by Sauron Gorthaur
The yard was dark, and Dustfinger easily slipped out unnoticed. "The foolish old woman keeps all the shutters closed," he whispered to himself. "An army could probably march through her front yard and she wouldn't notice."
It was rather sinister all the same, and he wouldn't have minded a bit of friendly light pouring out of one or two of those windows to show his way. Normally, he would have been glad of the quiet, refreshing darkness that allowed him to slip across the lawn as silently as a bat, but one could never be too careful when Capricorn's men were about. He looked back once at the house and thought of Silvertongue handing the small book to the bookworm woman, and his stomach twisted unpleasantly. He thought of the girl's face, too, the way she had glared at him when he asked her to spy on her father for him. A spy for a spy. Dustfinger shook his head and stole out onto the gravel driveway.
The trees rustled faintly in the breeze and the gravel crunched ever so slightly under his boots. It was a cold night, and he drew his coat tighter about himself, shivering. He would rather have stayed in the house attic, cramped though it was. But at least it was warm and he didn't have to fear knives. However, he knew he would be in trouble if he didn't turn up tonight, and his delays were certain to have already stirred up Basta's quick temper. He rubbed his hands together and breathed on them gently, thinking of the matches in his pocket. But one match would not warm him much, and he didn't particularly want to be seen before he saw Basta and the others.
A rustle from the edge of the road among the bushes caused him to halt, holding his breath, but when he saw the sleek, dark form against the grey gravel, he let it out in an exasperated sigh. "Gwin!" he hissed at the marten. "Over here! I don't need you to make my poor heart beat any faster than it already is."
In the faint light that was always present in this world's nights, Gwin's eyes glittered as he looked up at his master. He meandered over slowly, as if to make sure Dustfinger knew he was doing it of his own free will, not because he had been called. But when Dustfinger knelt down, the marten scrambled up his arm and into the backpack where he felt him scratching about, trying to get comfortable.
Dustfinger crept forward again, senses vigilant for any disturbances. Minutes had passed before he saw the gate up ahead that marked the edge of Elinor's property. "Well, here we are, Gwin," he whispered to the marten, who had stuck his head out of the backpack and was snuffling about Dustfinger's hair. "It looks like we're the first arrivals."
But he knew that things weren't always what they seemed. He cautiously approached the end of the driveway to where the tree cover stopped. Gwin hissed slightly. Dustfinger halted and glanced about, alert, and saw the dark figure step out of the trees on the opposite side of the road and lean casually against the gate. In the dark, a white shirt gleamed.
"Well, well, look who decided to show up," Basta drawled. "Flatnose and I were just betting on how late we thought you'd be. Cockerell didn't think you'd show up at all."
"I'm sorry to disappoint you," Dustfinger said flatly. "We'll get this over with as fast as we can, all right?"
He saw the other two figures now – the hulking form of Flatnose leaning against a tree and Cockerell's smaller figure beside him just off the road in the tree shadows. Around the bend on the main road was the car they had come in. Basta pushed himself up from his lounging position and strolled towards Dustfinger. "What's the hurry, Dirtyfingers? Don't want to chat with old friends?"
Dustfinger scowled, and Gwin hissed at Basta from his shoulder. "Believe it or not, I've got things I'd rather do than stand around exchanging pointless comments with you. Do you want my information or not?"
Basta turned to his companions, spreading his arms wide and grinning. "Oh ho, we've got a touchy fire-eater on our hands tonight. Did you hear that – he doesn't want to catch up with some friendly associates?"
Cockerell snickered, but Flatnose shifted from his place under the trees. "We shouldn't stay here long, Basta. Someone's bound to drive by, and we don't want them to send the police out to investigate."
Basta scoffed. "Like we've never dealt with the police before. Well, if you cowards are afraid, we'll go into town. There's a good bar at one nearby, and we can discuss plans with our fiery friend in the comfort of light and warmth. And I could do with a drink, anyway. What do you say, Dirtyfingers?"
Dustfinger looked around at the three Black Jackets. The last thing he wanted to do was go to town with them, but he didn't want to make them angry either. He shrugged, trying to sound unconcerned. "Whatever you like."
Basta got behind the wheel with Flatnose in the passenger's seat with a shotgun in his lap. In the back seat behind Flatnose, Dustfinger closed his eyes as they started off and hoped he would get back in one piece. He knew they couldn't afford to hurt him too seriously, not with the important part he was playing in Capricorn's schemes, but it wouldn't be the first time they'd had some "harmless" fun at his expense.
It was a small village, like most of the towns scattered around this area, and the bar Basta had spoken of was lit by dim lights. It didn't look at all encouraging. They climbed out, and Dustfinger smelt the choking odor of cigarettes mingled with the sickly-sweet smell of gasoline. Behind him, Basta was hissing at Flatnose. "Idiot! Leave the gun in the car. Do you think you can just march in there with that?"
Flatnose made some sullen reply, and Basta pushed past Dustfinger as he strode towards the bar door. Dustfinger shivered, glancing about at the dim streetlights and the blackness beyond before following Capricorn's men.
Inside the smell of gasoline was replaced by that of alcohol, but it was warm and not as poorly lit as it has looked from the outside. Gaudy neon lights and posters were attached to the walls, and harsh music that Dustfinger neither recognized nor liked was playing faintly in the background. There were only three other customers, but they were engrossed in conversation and ignored the newcomers. The Black Jackets ordered drinks from a greasy-haired man who seemed to know them. Well, that wasn't surprising, if they'd been here before – Flatnose wasn't easy to forget or Basta with his squinting eyes and cat's voice. Dustfinger lingered near the entrance, head down, making no eye contact, and wishing he was someplace else.
"Hey, Dirtyfingers, are you getting anything?"
His wishful thinking was interrupted by Basta's holler, and looking up, he saw the Black Jackets sitting down around a table in the far corner next to the window with mugs in their hands. Plastering a look of indifference across his scarred face, Dustfinger walked over and sat down with a shake of his head. "I don't drink."
Flatnose guffawed. "You don't drink, eh. Well, how come you don't die of thirst then, eh, eh?"
Basta scowled at the giant's lame joke. "The same way you don't die from lack of brains, idiot." He took a long swig from his beverage before leaning back and staring at Dustfinger. "So, do you have news for us or not, fire-eater? Have you seen the book?"
Dustfinger took out his box of matches and fiddled with it, keeping his eyes fixed on it rather than Basta. "Yes, I've seen it, but only a glance. Silvertongue's hidden it."
The Black Jackets exchanged smirks, and Cockerell snickered. "Oh he has, has he? Well, I'm sure it shouldn't be too hard to tickle the location out of him with a knife."
"Only one problem with that," Flatnose sniggered over his mug, "and that's the fact that our fire-eater's no good with knives. Basta's told him enough times that you can always get things done quicker with a knife, but he doesn't seem to catch on."
"That's right, fire-eater," Cockerell said, leaning forward and grinning at Dustfinger. "Why are we sitting around waiting for you to finish your sneaking and skulking when you could just pluck up some courage, put a knife to Silvertongue's throat, and demand the book from him? That wouldn't damage your soft heart too much, would it? It's not as if you two are friends or anything."
Dustfinger twirled the box of matches nimbly. "If Capricorn was in a hurry and wanted Silvertongue threatened, he would have sent Basta. He knows I'm no good at such things, but he sent me all the same."
He was aware of Basta's hard stare boring into him. "Right, Dustfinger," the Black Jacket purred softly, "Capricorn sent you, though I do wonder why. Maybe he still thinks there's some chance that you'll cave in eventually and become one of us." This comment brought scornful snickers from his two companions. Basta smirked and leaned forward. "I don't think there's much hope for that, but the fact remains that Capricorn did send you. That's his decision to make, and I'm not going to argue. However, it's already been two days and you've only seen a glance of the book. I can tell you, I would have seen more than a glance by now, if it were my mission. Capricorn may have sent you, but I can assure you that doesn't give you leave to take forever, and he'll be getting impatient. Personally, I'm already impatient. And much as I hate to agree with those two," he said, jabbing a finger at his companions, "I will say that if you don't move things along a bit in the next day or two, my knife may pay Silvertongue a visit. And if I have to spend many more nights sleeping in that car listening to Flatnose snore, my knife might pay you a visit at the same time, and I don't think you'd like that."
Dustfinger hoped his face was showing no signs of just how little he'd like that. He let his small, mocking smile twist his lips to hide the fear. "You'll always love the sound of your own voice, won't you, Basta? If you had a mind to, you might do better with more talking and less threatening than you think."
Basta smiled cruelly and took his knife out of his belt, flipping it open and using it to carve delicate lines in the wooden table. "But I don't have a mind to. You see, Dirtyfingers, I like seeing fear in a man's eyes, that glint that shows he knows who's in charge. I like hearing that shrill edge in his voice when he thinks something precious to him is being threatened. There's a thrill that comes from knowing you have all the power and he's got nothing."
Dustfinger met Basta's gaze, and though his face was as impenetrable as ever, hatred shone in his eyes. "That's where we're different, Basta. There's no pleasure in another man's fear for me."
Basta's narrow eyes flickered away from Dustfinger's hate-burned stare to his knife, which he drew slowly through the wood as if imagining it was human flesh and relishing the pain he could inflict. He laughed quietly. "What, you mean you don't fancy remembering what it's like being truly terrified? You've been there a few times too many, the place where a man becomes nothing more than a witless beast."
"There's more than one way to make a man a witless beast," Dustfinger whispered. "But on the other hand, is there any beast but man that creates suffering merely for pleasure's sake?"
A strained silence fell over the table. Flatnose and Cockerell sat deathly still, mugs hovering before breathless mouths, watching the two enemies with eyes that showed both anticipation and apprehension.
Basta quivered slightly, and the point of the knife dug deep into the table. "Do you think you're any better than me?" he hissed. "Just because you're too weak to kill and cause pain, do you think you're better than any of us? You're a skulking, sneaking cowardly spy and a traitor. We know you'd sell off anyone if you thought it meant you'd get a chance to lick the dust off that filthy book's covers. If Silvertongue's threatened – if he dies – whose fault will it be, Dirtyfingers? Who whimpered and whined in front of Capricorn about a chance to go after the book in the first place, to find Silvertongue and to have a chat with him? At least, we don't pretend to be friends with our enemies before we stab them in the back. You've always been low, Dustfinger, and every one of us knows you'll never be any better."
Dustfinger did not reply. He merely stared back at Basta with dull eyes, but inside, his heart twitched like a wild thing caught in a trap that has no longer the will to keep on struggling and is simply waiting for the agony to end.
Basta leaned back once more and jerked the knife out of the table in a single, violent movement. The two enemies knew each other with an insight that comes only from intense hatred, and Basta knew he had struck Dustfinger a death blow. The fire-eater sat perfectly still, the same deadened stare pervading his countenance. In the background, the door slammed noisily behind the three other men as they left the bar, talking rowdily.
"Weak," Basta spat and smiled.
Dustfinger closed his eyes and tried not to think of all the times that proved just how right Basta was. But he thought of the girl's face, the mistrust and fear that was so evident there. And he thought of another girl's face, far younger, whom he had betrayed in a far deeper way.
"What is it you want me to do?" he said hoarsely in a voice devoid of all emotion.
"I want that book in my hands before this time tomorrow night," Basta said.
Dustfinger stared out the window. His own scarred reflection stared back, surrounded by the deceitful mirror image of the bar around him and beyond that, the blackness of the night outside. The three men were shadowy figures getting into their truck. One of them struck a match, lit a cigarette with it, then threw the still burning stick on the ground before getting in the passenger's seat. Dustfinger watched the match continue to smolder for a few seconds on the concrete before going out.
"You'll have the book before tomorrow's ended," he said to his reflection.
Flatnose snorted. "I'll believe that when I see it. Ow! What was that for?" he complained as Basta pricked his hand viciously with the knife.
"You keep your opinions to yourself," Basta snarled.
Dustfinger continued to stare out the window. The lights from behind him in the bar hovered eerily in the blackness of the night sky. He thought of the dying match and slowly turned the box of matches that he still held in his hand, an idea rotating just as methodically in his mind. It was a low idea – a traitor's idea – but the girl already mistrusted him. What did it matter if she and her father hated him ever after?
"Be at the book woman's house tomorrow evening," he said. "Silvertongue's bedroom is on the first floor, three doors down on the left from the library. I've got an idea to distract the girl and get the woman to turn off her security system. You know my signal."
Basta finished his drink and set the mug down with a satisfied smirk. "Now, that's more like it. Yes, we'll know to look for fire and lots of it. We'll be there, though I don't promise I'll keep my knife in my belt if Silvertongue proves difficult."
Dustfinger gave him a burning look. "He won't cause you any trouble. He has too many precious things in his life."
Cockerell rubbed his hands together eagerly. "Oh ho, I wonder if old Silvertongue will be surprised to see us. I'll bet the look on his face when we show up will be worth a few nights in that cramped car, eh Basta?"
Capricorn's right-hand man was still watching Dustfinger with narrowed eyes from across the table. He nodded in uninterested assent to Cockerell's sneered words, then tapped his mug with the edge of his knife, producing a dull ring. When Dustfinger automatically glanced at him, he flipped his knife closed and leaned back, smiling. "You really are one of us, whether you like it or not. Don't forget whose side you're on tomorrow, play your part well, and don't spoil the surprise for our dear friend, Silvertongue. And don't worry – we'll be there tomorrow night."
Dustfinger didn't remember getting up from the bar table and going back out into the cold night to follow the Black Jackets to their car. Images floated before his eyes, prominent among which was a small book bound in silvery green with no name or picture upon the cover. Hope was intoxicating, and the fear of having hope destroyed yet again was sickening. But worst of all was the gnawing guilt that would not let his conscience rest.
You really are one of us, whether you like it or not.
Gwin, who was not pleased at having been abandoned in a closed car, chattered angrily at his master from the rim of the backpack, and when Dustfinger absentmindedly tried to stroke his fur, all he earned was a bitten finger that brought him back to the reality of a dark night rushing past the car windows.
He watched the car disappear into the murky hills before he turned to Elinor's gate, his backpack over one shoulder. The gravel crunched beneath him, and the wind sighed weakly in the wavering branches. He halted at the end of the driveway and looked up at the shuttered windows and unwelcoming door of the bookworm woman's house before he turned towards the garden. The security system would already be activated, and, anyway, he'd slept outside many times before tonight. It didn't matter.
The fox was back in the chicken coop. The spy had made his report. The traitor settled down with his head resting on a backpack filled with the instruments that he was already plotting to use in his betrayal. He didn't care. He had chosen sides and knew the part he was to play.
That night, he dreamed of paper and ink and a small, bound book.