Tim Akers

Dead of Veridon

Chapter One

He was a Crow, He was a Crane

T HERE ARE PEOPLE you should shoot the first time you meet them. Just to keep it simple. And you usually don't know it until it's well too late, and well more complicated than you ever wanted it to be. Ezekiel Crane is a man I should have shot, first time I laid eyes on him. Pound of trouble that would have saved.

Gray Anderson and I had been working odd jobs for the past year. We were never going to get above petty criminal, and while I was okay with never drawing the kind of attention my past had afforded me, Gray had ambition. Nice word for 'recklessness,' and Gray wasn't the kind of guy who could get himself cleanly out of trouble. It was why he brought me along, honestly. I had a way of getting into trouble, and eventually that gives you a way of getting out of trouble. Certain skills you acquire.

Trouble was, getting out of all that trouble had given Gray the idea that he was getting good at it. That he could take the big risks, the bad deals, and old Jacob would get him clear of it when the walls caught on fire and the guns were drawn. Kept taking worse jobs, for better money, and we were getting a reputation as a reckless crew. A wrecking crew. It was going nowhere good.

And that's how we met Mr. Crane. Worst job Gray ever took. Worst trouble I ever got us out of.

It was a Tuesday. Pissing rain. Kind of night I liked to hunker down in some familiar pub and stare into the fire until they made me buy a beer. I could usually afford a couple. Point was, I didn't like standing in the rain, or even under an eave in the wet street while the rain hammered the cobbles and drenched my boots. Basically, I didn't like everything that I'd been doing all night, running from shelter to shelter as Gray led me across the city to some meeting.

Worse, he was in a great mood. Gray Anderson has earned his first name, mostly by moping about the weather or mourning the loss of the love of some great lady he's never actually met. That's how I like the man. Sullen. Morbid. Levity sat awkwardly on his frame. But here he was, ducking his head before dashing across the street, cackling with glee as he splashed through the sheets of runoff. It was miserable.

'Grand night, Jacob! Glorious night! A night we'll remember, I dare say.'

'For the pneumonia that killed us?' I asked. No matter how high I shrugged my overcoat over my shoulders, an icy spike of water ran down my back with each sprint into the rain. I was beginning to doubt the coat's willingness to perform its duty. 'Or for a more general misery that ruins our happiness, but fails to kill us?'

'For the fortune that we'll be packing away, Jacob!' Gray stopped in the middle of the road and raised his arms, as though he were greeting the sun. 'The fortune!'

'That's our job tonight? Packing away fortune?' I smirked. 'That's a pretty good job. Surprised they're just giving that one away to anyone.'

'Don't be a glum bastard, Burnie. This is just a step to the fortune. But gods, such a step it is.' He poked me in the shoulder as I hurried past him into the next bit of shelter. 'Though to be honest, hardly any fortune in this particular job. You understand. It's a step. But there's fortune behind it. This fellow, this Crane chap, he has the money.'

'Then why haven't I heard of him, Gray?' I paused under our most recent shelter and fixed my usually sullen compatriot with an unhappy glare. 'I know a lot of rich people in this town. You might say I know all of them. By name. None of them go by Erat-a-tat Crane.'

'Ezekiel. Ezekiel Crane. Jacob, you need to learn to show some respect. He's an out-of-town interest. And wherever he's from, it is lined in vaults of money and style and class.' He broke into an ugly grin that revealed a youth spent in direct rebellion to all forms of oral surgery. 'Our man Crane has it dripping it off him.'

'Well. I can't imagine how this could go wrong, Gray. Mysterious out of town richie reaches out to the criminal underclass for the sole purpose of making them filthy rich.' I clapped Gray on the shoulder. 'Your plan is impeccable, my man Gray. Without flaw.'

'You're such a shit. But I'm not going to let it get to me, Jacob. Not tonight. And he didn't just reach out to the criminal underclass. He reached out to you, my boy. Jacob Burn.'

'Pardon me?'

'Asked for you by name. Well, good as. Heard who I was working with, and his man came to me. Sought me out, you understand.' Gray poked me solidly in the chest and laughed. 'Always knew that sticking with you was the right move.'

I didn't like this. I didn't like people who wanted to know me. Never had a good reason for it. Never had a reason that agreed with me.

'Gray, I want you to listen to me very closely. This is a bad thing. The people in this city who want to work with me, they usually want to kill me while they're at it. Do you understand? I can't imagine why someone from out of town would be any better.'

'Leave it alone, Jacob. You scare easy. And I understand that, what with your…' — he waved one hand — 'your history. But this is going to work out. It's a good job. It's a good step for us to take. Stop worrying about everything.'

'It's what I do, Gray. It's why we're not dead. I worry about these things.' I pulled him away from the road, staring unhappily down toward our eventual destination. Our meeting with this Mr. Crane. 'And I'm telling you, this is not a good thing for us.'

'Jacob,' Gray said sternly, his fractured smile slipping for just a second. 'Listen to me. We're getting nowhere. The jobs we do, the people we work for… they're shit. The pay's terrible, the work's terrible. Everything about them is just terrible. And someday, probably soon, they're going to get us killed.'

'Working for a rich man doesn't make that any less likely,' I muttered.

'No. But I'd rather die in clean clothes, with my belly full of meat, than in some damn ditch.' He pulled himself free of my grasp and adjusted his natty brown suit. 'Now come on.'

The place didn't look like much from the outside. A wooden house, planking old and black and stained, dark red curtains drawn. No sign of light on the inside. No guard at the front, no knocker on the door. Gray shuffled through the mud and banged on the door with his meaty fist, and it opened to a thin gentleman in spectacles, his face curiously smooth. We went inside.

'You're Mister Crane, then?' Gray asked the thin gentleman. The guy didn't say anything, didn't answer, just walked out of the room. I was about to follow when he closed the door behind him.

'You've not met the guy?' I asked, looking around. Small foyer, the walls bare wood, two empty bookshelves that could have been there for a hundred years, sagging under their own weight. The door we had come in, the door Mr. Thin had gone out. One light: an old fashioned oil lamp that flickered and danced in the drafts. The rain outside was hammering on windows in other rooms, and under that harsh background noise I could hear movement. Bodies moving across floors, joists creaking, doors opening and conversations being had. It was hard to get my bearings in this place. Could have been mostly empty. Could have been packed with people. Hard to say.

'Met him? No. Met with an associate, who had met with this Crane guy's associate. Roundabout.' Gray shook the rain off his coat and shrugged. 'You know how business gets done.'

Gray and I stood in opposite corners of the little room, generally being unhappy with each other. A lot of the jobs Gray got, he got because he knew me. I was his ticket up. The fact that I didn't want to go up, had been up and was finished with it, presented a lot of problems in our relationship. That wasn't my problem, but it made things awkward sometimes.

So why did I hang out with him? He's curious. Story on the street is that Gray used to be a Wright of the Holy Algorithm, and had quit. And that's not something people do. I had probed this little bit of history, but it's not something he talks about. He had the hands for it, though. Big meaty hands, eternally lined in grease, and he was

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