."

"And you as well, Gregory. Good luck to both of you. I expect we'll need plenty of that in the weeks ahead."

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Posted (edited)

The Paladin Lord
 

The Brotherhood of Steel’s officer Halloween party was the only thing that could make Alan wish for a rebel attack. Without any of the costumes or decorations of the civilian parties lighting up the Wellstone night, it was a plain affair. He’d sprung for higher quality alcohol, but the amount of that it would take for him to enjoy himself would render him unconscious.

It all seemed so pointless. For the civilians it served a clear purpose of reinforcing the fact it was the Brotherhood’s power that allowed for such frivolous holidays to exist. But the Brotherhood itself should be concentrating on catching the rebels, not milling around and having awkward conversations with each other.

At the moment Alan was stuck between two of the Paladin Commanders that were part of his force. Kara Wiley was the older of the two. She had dark skin, with her black hair pulled so tightly back behind her head that it drew back her hairline and the skin of her face, reinforcing her severe expression. The other commander, Bruce Kelman, probably should have been bald. His hair was blonde but his pale head was clearly visible through his thin hair, especially because he had it buzzed so short. Alan thought the man should embrace it and shave it all off. It might make him look more serious than he did.

Kelman was the commander of the Brotherhood forces in Wellstone before Alan arrived. He was friendly with a few of the Elders in Chicago, at least in his own telling. Though Alan knew that relationship wasn’t really a friendship, there was no doubt that Kelman was much closer to the Elders than he was Barnaky.

Wiley was a more complicated story. She had served as Alan’s subordinate for sometime, though it was only on this mission was she his second in command. His previous second in command, a staunch Barnaky supporter like himself, had been suddenly promoted and given his own command somewhere to the east of Chicago. The timing of that promotion and Wiley replacing him left Alan suspicious about where Wiley’s allegiances lay.

It was the softness of the Elders and their lackeys that had allowed the rebels to reappear in the first place. They dallied too long in not wiping out the mutants, always dragging their feet and slowing down Barnaky’s mission. They lacked the zeal necessary to accomplish what needed doing, and all that led to was death and insurrection.

“-isn’t that right, Paladin Lord Ogawa?” Wiley asked.

“Hmm?” Alan only half-hoped his confusion covered up his annoyance.

“We were discussing General Stillwell’s Colorado Campaign, and I mentioned that you witnessed a few of the battles there,” Wiley said.

“I’d have participated in them too had I only been older. Stillwell’s Colorado Campaign is the textbook for fighting the rebels. Ruthless, efficient, with no hesitation,” Alan said.

“Maybe it would be a good idea to have him speak to the soldiers,” Kelman said, though he did not sound entirely enthused by the idea.

“A few years earlier, maybe. I’m afraid his mind is not up to such a task,” Alan said.

“Is it safe to have him living in the city?” Wiley asked. “I worry about the rebels turning him into their own version of Anne Red.”

Alan threw back what remained of his glass of whiskey. “They would be fools to make a martyr of him. And I don’t think murdering a nearly senile old man would garner them much sympathy.” Still, Alan had considered that the rebels might do something to that effect. It might be worth moving him somewhere more secure, here to the headquarters, or even Chicago.

He recalled Clara Teasley’s offer to let the General stay in her hotel. Alan supposed that would be more comfortable than the headquarters, and he would likely prefer it to uprooting to Chicago. Putting him up in the hotel would require some background work, though. Alan supposed that was just the right level of importance and need of someone covert that he could justify asking Sterling to do it. If that meant Sterling couldn’t spend as much time doing other work, well, all the more time for Alan to be the one to find these rebels.

Wiley and Kelman continued to discuss the fall of the MLA, having now been joined by a few Paladins. Alan left to refill his glass. The crowd was thick but parted around him as he made his way to the makeshift bar set up in the officer’s mess hall that was hosting this party. There was no bartender, so he refilled his own glass of whiskey. He took a sip and topped it back off when something out the window caught his eye.

The mess looked out on the main yard, and across it Alan could see the building that housed his office. The small rectangular window to his office glowed bright yellow. It could have been his scribe assistant still working, and probably was, but it offered enough of an excuse for him to leave the party behind and go check it out. His absence would surely be noted, but he didn’t care at this point. With a whiskey glass in one hand and his plasma defender in the other, he crept through the shadows toward his office window.

It was not, in fact, his assistant, and neither was it Alan simply forgetting to turn the light off when he left earlier. It was Inquisitor Sterling Welles, dressed in the same ‘Knight Lowrie’ disguise he’d used to attend Tim Lucky's steamboat soiree. A simple Brotherhood jumpsuit, piecemeal ceramic and metal armor, and a rectangular mustache, though not as thick as the last time he’d had it. Alan holstered his weapon, left the window behind, and walked around to enter his office.

Once inside he saw that Sterling had poured himself a drink from the bottle Alan kept locked in his a drawer and he had his boots propped up on the desk. “I was hoping you’d show.”

“Bold of you to expect me to notice and come over,” Alan said.

“I knew you’d be leaving the party early, and I was content to wait once I discovered your stash. Not so bold, really.” Sterling, despite his disguise, still wore his infuriating half-smile. The plain arrogance of it always grinded on Alan.

Alan took a seat behind his desk and sipped his drink. “Is there something you needed to tell me?”

“I decided against killing the gang involved in the fighting ring. They don’t have any proof against the people who were involved. Instead, I took the place of the Knight Commander who was offering them protection. In exchange for his life, the gang’s leader is going to float to other criminals that he still has his friend in the Brotherhood. Given members of the Lucky Seven turned rebel, there may be other former criminals acting as rebels.”

“You think someone will bite?”

“It’s worth a shot. If it doesn’t pan out, I can kill off the leader. And even if I don’t, he’s got nothing but names on the spectators to his fight club. He’s knows he’s not strong enough to be in the blackmail game, and no one will believe him without some other proof.”

Alan took a long drink and rubbed his temples. The business with Robert Devereux and the fight club was the last thing he’d wanted or expected. It shouldn’t have gone unnoticed. But the gang operating it was from Junker Town and the Knight steering patrols away from it was stationed on the western outskirts, while the rebels were keeping most of the attention focused on the south and east. Both the Knight and the gang had found and exploited a blind spot, only the first of many this business with the rebels would create.

Worst of all, there were fucking pictures. Chief Harrington had turned the copies she was sent over to Alan, but he suspected it was not the last he’d hear about it from her. She was too righteous in her own way to abide by the wealthy getting away scot-free. With the rebels active, the law could not apply to everyone equally, Alan knew. Someone like Robert Devereux, a major munitions merchant, was too important to the city’s economy to get rid of. Devereux hadn’t needed to kill himself, because Alan wasn’t planning on brining those in the pictures to justice. The last thing Wellstone needed was economic unrest because several business leaders were going to jail and upsetting the balance of things. In Alan’s estimation, those who supported mutants were the real enemy, and he could deal with the idiot rich later. Besides, the pictures were a bargaining tool he couldn’t afford to just throw away.

“I sent the Knight Commander back to Chicago,” Alan said. “Made up something about a promotion so no one catches wind, but once he’s there they’ll deal with him. The one place we cannot abide corruption is in our own ranks.”

“I also located the detective who took the pictures,” Sterling said. “I suspect he kept the negatives, so I’ll find and take those.”

“Bring them here once you find them. This information is too sensitive to have out there,” Alan said.

“I think I’ll keep them. You have your copies, and I’ll have mine. I may need them for leverage in the future and I don’t want to have to break in here every time I do,” Sterling said.

“Anything else to report?” Alan asked after another drink. He was going to need to keep his personal bottle out after this.

“An update from our friend in Rockmasha Turf. His presence continues to keep the locals in check, and he does not expect any resistance to appear anytime soon. Sometimes I wonder if I made the wrong decision going the covert route.”

“An Inquisitor with a reputation certainly has its advantages. Any word from the others?”

“Nothing new to report. If there is I’ll let you know. Until then, I have some film to find.” Sterling rose and finished off his drink.

“Wait. Once you’re done with that, I need you to look into Clara Teasley and her hotel for me. I’m considering having General Stillwell moved there for his safety. He’ll be more comfortable there than here, but I want to make sure he'll be safe."

“We would have done some background work on her when she was on the City Council. I’m sure I can dig those reports up, and see if anything else stands out. Any other orders, Paladin Lord?”

Alan answered only with a glare, and Sterling left the office with a smirk on his face. Alan’s party of one continued after that and through half the bottle, until he fell asleep in his office chair.

**

The Sheriff
 

It was late when the party ended, so Lawrence hadn’t gone to talk to Clara at all. He had questions but he knew she wouldn’t be giving any answers. Criminal activity seemed like the obvious answer to hidden elevators and talk of going up against powerful people, but then you don’t hire a former sheriff who you admire for his morals and honesty if you’re a criminal. Unless you could tell that sheriff was more devoted to justice than blindly following the law. After how he’d helped out Liz, Clara might safely assume that.

Besides any potential criminal involvement, it was more disconcerting that she could’ve pegged him like that already. Of course, he knew that there was much more to her than met the eye. She was more used to pretending than being honest, and like her hotel, a rich facade hid secrets. On this night all the people of Wellstone were wearing masks, but unlike most other folks, Clara’s would still be on when the sun rose tomorrow.

He and the Texans walked together back to their hotel rooms on the west side of the Crossroads District. The night air was cool and crisp, though heavier with humidity than the fall nights back home. People were stumbling their way home as laughter rang out down the streets. A stranger would not be remiss to think there was no war going on in Wellstone. In this part of Wellstone it was easy to forget there was a war, until the Brotherhood patrol standing on the corner outside their hotel came into view. The Texans did their best to ignore them and went up to their rooms.

Lawrence unlocked his door and stepped inside. The air felt strangely stagnant, as if all the furniture in the room had inhaled and was holding its breath, so he crossed the room to open the window. He’d only taken a couple steps when he realized he wasn’t alone. Nearly silent breathing and a slight rustle of clothing were audible in the stillness. Without looking he knew the intruder was standing in the corner behind the door, where the moonlight from the window didn’t reach. The lamp was on the other side of the bed from Lawrence, so he couldn’t turn the light on.

Lawrence never hesitated on his way to the window, which he opened. He didn’t want the intruder to know he knew they were there. He stood breathing in the night air and trying to collect his thoughts. If they had a knife and meant to kill him they’d have to try and sneak up on him, but as he listened the intruder stayed in their dark little corner. If they had a gun there was the problem of someone hearing the shot, especially with the window open. There was the possibility of a suppressed weapon, though. But if they’d meant to shoot him, they could’ve done it already. He could jump out the second story window, but the fact he was still alive meant this wasn’t a simple hit job.

Which meant they wanted to talk before they killed him, or this visit was to scare him. Either way he wasn’t going to find out looking out the window, so he wheeled around and looked into the dark corner. “What do you want?”

The intruder took half a step forward, so that the moonlight landed on the long, thin barrel of a suppressed small caliber pistol, probably a .22. Lawrence couldn’t see any of the person’s features. A man’s voice like a smile said, “That’s an interesting accent. Not from around here, are you, detective?”

Calling him detective was either a slip up or intentional, as it meant the intruder knew him from helping out Patricia Devereux or Vanessa Van Silver. Of course, he hadn’t exactly been well known as a caravan guard the first time they were here. “I’m not.”

“We have that in common,” the intruder said. His voice was conspicuously accent-less, but with a charming edge to it. It was slightly muffled too, which was odd. But Lawrence detected a hint of interest in the man’s tone, as if Lawrence being an outsider was more than a simple curiosity.

“You haven’t answered my question,” Lawrence said.

The intruder’s other hand rose into the moonlight, revealing the film and copies of the fight club pictures Lawrence made for himself. “I found the pictures you’d stashed back in that shitty little hotel in South Union. Clever, but I’ve been doing this too long to overlook something like that.”

Lawrence grunted in displeasure, which was all he had to say.

“Let this go, cowboy. If any of the people in these pictures knew they existed and that you took them, you’d come home to find more than a twenty-two waiting for you.”

Lawrence had only given Patricia pictures of Robert, and even then ones that only showed his infidelity, not the fight club. Wellstone police and the Brotherhood were the only ones who got pictures of everyone involved and what they were involved in. The intruder was here on behalf of one of those groups. Or both, given the control the Brotherhood had. “Not sure I could do anything without those pictures.”

The man stepped forward into the light and slid the photos and film inside the pocket of his brown jacket. He was Lawrence’s height but slimmer, his movements quick and fluid. A brown fedora hat covered his hair and shadows hid his eyes. A plastic mask of a carved pumpkin covered his face. Behind the mask’s tortured expression Lawrence could see the man’s smirk. It was a coyote’s smile, sly and mocking. “That’s the right idea.”

The intruder moved to the door without taking his eyes or the gun off of Lawrence and then left. Lawrence leaned backward on the windowsill and let out the breath he’d been holding. Without those pictures there wasn’t much he could do. He didn’t recall the faces well enough to figure out who was at the fight club, and no one would just take his word for it. Which was why he was still alive, he supposed. Without those pictures no one would believe him.

Between finding himself in the Brotherhood’s sights for taking those pictures and learning his prospective knew boss was hiding something big, criminal or otherwise, Lawrence thought that braving the Lost Lands again didn’t sound so bad after all.  

Edited by BTC
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The Heart of the Reavers


With a terrible throbbing throughout Sinbad's head he heard a conglomerate of voices swirling around, slipping ever so into consciousness he felt an urge to cough up, a feeling of water down his windpipe. Unable to feel anything below his neck, albeit the ruffling of sheets told him he wasn't a cripple when his leg made the noise even if he couldn't feel it. Whoever was with him had their voices peek, speaking incomprehensibly. If this was his death throws he'd do his best to face it eyes open.

Unlike the horrid shimmering demons he expected to see, it was a compact room with his vision obscured by medical curtains. Grizzled looking folks that would have been a laughing stock wearing all that fine sterilized looking clothing hovered around, fretting and murmuring. The words were ever slowly becoming clearer, fists still clobbered the inside of Sinbad's head.

"Killers?" Echoing like a computer's cathedral they repeated themselves, again and again. Killers? Killers?

"No," another voice said. No. No. "No painkillers."

"How many days have we been holding this one?"

"Lisa forgot to write it down, remember? It's been a couple weeks, though. This isn't his first time waking up."

"Tough tribal bastard. Check his LOC."

One of the figures leaned in closer, and as Sinbad's vision slowly cleared, he made out a hand waving in his face. He blinked.

"Responds to visual stimuli..." The figure cleared its throat, and spoke directly into Sinbad's ear. "Do you speak english?"

Sinbad managed to gutter out a solid "Mhhmhh."

He tried reaching his numb hand up to grasp at the figure, only to have it gently lowered by the man.

"Responds to verbal stimuli. If he can walk, he should be clear. Can I tighten the restraints? We don't know what he's capable of."

He now saw that one of the figures was scrawling away on a clipboard. The same one who was giving commands. That figure nodded, and Sinbad felt a tightness around his arms that forced them down to his sides.

The same man who lowered Sinbad's arm leaned closer.

"You've had serious trauma to your head and as suggested by the shrapnel removed from your person likely from an explosive. Your equipment marvelously shielded your organs from the shrapnel but there was nothing to dampen the sheer ballistic force of said explosive, can you tell us what you remember?"

"Demons, shimmering and invisible ambushed me."

The doctors exchanged glances, and one of them muttered something about tribals. "Well," the one in charge said, "Your demons did a number on you. And so did the storm. What is your name, mister?"

A quick if not hazy thought entered Sinbad's mind, being drugged the thought wasn't quite as clear but it worried him. If these people found him as he lay, did they know the ancient kit of the old Reavers? Lying now would get him killed, at least anything outside of omission.

"Sinbad of the Third Tribe, folks beyond brotherhood territory out uh, east a ways."

"Third tribe?" He heard something from someone that sounded like a snicker. "I didn’t know you people kept count."

"Our, Chieftains were wise and mighty." Sinbad mentally asked forgiveness for equating his holy rulers to petty tribal chieftains.

"I'm sure they were," said the doctor. "Tell us, Sinbad, is the Third Tribe cannibalistic?"

"What's wrong with you? Never." Sinbad mumbled, he almost squirmed on the bed but that would have given the wrong impression.

"Lovely. If we untie you, you won't try to hurt anybody in here, will you?"

"Think I'm hurt bad, couldn't, wouldn't."

"It's just pain. That'll get better. Trust me, I'm a Hospitaller." The doctor chuckled as if he'd made some kind of joke, and as he did, the bed he was laying on started to move. The next thing Sinbad knew, he was away from the well-lit room and rolling down a dim hallway as the doctor continued, "We flushed the rads from you, stitched up the wounds, and removed as much shrapnel as we could. You haven't died yet so you probably won't."

They stopped, and Sinbad felt the restraints around his arms and legs begin to loosen. "We've got a crutch if you need it. Your friend covered it already."

"He's alive!?" Sinbad pushed himself up with widen eyes and a half quivering mouth. "Yes, oh give me the crutch! Please!" He was ecstatic, an illusion it was. His dear friend hadn't died, he must have been by his side the whole time! He couldn't snatch the crutch quickly enough, Sinbad pushed himself a little too fast with the brace. 

"We called him here this morning," said the doctor. "He's waiting up front." 

The man pushed open another door, and Sinbad rushed to hobble through it, painful as the action was. The room he found himself in was lined with windows and chairs, and its lone occupant was a hideous ghoul leaning back in one. The rad-cursed looked up at him and grinned with blackened teeth. "There he is!"

That struck Sinbad down worse than any invisible demon. Were he weak, he might have wept at his momentary loss of reason. Illusions were not for mortal men it seemed. The Heavenly Ampere hadn't granted solace, but Satansoft gave forth sorrow, he truly was dead.

Aching and lacking the grandiose joy of moments before, Sinbad hobbled without drive towards the thing. Taking his seat in the chair next to it. "I thought you were someone else." He didn't look at the thing's face. "All the applause to you for saving me."

"Ah, don't sweat it." The ghoul's voice was as course and gravely as any Sinbad could remember. "Every now and then folk around here drag in someone like you. Usually the work y'all do is worth the doctors' price."

"Indebted work. Whatever it may be, I can hardly walk right now."

"Don't worry, Doc tells me that'll get better soon. They filled ya with more needles than a Junkertown addict. Ha!" The ghoul extended a rotten hand. "The name's Tibet."

In his mind he groaned at the queasy thought of touching the ghoul's hand, but to the ghoul he had a blank face. It never was a problem torturing those two ghouls before getting ambushed, but this clean environment somehow made it worse. "Sinbad of the Third Tribe." At least his savior deserved the name.

"The Third tribe, eh?" Tibet made a coughing sound that might have been a chuckle. "You'll have to tell me all about it some time. Now come on," the ghoul's joints creaked as he stood up. "It's time you found out where you landed."

Sinbad followed, at a respectable distance. "I was found with arms." He inspected his clothing, which wasn't his own. "And armor. Where are they held?"

"Your stuff's safe. Figured I might sell it if you weren't willing to earn the money I spent saving you."

"Yes, sensible thing to do." Gonna skin him alive. Thought Sinbad... maybe not skinning.

"I'm glad you agree."

Tibet led him outside the hospital. They seemed to be in a sparsely-wooded settlement, the kind his people usually preferred to avoid. There weren't many people out and about, but the dwellings were too well-kept to be abandoned. In the far distance were a number of massive structures, all metal and concrete and glass, that stood so high Sinbad could see them over the trees.

"I see that look in your eyes," said the ghoul. "First time seeing Wellstone?"

"No, never seen it. Heard stories about Chicago... our tribe stayed clear of places like this." Sinbad had to think about how to phrase it without flat out saying, 'Our people were enemies of the wicked Brotherhood.'

"Wow," Tibet sounded surprised. "You must be as tribal as they come, then. Well as it happens, I tend to stay clear of the city too. Y'know, on account of the Brotherhood and all."

"I don't imagine any of us has changed over the generations. Tibet...um." He had to think long and hard how to use terms that weren't religious, so to avoid suspicion. Although outwardly it seemed hesitation on asking an awkward question. "Were you human before the nuclear warheads detonated?"

The ghoul rolled his eyes, though one of them lacked its lid and seemed to trail behind the other a little rather than moving in tandem. It was a little unnerving. "They always ask. No, my wasteland friend, I ain't that old. But I've still been around a fair deal longer than anyone you know whose face isn't rotting off."

"If there was ever a time to give up that question, it is now. One better suited for myself is how exactly am I to repay you? If I am the only one to call you my savior, then the tribe is dead. Let me repay you and I'll drift into obscurity."

"Sounds like a plan."

He continued to follow Tibet through the little community, which despite being in decent shape, seemed mostly deserted. They eventually arrived at a tiny old world house that was covered in ivy vines. The ghoul pushed some aside in front of the door and led Sinbad in. The hallway they stepped into was completely empty, its white walls cracked and faded. The only light source was the sunlight that came in through two windows on the left side.

"I take it you're a fighter," Tibet said, motioning for Sinbad to follow him down the hall. "All that equipment. Some sort of warrior in your tribe?"

"Yes. I am literate but my place was of the warrior caste. Since you know of my equipment, I cannot lie in the face of truth. I know nothing of gunpowder weaponry, I was bred to wield the holy energy weapons. Lead me to my arms, you will see."

"You'll get your things back, don't you worry." They turned into a side room, and to Sinbad's surprise, there was another man inside. He was older, with a big brown beard and a totally shaven scalp. More notably, the man must have been every bit as tall as Sinbad, perhaps even an inch more, and was broad enough to match.

The man waited for them beside a window, and looked Sinbad up and down as they approached, obviously sizing him up. "You weren't kidding, Tib," he said in a voice that was unsurprisingly deep. He looked Sinbad over as he continued. "You're a good example of why the B.O.S. likes recruiting tribals so much. Tight knit group of strong, healthy survivors goes on to have the strongest, healthiest children. They'd make you a Knight in no time."

Sinbad glared at Tibet. "Am I understanding this right? You, my savior, a ghoul, who's favor I owe is to enlist me into the brotherhood? I would serve anywhere else under the sun, send me to die against a hundred men than stick me among their ranks. Do not make this demand, I would be eternally scorned in blissful afterlife."

The large man and the ghoul stared at him for a moment, then looked at one another and out of nowhere erupted in a fit laughter. From Tibet, that sounded like a dying molerat, but the man's laugh was a downright thunderous sound. "You-" the man gasped, mid-guffaw, "you think we-" He pointed at the ghoul. "Him?" And then he lost it again.

"We don't want you to join the Brotherhood, kid," said Tibet as he retook control of himself. "My friend here was just saying that big tough bastards like you are the sort they like to take in."

"Exactly," said the man, who grinned as he cleared his throat. "In fact, I agree with you. Fuck the Brotherhood."

Sinbad was stony faced throughout their exchange, though he actually found it no less hilarious. "There are eastern tribes who curse their name yes. Brotherhood breeds animosity." No brother would ally with a ghoul, Sinbad was finally in a position to end his lie. "I am Sinbad of the Third Tribe, my ancestors fled against their ilk... and the machine."

"Well I sure as hell didn't expect that," the big man said. He touched his chest. "I'm Tristan Thatch, and my family's got its problems with those bastards too. And by 'the machine', I take it you mean Barnaky." The amusement he'd displayed moments ago vanished as if blown away by a gust of wind. "We hate him, most of all... Listen, I was planning to get your help roughing up some gangsters in South Union, but now I think we can do better than that, wouldn't you agree, Tib?"

"Oh, for sure."

Tristan Thatch looked Sinbad in the eyes. He had an intense stare. "But first, tell me all about this Third Tribe of yours."

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The Sheriff
 

Lorena was always perfect in his dreams, which was why he hated them. She stood in the faint morning rays of the sunlight, looking over the side of the bridge to the murky, muddy waters beneath, her soft black hair falling over her warm brown face and deep brown eyes. In the dream she turned to look at him, smiling her friendly smile, the one that got people who might’ve only respected Lawrence to like him as well by simple association with her. They laced their fingers together and her hands were just as roughened from work as his, though they never felt like it. In the dreams her perfection was evident, nothing amiss or out of place. That simple fact always reminded Lawrence that these were dreams, and that Lorena was gone, that the version he saw wasn’t real.

He was awake now. He always woke up immediately after having a dream about her. Something about the falseness of his dreams caused him to lose any desire for sleep. He quickly dressed, pulling on his jeans and a grey button-up shirt. All his combat armor was packed away along with his bandana, goggles, and duster, the accouterments of wasteland travel, not fit for city living. He picked up his hat and walked into the hallway of their western Crossroads District hotel. Without a destination in mind he walked the halls until he found himself in the courtyard of the place, the building wrapping around the overgrown flowers and untrimmed trees like a protective embrace.

Reyna was there, sitting on a bench. She wore a black leather jacket and jeans, her brown boots tied up over the bottom of those. Her hair was cut short and slicked back out of her face. She was leaned over, elbows on knees, a cigarette dangling from her hand. That was odd, as he’d never known her to smoke, and he’d known her for a couple years before the expedition set out. Not well, but as acquaintances, enough to observe any smoking habits she had. Or so he’d thought.

Possibly sensing the strangeness of the act, she moved to stub it out but came up short when she saw him. Her light brown eyes lingered on Lawrence’s face. He knew what she saw, because it was mirrored on her own face. Memories of the dead, of lost loved ones. A desire to accept it and keep living and guilt for thinking you could. She reached into her pocket to pull out another cigarette. He took it and she lit it for him with her own.

Lawrence sat and smoked in silence. He tried to think what Lorena would’ve done here. She was always better at talking with folks. Kindness came naturally to them both, but expressing niceness with words seemed to elude him. She’d had a way with people, even her small talk endearing and never perfunctory.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked, deciding that was the closest he could get in his own straightforward way.

Reyna leaned onto one elbow and turned towards him, her eyebrow arching in mild surprise. “Do you?”

“I suppose we should. It’s what my wife would’ve done, and she always had a better grasp of these things.”

“Yeah, mine too. Laura didn’t hold anything back. What she wanted, what she felt, what she had to say, she was as open a book as anyone I’ve ever met. I always admired that, and afterwards noticed myself not holding things back so much.”

“It was real easy for Lorena to sit down with a stranger and walk away with a friend. I can tell what someone is feeling or thinking but talking to them about it, I can never find the right words.”

“You know, they didn’t have it all figured out.” It wasn’t a harsh statement. Reyna’s tone was loving, even. It was the same line of thinking that led Lawrence to hating his perfect dreams. “Some people aren’t talkers. They just want to be seen, I guess.”

Lawrence tapped the ash off the end of his cigarette as Reyna did the same. “Actions speak louder, sometimes.”

“It’s not quick or easy, but we’ll get through it,” Reyna said. “At least we aren’t alone.”

She leaned on Lawrence and he leaned on her. The contact, the reminder he had a friend who knew what he felt, was nicer than he could’ve imagined. He raised an imaginary glass. “To friends helping you get through it.”

They clinked together their imaginary glasses and laughed at themselves before falling into companionable silence. Lawrence checked the courtyard and the walkway that overlooked it, and didn’t see anyone, but when he spoke again he did so in Spanish anyway. “Someone broke into my room last night and stole the pictures and film. They were waiting for me when I got back, told me to leave it alone.”

Reyna jerked away and stared at him. “What? You can’t say something like that so casually.”

I don’t exactly know how to lead into the fact the Brotherhood or police one sent somebody to threaten me at gunpoint,” Lawrence said.

Reyna rolled her eyes, but it was a playful gesture to ease some of the tension out of the conversation. “What’re you going to do?”

I don’t see how I have much choice but to do what he asked. He found the copies I hid at the hotel in South Union and took the film too. What do you think?”

I think you’re right. At least you burned that place down. Are you going to tell the others?”

“Yes. They should know about the danger I’ve put them in.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. Not like you could’ve known just how corrupt the Brotherhood or police are.”

“I should’ve. After all we’ve heard it was naive of me to think otherwise.”

Reyna, resigned, shook her head “I’m starting to think we should’ve gone back to Texas.”

Lawrence nodded and let the conversation die. He didn’t consider filling her in on what might be going on at Clara’s. Whatever it was, he didn’t think it was nearly as dangerous as the photographs and the Brotherhood’s ire were. Not to mention he didn’t know exactly what was going on yet, and he knew that everyone was looking forward to these jobs. They had their final interviews with Clara today, but it was almost a given they’d be moving into the hotel before the sun set. He didn’t want to risk his friends’ lives by messing with the Brotherhood, and he wasn’t about to upend one of the few good things they had going because of mere suspicion. He was determined, though, to figure out what was going on at that hotel. He needed to know the truth about whatever it was they were walking into.

Over breakfast he filled the others in on what had happened the night before.

“Those bastards,” Ezekiel said, a white-knuckled grip around his cup of tea. “We’ve got to do something about this.”

Next to Ezekiel Kim had gone pale, her eyes wide and hands trembling slightly. Ezekiel’s righteous anger abated when he noticed, and he reached over to take her hand. Between them staying and now the rulers of the city threatening them, Lawrence didn’t judge her one bit for being afraid.

“What’s there to do?” Abbey said. “We’ve got no proof anymore. And even if we did, how would we get them out there?”

Kim nodded, her fear abated somewhat. Lawrence saw in the shift of her expression, from fear to concentration, her usual coping mechanism. This was a problem, but a logical one, something she could work out to keep her mind off the danger lying behind it. “To print enough to publicize it would require something on the scale of the newspapers’ operations. But without the photographs or film we can’t do that. No names, no other evidence. The only reason Lawrence isn’t dead is because they came to the same conclusion. That he doesn’t pose a threat. Which means we should be safe, as long as we drop this as they suggested.”

“I’ve read those newspapers,” Reyna said. “There’s not a chance in hell they’re printing something critical of the Brotherhood.”

“Y’all are worrying too much,” Guillermo said. Lawrence could tell his nonchalance was a cover for his own worry. “Lawrence isn’t dead, we’ve got new jobs, and we’re about to move into a place nicer than any of us has ever lived in before. This is just a bump in the road.”

Ezekiel looked like he wanted to say something but Kim squeezed his hand and he stayed silent. Lawrence said, “We should probably get going to Clara’s. Don’t want to be late.”

With that everyone broke off to finish readying up and then made their way to Clara’s Casino and Cabaret.

**

It was a couple hours later when it was finally Lawrence’s turn to be interviewed. The Texans had all started out waiting in the office of George the hotel manager, next to Clara’s office. One at a time she called them in and she talked to each of them for about half an hour. Kim had gone first, followed by Ezekiel, Reyna, Abbey, and finally Lawrence. After their interviews the preceding group members were led downstairs to the cabaret for lunch, so Lawrence didn’t know the content of their interviews, though seeing them walk by he didn’t notice anything amiss in his companions. Guillermo, already hired, was busy downstairs practicing with the other singers.

George walked by, leading Abbey downstairs, which meant it was Lawrence’s turn. Without waiting for someone to call him in he walked Clara’s office and knocked on the door. She told him to come in. When he did it looked the same as it had the day before, with Clara seated in her chair and a pot of tea on her desk. Of course, it wasn’t the same, because Lawrence knew behind the wall to his right was a hidden elevator shaft. He made a conscious effort not to glance that way.

“Would you care for a cup?” she asked as he took her seat.

“No, thank you.” He’d taken it as a courtesy last time but he wasn’t feeling particularly courteous today.

Their previous conversation still left Lawrence with more questions than answers. She’d read him easily and thoroughly, but he knew he’d always been an open book. Most people who’d known him for any length of time generally considered him honest and trustworthy. And Clara was right, he was good at reading people. It was what he saw in Clara that gave him cause for concern. The woman behind the desk was a different one than he’d seen out in the casino talking to guests and laughing at their bad jokes, and was a different one from the Clara her rich friends probably knew. That begged the question, which one was real? Or maybe none of them were. Between the secrets the hotel and its owner hid, he wasn’t sure what to trust.

“An interesting way you’ve gone about this,” Lawrence said. “Not letting us talk to the people you’ve already interviewed.”

“It raised some people’s guards, to be sure,” Clara said. “Others were more comfortable with the unknown. I expect you know which of your friends were which.”

Lawrence nodded. Kim curiosity and Abbey’s love of venturing into the unknown would’ve led them to embrace the surprise of it. Ezekiel’s skepticism and Reyna’s wariness would’ve kept their guards up. “I suppose you found that a useful way to learn about us.”

“I did.” Clara said. She seemed more relaxed today. There was less of the coy smile and she wasn’t even watching him like she had been the day before. He didn’t know if it was real or an affect to put him at ease.  “But you and I have already talked at length, so I would like to know what you can tell me about your friends? I’ve met them and talked to them, but I don’t know them like you do. What jobs would suit them?”

If they were going to work here, Lawrence wanted them to be in jobs they were good at, and didn’t see that harm in telling her that much. “Kim is the smartest person I’ve ever met. You got any machines that need upgraded or running inefficiently, she could fix that.” Or too loud hidden elevators. “Ezekiel’s a damn good doctor. But don’t expect him to cover up overdoses or accidents for you. Reyna’s observant and good at staying hidden. She should’ve been in the casino the other night trying to catch folks cheating. Abbey is tough and good at coming up with a plan and adapting when she needs to. She should probably be in charge of something.”

“Thank you. Both Rodge and I had our thoughts but it was your opinion I wanted before I made any decisions.”

“Did those thoughts include why you’d be turning the safety of your hotel to people you barely know?”

She leveled an amused look at here. “I thought it was simply my generosity, helping out a few newcomers.”

“You said you wanted my opinion, well, there it is. The others may not want to look sideways at a gift, but this all seems too sudden for my liking.” 

“You’ve surely noticed Wellstone is experiencing some unrest at the moment. I want my hotel and its patrons safe and protected. The fact you and your friends made it all the way from…” She paused, and gave him a knowing look that said she knew they were from Texas, but was choosing to keep that secret for them. “Wherever it is you’re from means you’re certainly capable of guarding a building. And it means I don’t have to worry about you and your friends’ allegiances causing me any headaches. I don’t want this war to end up on my doorstep.”

If she’s worried about her employees being rebels, animosity towards the Brotherhood runs deeper than I thought. The spread of attacks into Forgotten Homes certainly supported that. None of this explained why she had a secret elevator. But from the way she talked, he was leaning toward the explanation being criminal activity. Maybe helping her rich friends keep their illicit rendezvous discreet. He’d already seen the sordid activities of the Gold District denizens firsthand, and so knew that was a strong possibility.

“I suppose that explains the increase in security as well.”

“Precisely. The Protectrons were more than enough for peacetime but not when the streets of Wellstone become a battlefield. Are you satisfied, or are my motivations still suspect?” She asked the question plainly, clearly understanding where Lawrence’s worry was coming from. If nothing else, he appreciated she didn’t think his questions were unreasonable. 

“I’d apologize but you should know this is what hiring me will get you.”

“And it is the precise reason why I am hiring you.” She rose, and Lawrence did the same. “Now, lets join your friends downstairs for lunch and we can tell them the good news.” She seemed genuinely excited at the prospect, and Lawrence’s suspicions abated slightly. He might not trust her completely, but he didn’t get the sense she had any ill intent with his friends.

“One thing we haven’t discussed it what I’d be doing,” Lawrence said as they left her office behind.

“Well, you’ve shown a knack for detective work. Clearly.” Clara gave him a droll smile. “I don’t see any reason why you should stop that. Things go missing, people act suspiciously, and Wellstone police are wholly unreliable. Pre-war hotels used to have their own detectives, and I don’t see why I can’t as well.”

Lawrence couldn’t help but smile at the idea. “I’m not going to say no to that.”

He thought over his past conversations with his new boss. He was good at picking out when someone was lying, and he felt like Clara was being mostly honest when they’d spoke. The problem was he could tell she was a damn good liar, and he wasn’t sure if he was overestimating his own abilities by thinking she was being honest. It was clear she was hiding something in her hotel, and for the moment that would be enough to keep him wary.

They joined the rest of the group downstairs in the cabaret right as lunch was being served, which he assumed was as Clara had planned it. She did need some technological work done, which Kim was happy to do. Ezekiel was less enthusiastic about being the doctor on call to her admittedly well off patrons, but she pointed out that his work here could fund any work he did in the Steel District and Forgotten Homes, and he came around to the idea. Reyna liked the idea of stalking the poker tables to catch folks cheating, and Abbey was grateful to be Clara’s new head of security, already expressing some areas she thought needed improvement. Lawrence had to admit, in this regard Clara was doing right by him and his friends.

After lunch they went back to their hotel in the Crossroads and gathered their things to move into Clara’s. On the way back, Guillermo mentioned the idea of a celebratory dinner, which was when Ezekiel and Kim remembered they’d run into Richard not too long ago and had talked to him about getting together for dinner. They all decided to combine the two, and through one of the hotel servants sent an invitation to Richard and his girlfriend at the Post Office.

With their scant belongings in tow the six of them filed into Clara’s through the employee’s entrance on the eastern side of the building, and then piled into an elevator that whisked them up to the thirteenth floor. When it softly dinged their new home was revealed before them. The floor was a square, though all the rooms fell along the outer edge, as the hotel was ‘hollow,’ a column of space between the northern and southern wings. Most of the hotel floors were horseshoe shaped, with only the first, second, thirteenth, and fourteenth a complete square.

The Texans’ rooms were situated on the southern wing of the building, while some of the other employees were in the northern wing, and in the rooms along the western wall. There were six rooms along the southern wall, one for each of the Texans, though Kim and Ezekiel would be sharing. Lawrence took the first. The chances of someone sneaking up on him were lower the closer he was to the elevators and staircase. Guillermo took the next room, followed by Reyna, Abbey, and then Kim and Ezekiel taking the other corner room.

Lawrence’s room was spacious, with the bed tucked away against the wall on his right and a seating area with a couch on the far wall beneath the windows, where a radio sat on an end table as well. To the immediate right was the bathroom, and the immediate left a small table and set of chairs. The entire room looked about as new as anything he’d ever seen. It was certainly clean enough to look brand new. Upon closer inspection he could see where the bed frame was chipped and had been repainted, where the lights were a bit of a mishmash, and that the radio had been repaired a few times. It made the place feel less sterile and more welcoming.

He went about unpacking his few meager belongings, the first time he’d really unpacked since the trip began. On the dresser he sat his straw cowboy hat, and put into the drawers his extra clothes, his combat armor, and his duster. On top of that he sat his badge. Onto the table next to the radio went his mother’s old model 2000 Pip-Boy and his father’s books. He pulled the roadraptor talon necklace from beneath his shirt, to remind himself it was still there. It was the closest thing he had to a nervous tick, and only ever showed up in private. It and the scar on his cheek was a reminder of Lorena saving him from the damn thing. He tucked it back in, tossed his bag into a chair, and left to see how the others were getting along.

They all took some time to check out each other’s rooms, though they were not much different. Mostly in whether they had couches, chairs, or some combination of the two. They didn’t have any plans besides dinner, and they wouldn’t start work until tomorrow, so they all went down to the bar to pass the time. It was an occasion to celebrate, after all. They talked about plans for what they’d spend their first bit of money on, now that they were looking at a more permanent place to stay, though at the moment the only one who had ideas firmly in mind was Kim, who wanted a terminal to be able to better analyze the data she and Ojo had collected.

Soon enough evening came and they gathered out front, where they’d told Richard and his girlfriend to meet them, and decide from there where they wanted to eat. They were all a little buzzed, but it was a celebration and a reunion, so he figured the night would only be all the better for it. He didn’t think Richard would mind too much that they’d gotten a head start.

After a short moment Richard arrived with Aly at his side. He wore a nice leather coat now. Even though it covered his upper body and upper legs one could see that from knees down he was still wearing the same beige outfit underneath as when they had first met him. Aly was dressed plainly by comparison, in faded jeans and a dark green hoodie.

"Hi," said Richard with a friendly smile, while also raising his hand to greet them. "Already having fun without us or are you always this tipsy nowadays?" 

“Got started a little early, is all,” Guillermo said, grinning. Everyone greeted Richard, and then he introduced them all to Aly. She seemed like a nice girl who was genuinely enthused by the fact that they had come from such a distant land. Her eyes were alert with interest, telling Lawrence that she really listened to their names and what they had to say, and didn't just feign it like so many other locals.

”Nice to meet you,” Lawrence said. “Since you’re the local, I figure we’ll let you decide where we should eat.”

"Shit, I eat anything," she said, which was hard to imagine considering her small frame. "Got a whole mess of riverfood shacks here in the market. Catfish, mander, yappies, you name it. Seein' as y'all work in that place," she pointed at Clara's, putting on a somewhat impressed look as she did, "... I'm guessing y'all can afford a decent steak too if you wanna go down to Jogan's. Best brahmin grill this side of the river. Least outa the ones I've been to."

"Don't let this place fool you," Abbey said. "I've eaten shit that would turn your stomach inside out. Most of us have."

"We were on the road until very recently," Reyna explained. "You can thank Guillermo's golden pipes for our glitzy new digs. And Lawrence's nose for trouble."

Lawrence lifted his chin with pride at the comment, while Guillermo did a mock bow. Lawrence said, "If you'll lead the way to Jogan's, we can treat you two to something nice."

"It ain't far." Aly took the lead and started west, with Richard by her side. They chatted along the way, and Aly acted as something of a quasi-tour guide, pointing out a few landmarks and asking if they'd heard this or that but if history along the way. A couple blocks away, they came upon a medium-sized wooden building with a sign that read 'Jogan's Roadhouse'. It didn't look like much, but judging by the smell and the decent crowd visible through the windows, the cooks inside knew what they were doing.

It wasn't long before they were seated and a round of drinks ordered. As they waited for those to arrive, Lawrence turned to Richard and Aly and asked, "How'd you two meet?"

"We met while I was robbing her family workshop on all its bottle caps." Richard sounded quite serious and genuine but he avoided eye contact as he sipped his glass of water that he had poured for himself as they waited for the drinks. 

"Richard the gentleman thief?" Ezekiel said, the sarcasm plain in his voice. "That's a far cry from the way we found you, elbow deep in a deer carcass."

"It's a shame how the city corrupts the young and impressionable," Guillermo said with mock sorrow.

"And next I'm gonna steal all the toaster in the Gold District." It became increasingly obvious that Richard had trouble keeping a straight face and serious tone. 

In his buzzed state, it took Lawrence a moment to realize what Richard had said. "Did you say you stole all of their bottle caps?"

"When I was out west I heard that some people used them as currency," Abbey explained. "I didn't realize you were such a traveler, Richard."

"I am from the far northwest. Once met a trader that accepted bottle caps as a currency. Don't know why. I find bottle caps as a currency rather unwieldy."

"Yeah, seems stupid if you ask me. Not sure how you'd go about having different values if it's all just caps," Reyna said.

Kim cleared her throat a little and asked, "Are you from Wellstone originally, Aly? Have you done any traveling around the Belt?"

"Born and raised," she answered proudly. "And I've never left, unless you count the Arenas and places like that. Most people don't."

"Seems to me that if you're going to live in one place your whole life, you couldn't do much better than Wellstone," Guillermo said. 

Their drinks came, and everyone placed their food orders, with amounted to everyone ordering steaks on Aly's earlier recommendation. As the waitress left, Reyna said, "What're you up to these days, Richard?"

"I work as a mailman." Richard sounded almost a little bitter about the fact. 

"You might see if The Lodge has any work, since you've got experience hunting," Abbey said. "Me and Reyna did a job for them. It was-"

"Fucking crazy," Reyna said.

"-really exciting," Abbey finished her original thought.

"You worked for the lodge?" Aly's eyes went big. "What did you hunt?"

"It wasn't a hunt." Reyna was grinning widely and shaking her head in disbelief.

"We captured a snapper," Abbey explained, sharing Reyna's grin. "Lured it into a cage and hauled it back to their little zoo. Damn thing nearly bit through the bars of the cage and escaped, though."

As Aly, Reyna and Abbey discussed The Lodge Richard turned to Lawrence and Guillermo. "How are you people holding up?"

Lawrence shrugged. “As well as can be expected, I suppose. Never gets any easier but this time didn’t hit as hard as some others.”

"You don't seem like you're going to continue the caravan business now that that one eyed woman is gone."

“Ours was more of a path-finding trip than trading expedition. None of us were really on the mercantile side of things. We can find plenty of other things to guard that don’t require trips through the Lost Lands.” 

"Why did you go there anyway?"

Lawrence considered the lies he might tell, but he didn’t see the point now. “We were looking for some folks we thought might be enslaved there. It was a stretch, all things considered.”

"Yeah, that seems like searching for a needle in a haystack." Richard paused for a second as he got a thoughtful expression. "Why were these people so important that you traveled all the way from the far south to find them?"

"They were friends and loved ones of Maxine and the owner of the caravan company. Those of us sitting here didn't know this was a rescue mission until we got to Wellstone. We decided to help Maxine find them when we found out."

"Noble. Though if it's one thing I've learnt in my travels it's that the world doesn't really reward people that try to be heroes." Richard looked a little weary for a second. 

“I think it’s worth the effort anyway.” Lawrence wondered if that made him a hypocrite, considering he was letting go of the fight club pictures. But he knew he hadn’t let it go, not really. It still ate at him, and if the opportunity came, he’d set it right. It wasn’t worth pursuing and dying over in the meantime, though. 

Guillermo jumped in then, perhaps seeing the introspective turn in his friend’s demeanor. “Tell me, Richard, do you have any long term plans here in Wellstone?”

"Uhm, let's see... Become a world famous spy, get filthy rich and then retire to an island." Richard gave Guillermo a stupid smile. "Actually I'm just hoping to find a good enough job that I can at least be part of the middle class."

“I still think you should give metal working a shot,” Lawrence said. “That sword of yours speaks to some skill and I doubt amongst all those artisans across the river there’s many that can match what you can do.”

"I'll try." Richard paused for a second. "Also that sword was not made by me, but my father."

“Did leave a lot of family behind, where you’re from?” Guillermo asked. 

"Yeah. Rather big family. For better and worse."

“Why’d you leave?” Lawrence asked.

"I guess you could say a series of unfortunate events happened."

Lawrence raised his eyebrows but kept silent. If Richard had wanted to talk about it he wouldn’t be so vague. He listened to Aly talk about some of the Lodge’s more notable exploits, with Kim mostly and Ezekiel some occasionally chiming in to ask about certain creatures she mentioned. That inevitably led to Kim holding forth on her ideas on their mutations, and the others talking about the scariest thing they ever ran into. Richard mentioned his run-in with a deathclaw, and Aly told them of some monsters she’d heard of out in the Lost Lands.

Lawrence got to pull the roadraptor talon necklace out and tell of the time Lorena had saved him, which led to some sadness as he explained to Aly who she was. Richard broke the tension by joking about how Lawrence’s idea of scary was an oversized chicken, which he didn’t mind. Better not to linger too long on those memories at a celebration dinner. Their food arrived shortly thereafter, and the steaks were as good as Aly had promised. 

After their waitress took their empty plates away and everyone ordered a last round of drinks, Lawrence asked Aly, “Kim and Ezekiel said your family owned a robotics shop. You real interested in robots or just something you were born into?”

Aly shrugged. "Neither, really. Garage is only a few years old, but that kinda stuff: computers, robots, what have you, it's more my brother's thing. I mostly just clean the place."

“What does interest you? Can’t imagine you’ll want to clean the place forever, as fun as it sounds,” Reyna said.  

"I dunno," Aly answered, "Still gotta figure that out."

"Well if you're also any good at cooking you got the housewife skills down," said Richard in a clearly joking and teasing fashion.

"I never said I was good at cleaning the place."

“It took me a while to settle on the luxurious career of a guard,” Reyna said.

”And I’ve done just about everything under the sun in my time,” Guillermo said. He added with a sly grin, “Including some jobs that were less than honest.”

"Oh yeah?" said Aly, "Like what?"

Lawrence noticed Aly was eager to shift the conversation away from her and to someone else. It was subtle, but the quickness with which she asked Guillermo and the touch too curious tone gave it away. 

Of course, Guillermo was happy to oblige. “I always had a silver tongue which made some folks more than willing to part with their money. Petty scams, nothing serious. I soon found out people liked my silver tongue for altogether different purposes, and I used to be a looker back in the day. I do live to entertain and please, after all. I was maybe not discerning enough with who I slept with, though, which landed me in a bit of hot water. Though that may also be because I robbed a few houses of the rich folks who hired me.” He shrugged and added, “What can I say, they should’ve tipped better.” 

"I'm guessing that's why you joined up with a caravan going far far away," said Richard, his voice a little humorous but not enough to be joking. 

Guillermo nodded and said, “You’re exactly right.”

It was a good thing they’d been run out of town, too. The trek east had sobered Lawrence up from the years drinking his life away, and meant they were long gone when Old Paso was sacked. Lawrence had enjoyed his time there with Guillermo, fuzzy though the memories were. Being on the other side of the law more often than not certainly put some things in perspective, and he’d be lying if he said he didn’t enjoy helping Guillermo rob a rich asshole’s house every now and then.

Their bill was soon brought and the Texans covered it, since Richard and Aly were their guests. Afterwards they all left and made their way back toward Clara’s. Guillermo continued his tales of the scams he’d pulled off and the times he’d been caught, which kept everyone entertained. About halfway there Richard and Aly said their goodbyes, heading south into the Crossroads, while the Texans continued on their way. That night they had a restful night’s sleep in the soft and comfortable beds of their new home. This new situation felt like a dream to Lawrence, and he tried not to think about the mysterious intruder and secret elevator. He was thankful for what he and his friends did have and that was what he focused on as he drifted off to sleep.

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Posted (edited)

Blacksmith

Richard didn't know quite know what to expect as he stepped into The Studios. He'd heard stories about what some people had called a world of magic, fame and glamour. The place being surrounded by a tall, solid wall had helped add to the mystique of the place from the outside. On the inside however it was more a collection of hangars and props of various qualities, mostly house and wall facades that stood stacked up against hangar walls here and there. It was actually somewhat disappointing. Richard had half expected a world that recreated other worlds to an almost lifelike degree and charismatic actors creating the next Shakespearean epics. Instead it was like peering behind the curtain to see the the strings that barely held the show together; the actors rehearsing their lines in a stilted manner, a director or similar sort yelling at someone, and the assistants running around trying their best not to trip over anything. 

All of them were rather busy in some way and preferred to ignore Richard as he tried to interject with an “Excuse me.” It took a few attempts of meandering around between various people before someone deigned to stop and talk with him. At which point Richard had managed to wander into some kind of corridor where there were a lot of doors with names written on them, none of which belonged to Mike Bush. 

To his surprise the person that did stop for him turned out to be Felicia. The short, young woman wore a simple yellow dress and had her brown hair let out and neatly combed. She gave him a confused and slightly curious look. 

“You sound… familiar. Have we met before?”

“Yeah. I’m Richard. We met at the Halloween festival.”

“Right. Now I remember. You were together with that screamy, rude… girl.” Felicia smiled brightly as if to cover up the fact that she had been about to say something incredibly rude herself. 

“Yeah…” 

“Don’t look at me like that. She did scream at me.”

“Though she did so when you pushed her away for helping you stand.”

“No she didn’t.” Felicia looked confused as she seemed to be trying to remember. “She yelled at me when… I’m not quite sure.”

“You also don’t remember that I carried your friend home on my back?”

“No,” said Felicia hesitantly. She then gave Richard a long stare as if waiting for an explanation. 

“Isabelle had had too much and fell unconscious, I carried her while you led the way to her home. You fell asleep on the sofa. Me and Aly left in the morning before you had woken up because we got jobs to do.”

“Well… They must have had some really good booze for me to not remember any of it. Nor Belle for that matter. She was more gone than I.”

“Given that there was more than just alcohol at the party I’m not surprised.”

“Alright big guy.” Felicia suddenly appeared a bit insulted. “I may have tried some stuff before but I don’t do that shit anymore. But Belle has always been clean.”

“I’m not saying she did any on purpose. I’m just saying that I found her all drugged up and in the arms of Mr Hudson.”

“What? Mr Who?” Felicia looked a bit confused and worried while she leaned back onto a table where a few filled water bottles and a fancy glass statue of an angel stood. Something Richard thought was just set up for a domino effect and thought about pointing that out but decided against it. 

“The guy who owned the house we were at.”

Felicia still looked somewhat unsure about who this Mr Hudson was but seemed somewhat satisfied with the answer after a couple of seconds of thought, but still gave Richard a look of disbelief. “You pulling my leg?”

“That’s what I saw: Isabelle with Mr Hudson’s arm around her while she was so drunk and high she could barely stand on her own legs.”

For several seconds Felicia gave him a blank and silent stare as she was clearly trying to wrap her head around it all. One could almost see the cogs turning in her head as the realization of what Richard was implying slowly dawned to her. That look then turned to confusion and then inquisitive as she looked at Richard. “So you somehow wrestled Belle from Hudson’s grasp and then picked her up on your back?” Felicia sounded rather suspicious.

“Hardly. I just introduced me as her friend and pulled her away before he could protest. After that I looked for you so you could take her home. But she collapsed and you were so drunk you could barely stand yourself, even less carry her home.”

Felicia expression turned to one of shame as she averted her gaze. “Well… Thanks… I guess.” She fiddled with her hands for a bit before placing one on the table, and in doing so knocked over one of the water bottles that then set of the chain reaction that ended with several bottles and the glass statue falling to the ground. The bottles landed to dull thuds but were largely drowned out by the sound of the glass statue cracking into thousands of pieces. 

Richard partly regretted not having warned Felicia but also felt part of the blame should also be put on whoever put the glass statue in such a vulnerable position. Felicia however did not share that sentiment as she froze and looked downright horrified as she realized what had been shattered. 

“No no no no…” Felicia then kept mumbling to herself while just standing there otherwise completely stunned before she slowly began to back away. 

Richard meanwhile just felt a sense of annoyance at the possibility of him being dragged into another situation like when he made his delivery to the Hudsons. “Come on, let’s run.” He grabbed Felicia’s upper arm and had to almost forcefully drag her before she finally snapped to some of her senses and mumbled something that Richard could only interpret as agreeing due to the tone of her voice. 

“What happened? Who did this?” shouted frantic voice of a woman from behind them a moment after they had rounded a corner and got out of view from the corridor. 

It seemed like they had gotten away, even if it was barely. Felicia took the lead as Richard had no idea how to navigate the place. Soon enough they were far away and in a dark corner hiding among various stage equipment. 

“So whose statue did you just break?” asked Richard once Felicia stopped and faced him. 

“Uhm…” Felicia’s expression became slightly painful and embarrassed. “Velvet’s. Velvet Vulpina. The big movie star.”

“Vulpina?” Richard gave Felicia a slightly confused look.

“It’s her stage name. Her real name is Emma... something.”

“Is she the vindictive type?”

At first Felicia gave him a confused look that showed she didn’t quite understand what he meant before it clicked and Richard could almost see the light dawn inside her mind. “She is. But she tend to forget and move on after a few days. This though… She’ll probably be mad for a couple of months. At least.”

“Well I guess I won’t be returning for a long while.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“Look on the bright side: No one saw us. You’ll be fine. You’re an actress right? Just act as if you weren’t there.”

“Yeah,” Felicia said and averted her eyes in a clear sign of lack of confidence. 

There was a short awkward silence that after a moment of Richard decided to peek out from behind all the props they were hiding behind. “I think the coast is clear.”

“Yeah? Good,” Felicia sounded a bit more sure of herself now. “I better make it back to my set before they wonder where I am.”

“Before you go, mind pointing me to where Mike Bush is? Reason I’m here is to deliver a letter.”

“Oh he’s around here somewhere. Not sure where exactly. But I do know he’ll be on set in about a few minutes.”

“Set?”

Felicia first gave him a dull questioning look before it was replaced by one of dawning realization. “Oh right. I forgot you’re a wastelander.” When she then saw Richard’s annoyed expression at being called wastelander she looked away in a very unconvincing attempt at playing innocent. “This way to the set. Where we shoot the movie.” Her voice was a bit awkward and stilted as she said that last sentence. 

The first picture that came to Richard’s mind at that those last words was them holding up a movie poster which they shot at, even though it was rather clear what she meant after just a second of thought. 

Felicia led him past some more props and doors till they arrived at what looked like a few rooms that each had had one of their walls and their roofs removed. After a few minutes of waiting more and more people gathered near the open rooms. Felicia tugged at Richard’s sleeve and pointed at a slim man with a long face, short brown hair and clean shave, and wearing black pants and a dark blue shirt. 

“That’s Mike Bush. He’s the director. You better hurry before he starts shooting.”

At that word again Richard pictured Mike Bush pulling out a gun to start shooting at the open rooms. Even though he knew what she meant he found these strange terms a little confusing. 

Richard quickly walked up to Mike Bush and held out the small envelope. “Delivery to Mike Bush.”

“Huh. Well, thanks,” said Mike Bush and took the envelope and was about to continue on his way before Richard made a fake sound of clearing his throat, at which he turned back to Richard with a slightly annoyed expression. “What?”

Richard then took out and held forth a piece of paper and a pen. “I need you to sign this.”

“You want my autograph?” Mike’s mood took a small upswing as there was a glint of joy in his eyes even though his lips remained neutral.

“I need it to prove that I delivered the letter.”

“Oh.” The glint of joy disappeared from Mike’s eyes before he took and signed the paper. “You sound like you’re not from around here. So word of advice: keep it. You may find that it has some value.”

“Okay,” said Richard with a little confusion. 

Mike then turned away and walked over and sat down in some chair made up of sticks and cloth. He picked up some cone from besides the chair that he spoke into the smaller end of to enhance his voice. He shouted out that everyone was to get to their places along with some more movie making jargon Richard had no desire to try to decipher. 

As he was leaving Richard thought about saying a few words of goodbye to Felicia but noticed that she was one of what like to be the actors. So it was probably best not to disturb her. Instead he just gave her a small wave of goodbye he wasn’t sure that she saw before heading towards the exit. Or at least what he thought was the exit as he ended up somewhere between a few buildings he didn’t quite recognize from when he entered. Slightly annoyed at being a bit lost he looked at his watch to see it was still a bit before noon, then looked to the sky to locate the sun and from there figured out which way was west. After that it was just to go west till he hit the faraway wall and following it till he reached the gate leading to the Crossroads District. He picked up his dagger from the guards and went on his way. 

As he hurriedly walked back to The Post Office he wondered what Mike Bush had meant that his signature was worth something. The city seemed to always find something new and strange to throw at him. Which managed to be both a little amusing, interesting and annoying. Hopefully Richard would figure out what Mike Bush meant. He could use a bit of extra money.

Edited by Witchking of Angmar
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Power corrupts, absolute power... is a whole lot of fun!

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Drip. Drop. Drip. Drop.

The figures were motionless underneath the heavy rainfall, calm and tempered, as their black ponchos hid most of their features, but they all evidently kept their hands on their weapons, albeit with gun safety in mind, but they all were ready for a fight if any hostile situation would arise on their way to their destination. As their transport swerved, their stiff bodies move with it, almost as if the rain was a symphony, and they the conducting band.

The relative busyness of the city was lost to the group though the horrible weather conditions made that understandable, as they passed by dozens of buildings, many of which had lights on. To reach the Brotherhood's headquarters, one must travel a good distance into the city first.

The dying sun’s brilliance was further consumed by the large, black clouds in the sky, and the never-ending rainfall. Dusk would already be dark, but the rain just added to that. This autumn had truly been rainy, a carry over from the spring. The trip had been long, and even the cold hearts of the Black Knights of the Brotherhood of Steel were relieved that it would finally be over in a few minutes.

The group in transport consisted of five members, their figures hidden by the protective rain gear, and the hoods they currently wore, but even with it, you could see their trademark, black-painted combat armour, bulging underneath their ponchos, as well as their protective gauntlets, ever-gripping their silenced R15’s, which they held to the side. Their transport was a four wheeled army jeep, coloured dark green with the symbol of the Brotherhood of Steel painted over it’s hood, with an LMG mounted behind the driver's seat, just in front of the passengers. The vehicle had it’s roof removed to accommodate the LMG, as well as the back extended to allow two passengers to sit, facing each other, leaning on the sides of the Jeep. It was being driven by a Knight, another sat in the front seat, just besides the driver, and two sat from across each other, just behind the mounted turret.

The Knight manning the LMG kept his eyes on the road, gently aiming it from side to side. Unlike the rest she had her poncho’s hood down, revealing a full face special forces ballistic helmet, painted black like the rest of their armour, with a pair of red glass thermal goggles, and a gas respirator built into frontal part of the helm. The figure cautiously eyed the occasional looming object, and person before relaxing her trigger finger as soon as she knew they weren't a threat. The few people outside worryingly glanced at the dark figures, their helmets a sinister omen of the masses.

Drip, drop, drip, drop.

They went down the road for a few more minutes, their Jeep’s engine roaring and it's headlights piercing the falling rain, until the gunner spoke up, her voice being brought down by both the sound of rain and her helmets muffle. “We are approaching the gate, eyes sharp.”

The Knight beside the driver spoke in a commanding voice, "Aye. Don't let your mind wander, and let me do the talking." 

They wordlessly acknowledged the order, as they drew closer to the large compound. The base was along the interstate, its large gate being flanked by two looming towers, each containing a spotlight, and sentry onto its vantage point. The entire compound was walled, it' sturdy defenses made from metal, with soldiers and robots manning the defenses, looking onto the outside world with guns pointed downwards. Beyond that, even from were they were, they could see an even larger tower with a radio antenna jotting upwards.

Just as they were nearing the gate the spotlights on the two towers fell over the jeep and its inhabitants, but the dark figures remained unfazed. As if on cue, the Knight who stood beside the driver's shoulder started blazing in static. It was a shoulder-mounted radio. The man signaled for the driver to pause, causing the car to come to a whining halt. From the static radio came a voice, "In the name of the Brotherhood of Steel we order you to halt and identify yourself."

The Knight responded right away, and without pause. "Knight Commander Vincent Almada, Black Knight of the Brotherhood of Steel. Me and my Lance are under the strict orders of the Elders of Chicago, and request entrance to your compound."  He paused only a moment to say, "Clearance code, Iron Sigma 838993."

The Knight brought down his communicator, and waited a second, before the metal gates began to slowly open. His communicator began to beep once more, causing him to bring it up. The voice from before echoed, nervously, "Understood Knight Commander. Sir, your clearance code checks out. You are free to enter. Steel be with you."

As the gateway swung open, the Jeep resumed its journey.

**

The Paladin Lord
 

When Alan’s scribe assistant told him the main gate had radioed in that a squad of Black Knights had arrived, he cursed loudly enough that the assistant fled back to his desk. Which meant he only got angrier, as he had to call the scribe back in to tell him to show the Black Knights into Alan’s office. The scribe nodded, turned to leave, turned back to salute, and then finally left to show in the elite soldiers.

If there was ever a time he wanted Sterling around, this was it. At the very least they agreed on their low view of the Elders’ personal thugs. The Inquisitors’ rivalry with the Black Knights particularly deep, and as his goal was to join that group, Alan had long ago cultivated his own grudge against them. Their skill and fervent hatred of mutants was undeniable, but he knew they were just the Elders’ way of undermining Barnaky’s leadership. The fact that the Elders had sent them here meant they were trying to undermine his leadership as well. They might as well have sent him a letter saying they no longer had faith in him or the Inquisitors.

He heard the sound of boots marching down the hallway so he finished his fuming and straightened out his jacket. In came the black clad Knights, their helmets tucked under their arms and rain dripping off of their ponchos. Their leaders was a tall man, seemingly heavily built already, not even including his armour. His hair was chestnut brown, with bits of grey intermingling in a military styled buzz cut. He might have been handsome, if it wasn't for how grizzled the man looked, and his face was covered in horrific burn marks and scarred tissue. His companions were similar in appearance, but only one other had as ugly burn scars as the man, while the other two simply had singes here and their on their face. These were self-inflicted, a Black Knight ritual of scarring, or so Alan had heard. There was a woman with the group, not too bad looking, but like the others her face was ritually scarred with scorch marks, and her hair was done in a buzz like the men.

They offered a Brotherhood salute, albeit one that was slightly half-hearted, their leader spoke, "Salutations, sir. You are Paladin Lord Ogawa?

Alan sharply returned the salute. He wouldn’t let their disrespect make him lax. “I am. And you’re Knight Commander Almada. What brings your Lance to Wellstone?”

The man drew from underneath his black poncho a circular metallic object, coloured bronze. He pressed the button which held what looked like a cut blue gemstone, causing a holographic heraldry to be displayed, a heraldry identifying the individual as someone who acted on the authority and will of an Elder of the Brotherhood of Steel, and that authority went with them. "Ill tidings, I'm afraid." He said with a sinister undertone, "My Lance has been sent to deal with a certain Rebel Commander." His face was emotionless, as he drew forth a picture of a rather average looking man "The mark we hunt is a traitor, Gregory Thatch, alongside his associates before he truly becomes a danger to our crusade."

Alan's eyes narrowed on Thatch's sketched face. Whatever he had in store was already in motion, and too late for this Lance or all the soldiers Alan commanded to stop it. "His reappearance must have frightened the Elders that they sent you, Commander."

"Or perhaps it's the negligence and incompetence of this region's Officers that truly worry our Lord's. That and their inability to put down a single traitor and whatever degenerate cohorts he's conjured. With all due respect, sir." The Knight-Commander said sharply.

So that's how this was going to be. "A single traitor? You're in for a rude awakening, I can assure you that. Those before me failed, and let this grow. You think you can lance Thatch like a wound and everything will end? The ex-Inquisitor Felix is with him. They've allied with criminal gangs. And that is only the beginning. This whole city needs to be purged, Commander, before this will end. If one trace of these rebels are left, we will have lost. That is what I'm dealing with, not the hunt for a single man."

Before the man could interject, one of his fellows, spoke up, a much older looking knight, "If this man is such a threat, then passive-aggressive quipping and excuses to each other won't do us any good." He glanced around with a look of annoyance, before saying, "With all due respect, Knight-Commander, sir...i'll be quiet now."  The man's face was just as mangled as the Knight Commander's, his hair almost completely gray, alongside his sizable beard. His voice was coarse and deep.

The scorched commander rolled his eyes, before muttering, "No. If you have the insolence to speak without permission, Senior Knight Florence, then do so."

The Knight muttered, "We have the same objective, the elimination of this traitor and those that surround him to safeguard the Brotherhood we all serve. We will stand a better chance under a united front, pooling are skill, knowledge, and resources together. Without squabbling. Less it be used against us."

Alan made a note to ask Sterling about the possibility of fracturing whatever alliances Thatch had formed. Doubtless the criminal elements weren't going to have the same ideals, but their lack of intelligence into the rebel operation made discovering any divisions unlikely. Something they should see about correcting.

He acknowledged the more agreeable soldier with only a nod before turning back to Almada. "I will have rooms prepared for you in the officer's quarters, and of course you'll have access to all of our intelligence. As of right now we have connected Thatch to only the one attack, though other attacks in the area were likely perpetrated by his allies. Is there anything else you'll need?"

"That arrangement is suitable." He gave a curt nod, "In the mean time, after we have a look at what you currently have on the man, we'll be running reconnaissance and see if we can find some of this traitor's associates." He did one final salute alongside his soldiers, before they hurriedly left the room.

As the Elders’ Executioners left, Alan pulled from his desk a bottle of whiskey and poured himself a shot. This was the last thing he needed, another group that would try and take credit for whatever success he had in Wellstone. He took another shot and decided to turn in early, since it was already late in the evening. There were reports from Mayor Prassel and Chief Harrington to read, but those could wait until the morning. He did send a message over for the scribes to compile information on the rebels for the Black Knights. With some added rest he hoped he’d find some sort of breakthrough, or maybe just a way to distract the Knights long enough that he could find Thatch and Felix.

There was no epiphany while he slept, so when he awoke the next morning he showered, dressed, and took his reports to the mess hall to read. He was among the first there, with a few of the night shift still eating dinner before they turned in. Someone brought him eggs, sausage, and tea, which he picked at as he read over the reports.

Prassel’s was mostly inconsequential. There had been complaints from some merchants about the search for C-27 robot parts the Brotherhood had conducted, which unsurprisingly turned up nothing of interest. Prassel had fielded those complaints and was passing along the dissatisfaction, though Alan couldn’t have cared less. Prassel also passed along complaints of increased number of All-Seeing preachers on the street, who foretold doomsdays and offered their sight as forewarning to all who would listen. Apparently they were hoping to drum up more business in their fortune telling by preying on the anxieties people had. He would have to pass on a letter to their All-Seer, politely asking them to stop their preaching unless they informed people the Brotherhood’s victory was assured. Alan knew the bulk of the support for the All-Seeing came from the Emerald Gardens and Gold District. The Priory of the All-Seeing was mostly harmless, just a way to scam the rich out of their money. Even if the scam supposedly involved blinding the preachers, though Alan had his doubts they were truly permanently blinded.

Chief Harrington’s report more consequential, but all the more frustrating for it. She hadn’t found the mole in Wellstone Security that leaked the identity of the double agents they had in the Forgotten Homes gangs. Harrington said she it was likely the officer had some connection to the Madsen Family, which was the alpha gang that kept the other Forgotten Homes gangs from tearing each other apart. No other entity in Forgotten Homes could coordinate and pull off something like that. She also said that she’d gone through their records and could find nothing indicating the presence of the Thatches or Felix in Wellstone. Alan wrote out his terse response, emphasizing that her job was to bring the Forgotten Homes gangs to heel, and to take whatever measures necessary to do so.

The last report was from Sterling, an update on the background check of Clara Teasely. It had been several years since she’d served on the City Council, so that report wasn’t entirely up to date, but he said that in digging around he couldn’t find anything untoward. She’d been friends with General Stillwell for quite a while, and had kept his presence a secret quite dutifully. And most of her other friends, Like the Devereuxs and Rose Goldwyn, were close, if secret, Brotherhood allies. Sterling said that next he would look into Clara’s employees and then conduct a security review of  the hotel itself under the guise of his Knight Commander Lowrie persona, to ensure it was safe. Alan was hopeful they could have the General moved in relatively soon. He didn’t want to risk some particularly zealous group of rebels making a move against the General.

As he finished the reports Alan looked up and saw the Black Knights arriving for their breakfast. Their commander greeted Alan with a curt nod as they made their way down the serving line. Alan picked up the holodisk he’d had put together last night and walked over to where the Black Knights were sitting. He tossed it down onto the table and said, “That’s everything we have on the rebels. I can give you the brief version if you like.”

He shook his head. "I'd rather hear the full story. Leave nothing out."

"If you want that, fire up a terminal." Alan finished off his tea and set his cup on one of the Black Knights' trays. "The first rebel group set off a couple bombs, one conventional, the other a mininuke. It was led by Taylor Simon and Ben Fisher, members of the former criminal gang the Lucky Seven. We found them through another member, Little Grog. We killed Taylor Simon and found his black market arms dealer, but his compatriot Ben Fisher escaped. Simon's gang also killed a Paladin and took out a patrol squad, and since then we think Fisher and the other survivors have continued that.

"Thatch came in more recently. We get a report of a C-27 needing deactivation in Forgotten Homes, so a squad and a scribe goes out. It's an ambush, the scribe gets captured. The ex-Inquisitor Felix does the capturing, which is how we learned Thatch was here. That and the planning it took to pull that ambush off. But there seems to be some connection between the criminal gangs in Forgotten Homes and Thatch. He was in their territory and would've had to have their help to pull it off cleanly. And right before that half those gangs identified and killed their Wellstone Security moles. Getting to him means going through those gangs, but everyone there is involved with them one way or another.

"We don't have any intelligence, which means finding the heads of those gangs is nearly impossible. And if we starting pulling people off the street to interrogate, we'll lose support in the Steel District and Crossroads District. Fuckers don't know how good they have it under us, and they think the rebels will get them out of the slums. I plan on increasing the rewards for information, but that will lead to lots of dead ends from people with gold in their eyes. That's the situation as it stands right now. Thatch in the wind with something up his sleeve, the criminals hidden away, and Forgotten Homes as deadly to a Brotherhood soldier as the Lost Lands."

"Degenerates,” the Commander seethed, gritting his teeth. "The situation is worst then what the briefing implied.” He admitted, "I was under the assumption the traitor was operating with a small group of followers. The reason for our deployment due to his individual skills, information, and the fact he was one of us. Not an entire cell, supported by a horde of criminal degenerates, well organized, with enough resources to scrounge up a mini nuke. Bah. We were given poor intelligence." He scoffed, taking a small sip of his coffee. He paused for a moment, briefly thinking something over. "I think public opinion is on the backburner of priority at the moment. If what you say is true, a bad situation can become a whole lot worst, if we do not cut off the rot before it spreads. But for now I'll have my intelligence specialist get into contact with the local contacts you have in those two areas, see if we can get any leads your men couldn't. We need to purge this infection."

Alan didn't mention the faulty intelligence was his doing. A necessary safeguard against the Elders deciding to replace him or sending in their pets as they had. At least the lack of intelligence meant they only sent one Lance. "I would focus on the Forgotten Homes. Since Taylor Simon was killed, the only attacks in the city have been there. We need to find a way to undermine Thatch's support among the gangs."

"Understood. We'll mount up as soon as we review your holodisk." He gave the man a nod, "Is there anything else we should be aware of?"

"An Inquisitor is investigating others who bought illegal weapons from the same man that Taylor Simon did. But so far our leads on the rebels are in short supply."

"Six hounds, one quarry. Interesting." He quickly finished his plate of eggs and downed his coffee before standing up. "If there's nothing else sir, good day to you."

Alan offered a nod as his wordless goodbye and left the mess hall and the Black Knights behind. When he returned to his office he amended his response to Chief  Harrington, directing her to begin rounding up as many members or suspected members of the Untamed gang as she could. He wanted to know the extent of their cooperation with Gregory Thatch, and he didn’t care how much the gangs of Forgotten Homes hated the Brotherhood. They had long hated them, even more so now after he shut down their brothels, but he was past caring about the feelings of criminals. He finished the orders and gave it to his scribe to typed up and send, and an order to have Clara Teasely invited to his office for a meeting today. With Sterling’s report on her finished, he wanted to talk to her sooner rather than later.

He spent the next hour reading additional reports from patrols monitoring activity on the outskirts of Wellstone. Nothing new or suspicious on that front, unfortunately. That occupied his time until there was a knock on his door and in walked Ms. Teasely, short, thin, and dark, still beautiful into her early middle age.

“Ms. Teasely, thank you for taking the time to meet with me.” Alan motioned for her to take a seat. She wore a pair of blue pants with thin white stripes running down them, simple loafers, and a white blouse. Her light jacket had the same pattern as the pants.

“Please, call me Clara,” she said with a friendly smile. When she sat she was relaxed, leaning onto the armrest, in contrast to Alan’s rigid posture. “This was an unexpected pleasure, to be invited to your fortress. To what do I owe this meeting?”

This was only the second time Alan had met Clara, the other at Tim Lucky’s steamboat party. Her friendliness was infectious, though she seemed a bit flighty and unserious. He suspected that was an air she put on, the way some women did to seem unthreatening and put the men around them at ease. “It’s about General Stillwell. After the recent attacks, I’ve been considering your offer to have him move into your hotel.”

Her eyebrows shot up as her smile dropped and she grew more serious. “I’m still glad to have him, though the circumstances are disheartening, to say the least.”

“Quite. To ensure his safety, we will be conducting a security review of your hotel and your employees. We’ll be sending a group to have a look around, and we’ll look into your employees to make sure none of them have any criminal records or dangerous affiliations.”

“Of course, of course. Whatever you need to do to ensure the General’s safety. I’m more than happy to help with anything you need.”

“A list of all of your employees and how long they’ve worked for you would be a good start. I’ll also ask that you make no hiring decisions without our approval going forward.”

“I will get that to you as soon as the end of today. You’ll be happy to hear I increased my security staff, in light of the rebel attacks. And I have someone with medical training on staff. My intent was to help my guests feel more comfortable, but it seems like this will help keep the General safe as well.”

“That is good to hear. I will not have made any final decisions on the matter until these reviews are completed. I’m sure you understand the need for careful consideration and discretion in this regard.”

“Do I need to do anything to help keep your security review discrete? I can bring your men in through the back entrance and ensure there are few people on duty at that time.”

“That would be helpful. We’ll not be sending in a large group, likely one man to conduct the review.”

“I also have six Protectrons. I could turn control of them over to you, if that would be of any help. I just ask that you don’t station any soldiers within my hotel.”

“If we have control over the Protectrons, I think we could avoid that. I might station a couple more there, but I would keep the soldiers on patrol outside. I don’t want to draw unnecessary attention if I can help it.”

“And I will be sure to keep this quiet. Any employees I tell will be after you’ve vetted them, and only if you agree they should be in the know.”

Alan smiled and relaxed a little. After Sterling’s report, and her continued assistance, he felt that he could trust Clara with the General. Her employees might be a different story, and he hoped that their backgrounds would be clear of anything suspicious. If there’s anything a hero of the Brotherhood like General Stillwell deserved, it was to retire in comfort and peace.

Alan thanked Clara, who once again offered her help, before she left. Once she did his scribe assistant poked his head back through the door and said, “Paladin Lord Ogawa, Chief Harrington is here requesting a meeting.”

Alan motioned for her to be shown in. This was unexpected, but probably what he should’ve asked for to begin with. Better to sort out this mess with Wellstone Security now than for them to continually undermine his efforts through their corruption. The Chief was a tall woman, only slightly shorter than Alan, with short red hair and a mean fighter’s face.

She leaned forward on the chair, hands tightly gripping the back. He narrowed his eyes at her and asked, “Do we have a problem here, Chief Harrington?”

“Of course we’ve got a fucking problem. We’ve had a fucking problem since before I was here, and unless we do something we’re always going to have a fucking problem.” She ground her teeth together and stared into the middle distance in a way that told him her issues were not with him.

“Is this about the mole?”

“That one and a dozen others. I can’t make a fucking move in any direction without someone running their mouth to the nearest criminal. Do you want to know why?”

He nodded and she continued. “My officers make their money one of two ways; payoffs from the gangs or stealing from them. Some stations steal chems and then turn around and sell it themselves. You want to know who supplies those Gold District parties? My officers. They might get some higher end shit from somewhere else, but if they need chems in bulk, they talk to their friends at the Gold District Station, who get the chems from their friends in the Steel District. They march into Forgotten Homes and take whatever they can find. Which means I have to break up fights between them and the Forgotten Homes officers, who are all on the payroll of the gangs The only reason we were able to bust down the brothels is because I knew there’d be hell to pay from you. That didn’t go over well with the gangs and the officers in the Homes are feeling the pressure for it.

“I saw that you want us to crack down on them, go after the Untamed, but I’m telling you right now, we’re not going to get anywhere close. Even if you use the officers from the Steel District like I did for the brothels, the gangs’ll be tipped off.”

Alan knew the corruption in Wellstone Security was bad, especially in the Homes, but he had no idea things were so dire. Another area where Paladin Commander Kelman’s laziness or incompetence was continuing to cause him problems. “Why have you not detailed this before? Either to me or my predecessors?”

“Fat fucking chance I’m going to tell the man who walked in here at the head of an army that none of my officers can do their jobs. What would you have done, if I told you then? Removed me on the spot. I thought I could fix it, thought taking down the brothels would change something. But this has been going on too long for me to fix without your help.”

“Do you have any solutions in mind?”

“Transferring has disrupted it in the past, but there’s usually a lot of pushback.”

“We’ll deal with the long term at another point. Right now I want to focus on how we can capture members of the Untamed. They’re the ones that worked with Thatch and I’m more concerned with the rebels than corruption in your ranks.”

“We can use the Steel District officers. They’re always willing to bust heads in the Homes. But the Untamed are too deep in the Homes for us to make a move without them knowing.”

“We’ll need a distraction. Something big that will draw attention away. I can send some squads to try and arrest members of the Madsen Family. We’ll send the Homes officers with them. I don’t expect they’ll find anyone but that will draw attention away from you taking officers and moving against the Untamed. I may be able to provide some help in that regard as well.” It would be good practice for the Black Knights in operating in Wellstone, and maybe serve as an olive branch.

“We’ll have to pull officers from around the Homes in advance, which will tip off the Madsens, but I think it might work.”

“Don’t use the Steel District officers, though. After the brothel business they will be eyes on them. Would the Crossroads Station be up to the task?”

“They’re in the racket of offering protection against shit leaking in from South Union, which all things considered could be worse. They’ll be fine.”

“I’ll contact you when everything is ready. Until then tell no one. When we do this, I don’t care if you have to drag every man, woman, and child in their territory from their homes. I want to know who helped Thatch with the ambush, understood?”

Harrington nodded, and Alan dismissed her. The Brotherhood was already hated in the Homes, and frankly he didn’t care. The people there had been ungrateful for far too long, and this was the cost of their insubordination.

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The Sheriff
 

Some men walked into places looking for a fight. They thought picking one would make them feel better about themselves. They’d say they were looking to gamble or drink, but that would inevitably lead to throwing punches no matter how their luck turned out, though often times their anger led them toward bad bets and lost money. And whenever Abbey showed up, a woman nearly as tall as most of them, they took that as a challenge or insult, or both. Right now Lawrence was watching her brush off a couple drunk, sloppy punches from one such man. It only took one punch from her to lay him out on the casino floor.

Lawrence recalled the lesson Abbey had given him and Reyna a couple days before. It’s not that she hadn’t trusted them to know how to throw a punch correctly, but she’d wanted to make sure, just in case. She taught them to keep their weight on their front foot and push off with the other, aiming with the first two knuckles of their hand, with their wrists tilted just enough that those knuckles stuck out in front of the others. And to keep their wrist aligned with their forearm, so they wouldn’t break their wrist. It was more training than Lawrence had ever received, and he hoped it would keep him from hurting himself in the future, as usually happened whenever he punched someone. She also taught them a few basic wrist and chokeholds, and ways to get out of them, should they ever need it. Watching her take down the drunk reminded him she knew what she was doing.

Abbey turned and walked away from the unconscious man, not even shaking her hand or bothering to hide the grin on her face. Behind her, Sawyer hefted the drunk up and carried him towards their drunk tank upstairs. Sawyer was a large man with a barrel chest, his arms thickened with cords muscle like steel cables, though none of them strained as he carried the drunk over his shoulder. Both his ears had several piercings, and tribal tattoos showed over the dark skin of his neck and arms. He had a short scruff of black beard and his hair pulled back in a ponytail.

He was the only other guard at Clara’s besides the Texans, since the front entrances were patrolled by Protectrons and William Rogers was now officially retired. Lawrence had asked Clara why Sawyer hadn’t taken over as head of security, and according to her he hadn’t wanted to. Apparently he was content with the responsibilities he already had, which included looking mean and intimidating, which he certainly did. Those responsibilities also included tending the greenhouse on the roof, since he’d come from a tribe of skilled farmers in the Lost Lands.

As Abbey came over to where Lawrence leaned against the bar, he said, “You get some ice on that, I’ll go help Sawyer.”

She lifted her hand and flexed and moved her fingers around. There weren’t any sings of discoloration yet. “I’ll be fine. He had a soft jaw.”

Lawrence chuckled and peeled away to fall in behind Sawyer. The big man took the stairs, which he moved up easily even though he still carried the not skinny man over his shoulder. Lawrence climbed the stairs two at a time to get ahead of Sawyer and open the door to the office and then the cell door. Sawyer set the drunk down gently on the bench inside.

“He’ll be out a while,” Sawyer said, the admiration evident in his deep voice.

“I wouldn’t want to cross her,” Lawrence said. “Though I bet it’ll take idiots like that a few weeks to realize Roger’s replacement ain’t a pushover.”

“I hope you’re wrong. More fun for us the more folks we get to watch her lay out.”

“You’re right about that,” Lawrence said. “I’ll meet y’all back downstairs. I’m gonna log this real quick.”

Sawyer nodded and left while Lawrence took a seat at the desk across from the cell. The same one he’d been in when he’d heard the hidden elevator. Lawrence had listened every chance he got but so far he hadn’t heard it again. There wasn’t any music playing right now, it being too early in the afternoon, so the cabaret was more lounge than club. But no matter how quiet it was, there wasn’t anything to hear. He hadn’t poked around the basement yet, though he planned to. He was trying to take things slow so as not to arouse suspicion. And part of him worried at what he’d find, and how that might ruin the best thing to happen to he and his friends since they’d left Texas.

He leaned back away from the wall and pulled out the logbook from the desk. He’d get the drunk’s name later, but for now he wrote out some identifying information, the date, and what he’d done. It had been the former head of security’s idea for the logbook, as a way to keep track of possible repeat offenders and give a rough idea of when trouble appeared, and Lawrence appreciated the info it provided. Kim had already expressed a desire to simplify the process by putting it on a terminal, where they could better track what times of the year and day they ran into the most trouble, and so be prepared for it. She was in the middle of repairing an old terminal for that very task.

As he left and headed back downstairs he ran into another of Clara’s employees. Gloria Jiang wore a silver dress that had a drape over her shoulder and another flowing down to the floor. Her dark brown hair formed loose curls and was styled in a short bob. On her fingers she wore jade studded rings, though he didn’t know enough to tell if they were real or fake.

Her lipstick red lips parted in a smile when she saw him. “You’re looking much more dapper today, Lawrence. Like you just stepped out of one of those cheap detective comics.”

Lawrence looked himself up and down. His boots had the wasteland cleaned off of them but the brown leather was still faded and worn. A skilled tailor had patched his jeans and the patches were barely noticeable. His grey button-up shirt was nothing special, and his black thigh length coat was the newest thing he owned, and it was secondhand at that. The dull colors certainly suggested the black and white style of some of those comics. “I guess you’re right.”

She put her cigarette holder up to her mouth and gave him an appraising look. “Black boots would match better. And a tie would give you a professional air. Hmm, maybe one of those string ties, you know, the-” she waved her cigarette around searching for the term, then snapped with her other hand when she found it. “A bolo tie! We might have one, actually. Clara keeps a well-stocked closet that she shares with us. I think one of those would say ‘You can take the cowboy out of the range, but you can’t take the range out of the cowboy.’ Certainly set you apart from the other PI’s. Or you could wear your cowboy hat indoors. That’d do the trick.”

He smiled at her concern over his appearance. The frivolity of it all, caring about what his clothes said or if they matched, should’ve been annoying, but the tone Gloria said it with kept it light. She knew how inconsequential it was, and though he didn’t know her background, it seemed clear she knew the rest of the world was very much not like Wellstone. Lawrence had the impression that Gloria would have similar conversations with other people, but they wouldn’t realize they were the butt of a joke, that she was mocking their trifling concerns.

“I suppose it would. Maybe I should start marketing myself as the Cowboy Detective and get out of this whole hotel business. I think folks around here would go for that sort of thing.”

“Oh, but that’d be a shame. You and your friends are far too interesting to skip out now. I’ve barely begun getting to know you all.”

“I seemed to notice there was someone in particular you’ve gotten to know a bit more than the rest of us.”

Gloria took a drag on her cigarette as her lips twisted into a smile. “Reyna is a delight.”

“She’s a good friend.” Lawrence wanted to say something to Gloria about Reyna’s pain and heartache over her late wife, but he couldn’t figure out how without sounding like a jerk or presuming it was his place to mention it at all. Maybe it was for the best, but he didn’t want her to get her heartbroken, even though that was outside his control. The moment passed without him saying anything.

“You all seem to be. It’s endearing. You’ll be glad to know the hotel is like a family, too, and I don’t say that lightly.”

Gloria seemed certain of what she said, while Lawrence weighed it in his mind against the secrets he knew this place held. He wanted what she said to be true even though he couldn’t quiet the doubts in his mind. “Well, I’m glad to have joined it.”

“Me too. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go talk to Clara about tonight’s set. Hope to see you all there.” Gloria gave a little wave of her fingers and left.

Lawrence made it down the stairs this time before someone else stopped him. The squat and mustachioed hotel manager, George, came limping down the hallway, with Abbey in tow. Even with his nice clothes and well-kept appearance, he still looked more the part of the construction foreman he’d been than the hotel manager he was. Though Lawrence figured there was probably more overlap between the two than one would expect. George said, “Mr. Harding, good, I need you to follow me.”

As he led them down the hallway George continued, “Clara wants you two to guide a man around the hotel. He’s from the Brotherhood, in charge of conducting a security audit in anticipation of the arrival of a retired Brotherhood General. The Paladin Lord wanted to move him somewhere safe but comfortable, and since Clara is friends with the General, she has agreed to take him in. Do not speak a word of this to anyone. If this security audit goes well, those who need to know will be informed.  I know you are not from the Belt, but I will not presume your attitudes toward the Brotherhood. Regardless of what they are, know that you are recent hires and can be replaced. I say that not with malice but to impress upon you the importance of this. Understood?”

The hallway they were in met the one that ran along the backside of the building, and where the hallways met was a door on their left that opened elevator landing and stairwell. They took a right, however, looking down the hallway that ran down to the singers’ dressing rooms. They didn’t go there, however, instead stopping at the employee’s entrance door halfway down the hall. Lawrence was trying to wrap his mind around all this unexpected information and the fact that it was him, who wanted to learn the hotel’s secrets, that now had to protect those very secrets from the Brotherhood. For no other reason than he trusted them far less than he did Clara, especially after the business with the fight club was swept under the rug. And it was him, who had been threatened by a likely Brotherhood agent, that was now going to be tasked with protecting a Brotherhood general. Or maybe they’d realize who he was and send the General elsewhere.

Lawrence nodded as George looked on expectantly for his answer, while Abbey said, “Understood.”

Lawrence and Abbey shared a glance of concern and confusion, which George caught, because he said, “This wasn’t supposed to be on such short notice. The audit was going to happen tomorrow, and we were going to inform you a couple hours before he was to arrive. It seems he preferred the element of surprise.”

Lawrence couldn’t blame this nameless Brotherhood officer; it was only the smart thing to do, making the audit a surprise. He still didn’t like it, though. But then George opened the door and was shaking hands with a man who was Lawrence’s height and about as thick, a baseball cap pulled low over his face. He had long sideburns and a rectangular mustache below amber colored eyes. His voice was gruff as he introduced himself to George as Knight Commander Lowrie. He wore nothing that would indicate he was with the Brotherhood, however, as he was plainly dressed, not in uniform.

He walked with a heavy stride to Abbey and shook her hand too, and then Lawrence’s. The man seemed to look at him intently as they shook hands, and he thought he saw the man’s lip twitch upward as he turned back towards George. Lawrence guessed this officer knew exactly who Lawrence was, and found the irony amusing.

George said, “Ms. Rustin here is our Head of Security, and Mr. Harding is our detective on staff. They will show you around, answer any questions you have.”

“Thank you, Mr. Parker,” Lowrie said, and with that George left. Lowrie turned to Abbey and said, “I’d like to start on the roof.”

Abbey led them north to the door that opened on the elevators and stairwell, Lowrie behind her and Lawrence trailing the both of them. Something about Lowrie bothered him, more than just his affiliation with the Brotherhood and Lawrence’s run in with them, but he couldn’t place the nagging feeling. It was like an itch buried so deep beneath his skin he couldn’t scratch it. The elevator arrived with a soft ding, and they all entered, Abbey punching the button for the roof but only after unlocking access with her key. 

As they rode the elevator up Lowrie took out a small notebook from the front pocket of his plaid button-up shirt. “Is this the only elevator that goes to the roof?”

“It is,” Abbey said. “The other one stops at the twelfth floor.”

“And you need a key to access it?” Lowrie asked.

“Along with Clara’s penthouse on the fourteenth floor and the employee quarters on the thirteenth floor,” Abbey said. Lawrence could tell from the tone of her voice she didn’t much like this assignment either, more out of her feelings toward the Brotherhood than nerves like him.

“Who all has keys?”

“The employees' keys access the roof and our quarters. Clara’s is the only one that has access to all three.”

With that the door opened, and filling their view was the towering old stone skyscraper across the street. It was mostly apartments now, but not all the floors occupied. On the southern wing of the hotel was the towering sign that read RESIDE HERE, while on the western side stood the greenhouse. The center of the hotel was a square open to the sky from the second floor up, which let light into more of the rooms. A bridge like connection on the eastern side ran between the northern and southern wings only on the thirteenth and fourteenth floors.

 Lowrie exited and began his walk around, mostly directing his gaze at the building across the street to the west. The next closest building taller than the hotel was to the northeast, a block over and up. It was a glass and steel thing, though not much of the glass remained on the upper floors, so you could see right through it. Lawrence could see that none of the floors higher than the hotel were occupied. The next closest skyscraper after that was the Brotherhood watchtower two blocks to the north, which loomed over the rest of the skyscrapers, keeping them under watchful eye.

He had to admit, acting as tour guide gave him a good excuse to take in the hotel as well. Looking around at the city from the roof he could see the Market District and its thoroughfares stretch out around the hotel. The city seemed much less crowded from up here, especially since he see the skyscrapers were like the discarded exoskeletons of an insect, their shape the same but the insides empty.

Lowrie finished looking through the greenhouse and returned to the elevator. “The General enjoys gardening but the sightlines on the roof make it unsafe.”

“You’ll be wanting to put him on the south side of the hotel, then,” Abbey said. “No buildings for someone to get a view into his room.”

Lowrie only leveled a blank stare at Abbey and Lawrence before saying, “We’ll take the stairwell down.”

Lowrie led the way down the stairs to the door to Clara’s penthouse, which was propped open. Lawrence guessed that total transparency must have been what Clara and the Brotherhood agreed upon. They trailed him into a luxuriously decorated room, though it wasn’t quite what Lawrence expected. There were plush rugs and fine curtains, comfortable leather chairs and sturdy wooden tables, but as far as he could tell, none of it was new. Scuffs here and there, a bit of thread coming loose, a scrubbed out stain, all of it told Lawrence that Clara either bought it secondhand or she hadn’t bought any of it at all, and it was her parents who had furnished the place. It was a sensible position but one at odds with her tailored new clothes. Though maybe it was simply a matter of priorities.

Her parents had done their best to make the room look like it once had, in a style even older than the typical pre-war. The closest comparison he could think of was an older gangster film they’d watched in the vault, though he didn’t know enough history to say what time period that was supposed to depict.

A living room of chairs and couches, with bookshelves lining the walls to their left, greeted them upon immediate entry. Everything in the room was angled toward the large, wooden tube radio. Beyond that was a large dining room table, with a fully stocked bar as well. They took a left to a small kitchen, only large enough that Clara didn’t have to rely on the kitchen downstairs for all of her meals. Past the kitchen was another, more intimate seating area which served to transition to the bedroom off to the left. Against the wall on left again was a large closet, which Lowrie opened and looked through.

Lawrence’s heart leapt as he realized that the elevator, if it came up to this floor, would be hidden somewhere in Clara’s closet. A convenient escape route, if that’s what it was. He told himself that it must be well hidden if Clara was fine with this Brotherhood man snooping around, but he still resisted the urge to look for himself. Joining Lowrie in looking through the closet would be the surest way to tip him off that something was amiss. After a few tense moments, Lowrie emerged and gave the bedroom one last glance before moving on to the bathroom past it. It was only then Lawrence let out the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.

They left Clara’s penthouse behind, again trailing Lowrie, who went down to the employee’s quarters on the floor below. Lawrence and Abbey both had master keys so they went around and unlocked all of the doors before returning to wait by the stairs. If Lowrie needed something he could call out and they’d hear him call out, but they kept their voices low so he wouldn’t hear them.

“Not how I imagined today going,” Abbey said. She had her arms crossed and was leaning against the wall. “I also didn’t imagine we’d be babysitting a Brotherhood general.”

“It’s not my cup of tea either. I was surprised Clara agreed to this.”

“Really?” Abbey gave him a skeptical look. “It seems to me rich folks like her are the Brotherhood’s biggest supporters.”

“When I talked to her she made a point to set herself apart from people like that, and I could tell she was being honest.”

“Strange thing to do then, befriend a Brotherhood general and invite the Brotherhood into your hotel.” Abbey must have seen the contemplative look on his face because she added, “You think there’s something else going on?”

“I don’t know, but it feels off.”

“George was telling me this General’s location is a pretty well kept secret. Clara’s one of the few in the know. There’s leverage that comes with knowing something like that. Think about it. Keeping him safe while there’s a war going on endears you to the Brotherhood. But lets say things took a turn, these rebels win. Now she’s got someone they might want. She wins either way. You said it yourself, she’s not like the rest of the folks in the Gold District. She’s smart enough not to hitch her wagon to just one brahmhorn.”

“It’s as good an explanation as any,” Lawrence admitted. But he wasn’t quite sure it explained everything. Or, at least, he didn’t yet see how the hidden elevator fit into that scheme. Maybe it was as simple as a way for Clara to get in and out of her room without anyone knowing, but why would she need to do that?

A few moments later Lowrie came into view, rounding the corner and walking down the hallway slowly as he finished jotting down some notes. He asked them some questions, and Abbey explained the renovations that had finished not too long ago. With that they went down to the suites on the floor below, where Lawrence figured the General would be housed. George had made sure the guests were out of their rooms, apparently, because no one was there when he and Abbey unlocked the rooms for inspection. Lowrie lingered in the room on the southeast corner of the building, which happened to be the room directly below Lawrence’s, though the suites on this level were larger than the employee housing above.

There were eight suites in total, each one featuring a living room, a small kitchen and dining room, and a bedroom. The three suites that hugged the inside walls of the hotel were slightly larger, since the views weren’t as nice. It reminded Lawrence that the windows along the inside walls in the floor above had been removed in the renovations, which he found odd. He walked around and figured out which room the secret elevator ran through, which lay directly across from the room Lowrie was inspecting.

It made Lawrence nervous but his nerves evaporated when realization struck. The layout of the thirteenth floor was wrong. The hotel was roughly U shaped, with rooms along the outside and inside walls of the U, except on the thirteenth floor. There, the rooms were on the outside walls and the hallway ran along the inside walls, which mysteriously didn’t have any windows. Lawrence had chalked that up to Clara deciding to cut down on some of the costs of the renovation. But now he realized that the hidden elevator on the thirteenth floor must run between the hallway and the inside wall of the U, and that there weren’t any windows because there was space between the hallway and the inside of the U. It wasn’t something someone might stumble upon, because the problem only revealed itself if one knew that a hidden elevator had to run through that floor, that it needed the space to do so. But with that knowledge, now he realized that not only was there space for the elevator, but that there was enough space missing on that floor for an entire hidden room. Not a large one, not as large as any of the rooms in the hotel, but a room nonetheless. He guessed that the renovations were a cover for the construction of that room and the hidden hallway.

“Everything alright, Mr. Harding?” Lowrie asked.

Lawrence nearly jumped. The man was sneakier than he had assumed, which was unnerving. Lawrence said, “Just thinking about what changes we’ll need to make with the General around.”

“Right.” Lowrie leveled a stare at Lawrence with those amber eyes. He could tell they didn’t miss much. But Lowrie broke off the stare and headed back toward the stairwell and down to the next floor.

They proceeded through the rest of the hotel uneventfully, and Lawrence made sure to keep no special distance from the man. He didn’t want to seem like he was avoiding him or hiding something. Lowrie worked slowly and methodically, though, while Lawrence and Abbey watched and answered the occasional question.

They had gone through every floor of the hotel and were leading Lowrie back to the employee’s entrance when he asked, “Is there a basement?”

Lawrence prayed that the elevator either didn’t run there or was as well hidden as the room on the thirteenth floor, as Abbey said, “There is.”

She led them into the laundry room, where a staircase led down into the basement. She turned on the light and revealed the relatively small room that Lawrence could tell was only beneath the laundry room and kitchen, and not the entire hotel. It only took him a moment to figure out the hidden elevator, if it reached this floor, ran behind the southern wall. The only thing of consequence visible in the basement was the robotic repair workbench, along with other tools and boxes of supplies.

Lowrie scanned it only briefly before he went back up the stairs. Abbey and Lawrence followed him to the employee’s entrance, where Lowrie said, “Tell Ms. Teasley we’ll be in touch.”

He left without another word, but the nagging feeling Lawrence still couldn’t place didn’t go with him. It might have bothered him more, had it not been for the fact he’d uncovered the purpose of the hidden elevator. It was transportation to the hidden room on the thirteenth floor, and whatever purpose that room served.  

Abbey was saying something about them needing to go talk to Clara, but before she could finish, Lawrence said, “How comfortable are you keeping a secret from the others?”

She gave him a confused look. “You mean you want to tell them about the General?”

Lawrence shook his head. “I was wondering if you could keep another secret from them, along with that one.”

Her confusion shifted to suspicion. “I’m surprised you’d suggest that, after the situation with Maxine.”

“I kept the things I knew a secret until I couldn’t figure anything else out, then I confronted her when everyone was around. That’s the same thing I plan on doing here, but I don’t think I can do it alone.”

“What’s going on, Lawrence?”

He took a deep breath and told her everything, from the hidden elevator he heard on the night of the Halloween party to what he’d figured out today about the hidden room on the thirteenth floor. Saying everything out loud, including how Clara hired him because he went against someone powerful in Robert Devereux and how she didn’t want Liz Van Silver to get in trouble with the Brotherhood was like finally seeing the pieces of a puzzle instead of just feeling them with his fingers. He had a picture of Clara now, of a duplicitous woman who pretended to be friends with Brotherhood stalwarts like the Van Silvers and Devereuxs, but didn’t trust them at all, and hired someone who explicitly worked against them in Lawrence. Clara was someone who befriended a Brotherhood General and let the Brotherhood scour every inch of her hotel all while having a secret elevator and hidden room. She was shrewd and calculating, but as to her motivations, Abbey’s suggestion of leverage made the most sense. Clara was openly friends with the Brotherhood, but worked subtly against them, and having the General in her hotel was only the latest and largest example of that. She was a woman prepared to weather the storm of this fight between the Brotherhood and the rebels, and curry favor with whoever came out on top. Maybe the hidden room was to that purpose, a safe place to hide should the need arise.

Abbey shook her head and sighed as Lawrence finished. “Holy shit. Why would she tell you the things she said? What made her trust you?”

“That’s what bothers me the most. I feel like all of us are being used, but to what end I don’t know. I don’t expect the General will end up staying here, though. The Brotherhood knows I took those pictures, and they certainly won’t trust me no matter how much they trust Clara.”

“They’ll make her fire you is my guess.”

“I think you’re right. Which means we don’t have long to figure out what’s really going on here. That’s why I need your help. We figure this out, then we tell the others, and let them decide what they want to do.”

She nodded and a smile broke out through her shocked expression. “Shit, just when I thought leaving the wastes meant leaving excitement behind.”

Lawrence smiled too. As dangerous and twisted as this mystery was, there wasn’t anything he’d rather be doing. “Let’s meet up tonight, on the roof. By then one of us should have a plan.”

Abbey nodded, and they went back to their jobs, her stopping drunks and thieves, him helping guests figure out where their lost possessions might be. By the time Lawrence fell asleep that night, he and Abbey had worked out a plan to uncover whatever secrets this hotel was hiding.

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