Chapter 14 - Doing Business
Sis heard the footsteps long before he saw the shadow flicker over the wall. And before the person came into view, his nose identified it as Jack.
"What is that?" Sis asked, indicating the wrapped object the human was carrying under his arm. He sampled the air, but the bundle didn't carry a scent. Still he could smell something that wasn't there before. It was salty and meaty, and the aroma emitted from Jack's bag.
"You still have the gold?" Jack asked, skipping an answer for the fox's question.
Sis reached into his pocket and handed the jewelry to his friend.
"Here," he said, picking one of the precious objects up and giving it back to Sis. "Keep this. A good thief keeps his first booty as a memento."
Jack reached down and placed the small, shiny thing in his paws. Sis rolled the golden ring between his fingers and watched the reflecting moonlight dance over the polished surface against his black fur. "I'd rather get the things we need first," he stated, and held the ring up for Jack. He still worried whether it would be enough for the equipment and the vixen.
Jack refused to accept the ring, "It's your share of the booty. Keep it. It brings luck. The rest will be enough to get what we need."
The fox looked down on the ring in his paw. In- and outside were perfectly smooth. It was too big for his small fingers to wear, but in a place like this it would be better to hide such valuables anyway. "Do you still have your first booty?" Sis asked, looking up from the ring.
Jack pocketed the remaining gold in his hand. Than he reached into the chest pocket of his jacket and protruded a silver coin. It was a little bigger and thicker than the ones Sis had seen around here, and the coinage looked different too, as Jack held it up between two fingers.
"After I had left home and was hungry, I didn't know where to go. I worked here and there for a day or so, but payment was meager. I used to sleep in a barn or stable, if I could, but most of the time I sought shelter in god's halls. It was dry and didn't stink of shit," Jack explained. He turned the coin between his fingers, "When the first winter came, things got harder. Less work to do, higher prices to pay. So one day, I just grabbed into the offertory and stole a few coins. The others I traded for food, but this one I kept."
"You stole from the offertory of a god's hall?!" Sis asked shocked. "Don't you even have any respect for the gods?"
Jack dropped the coin into his palm. "I was desperate," he explained. "And actually, the offertory is there to help the poor, right? All I did was to get my share, when I needed it. I'm not proud of this, but it kept me alive."
Sis' ears folded back in embarrassment. He could comprehend why Jack had done it. It was still a disrespectful act, to steal from a god's hall, but he knew what it was like to have no other way. And actually, he really wasn't in the position to tutor him about what was right and what not.
"However," said Jack. He stuffed the coin back into his chest pocket. "We still got something to do, remember?" he reminded Sis and lifted the backpack from the ground. "We're going through the town and then to the place where the fence is. It's best to put the rope back on. The area isn't known for its strictness with the slavery laws, but I'd rather not take a risk."
"Good," Sis acceded, took the rope from Jack and placed it around his neck.
The place, where the fence could be found, seemed to be situated somewhere around the area of the trade office. The streets here were wide, to let all the carriages and carts through, and lined with warehouses and depots. At some corners, cranes, made of long wooden beams, ropes and pulleys, stood to lift the heavier goods. One particular tall building, Sis recognized as a granary. The multiple stories had two winged doors, opening to the front, to pull the grain bags up with a hoist.
The place held a lot of bars and taverns, for the workers, as well as quarters for the slaves. Simple, mostly windowless houses, usually not containing anything more than a large room to live and sleep in, a privy to maintain a certain state of hygiene, and a cooking place that also served as inadequate heating for the house. The place, Sis followed Jack to, was located offside the main road, hidden behind a row of warehouses, and seemed to consist of both.
The building was no regular tavern; it held no nameplate, had hardly any windows and seemed pretty rundown. Yet, it lacked the barred doors of a slave quarter. It looked like a very old warehouse, quite big and the floor lifted off the muddy, snowy ground. The big front gate, two large wooden doors, were probably not opened in years. The hinges were rusted, the paint flaked off and the boards mouldered. Still, the little door panel inside the gate seemed to be frequented, and the interior was illuminated.
"These guys are ... complicated," Jack said, pondering a hand. "It would be best if you keep your mouth shut, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah. Just let's get this over with."
Jack threw the butt of his cigarette, he had lit on the way, into the snow and went for the door. Close up, Sis could smell alcohol and smoke, and as soon as Jack opened the door, the later steamed out into the cold night air.
The interior, indeed an old warehouse, formerly consisting of one big store room, only occupied by the support beams, was now divided by poorly crafted wood panels, curtains and stacked crates, into smaller compartments and back rooms. The main area pretty much resembled a tavern. A provisional counter, put together from chests and barrels with a large board atop it, served liquids to the patrons, which likewise sat and dined on discarded freight and cargo.
The patrons themselves, all rather grumpy-looking, were humans and short ones. Some of them were slaves, standing out by the collar they were wearing. Some - the most grumpy-looking of them - did not wear collars. They sat by the humans, or amongst themselves, and drank with them. About everything in this place, furniture and patrons, seemed to be mixed together from whatever could be found.
Jack determined marched towards the back of the place, to a makeshift door, guarded by a rather bulky human. While they walked the room, no one appeared to take notice of them.
Before they could enter the room, the man stepped in front of the door, arms crossed and stared down on Jack. That guy was over a head taller than Jack, and much, much more massive than he was, yet Jack didn't looked frightened, or even worried. Sis felt even smaller than he was, in the man's presence.
"I got business to do with the rat," Jack said composed to the man.
The bodyguard stepped aside and jerked his head for them to enter. Jack pushed the door open and Sis followed him inside.
The noises died down, as the bodyguard pulled the door shut behind him. The room was crowded with crates, barrels, rotten rope coils, rusted steel and garbage, just like the main area. Though, this room featured a table and a chair behind it. At the other end of the room a doorway, blocked with a filthy cloth, lead to yet another back room. Other than that, the room was empty.
It took a moment until a figure emerged from behind the cloth. It was a rat. He looked tired, but his eyes were sharp. He was older than Sis and, judging by the scars running over his head and forearms, had lived much longer as slave than the fox had. The rat wore a leather collar, used and torn, and around it was a metal plate with something engraved into it. His clothes were old and worn, yet not as dirty or tattered as they should be, and he wore far too much to protect him against the cold winter air, than a slave would be allowed to.
Slowly the rat padded towards the table. "... Jack?" his eyes fleshed as he saw the human. "Man, we haven't seen you in ages. Feared you'd gett'n caught." The rat sat down in the chair.
"Pah! As if, ya oll flea bag," Jack replied. "So, how's business doing?"
"Eh, you know. 'S runnin' good on small things, while all're busy preppin' for winter. Haven't gott'n any big deals for a few weeks tho'," the rat replied. "Speakin' of business," his gaze wandered to Sis, "haven't known ya're in with the slavers now."
Jack took a glance at Sis, as though he had just noticed he was there. "Oh, I'm not," he said to the rat. "It's just a favor for someone."
"Ah," the rat scratched his nose. "Now, what d' ya 'ave for us?"
While Jack reached into his pocket, Sis wondered briefly, why the rat spoke so freely to a human, despite the fact that he was a slave. He looked up to Jack. It might be because they know each other, he considered.
Jack placed the gold, from their prior raid, on the table. The rat didn't seem impressed in the slightest. He merely protruded a little object from his pockets, held it to his right eye and started examining the jewelry. The white gemstone was inspected particularly well.
"Hmm," the rat thought and put the stone back on the table. "Fifteen for the gold. We'll give ya forty for the diamond."
"The gold's worth at least twenty five, and for the gem I thought more like eighty," Jack countered.
"Ha!" the rat laughed out. "Do ya know how far we need t' ship chains 'nd earrings t' be sold again? Ya seem to 'ave forgott'n 'ow work's done 'ere," he peered down to the diamond on the table for a moment, "We'll give ya sixty for everything. But only 'cause it's you, Jack."
"Eighty!" Jack demanded. "At least!"
"Weren't it for the diamond, it wouldn't even be worth our time!" the rat said. "Sixty five's my last offer, and I'd advise ya t' take it." The man's eyes got narrow and he leaned forward.
Jack sighed and rolled his eyes, "Sixty five, you racketeer."
The gold quickly disappeared into the rat's pockets. "Ya got somethin' else to get rid of?" he asked, indicating the bundle under Jack's arm.
Jack unwrapped the bundle and placed a gold framed painting on the table. It showed a fruit bowl, containing all sorts of exotic crops. Sis found the sight quite beautiful. He had never eaten any other fruits than those that grew in the forests. Apples he knew, and pears. Grapes he had once seen, but never tasted, and the yellow thing, he knew, must be a banana. The orange balls and that thing that looked like a shrunken pumpkin, he had never seen before.
"My source told me, there's someone interested in this... piece," he said eyeing the painting dubious.
"Ah, the 'Heaven's Gifts'. Yeah, yeah. Rich art dealer. Left the money already," the rat said giving the picture a proving look.
Jack nodded, "So I've been told." The rat gave him a distasteful glare. "Get me the money, Gerren. That would be all."
"Yeah, yeah," the rat, Gerren Jack had called him, said and put the painting on the edge of the table. "In silver, as always?"
"The wage for the pic' in gold is fine. The rest in silver, yes," Jack confirmed.
"Luth! Get in 'ere!" Gerren shouted.
Immediately a thin, grey wolf entered the room, through the same doorway the rat had entered. The wolf, Sis found, looked more like a slave ought to look like. The rag he wore was barely enough to cover him, and it was dusty and unwashed. His frame was too slim for a wolf, he looked almost starved. And a sturdy iron collar decorated his neck. Sis noticed that the iron collar, contrary to the leather one Gerren wore, did not bear an engraving.
The wolf came to a halt next to the table the rat sat on, and bowed. "How can I help you, sir?" he asked with a devoted and broken voice.
Gerren pointed one of his gnarly fingers on the painting, "Get dis outta 'ere and bring the reward for it. Bring sixty five for the rest we got. Oh, and change that into silver. Now get goin', Luth."
The wolf bowed again, "Yes, sir." And hurried out of the room.
While he left, Sis could see the wolf's back, the rag tattered and stained red. It drove a chill through him.
The fox wondered for a moment, why the rat could order the wolf around like this, whilst he himself was just a slave. And also why he was able to decide over such amounts of money. It couldn't be his own, otherwise he wouldn't run around in these tatters, or he would have already bought his freedom. Still there was no human in sight to whom he belonged. He could be in the other room, Sis thought.
Just then Luth, the wolf, came back, two jingling pouches in his paws. "Here, sir," he said and placed them on the table.
Gerren waved his hand and the wolf disappeared. He pushed the pouches onto the very edge of the table. "There ya go," he said to Jack.
Jack took both pouches and started to inspect the first one, swirling his finger in it what caused the contents to jingle again. Satisfied he went for the second one, repeating his motion and counting the coins. But once done his face turned sour. "This feels a bit light," he said, weighing the pouch in his hand. "M' source told me the price those art dealer was willing to pay."
Gerren grinned, "Hey, we need to live from something, too."
Jack pointed a finger at him angrily, "You're a stingy rogue, ya know that?"
The rat was unimpressed, "Ya can either take what we offer, or leave without it."
Jack mumbled something under his breath and turned to leave. Sis followed him silently. Before they exited the room, Jack had stuffed the two pouches into the inside of his jacket.
"Come back soon, Jack!" Gerren called after him.
Back on the street, Sis noticed how warm the interior had been, as the icy wind blew around his nose and neck. Jack intuitively reached for another cigarette. The night was pitch-black by now, even the white smoke cloud, Jack puffed into the air, was hard to make out and vanished sooner than by daylight.
"That didn't go too well, huh?" Sis asked with a flattened tone.
Jack took the cigarette from his lips, "Oh, actually it didn't go all that bad. We got a fine deal out of this."
Sis looked up to Jack. "But you said-"
Jack smiled, "Do you ever heard of haggling, foxy? I told you these guys are complicated."
"Was... was this rat a slave?" Sis asked slowly.
"But, why was he..."
"Such an ass?" Jack finished the question for Sis. "Well, the actual fence, the head of this organization, is human of course. Gerren is his slave. The boss doesn't want his face to be seen, so he sends his slaves. They get certain perquisites for their work, as you might have noticed in comparison to the poor fella who had to work for Gerren. And also: should something go wrong, it all was just a disposable slave."
"And those slaves are just talking to humans like that?"
"Hmm," Jack sucked on his cigarette. "Now, for once, how should they do business otherwise?" He let the smoke out again. "This is also another part of said perquisites. No one really can touch them, because the fence watches over them. Those guys are really unpleasant when it comes to their properties, you really don't wanna have one of these guys against you. Also, slaves that can do the work are rare."
The subject made Sis feel down, so he tried to change it, "Where did you actually get that painting?"
Jack smiled and reached down to ruffle the fur between Sis' ears, "Slaves ain't cheap."
22 January 2016 at 13:33:28 MST
Jack really seems to know his way around with all kinds of dubious people!
Next chapter is due on the 5th of February.