Grans Delbona listened to the rain hammering the awning stretched above his head. The downpour gushed so heavily that no hint of individual water droplets remained to be discerned. The continuous thundering held an almost magical quality. Even for Grans, who had been born in Ashton and who entertained no doubt he would die there, the intensity of nature's tantrum proved impressive.
Sipping at his dark red beer, he looked up as the bar owner, Mara Franz, stepped onto the front patio to check on her sidewalk customers. At this early hour of the day, that consisted solely of Grans.
"I haven't seen so much rain this late in the season since I was a little girl visiting my grandparents at Nightshade." She shivered slightly and crossed her bare arms over the swell of her breasts.
Grans nodded. "I hear the reservoir's almost reached the top of the spillway. If it goes over, we could have real trouble on our hands." Casually, Grans admired his companion's full yet firm figure and the pleasing lines of her upturned profile. The warm mist drifting through the air glistened in her wavy, shoulder-length blond hair like tiny jewels. The moisture beading on her skin suggested an activity Grans had been too long without.
He sighed. Burying his nose in his glass, he stared into the obscuring wall of water and the half-glimpsed figures of early risers hurrying to their destinations. Their meager shelters of brightly colored ponchos and umbrellas seemed inadequate to the task.
More than once, Grans had considered advancing his case with the personable woman who ran his favorite hangout. Her knee-length apron could not conceal her physical charms. Yet he had witnessed more than one such brave attempt by inebriated customers. Each time, Mara had politely yet firmly closed them down. The one occasion he had witnessed when a suitor pressed himself -- almost literally -- too far in his quest for feminine companionship resulted in a bleeding skull and a warning to stay clear of the Green Haven's doors. The needler in Mara's fine-boned hand had provided an excellent motivation for compliance.
Grans ran a fingertip along the damp lip of his mug. At twenty, he had far less sexual experience than others in his pack...or at least what they claimed to have.
He glanced sidelong at Mara as she delicately placed her lower lip between twin rows of even, white teeth. Grans sighed. He wished he could sooth away her evident worry. Yet what could he say that would not evoke an amused expression of patronizing tolerance? He knew she was older than he, but no one of his acquaintance could provide convincing proof of her actual age. Estimates ranged from twenty-five to forty-five, but nothing definitive had been agreed upon.
"I hear they increased the flow from the dam," he offered. "I'm sure that'll solve the problem." The confidence he tried to instill in his words rang hollow even to himself.
Mara shot him a quick, distracted smile then returned her attention to the low gray clouds blanketing Ashton as they had for the previous two weeks.
Draining the dregs of his beer, Grans felt his own buoyant mood washing down the gutter and into the sewer along with the water emptying from the sky.
Minutes passed. Suddenly Mara blinked. "Oh! I'm sorry. I'm being an awfully poor host. Can I bring you another beer? Or something to eat? The cook just baked a new pan of letha pie. I can --"
Grans shook his head. A part of him would like nothing better than to stay and engage Mara in meaningful conversation. Another part, however, desired only to escape this inviting cage as quickly as possible.
"No, that's all right, " he said, shoving his foam-slicked glass away. "I should be going anyway. I have to...to..."
Grans squinted. A figure down the street wandered -- or rather weaved -- in his direction. Normally an early morning drunk did not rate special scrutiny. Something about the gait of this one, however, tingled a thread of familiarity.
Mara followed his gaze. "A friend of yours?" She looked more closely at Grans's tense features. "Or an enemy?" Without comment, she slid her right hand into the pocket of her dress.
Grans barely noted her action. "I'm not sure," he said slowly. Standing, he moved to the edge of the sheltering bright yellow awning and peered into the gloom. A heavier mist enshrouded him in a gentle caress. An occasional errant raindrop splashed against his straining face. The air smelled fresh and cleansed of any corruption.
The wispy outline of the stranger approaching down the sidewalk gradually solidified and sharpened. As it neared, the sound of the rain slackened from that of a frontal assault to the almost soothing susurration of a nourishing shower.
Grans blinked. The man -- he could at least discern that much now -- neither carried nor wore any protection from the storm. That fact alone marked him as peculiar in Ashton at this time of year, especially given the unrelenting insistence of the clouds enveloping the district.
Long, black hair lay plastered on the man's head in an uneven cap. Water poured from the tip of his pointed nose in a steady, arching stream like an ornamental spigot in a ceremonial fountain. His small hands played up and down the gray shirt he wore as though seeking...something. Frayed, dark shorts sagged around his tiny torso. Gaunt ribs laid revealed beneath the rain-soaked shirt in bold relief. A lone plastic sandal shod one foot. The left foot showed bloody scrapes and cuts on its bottom as the man stumbled blindly into Grans.
At first that appeared to be the explanation: the fellow could not see. Grabbing him, Grans corralled those wandering arms.
"Hey! Hey, you're all right now. Easy."
The man turned vacant, unfocused eyes on his benefactor. Those empty orbs confirmed Grans's impression. They as quickly dispelled it.
The rolling eyes locked onto Grans's own like a drowning man latching onto a solid rock in the midst of a tumbling sea. The stranger's bird-like hands clasped Grans's cheeks and skittered across them in a desperate yet vain attempt at recognition.
Grans quelled an impulse to jerk away. The half-drowned derelict obviously had no weapon sequestered from view. His skeletal frame could hardly muster the strength to oppose Grans. The only threat he posed came from his strangeness. An uneasy dread wriggled through the blood runner at the man's demeanor.
"Do you know him?" Mara asked softly.
Grans frowned. Something about the guy beckoned his memory. Where had he...?
"Sturwoh! Sturwoh Turren."
"You do know him," Mara said, hovering to his left.
"Yeah. He's a member of my pa--, my part of town." Damn! He did not want Mara to know of his affiliation. He hardly supposed she would approve.
Mara registered her opinion of his unusual description with a glance but did not pursue the matter.
"What happened to him?" she asked, reaching out but not...quite...touching the man who had latched onto Grans like a child onto its mother.
Grans shook his head, at a loss for words. Though he could tell now that Sturwoh saw him, no light of awareness as to his identity shone forth from those pale green eyes.
"Sturwoh... What happened to you?" The question proved rhetorical. Sounds poured from the man's thin mouth, yet they held no more intelligibility than a baby's babbling.
An almost metaphysical alarm ratcheted through Grans's mind.
"I met him about six months ago," he said. He did not add, when we both joined Nahr's blood runner pack. "We were mostly casual acquaintances," who shared some gory experiences that would shock and sicken someone refined such as you. "He up and vanished, what...? Um...a week or two ago."
Grans nodded absently. Ventin had ordered his men to search for Sturwoh. Watch out for your own formed one of the pack's cardinal rules. For five days, they had looked and asked -- not always politely -- and pondered where the young recruit might have gone.
Given the inherent danger of life in certain parts of Ashton, unexpected absences hardly surprised its less well-to-do denizens. Sometimes the bodies turned up. As often as not, they simply slipped away into the nether world of supposition. At times, the bodies resurfaced alive and well after an extended bender...or perhaps in new locations for those who could not withstand the rigors of blood runner life. As long as the former stoically accepted their punishment and the latter could convince the pack that they would maintain a selective memory loss, the issue died of its own accord.
This, however... This looked to be an entirely new phenomenon.
"Did you do this to yourself, Sturwoh," Grans muttered, "or did someone do it to you?" In either case, Ventin would want to know about it as quickly as possible.
"I've got to... I'll take him home and try to get to the bottom of this." Without thinking, he squeezed Mara's arm in reassurance, an action he would never have dared under normal circumstances. "I'll see you later."
Pulling his poncho from a rear pocket, he draped it over his muscular frame. He grabbed Sturwoh gently yet firmly by an arm then steered his mindless charge across the street and towards the pack's main lair.
As the rain resumed its heavy, thrumming dance on his plastic encased head, Grans felt his heart racing in excitement and dread.
Ventin would know what to do. He always did.
As the young blood runner maneuvered his gabbling ward through the twisted streets of old Ashton, a single traitorous worry ground away at his certainty: what if this time, Ventin did not?
Locking and bolting the outside door, Rakker Valarris shook hands with the last arrival and motioned him to join the others in his living room. He did not mention his guest's damp palm. Mansfield Katron revealed nothing his fellow activists did not already feel.
Expelling a shuddery breath, Rakker tugged on the latch one final time. He knew such an action might be termed paranoid. The gesture calmed his nerves, nonetheless.
Like a school boy awaiting discovery by his mother of some private vice, Rakker could not shake the sensation that he should feel guilty at what he contemplated. Fortunately -- or perhaps unfortunately -- he did not: ecstatic and energized more closely described his emotions.
"Can I get you a drink, Mansfield?" he asked as the portly businessman settled precariously onto the only open chair. The wooden seat creaked under the weight.
"A whiskey might serve to calm the flutters in my stomach," Mansfield said, gently patting his rotund belly. A wry smile touched his lips. Chuckles of appreciation greeted his remark.
Rakker nodded and hurried to the kitchen. Returning with a half-full glass of amber fluid, he passed it to his new friend and perched on the frayed edge of the cloth-covered couch.
Mansfield slurped at the whiskey, grimaced, then took another sip. He coughed. "S-smooth." Tears brimmed in his dark brown eyes.
"Sorry," Rakker said matter-of-factly. "Good liquor is getting hard to come by."
Mansfield took another drink then precariously balanced the glass on one huge knee. "No criticism intended. Supplies of a number of goods have diminished in the past year or so. Merchants are scared. The question we're here to answer tonight is: what -- if anything -- should we do about it?"
Murmurs of agreement floated among the dozen plus two community leaders. Merchants, manufacturers, teachers, laborers, and office workers comprised their ad hoc -- and so far unadvertised -- committee.
Trying unsuccessfully to cross his massive legs, Mansfield said, "What do your neighbors think of us all assembling here?" He sloshed his drink in an inclusive gesture.
Rakker stared down at the worn, cream-colored carpet. "Just that we're part of a civic group unhappy with the course Ashton's been following."
Valdi Jens grunted derisively. "That's like saying it just rains now and again here in Ashton. True enough, but it hardly conveys a full picture of what we're about." Valdi stretched out his long legs. His unusually pale skin revealed a rosy flush on his cheeks.
Rakker frowned. "I'm pretty sure they suspect considerably more than they let on, but I want to keep them as distant as possible from this in case..."
Uneasy silence draped itself over the room. "We're not doing anything wrong," Mansfield said softly. "Or illegal."
Valdi's eyes blazed. "Tell that to our asshole director, Petroska, and his henchmen."
A bubbling rumble swept across the gathering. When Rakker had judged its duration long enough, he stood. "Which is precisely why we're here," he said loudly enough to cut through the babble. "Regrettable though it is, both Valdi and Mansfield are correct. Technically, we are in violation of no law. Practically, I would not be overjoyed should the good Director Petroska discover just how far we've come in our thinking in the past four months."
"I thought our 'civic group' cover was sufficient to shield us?" Mansfield's statement drifted into a question.
"For now," Rakker said. "If we intend to accomplish anything beyond scaring ourselves silly, however, we have to take some kind of positive action. Soon. Otherwise we risk degenerating into a pointless debating society cum gripe session."
"What kind of action do you suggest?" Ralf Kinkaid asked. The freckled face of the grocer belied his advanced years. "Overt or covert?"
Valdi leaned forward and rammed a fist into a palm. "I say we march into the next open board meeting and place that son-of-a-bitch Petroska and his flunkies under arrest. We have every moral and constitutional right to do so."
Rakker raised a hand to quell the angry or worried protests to Valdi's bold vision. "As emotionally satisfying as such a scenario might be, I think even our good friend, Valdi, realizes his suggestion is a bit lacking in practicality."
Valdi crossed his arms and leaned back. "Yeah, yeah."
Mansfield peered across the top of his glass as he downed the rest of his drink. "Oh, Valdi's simply too used to honest dealing and straightforward complaining. That may have helped make him the best building contractor in Ashton, but it also explains why he could never get elected to the board in today's Ashton."
Valdi begrudged a smile and relaxed his posture. "Which just demonstrates how far we've devolved since the founding of Grand's Hold." He shook his head in bewildered mystification. "I'd think even a blind fool could see the results of the chains we've forged to shackle ourselves."
Rakker rapped his knuckles on a lamp stand. "Before we stray too far into political philosophy and aberrant psychology, let me answer Ralf's question. For now, we need to present two faces to our foes. Overtly, we appear at open board meetings and continue to voice our concerns and protest the tightening restrictions placed on us by the patrol. We press for lawful recognition of our rights."
Valdi snorted his opinion. "You'll be waiting for a rainless day on Grand's Hold before that happens."
"I agree. Such an approach is unlikely to yield the kind of results we desire. The maintenance of such a facade is, however, important to the success of the other phase we need to initiate in our operation."
Valdi narrowed his lids. "Covert action."
"Precisely." Rakker began to pace a short circuit. "We can't strike directly at the patrol or the board. The general public would never stand for it."
"And let's not forget," Ralf said, "Director Dupree is still fighting on our behalf. I spoke with her last week. She assured me she harbors no intention of abandoning her efforts to reverse Petroska's agenda. She also hinted she's pursuing the problem of the blood runners from a new angle."
"A politician's promise," Valdi said loudly. "You believed her?"
"Let's save our energy to combat our avowed enemies, shall we?" Rakker said sternly. "We have yet to convince the average citizen that Petroska's recently appointed patrol officers represent a greater long term threat to their safety than do the blood runners."
"There are still officers who work to protect our safety rather than snatch it away," Mansfield offered. "Let's not forget that, either."
Rakker let that point slide. Sometimes Mansfield defended the opposition more than it deserved.
"It's the subtlety of Petroska's maneuvers that undercuts our educational program," Rakker said. "Blood runners represent an immediate and obvious threat which any semi-aware citizen can recognize and appreciate. When they strike, their impact is immediate and concentrated in effect. Plus, their activities are universally condemned by law-abiding people of any political persuasion.
"In contrast, the direction the board has been taking us dilutes the cost to any specific individual. The new rules, regulations, and restrictions are introduced gradually, each one building on its predecessors. Each is justified by the very problems those earlier intrusions created in their faulty attempts to solve real or imagined issues." Rakker sighed. "The diffused nature of the process helps ensure that few people will spend the time and effort required to oppose or overturn a bad law. The few, however, who do benefit are happy to expend their resources to encourage the passage of more such interference by the board. Even worse, many so-called community leaders here in Ashton actively approve of what we oppose as the grossest of abuses."
"Which leaves us with only covert -- that is, illegal -- actions in our attempt to counterbalance the board's negative influence in any meaningful fashion." Ralf's voice echoed the resignation apparent on his face.
"Don't be so discouraged, Ralf," Mansfield said. "We haven't given up our directly political option. But we're talking survival here, man! I don't know about you, but I'm not about to lie down on my back and hand the bastards the knife to use in cutting open my belly." He glanced down at his waist. "Though in me, they would face a true challenge." He glanced up expectantly, but his macabre humor failed to evoke much reaction. He shrugged. "I simply mean we need to -- and should -- take direct steps to protect ourselves from predators of any kind...whether they nest in crumbling slums or in guarded, palatial estates."
Valdi shifted position to better face Mansfield. "Don't tell me you've finally decided that citizen patrols are the best way to handle the blood runners." He pulled back in mock shock. "This calls for another beer!" Accepting a blue bottle, he opened it and swallowed deeply.
Mansfield nodded an acknowledgement. "I admit I opposed such a move initially. I have no great desire to be arrested and tried for a 'felony' that merely implements my human right to self-defense. Nor do I relish the prospect of having the board confiscate my businesses and wealth as penalty for my transgression. I don't care to be held up as a negative example for any audacious others daring enough to challenge the board's prerogative in telling us how best to lead our paltry lives. Still..." He locked eyes with Rakker. "I've become convinced that passive acceptance of my own sacrifices is too high a price to pay for mere existence."
Pleasantly surprised at Mansfield's turn-around, Rakker spread his hands. "We here all realize we possess the right to carry and use weapons for defense against criminal force. We, at least, haven't yet forgotten it's our natural right to do so."
Jon Vonne cleared his throat. The small statured banker had been the last one Rakker had expected to respond favorably to clandestine overtures to join the inner core of activists. His financial connections had aided them already in their quest to slow the scope of Petroska's depredations. "Unlike many of you here, I came late to a proper understanding of what Petroska and his ilk intend for us." He arched a thin brow. "Which is why, I might add, I request you not condemn all of your opponents out of hand as rapacious power mongers or dolts. Some of us foolish ones simply could not tear away the blinders of our ignorance without some outside assistance." With precise moves of his elegantly long hands, he smoothed the dark blue material of his slacks. "Anyway, I count myself among those unfortunate ones who do not possess an effective weapon for self-defense. I don't see how I can participate as I would like to in this 'covert action' of yours."
Valdi pointed at the banker. "A perfect example of how the board maintains the legal fiction of obeying our constitution while simultaneously violating it in spirit and in deed. Their rules declare they'll be oh-so-generous and allow us to carry our own weapons. With permission. In reality, only those who can demonstrate some absurdly narrow 'need' -- as defined by the board! -- for a defensive weapon are permitted to carry one. That usually translates into people with sufficient pull, power, or riches to satisfy and influence the officials. Yet those are the very types of people who rarely need their own weapons. They can afford to hire bodyguards or -- like Petroska -- have them paid for by us, the citizens they promise to protect...but can't."
"I should think blood runners would constitute a valid threat," Mansfield said, playing devil's advocate.
"Of course, they do," Valdi said. "That's the main reason we're here organizing. The criteria for permits, however, require that you've actually suffered an assault. At that point, of course, gaining a permit becomes rather a moot point. You'll be dead."
Jon nodded. "Purchasing a suitable weapon -- legally -- is fast growing as difficult as carrying one. I made some discreet inquiries. Apparently, requests to buy a needler are routinely denied by any reputable dealer. They face considerable pressure to do as they've been told. Needlers have been unofficially classified as 'too dangerous.'"
"Which is precisely why you would want one," Valdi said wryly.
Jon nodded. "I managed to obtain a vibra-blade second-hand from a particularly non-curious vendor." He shrugged. "I'm almost afraid to carry it, however."
"I should guess so," Valdi said. "Get close enough to a seasoned street fighter to use a vibra-blade effectively and you'll be the one getting carved up."
"My decided lack of training and experience is part of the dilemma I face. But only part. To date, blood runners have been relatively random in their attacks. Avoid certain areas of Ashton at certain times, and you diminish considerably the probability you'll fall prey to one of their assaults."
Neatly, Jon interlaced his fingers on his lap. His knuckles grew white. "Unlike the blood runners, however, the patrol often runs pedestrians through 'safety' checkpoints at any time of the day and in any place. Ostensibly, they search only for 'illegal' weapons. Technically, vibra-blades have not been outlawed. In reality, I fear being embroiled in such a sweep. Like Mansfield, the repercussions might well exceed any additional security I might enjoy. Even if I avoided fines or imprisonment, an arrest -- even if unjustified -- would tarnish my reputation in the eyes of many of my customers. Even those able to see through such a charade might be reluctant to reveal their disapproval. Secret reprisals are hardly unknown."
"Who guards the guardians?" Mansfield murmured.
"Precisely," Rakker said loudly. "The answer to that is: we do. We may initially have banded together to deal with the increasing boldness of the blood runners. That fear has, for most of us, broadened to include considerable wariness regarding the behavior of the board. That's why I am so angry and so disgusted with the patrol and those they represent. I expect blood runners to violate my rights. The board, however, is betraying my trust...what little of it remains, anyway."
With difficulty, Mansfield levered his bulk from his protesting chair. At a look from the businessman, Valdi leaped to his feet. The remainder of those seated emulated the action...some with more enthusiasm than others.
Mansfield raised his right palm above his head. "Today we destroy the blood runners. Tomorrow, we'll deal with Petroska and the board!"
Rakker listened to the scattered cheers. Half-hearted at first, they swelled in power as Mansfield exhorted the committee to fight back. As discussion continued on how best to carry out their mission and to recruit more bodies for the actual patrols, Rakker sank into an overstuffed chair and let the sights and sounds of their mini-revolution flow over and through him.
His gaze settled on Mansfield and the circle of men at the center of which the businessman declaimed. He knitted his brows. His friendly rival had always been the brake on the engine of their rebellion. Constantly urging caution and restraint, the man had listened and cajoled and opposed but always he had vocally supported the basic principles Rakker endeavored to promote and restore. Yet here the sedentary voice of "let's be reasonable" had leapt into the fray, leading where before he had been reluctant even to follow. What had changed his mind so abruptly and so thoroughly?
Rakker shifted his attention to Valdi and Jon as they faced each other. Their intimate conversation formed a knot of calm among the general swirl. An odder pair of allies, he could hardly imagine. Valdi: rash, rambunctious, often self-consciously impulsive. The man would willingly stroll into a renth lair if he believed it would further his ends and was the right thing to do.
And there stood Jon: quiet, unassuming, gingerly picking his way through a political minefield which could cost him a lifetime's effort at the slightest misstep.
Two opposites united in earnest discussion by a world that had enmeshed them in its coils without their consent.
The energy in the room mounted in a positive feedback loop. Rakker hoped that enthusiasm would survive the nitty-gritty of day-to-day operations. Finding men -- and perhaps even women -- willing to put their lives and their freedom on the line in the streets of Ashton; defending themselves from not only the blood runners but the patrol; organizing and funding their activities, obtaining suitable weapons where they could and training with them without arousing undue suspicion; providing legal defense for those snared in the patrol's nets; offering condolences for those citizens who succumbed to one enemy or the other: the details would devil them all.
How many in that room would have the fortitude and the determination to follow through to fruition or destruction that which they set in motion here tonight? Rakker did not know. At times, he doubted even himself.
Scrubbing his face, he rose to join his fellow conspirators. Whatever these men thought they would face, reality would surprise them in pleasant -- and unpleasant -- ways they could now not even imagine.
Of that fact, Rakker had no doubts, at all.