Skin crawling, Raine stepped down into the Dregs. The contrast between the refined architecture of the upper district and the thrown together constructs down here left him wondering how they could exist in the same city. Every creak of metal forced him to look over his shoulder, worrying the whole place would collapse, trapping him with the rodents and grime.
The Dregs stretched past Liquor Row, trapped in the shade of the surrounding skyscrapers. A pit of discarded trash, the Dregs claimed addicts and whores as its own. Raine rolled his sleeves, then wiped sweat from his temple. The whole of his body ached, a collection of broken skin and deep bruises. It hurt to breathe. His clothing stuck to him as he rounded the corner in search of his only clue. At least the Officers wouldn’t enter the Dregs.
Across the vacant buildings, a little girl in a filthy polka dot dress froze. Her tangled black hair covered part of her face. She had something shiny in her hand, some bauble recovered from the derelict streets. The light caught in her sapphire eyes, lingering there, only disappearing after a second too long. She looked at him with caution, face bruised, gaze suspicious. As soon as their gaze met, she disappeared down an alley without a peep.
Places like this deserved to be forgotten.
The Carnivorous Flamingo couldn’t even afford a proper door. A well-worn crimson cloth hung from the frame, held on by makeshift spikes made out of scraps of metal. The stone split at the foundations, looked ready to give way at the slightest provocation. The windows were boarded up, sightless against the outside world. A steady stream of water poured out from under the cloth, pooling along the walls.
He pushed the cloth aside, harsh light slipping in behind him. Several ragged patrons turned to watch, faces masked by shadows. Yellow reflected in their eyes, the murderous glint lingered even after the curtain fell back in place.
Glass crunched underfoot as he stepped forward onto uneven fabric. He peered down at a shattered vein. Water leaked through bunched up towels. Oki’s light didn’t shine in the bar. He steeled himself as he recognized the meaning: here they wallowed in darkness, away from the all-seeing gaze of the gods.
Shifty glances trailed him, but Raine ignored them and approached the bar. The barkeep sneered at Raine, locking in for the long haul. Black greasy hair swept over his scalp. He planted his arms on the countertop, stared at Raine. “What do you want?”
“I don’t deal in that.”
Raine dropped money on the bar.
Pocketing the money, the man, his sharp eyebrows relaxing, grabbed a bottle and poured a shot into a grimy whiskey glass. Raine shook his head, tilted his finger up. The man continued until it kissed the rim. He slid it forward without spilling a drop.
Raine threw the drink back. Slamming the lowball glass onto the bar, he held back a cough and a sputter, but couldn’t keep his eyes from watering. Still, he kept them locked with the bartender.
“Impressive,” the barkeep said.
“I try.” Raine wiped his mouth, ignoring the sarcasm, and leaned in. “I’m looking for some friends of mine.”
The barkeep tipped his head toward Raine. “Some friends you got there.”
“Yeah, real pals. They like to hang out here, kick back a few. Like it rough. Sound like anyone you know?”
“These friends have some names?”
His face darkened. “They’ll be here tonight.”
“Any idea where I can find them beforehand? It’s pressing business.”
“They’re known, but you won’t get anything from these louts. They’re already eyeballing me. Thinking I’m being a bit too talkative. Just come back tonight.”
“How about I grab a room instead?”
The barkeep paused, grabbed a key from behind the bar. Raine moved to take it, but the man held it back. “Fifty bucks.”
Raine pulled out more money. “Robbery.” He handed the cash over and received the key. The man’s eyes shifted and he motioned toward the hallway. The barkeep scooped up the filthy glass. “Make sure shit doesn’t go down in here.” He turned back to his displayed bottles, taking on the air of shutting down Raine.
“It looks like you’ve had a tough night,” a familiar voice noted.
Raine turned to the odd man from the Key Note, the one he’d tried to capture at the trams. His hand went to the man’s throat, pushing him down against the bar. “Are you following me?”
The man laughed, shrill and dismissive. His eyes caught the light, held it there, then, in a flash, he was sitting back up, nursing a drink.
Raine recoiled, standing up and taking a step away from the strange man. “What the fuck?”
“Come now,” the stranger said. “Sit down, I’m not here to fight. I’ve got an offer for you.” He was dressed in the same antiquated suit that threw Raine earlier, though it was dingier, darkened by some stains, presumably from time spent in the Dregs, but they left Raine uneasy.
“Look, I’m not intere—”
“I said, sit.” The man’s eyes flashed again and Raine was sitting with him. What little sound there had been faded, replaced with a dull roar. “Look, I know you’ve had a hell of a night, but I’m here to offer you something no one else has: a way out.” His smile was growing, extending well past the limits of his lips.
That off-kilter feeling held onto Raine, settling deep in his gut. He was still reeling from the first time lapse, not even able to process the second, but here he was, sitting at the bar with a drink in his hand and a strange man offering him the world. “What do you know about what I’ve been through?”
“I know there’s a dead girl. Slaughtered mercilessly. By you.” He let that hang in the air before continuing. “And now you’re on the run, looking for a way out.”
Raine almost laughed at this. He’d never even considered he’d escape this. He’d just hoped that he would be able to get some redemption before turning himself over. He had killed that girl, no matter how he tried to pass off the blame, but he couldn’t let Jaiden and Turrell continue. Not after what he’d seen before and had been witness to on the docks. He shook his head. He started to raise the drink to his lips, thought better of it, then placed it on the bar. “You know a few things, but I’m not looking for a way out. So, unless you’ve got something else up your sleeve, I suggest we end this before I lose my temper.”
The man’s smile faltered ever-so slightly. “Fine. It’ll be interesting to watch the rising star crash in a ball of flames.” He nodded, then the sound in the room resumed as if nothing had happened.
Raine turned to find the barstool next to him empty, the barkeep’s back still to him. He almost asked for another drink, but a casual glance confirmed the barkeep’s warning. He would find nothing out from this lot. Every eye was on him and none were friendly. Raine noticed an older man standing from a table, in his mid-forties, cropped dark hair complimenting his pale, equine face. His black suit hung on his lanky frame as he moved toward the bar, leaning into an ornate cane. He didn’t look happy.
Raine pushed a curtain out of his way and walked down the hall. He turned the key over. A crudely etched nine gleamed. He kept it ready in hand, counting numbers hanging from the doors, passing several without any markings. He tried three before finding his room. He checked the hallway for the odd stranger, but found no evidence of him. He breathed in, forced the key into the lock and entered the room. He closed the door swiftly behind him.
Flipping on a switch, he surveyed the dilapidated room. Something squeaked at the sudden change and disappeared in the silence. Worn drapes fell over the open windows, light penetrating the folds. Tattered sheets adorned what passed for a bed. He checked the room over twice, not at all convinced of its security.
Stepping into the bathroom, he took off his suit. He smoothed it out and hung each article. He stared at the mirror. Blood coated half his face.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. All this way.”
So much for keeping a low profile.
He stared at his ruined hand, the ripped skin. He flexed the twisted fingers. “Fuck!” He stifled the shout, easing his fingers back. He scrubbed for a good twenty minutes, gingerly going over his busted hand. From now on, no more mistakes. He had a mission.
He wouldn’t have to wait long.
Exhaustion crept through him as he straightened once more. Climbing onto the slab of a bed, he turned on his side and breathed heavily. He tried to will himself to sleep.
Theon stared out the window through a slim opening, looking into the alleyway. Night came swifter than he’d remembered, draping the lower district in an oppressive blanket of shadow. He’d always preferred the neon from the Pleasure districts. This place reminded him of so many ruins. The air had that undercurrent of death and devotion. They worshipped booze here, following the teachings of losing themselves to baser functions.
In the waning light, two ravenous children fought over a scrap of rotten meat. Blood and pus covered their grubby fingers.
Theon smiled despite his boredom.
Looking back at Raine’s sleeping body, Theon shook his head. His interest had waned. Although Theon had no idea what he’d inflicted on the mortal, the changes had piqued his curiosity. He’d showed such promise, but instead he cowered, sleeping the night away. Theon wanted more: a bloodbath the city couldn’t forget. He stretched, yawned. A few of his vertebrae cracked but Raine didn’t stir.
The room distorted.
Theon froze mid-stretch, waited. The pulse fell away before he could catch it.
Another wave cut through the room, more powerful now, excited. Theon caught the thread, tugged at it. His mind separated, cutting through streets and pathways of the city, up into the upper district, through the docks, around the harbor, and settling on a packed warehouse erected on the opposite side of the slums.
He recognized the anticipation.
Dawber would fight soon.
Theon looked over at Raine, paused to consider attending his old friend’s bout. He had time for a slight diversion, enough to check out the fight and make it back before Raine stirred. Theon slipped out the room, greeted by angry shouts of the drunk and lazy.