“There’s a lot of dangerous men in this city. Half of them ain’t nearly as dangerous as they think they are – they just know how to talk the talk, and survive long enough to keep on gassing. But there’s one bloke who’s really bloody dangerous – to himself as much as the rest of us.”
“What time, Mr Wolfe?” the man in the Mirror asked.
“Eight o’clock. Tonight,” he replied. The reaction was delicious.
Even through the foggy, black-and-white picture that came with any public Mirror booth, Tony Wolfe could see the panic that carved through the man’s face. The man’s pupils shrank to pitch black pinpricks, his eyebrows leapt towards his receding hairline, and his lower jaw wobbled as he struggled to compose himself.
“But that’s ten minutes from now,” he said, his voice now an octave higher.
“Yes it is,” Tony smiled. “I’m just round the corner, but I’m sure you’ve got everything ready. I’ll be in the alleyway behind your store – don’t keep me waiting.”
Before the man could respond, Tony hit the button at the bottom of the Mirror, switching the device off. The image of the call’s recipient froze briefly, giving Tony a perfect portrait of the fear he instilled, then faded away to be replaced by his own reflection, the picture of self assurance.
Tony stepped out of the black booth, nodding politely at the old woman who had been queuing outside and walked up to the nearest shop window. Scanning his reflection, he straightened his tie, adjusted his suit jacket and walked away. As he gazed absent-mindedly into each shop he passed, his right hand reached inside the left of his jacket, double checking that the 9mm Dagger pistol was accessible in his holster. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use it – he never usually did on a collection job like this – but this city had been getting bolder in recent months, and Tony was determined to ensure it was reminded of his place in it.
The sleek black briefcase in his left hand swung innocently by his side, and he noticed a few passers-by eyeing it with interest. Most were simply intrigued to know where such a case was heading – you didn’t often see luggage this pristine in this neighbourhood – but he knew others would be debating whether they could swipe it. These were the people Tony locked eyes with, an inviting glance that urged: ‘Just try it.’
As he neared the entrance to the alleyway, between a rather greasy cafe and an abandoned salon, he glanced idly at the Tree in the distance.
Growing in the largest courtyard of the Palace at the very centre of the city, the gargantuan oak was the key to the entire town and its magic industry. Tony didn’t understand – or care – how, but something about the Tree enabled magic to work. Without the Tree, spells were just words, potions were just coloured goo, and Dust was just dust. The palace and its walls had been built around the Tree to protect it, or so the stories went, with the city growing around that as more and more people came to sample the oak’s power. Even in the dark of night, you could see the Tree illuminated by the spotlights around the Palace, its mile-wide trunk stretching into the air, its leaves and branches casting a dark, protective umbrella over the city centre.
He returned his attention to the alleyway and tensed slightly, preparing for the job at hand. His contact was unlikely to cause any trouble – the mentally-preserved image of the man’s fear assured Tony of that – but he never liked to assume all would go to plan. That’s what had kept him alive and on top for so long.
He strode into the alleyway with a confidence that frightened the nearby scavenging rats and marched purposefully past the various delivery hatches and doors either side, trying not to think about what his polished black shoes might be stepping in. As dirty as the street he had just left had been, the alleyways of this city gave a whole new meaning to the concept of filth. It was strange, he thought, that he felt so comfortable in them. Perhaps they reminded him of home.
About halfway down on the right hand side, Tony came to a large set of green shutters. The sign above said ‘The Happy Little Bakery’, but there was nothing happy about this side of the building, nor was there anything little about the thick, green metal door to the left of the shutters. The distant smell of bread from a vent one storey above him was the only indication of any baked goodness. Everything else reeked of destitute.
The metal door opened, and the odour of fear joined the atmospheric concoction, followed by the man emitting it, the man from the Mirror. His ginger beard was bordering on unkempt, his skin glistened with the sweat of panic and hard work, and his apron was as grubby as the clothes beneath. The eyes were still wide and trembled at the sight of Tony Wolfe.
“Mr Wolfe,” he said, failing to keep his voice steady. “What a pleasant surprise.”
Tony brought his arms together in front of him, noting that the baker’s eyes flicked briefly and nervously towards the briefcase, and smiled.
“Mr Simmons, you were told that someone would be down to collect the month’s takings soon,” he said, coating his menace with his usual charm.
“Yes, but that was not until next wee -” Simmons replied.
“Times are hard,” Tony cooed. “Your suppliers need to collect a little early.”
“But I haven’t got -”
“They understand that you may not have the full amount yet,” the Wolfe smiled. “But they also understand that business has been good for you recently. So they would like their share of the profits from what you’ve sold so far, and then we’ll collect the rest next time. Now, that sounds more than reasonable, doesn’t it?”
Simmons nodded furiously.
“Well then,” Tony said, stepping forward and returning the briefcase to his side, “lead the way.”
“Of… of course,” Simmons said, closing the metal door behind him and scurrying over to the shutters. He knelt down to unlock them and jumped back as they snapped up into the air. Wolfe blinked briefly as he was besieged by a waft of hot air and the intoxicating smell of baking. When he opened his eyes, Simmons had already started down the cement ramp that led underground and Tony followed. The fiery glow from the bakehouse below them made the short walk feel like descending into hell, and Tony began to wonder if the baker had any demons prepared for him.
“So,” Simmons asked timidly, “how did you know our sales have been so good?”
“Oh, we like to keep a tab on all our distributors,” Tony grinned. “Ensure they’re giving the right level of customer service, and to see if there’s anything we can do to help.”
“I… I see…”
“No, Mr Simmons,” Tony said. “We see.”
That killed any smalltalk. Simmons led Tony through the bakehouse, between large hot ovens that roared as if the metal tanks held back flaming beasts. The air was thick with smoke and food, with the faintest hint of something Tony had personally never tried – but even a tantalising whiff of it made him see how it could become so addictive. He followed the cowering baker to a large set of double doors at the far end of the room, and watched as his guide held one open for him.
“After you, Mr Wolfe,” Simmons said, eyes staring at the ground.
“No, I insist, Mr Simmons,” Tony replied, grabbing hold of the door with one hand and pushing Simmons through with the briefcase in the other. “You first.”
The doors swung shut behind them, drowning out the noise of the bakehouse. The sudden quiet made Simmons glance nervously back the way they came, but Wolfe encouraged him to move forward with a firm grip on the man’s arm.
“The safe, please,” he said. “If I recall correctly, it’s over here.”
Simmons nodded and turned towards the corner of the room, where the large box stood. He pulled away from Tony’s grip and knelt down to twist the inviting steel dial. It took longer than usual to enter the combination, but Tony put that down to the man’s nerves rather than anything suspicious. The safe door clicked and the hinges squealed as Simmons began to pull it open. As soon as the gap was wide enough to reach in, the baker’s hand lashed out – Tony whipped out the Dagger pistol and flipped the safety off in one swift movement. The sound of the weapon froze Simmons in his tracks.
“Step back, Mr Simmons,” Tony said, a harsh new tone to his voice. “And keep your hands where I can see them.”
Simmons raised his arms and staggered back. “Mr Wolfe, I was only…”
“Shut up,” Tony snapped. “Hands against the wall, and stay there.”
He stepped slowly over to the safe, making sure Simmons was far enough away, and peered in, gun still pointed at the trembling baker. A brief glance was all he needed, and he returned his attention to Simmons. Without turning away, he reached into the safe and pulled out a similar, although far less maintained, Dagger pistol and casually pocketed it.
“All yours, Mr Simmons,” he said, stepping back but still not lowering his weapon. “The money, please.”
“I… I don’t have it,” Simmons stammered.
Tony snorted. “Yeah, your safe is looking a little bare. Explain.”
“I haven’t been able to sell -”
Tony lazily squeezed the trigger and a bullet slammed into the wall near Simmons. The baker yelped.
“Nope, try again,” Tony said. “We know how much you’ve been able to sell. We’ve been watching.”
“Had to lower the prices,” Simmons replied, his voice now even higher. “Competition is tough, people are getting a good deal from -”
Another bullet hole appeared in the wall, this time a little closer to the baker.
“Do you honestly think if we’re not tracking your prices while tracking your sales?” Tony asked. “One last chance. Be a good boy and tell me the truth. Where’s the money?”
Simmons was on the verge of tears. “Please… You have to understand…”
“Mr Simmons,” he barked, marching forward and pressing the barrel of the Dagger into the baker’s pale cheek. “We know you’ve been down Midas’ casino most weekends for the past few months, doubling the money you make with your special cakes. And fair play to you – maybe some other time you could teach me a thing or two about cards. But when you’re gambling your suppliers’ money, your suppliers’ share, you can understand how they might get a little nervous – regardless of how good your winning streak is.”
Tony grabbed the man by the shirt and pulled him over towards the desk, throwing him down onto its cluttered surface. Pressing the gun into the man’s back, he used his free hand to move one Simmons’ arms out across the middle of the desk.
“They say in the old days they used to cut your hands off for thieving,” he said. “And I was given orders to revive the practice. But I figured that would prevent you from ever kneading the dough you use for those lucrative delicacies that fund your hobby. So, I suggested a more temporary setback if you didn’t co-operate.”
With this, his casually flipped the Dagger, grasping it by the barrel, and brought the butt down on the baker’s outstretched hand. There was a nasty crunch and Simmons screamed.
Tony released him, and the man crumped to the floor, nursing his shattered hand. He walked over to the safe again and peered inside. There were a few stacks of notes – totalling at about five thousand Crowns, by Wolfe’s estimates – and a couple of bags of Fairy Dust. Beyond that, the safe was empty. Tony laid the briefcase on the floor and flipped it open, sweeping the money and Dust into it. Case closed, he stood and casually kicked the safe door shut, before pulling the whimpering baker to his feet.
“Now,” he said, “go get that hand seen to. Wouldn’t want you missing your quota. And wherever you stored or spent that money, I suggest you get it back before next collection. Do that, and maybe I’ll tell them you’ve learned your lesson.”
Simmons spat in his face.
Tony threw the man back to the floor, pressing down on his arm – the one with the injured hand – with his foot.
“That was rude,” Tony said, the growling menace now plain. “I don’t like it when people are rude to me. I’ll give you one chance to apologise.”
“Screw you,” Simmons rasped. “And screw the Pigs.”
“They have names, you know?” Tony said. “Messrs Edgar…” – he stamped on the broken hand with his other foot, briefly putting his whole weight on the arm – “Walter…” – another stamp, another scream – “And Carlton Piggott.” A third stamp, Simmons’ wails of pain echoing around the office. “And you really don’t want to be rude about them. Otherwise, you’ll be begging for another visit from me. Now apologise.”
“Sorry,” Simmons muttered.
“Couldn’t quite hear that,” he said.
“I’m sorry!” Simmons yelled.
“And to the Piggotts?”
“And the Pigs…” Tony lifted his foot dramatically, as if preparing for another crushing blow to the hand. Simmons recoiled in panic. “And the Piggotts, and the Piggotts.”
“Good,” Tony said, heading towards the double door. “I’ll pass on your apologies.”
If Simmons said anything else, it was drowned in the man’s agonised whimpering.