11/09/2016: Orchard: The Gordian Knot, Part One

(Sequel to The Burning Lily and the Midnight Thieves. This would have been resolution, except it got so goddamn long that I eventually decided to chop it in two. So this is Part One. Expect Part Two in, I dunno, a month.)

1. Three Months Ago

She doesn’t know why she’s here. She has a reason, but reasons are spurious, gentle things, and that reason isn’t the same as why.

All she knows is that she is wet and alone and frightened in an unfamiliar city, and there are three policemen following her, who smell of booze and sex, and, like dogs with a sheep, they are herding her to a dark alley.

“What do you want?” she demands, voice quavering.

“What do we want? Well, see, the thing is…” says one of them, mouth moving with something that is not a smile, “A Scarlet killed my partner last week. Reckon you know who?”

“A…a what?”

“A Scarlet. Don’t play pretty with me, dollface. I’m ever so eager to take it out on another one of your play…”

He never finishes the sentence.

A knife sprouts in his throat, just as blood fountains from the foreheads of the officers beside him. As she ducks, frightened, a figure jumps from the fire escape behind her and lands, backlit by the neon of the street beyond.

The figure is slender, and dark, and hooded. The eyes are solemn, and gray.

“My name is Jo,” they say.

“I-I-I’m Jasmine,” she says, “You saved my life.”

There are footsteps behind Jasmine, and as she turns, a beautiful woman with golden hair and an irritated expression walks up to her. Her fingers reach around Jasmine’s throat and remove her scarf.

“It wouldn’t be in danger,” says the beautiful woman, “If you weren’t wearing this.”

“Relax,” adds Jo, though whether she speaks to Jasmine or the beautiful woman is unclear.

For a long moment, Jo watches Jasmine, eyes unreadable, and it’s only now Jasmine notices that their pale face is splashed with blood. Jasmine can count every drop of blood in Jo’s eyelashes…

“Do you need a place to stay?”

2. The Docks, Now

His hair is blonde, crew-cut, his build slender, as he manipulates the fire poi round him. The shifting light makes his eye color impossible to tell, but they’re deep-set, shadows in his thin, bony face.

“You think it’s him?” Briony asks.

“Why fire?” replies Jo, “You got speed, because you wanted to flee. Craig got safe havens, because he wanted a home. I got…my thing…because of what I wanted.”

“And what did you want?” asks Briony, suddenly curious, “You’ve never said.”

“It’s unimportant. Victor got his…talents…because of his curiosity. So why fire?”

“Maybe he’s pyrophobic,” replies Briony with an eyeroll.

“No. They’re appropriate – or ironic, depending on your sense of humor. They fit what we wanted – or what we thought we wanted. What else would a fire dancer want, but more fire?”

“You really think it’s him?”

“One way to find out – tip him. If he’s from the Crazy stable, he’ll be our man.”

“Why the Crazy stable?” asks Briony, before answering her own question, “That spate of firebombings they did last year. Riiight.”

“No other gang has a history with fire like the Crazy stable.”

The two watch as he pirouettes, spins, turns, the poi sometimes dangerously close to his skin, but never quite touching, until he finishes, calmly smothering his poi with a cloth as the audience he’s gathered applaud.

The two women approach smoothly, flicking coins into the open guitar case at his feet, and it’s then they both see it: the tattoo of a smiley face on his hand.

The sign of an assassin for the Crazy stable.

3. A Drink with a Crazy Man

Briony and Jo have an agreement: when it comes to gathering information, generally speaking, they do it separately. This is for reasons of pure logic – Briony primarily gets her info through…well, her old job, and that’s not a place Jo can go and not stand out like a sore thumb, and Jo has a tendency to get info in a far less discreet fashion, one that Briony disapproves of.

It’s just easier if the two split for this part.

So, waving Briony goodbye while she heads to a very specific area of the city, Jo wanders off to the bar where their gang – the Hoods – and the Crazy stable have truce, and hopes their luck is good.

It is. The bar – not the Road this time, this time the bar is called The Mad Hatter, and is built very to a theme – has their major contact sitting at the bar, looking moody. He’s handsome, in an old school type of way – you can imagine him in a 1950’s movie, or smoking a pipe in a recliner, but Jo knows that he sells hard drugs on the streets, not to mention information to Hoods who ask nicely.

“Forget it,” he says when Jo sits next to him, “I’ve had a long fucking day, I’m not interested.”

“In what?” laughs Jo. He glares at her through the haze of alcohol befuddling his gaze.

“Every time I have a conversation with you, it ends in a fight.”

“Yes, but never a fight with you,” they specify carefully. “Look, all I want to know about is an assassin who works for you guys. He’s firedancing on the docks.”

“Aaron?” there’s a look of surprise on his face that is totally unfeigned, and Jo raises an eyebrow.

“Surprised, Mick?” they ask.

“I’m surprised to hear about it from you. No one’s meant to know…” Mick looks uncomfortable.

“Come on, tell me.”

Mick plays with his half-full glass for a bit, before answering.

“You didn’t hear it from me, but there’s a rumor circulating on the docks – they’ve always been contested ground, mainly between us and the Scarlets. And there’s rumor that the Scarlets are looking for an edge. Something to give them a bit more income, so they can finally take the docks back from us.”

“Usual gang politics, you mean,” Jo replies.

“Yeah, but this is something Aaron and I…”

“Wait, this is something you’re involved in?”

“…sort of. Aaron and I found out about it and…” Mick is clearly struggling with himself.

“Mick? What are the Scarlets planning?” Jo asks.

“…they’re starting up the child smuggling business again.”

“What?” snaps Jo, “How? Why?”

“I already told you why. As for how, we’re still not sure. But there are kids going missing, just like in the old days, before your gang got established. Your gang was what stopped it, you know that. Having a gang of killers that have a vague moral compass that won’t put up with shit like that should have been enough to keep the Scarlets from attempting this, but they’ve just had a coup. Their new leader, calls themselves Haze, they’re an ugly piece of work, and they want the fucking docks.”

“…shit,” hisses Jo.

“I told Aaron to leave well enough alone, but Aaron’s got something he’s planning. He’s hanging around the docks, in areas that aren’t contested, in specifically Scarlet territory, looking for trouble. He wants to stop this shit – reckons it will start a new gang war.”

“He’s not wrong.” Jo rubs their eyes.

They might continue talking, except at that point, someone grabs Jo’s shoulder, slurring heavily.

“Hey, hood whore, the fuck you doing here?”

“Oh, it’s you,” sighs Jo, rolling her eyes, “This is safe ground, dumbass, and I’m off duty. Fuck off elsewhere.”

The bleary-eyes drunk attempts a punch that Jo easily dodges, before slurring out something Mick doesn’t catch, but that makes Jo’s eyes narrow.

Within seconds, the drunk has gone flying through the nearest window.

“And your track record of starting fights in bars I’m drinking at continues to be a steady 100%,” drawls Mick with an eye roll. Jo glances at him; he’s tense, nervous.

“Don’t worry, Mick,” comments Jo, “I’ll sort this out.”

“Somehow,” says Mick, “That makes me more nervous, not less.”

With a quick flick of the wrist, Jo passes several sheafs of bank notes to Mick, and exits the bar, kicking the defenestrated drunk as they do so.

4. The Dead of Night

Jasmine awakes from a dream with no name, and a sense of unease she can’t place, before shaking it off, and going into the tiny kitchen of the too-small flat to make herself tea.

It’s not, she adds to herself as she does so, that the flat is small, really. It’s quite reasonable sized. It’s just that Jak and Jo, and when she’s around Briony, have such huge personalities, that with all four of them in, the flat starts to feel very crowded.

But at the moment, it’s just Jasmine.

She glances at the front door, and counts a second pair of shoes.

All right, it’s just Jasmine and Jak.

But with only two people, one of whom is presumably asleep, the flat feels too big now. As if the open space could swallow Jasmine whole.

She shivers, and wraps her hands around her now-brewed tea, to ward off dark thoughts, and waits for Jo to get home.

She doesn’t have to wait long.

The door bangs open, Jo storming in, slamming on all the lights as they do so, clearly angry.

“Is Briony back?” they snap.

“No,” says Jasmine, puzzled. The stream of profanity that exits Jo’s mouth makes Jasmine blink – she knew Jo and Briony were friends, and Jo certainly has a mouth on them, but Jasmine had never seen Briony drive Jo to this level of rage before.

Jo picks up the landline phone and immediately starts dialling.

“Yes. It’s me. Get. Here. Now. As in, this instant. I don’t care if you’re sucking off the prime minister, I want you here five minutes ago, you slag!”

The utter rage in Jo’s voice causes the door to Jak’s room to open.

“Trouble in paradise?” he quips, hair ruffled from sleep.

Jo grabs Jasmine’s cup of tea (“Hey!”) and flings it at Jak, missing his head by a hair. Jak doesn’t falter, doesn’t even move.

“Well, that’s not going to solve anything, dear,” he snarks, before slamming the door shut.

After a moment, Jasmine quietly says, “…I was drinking that.”

For a breath, Jo looks so fierce, Jasmine thinks they might strike her, before the tension runs out, and they ruefully chuckle.

“So you were. I’ll make you another one while we wait for Her Highness to get here.”

Time passes, Jasmine quietly knitting, Jo staring out the window, until the door rattles with a series of rattles and handleshakes that cause Jasmine to quizzically look at Jo, who nods.

Briony’s expression is one of disdain and annoyance.

“I was busy. Do you want to solve this…”

“Briony. You’re a Scarlet, right?”

Both Briony and Jasmine freeze, hearing a cool, calm, friendly tone from Jo, the same sort of tone one might hear from an alligator convincing you to walk into a swamp.

“…yes,” replies Briony, nervous.

“Would you mind explaining to me how it escaped your notice that your new leader – Haze, right? – is planning on returning to child smuggling? And why I had to learn about this from a Crazy?”

Briony sets her shoulders and lifts her head, and Jasmine recognizes it as the look of a woman who knows she’s made a mistake, and is preparing for whatever comes next.

“Firstly, Haze doesn’t trust me. You know that. You remember the business with Senator Heron a month back…”

“Yes, I do. Your mission statement since then has been to try and get back in his good books. What happened?”

Briony’s mouth works.

“It’s possible I’ve been…distracted.”

The can of beer Jo’s been holding slams into the table, and Jasmine has a split-second to rescue her knitting before the beer foaming up ruins it.

DistractedDistracted? No no no no. Distracted is when a kid hits you in the face and that disorients you and gets you shot in the back. You have been procrastinating.”

“So what if I have? We don’t all have death wishes like you, Jo!”

Jo reacts, and it’s not something Jasmine’s seen before – their eyes narrow, their mouth sets, and then a split second later, their face is normal, as if Jasmine imagined, briefly, that Briony touched a nerve.

“I do so apologize, Briony, dear,” says Jo, in a cool tone, “Perhaps I should let Victor know that you’re no longer interested in helping him, and you can return to your old haunts on Vivian? Would that suit milady’s tastes?”

Briony’s nostrils flare, and her back stiffens, as if struck. Jasmine, although fascinated, can still spot the beginnings of all-out war.

“Look, you said there’s child-smuggling going on. Why don’t you guys try to solve that problem and deal with whatever has Briony distracted later?”

For a moment, the tension is sharp and thin, like a piano wire. Then, slowly, it eases. Briony’s stance shifts back into relaxation, and Jo’s voice warms up to it’s normal caramel intonation.

“Jasmine is, sadly, correct. We cannot have the Scarlets restart the child-slavery trade.”

“I can’t believe Haze is even considering it…” sighed Briony, “But at least I can help you there.”

Jo gives Briony a look that even Jasmine can read – oh, so you are good for something. Briony snorts, clearly intent on ignoring Jo’s still-present bad humor.

“Since the formation of the Hoods, the Scarlets’ territory has only depreciated, which means they’re almost certainly going to use the same strategy they use for all their other big smuggling rings.”

“Which is?”

“There’s an unconsecrated church on Manners…”

“You mean, the one that always has a construction rig and warnings posted around it?” asks Jasmine, curious.

“Yup,” says Briony, “And if you’ve noticed that, you’ve probably also noticed that there’s never actually a construction crew. The Scarlets use it to hide anything big they want smuggled in or out and pay quite a hefty sum to keep it intact. I’ll bet that’s where they’re keeping the kids.”

“So how are you going to save them?” asks Jasmine.

“We’re not,” replies Jo blandly.

Jasmine and Briony stare at her, Jasmine in confusion, Briony in growing horror.

“You don’t mean…?” asks Briony.

“Gordian Knot solution,” says Jo, “Blow up the church. From what I recall of Scarlets territory, that will cripple any chances of them smuggling anybody or anything, and will make Haze think twice about trying a child smuggling ring.”

What the fuck is wrong with you?” yells Briony, horrified, “There are children in there!”

Jo immediately stands, grabs Briony by the face and slams her to the table, knife at her throat.

“I do beg your pardon, my darling,” Jo snarls, “What on earth gave you the idea I had anything resembling a moral compass? Was it the moment when I murdered innocent men and women? The point at which I killed your abusive ex-boyfriend on a whim? Or the point at which I tortured a man for information? Or perhaps it was the point at which I started getting you to help me. Do not mistake my pragmatism for morality! If the easiest path lies without casualties, I will take it. And if it lies through a river of blood, I will take that, as well!”

“You’re a monster,” whispers Jasmine in a silence punctuated only by Briony’s sobs and gasps for breath.

Jo’s eyes narrow again, and they release Briony, gasping, to the floor.

“Very well, then.” Jo replies, with a smile, and a bow. “But it takes a monster to live in this world. As I said: this is your Gordian Knot. Can you untie it without cutting it? I will be pleased to see.”

With that, Jo leaves.

“This isn’t over,” hissed Briony, massaging her neck, “There are rocks less stubborn than Jo.”

Jasmine watches, and feels, again, that uneasy sense she had when she awoke from her dream. Something akin to deja vu, or a feeling of having been here before and having to make a similar decision. Again? Or before?

But she’s only known them three months…

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