Darker Skies – Chapter 2

“Why Nina swift, such a pleasure to meet your acquaintance, again. And you brought a friend. Mr McGraw, I presume.” Stan Wellingham is the ‘Man,’ the linchpin of crime on New Frisco, but his influence stretches further than the confines of this one platform—something I’m banking on.

He stands frozen behind a large wooden desk in the business building we just invaded. Jack and I didn’t ask for an appointment, we merely barged into Wellingham’s premises, guns drawn, and kicked in his office door. Everyone in the room is pointing a gun, except Stan Wellingham: two business acquaintances (one male, one female), me, Jack, and three heavies, aiming their guns in from the outer office we just passed through. Getting in is easy; extracting ourselves will be much more difficult.

Jack inclines his head towards Wellingham in recognition. By nature of their respective businesses, they are already acquainted with each other.

“Is this a raid, Mr McGraw?” The gangster asks in a voice that belies the nervous tension in the room.

“No.” Jack lowers his pistol. “Sorry about the door.”

I follow suit and return my weapon to the holster on my hip.

Jack can’t bring himself to meet Stan’s eyes, instead, he stares fixedly at some point on the wall, “Nina is here on urgent business.”

“So this is all your doing, Miss Swift? You know, Nina, the last time I set eyes on you, my brother was floating off in a balloon that was riddled with holes, and you were disappearing with a very special weapon. I don’t suppose you still have that do you?”

“Ah… Yes, how is your brother?” I ask tentatively. I thought maybe Stan had forgotten the incident with his brother, if not forgiven me entirely — he had, after all, taken over the crime empire his brother founded. You could say, if you were feeling generous, I had done him a favour.

Stan, whose face pinches in at the nose and mouth, reminding me of a shrew, levels his beady gaze at me, “He is still in prison. Where you put him.” Perhaps Stan has not forgiven me.

I can feel Jack’s eyes staring at me in horror.

I find myself shifting uncomfortably from on leg to the other. “Er, yes, about that –”

“–And when he’s finally released, he would dearly like to make your acquaintance again, so he can pay you back. In fact, I have been keeping tabs on you, just so I can lead him to you myself.” Okay, definitely not feeling generous, or remotely grateful. “Don’t worry, though,” Stan says, “I’m not going to hurt you.” He must see the look of alarm on my face that I’m desperately trying to hide. “I’m going to save that privilege for my brother.”

Jack, looking ashen, turns towards the door of Wellingham’s sumptuous office. “This is a mistake, Nina. We should go.”

But one of Wellingham’s heavies, dressed in a shabby suit that is too small, moves carefully to block the door, treating us to a gap-toothed smile through thick stubble.

“If you would excuse us,” Stan says to his business acquaintances, who have been staring in alarm from one drawn gun to another, “It appears I have some urgent business to discuss.” The man and woman are ushered out of the office by Wellingham’s gansters, leaving one to guard the door. At the mention of ‘business’ all weapons magically disappear into their holsters.

Stan seats himself behind the desk, in a richly upholstered leather chair, and folds his arms over his chest. He doesn’t offer Jack or I a seat. “So what is this business proposition, so urgent it requires the destruction of my office door?”

Jack nods his head towards me, wordlessly. Obviously, he has decided, I am the one doing the talking.

I swallow, with difficulty, to clear the sudden lump in my throat. “well, I kind of need your help.”

Wellingham raises his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Kind of?”

Nervously, I start again. If I get this wrong we are both dead. “I have this message, for someone called Papa Doyle. I am reliably informed you may know where to find him.”

Wellingham grins like he’s just cornered some helpless prey—that being me, of course. “I might, and I might not.” He leans forward in his chair—like someone who’s interest has been piqued. “Tell you what, if you give me the message, I will make sure it is delivered to Papa Doyle, whoever that may be.” I have no doubt he knows exactly who the mysterious Papa Doyle is and probably where to find him.”

“No way,” I say tentatively. “The message is my only insurance. I need to deliver it in person.”

“Indeed. Well, given the company you been keeping recently, that could be a very interesting message.” So Wellingham knows all about the Daughters of Gaia—I should have guessed as much.

Jack steps forward, clearly irritated by the exchange. “Can you help us or not?”

“Yes I can.” Stan snaps back. “The questions is whether I want to help you.”

I take a deep breath to steady my voice. “Will you help us?”

Wellingham settles back into his chair again. “The thing is, Nina, I’m a business man. You must give something in return if you want me to do something for you. So what are you offering?”

I try to clear the fog in my mind and think clearly. All the cards seem to be stacked against me. “Well if you hand me over to the Daughters of Gaia, your brother will get no revenge.” It’s the best I can do.

“True, but the Daughter’s will be hammering on my office door any time soon, at least they would if I still had a door, and I’m sure they will offer a lucrative deal.” Wellingham shakes his head. “You gotta do better than that, Nina.”

“Well,” I say in desperation, “I’m sure Papa Doyle will be grateful and repay you in some way.”

Wellingham looks disappointed. “I don’t do credit any more than I do favours.”

“But I do.” To my surprise Jack steps forward. “You help Nina and I’ll do you a favour in the future.”

“No,” I shout. “I can’t let you jeopardise your Beat career for me, Jack.” That is too much for me to ask.

Wellingham laughs heartily from his chair. “He did that the moment he stepped in my office with you, darling.” My heart sinks. I never even thought of Jack’s career before heartlessly dragging him into Wellingham’s lair. “And he know’s it.” Wellingham grind broadly. ”Ah, the joys of young love.”

Jack doesn’t bother to reply. He can’t possibly think he loves me enough to throw away his career, can he? I’m not worth it—no one is worth that much.

“Tell you what, Mr McGraw, you promise to do me a favour in the future and I’ll let you out of here alive.” Suddenly, the situation looks serious. Actually, perhaps it’s always been serious and I just failed to notice. How could I possibly have dragged Jack into this mess without thinking about him?

I can’t see I have anything else to offer, so I might as well give in to Stan Wellingham. “Okay.” I shrug. “So what do you want?”

Stan flashes his predatory smile again. “From you Miss Swift, not a lot. But I want your boyfriend,” he jabs a finger towards Jack, “on my payroll. And every time you get a promotion, Mr McGaw, I’ll double the money I pay you.”

“Don’t you think that’s a bit obvious?” Jack asks.

“You will just have to hide it carefully then, won’t you, Mr McGraw.”

Horrified, I realise Wellingham isn’t offering Jack a new career—he’s just blackmailing him. I wonder how many other Beats Wellingham owns. I’ve led Jack into the worst kind of trap. “No. No way. Give me to the Daughters of Gaia if you like, but don’t corrupt Jack.”

Jack straightens to his full height and stares blankly over Wellingham’s head. “Okay.”

“No, Jack. Don’t.”

Wellingham ignores me and leans towards Jack, so eager he almost falls off his chair. “Did you say something, Mr McGraw?”

“I said, okay.” I can hear the resentment in Jack’s voice, is it directed at me or at Wellingham? It must really pain him to go against all his carefully honed moral principles and do business with the crime boss. “It’s a deal, Wellingham. You smuggle us off New Frisco and help us find Papa Doyle, and I… I’ll let you own me.”

“No.” I shriek. “I can’t let you do this, Jack. Not for me. You’ve got a great career ahead of you in the Beats, don’t ruin it now. It’s too much.” Jack’s moral fortitude is one of the things I most admire about him.

Quietly—maybe too quietly, Jack responds. “Of course it’s worth it, Nina.” And then he drives home the spike that kills me. “I love you. I’d do anything for you.”

Through a mist of disbelief, I watch Wellingham stand and hold his hand out to Jack. “Spoken like a true romantic, Mr McGraw. Perhaps we have something in common after all. Welcome to the payroll.’

Stiffly, Jack steps forwards and silently clasps his new boss’ hand. The deal is done.

“And as for you Miss Swift, you get a job too—your boyfriend shot one of my airship pilots in an alley earlier today. You’ll take his place and pilot my Reaver ship delivering contraband to Papa Doyle.”

It has taken less than 10 minutes for me to lead honest Jack McGraw, cadet captain of the Beats, down the slippery slope from outstanding citizen to employee of a crime syndicate.

I wonder if he’ll ever forgive me.


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A Dystopian steampunk Author

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