Raine eyed a shattered neon sign as he passed under it. He tried to make out the name of the place, but the busted letters failed any resemblance of language. It hung from a single bolt, threatening to break off at any time. A pack of teenagers had collected underneath and Raine couldn’t help hoping the sign would give at this moment. A little carnage to lighten his mood.
Lit by the red lanterns, Raine weaved through the throng, intent on making his way to the Market. There was an opportunity to blend in during the chaos of the festival. He let his shoulders sag, his posture droop with each step as he tried to lose any traits that would give him away. His hands sunk deep in his pockets.
“Need a hit?” A well dressed man said, tipping his hat to Raine as he passed from Liquor Row. His pristine lime suit, complete with matching cane and shoes, seemed entirely out of place with its decrepit surroundings.
Raine shook his head politely, forcing a smile.
“Pity, Mr. Morgan. Come back anytime.”
As he left behind the pusher, he realized the futility of trying to blend in with the crowd. He straightened, resuming his normal posture. Light fought to fill every miserable hole of the Dregs, except for the passage to the Market. Most avoided this section, with its meager light and its dangerous reputation. He could spend a couple hours crossing through the “safe” districts to get where he wanted, but, with the crowds out tonight, now was the only good time to cross.
The moment he stepped into the passage, the air changed, become stiller, almost lifeless. At the far end, a red lantern burned, signaling his destination. While he thought he’d seen a couple people crossing with him, when he looked around, he found no one there. He glanced up at the rim of the district, at the struts sticking out. An alley cat perched there, staring down on its domain, eyes glowing. He smiled at it, nodding his appreciation before continuing forward.
“Spare some change,” a spindly voice crept from the gutters. What had looked like loose trash and a burlap sack unfurled into a wraith of a man. He leaned on his knees, hand out, the beam of light catching in his dead eyes, and offered a hand. “Haven’t eaten in weeks, sir.”
“I’m all tapped out.”
“I know you.” The beggar stood abruptly, his joints cracking. He moved like a man possessed. “‘Eh boys, we’ve got royalty here!” He let out a jaunty laugh, forced and wrong. “Mr. Raine Morgan, can’t you spare a dime for a poor working man? How ‘bout a dozen?”
Raine spun to face the man, froze. He continued forward, leaving the eyes behind him. He heard muttering, lost them as he noticed the walking trash heap tagging along. Raine flashed a menacing smile. “I’m down on my luck.”
“Ain’t we all.”
“Not like the night I’ve had.”
“Oh, word spreads quick.” He followed Raine step for step, leaning in. His rotted smile came free and easy. He still had most of his teeth, though they’d decayed around the roots. His tongue worked at the gaps where they’d fallen away and he continued, “You’ve got an impressive bounty on your head. From the Family themselves!”
That laugh again.
Raine’s stomach twisted. Why would the Family have thrown a bounty for him? The best he could figure it was a way to get him delivered back to them safely, though he wondered if Keir had any hand in it. It was more like him to work behind the scenes, to pay someone to fetch an offending member quietly, away from the prying eyes of the Officers. No, this was sloppy, a bid for power. His thoughts turned to Carrick.
“It’d feed us for a whole year.”
“Not if you get greedy,” Raine whispered.
“Don’t you worry about us, Mr. Morgan. That is one thing a starving man is not. We are generous, once we get ours.”
“I’m sure. But do you really think the Family is looking to pay out on me? Have you ever heard of this happening. Has Keir ever been this lazy?”
“Well, no. But—”
“Look, you seem like an upstanding gentleman. But, with the night I’ve had, I’m not opposed to getting my hands dirty. I’ve already washed enough blood off my hands tonight. Let’s not add yours to it.” Raine flashed a devilish smile. He tapped the man on the jaw twice with his open palm.
The leader stopped, looked over his shoulder. Raine followed his glance, noting the stragglers frozen dutifully a few feet behind. They’d clearly seen the disrespect. The leader tensed.
“Oh, come now.” Raine leaned in, enough to breath in the stink of this lanky man. “Do you really want to put your little gang on the radar of the Family? Keir doesn’t take kindly to addicts.”
They locked eyes. There was a darkness there, but Raine kept his gaze constant.
“Good luck tonight. It’s gonna be quite the spectacle,” Raine said and strolled forward, leaving the entourage behind. The whispers persisted, nipping at his heels, a constant reminder he hadn’t made it to safety just yet. He kept his eyes trained on the red lantern, approaching it at a casual, but brisk pace. He looked back only once, caught a pair of eyes watching him from an alley, but they quickly retreated. Otherwise, he was alone. He smiled, then strode forward into the Market.