Columns of smoke rose from the food stands lined up along the sidewalk. Despite the closed windows, a whiff of the spicy scent made its way inside the attic, tickling Dale’s senses. Or maybe the stench was lodged inside his nostrils. Either way, it made his stomach rebel. He couldn’t wait to leave Bratislava. After two months of preparation, he was ready. All he had to do was pick up Cole, do the job, and get the hell out of there.
He glanced over his shoulder at the deserted attic. Shadows darkened it as night fell over the city, hiding the bed, the table, the chair, and the old armchair abandoned in the corner. A heavy wooden trunk rested against a wall decorated with marks left by posters long gone and an old, mechanical clock that somehow still found the power to work. It didn’t look like someone had been living here for a long time, but it didn’t have to. He’d paid good money to rent the attic without having his stay registered at the police station. Officially, he’d never been there.
The last rays of sunshine trailed over the buildings on the right side of the street, setting their façades on fire. At the farthest end, a flash of gold lit up the top floor window. A fair-headed silhouette fiddled with the window lock, then disappeared inside. When the sun was gone, the light went on, but no one bothered to pull the curtains. Feeling like a stalker, he turned his attention back to the street and watched the traffic.
The bells tolled in the nearby church tower, and Dale stepped away from the window. It was time. He took the jacket from the back of the chair and put it on, patting his pockets as he moved. Everything he needed was in there, including a knife and a gun with a silencer. He opened the trunk and picked up another gun from the pile of contraband weapons. He slipped this one in the waistband of his jeans. He didn’t know what surprises Cole might bring with him since he arrived days earlier than planned.
Since no one came up here to visit, locking the trunk was just an old habit. Except for the old lady in the apartment below, no other neighbor knew he occupied the attic. He kept odd hours, made no sound, and never turned on the lights. How would they know? He did, however, make sure to turn the key twice to keep the homeless people out. More than once, one had stumbled in and fallen asleep on the staircase. It wasn’t worth the risk.
On the second floor, Dale caught a glimpse of a pair of crossed eyes watching him from behind thick glasses, and a head full of hair in large curlers underneath a colorful scarf. Mrs. Potec hurried to close her door before he could wish her a good evening. She probably relegated him to the same category, or worse, as the rest of the bums. Other than slamming the door in his face, she had never bothered to acknowledge his presence, for which he was grateful. The one time Dale had held the front door open for her, she’d looked at him like he was going to rob her. Thank God she hadn’t called the police.
Once out on Venturska Street, the stench of rotten fruit, cabbage, sausages, and the spices the vendors put in the food—poor men’s drugs—hit him full force. By the time he returned, he would have a headache and would want nothing but sleep. Dale forced himself to walk forward, following the middle of the pedestrian street. The streetlights flickered to life, and through the steam rising from the pavement, people looked like ghosts.
Tonight, it was less crowded than usual, which was both good and bad. Good because he would notice if he were being followed, and bad because it made it harder to hide and get lost in the crowd if he were. The trick was to remain incognito and not give into the little girl with huge eyes and baggy clothes who usually begged in that corner of the square. Street rats always remembered and came for more. He couldn’t afford that. So he ignored the filthy, open palm, the other one hanging limp and useless from the wrist, and he didn’t give her the spare change in his pocket like he wanted.
The little girl threw him a murderous glare and showed him a set of tiny teeth laced with bits and pieces of metal.
Dale increased his pace. He quickly passed the human statue and the blind harmonica player who gathered in the square each evening. Someone tossed a coin into the tin can at the human statue’s feet, and the blind man stretched out a hand to pick it up. Like a cobra, the human statue’s arm shot out and clawed at the blind man’s hand, the wide sleeve failing to hide the artificial tendons and the ripped, fake skin. They’d be at each other’s throat before the night ended, but by morning, they’d be good drinking buddies in whatever bar was still open at dawn. He’d seen them leave together on occasion.
Ignoring the budding conflict, Dale took a swift turn to the right and entered a dark and narrow alleyway that opened into a square yard, unusually empty for this hour. He crossed it and followed a labyrinth of quirky little streets leading to the outskirts of the old town.
At the end of the pedestrian area, Dale stopped on the sidewalk near a streetlamp to check his watch. Cole was late.
A few people rushed around him, hurrying to get home in time for dinner. The sign of the restaurant across the street blinked invitingly, but the aromas tickling Dale’s nose turned his stomach.
Two cars rolled down the street with their windows open, neither of them stopping. The drivers were looking for someone, but not him. Meanwhile, it had started to rain. Dale pulled the collar of his jacket up around his neck. A gust of wind rolled a flyer intoone of the forming puddles. The cheap ink was already dissolving in the water, but not before Dale saw the mechanical arm throwing cards and flames, announcing The Nightingale Circus was in town. So that was where everyone had gone.
His attention distracted by the flyer, it took Dale a moment to notice the black van with tinted windows coming straight towards him. It stopped, the engine running, and the back doors opened. Something big fell on the pavement with a loud thud, and the van took off with a roar.
Dale had the gun in his hand but hesitated to fire at the van. More than likely, it was bulletproof, and shooting would draw attention. A patrol officer might have strolled in to inquire about what was going on. Instead of wasting bullets, he ran to the body lying motionless by the curb and, grabbing him by the shoulder, turned the man onto his back.
Cole’s face was barely recognizable under the bloody mess, and his hands had been burned to the bone, making what was left of his enhancements visible, all melted together along the bones. A good technician could replace those in due time, but he couldn’t do anything about the ruined muscles and nerves.
Dale struggled under Cole’s weight as he carried the heavier man up the stairs. His army-issued enhancements hadn’t finished the recovery cycle and, therefore, were not ready to be used. He’d rented an unlicensed taxi to take them around the old city to an entrance closer to his building. With the city center being a pedestrian area, he still had to carry the unconscious man a couple of blocks. Fortunately for both of them, the pouring rain had chased the street walkers inside, so there hadn’t been too many witnesses. By the time he arrived at the attic, Dale was covered in blood and the sickening sweet-smelling, clear liquid seeping off Cole’s burns.
He dumped his human cargo on the unmade bed and ran a hand over his face. Water trickled from his short hair down the back of his neck, wetting the part of his shirt the jacket had managed to protect. Now what? He needed Cole to be awake and able to use his hands, or the entire operation would fall apart. If it did, there wouldn’t be another chance to do the job any time soon. Someone else would have to start from scratch, and if there was one thing Dale disliked most, it was failing. He’d invested too much to lose it all. So much work and so much hope wasted. Millions of peoples’ lives at stake. But maybe not everything was lost.
It was the main reason he hadn’t taken Cole straight to the hospital. Aside from the risk of having the police involved, none of the local hospitals could help with Cole’s problem. The required technology wasn’t available. Since the war had started in the east, communication with Japan had been cut, so spare parts weren’t delivered anymore. Prosthetics fell apart left and right, and few places remained where they could be fixed.
Cole’s soft moan set Dale into action. He grabbed a small leather box from the trunk and opened it. It took two seconds to fill the syringe with the contents of one of the small bottles and inject it. Cole went quiet again. The strong painkiller would keep him down until morning, but it wouldn’t heal him.
By the light coming in through the windows, Dale found his way across the attic and looked outside. He didn’t spot any suspicious activity in the street, but he picked up the infrared binoculars from the windowsill to double check. The food stands were closed at this hour, and most of the beggars had left, too. A patrol officer chatted with the working girl stationed outside the bar next door. It must be a slow night for both of them.
Something moved in a corner of the square. The little girl was still there, hidden under a pile of flattened cardboard boxes. At least the rain had let up, turning into a soft drizzle that promised to stop soon.
Dale’s eyes trailed to the heavily decorated building at the end of the street. The entire top floor glowed like a symphony of lights, but only the room with a balcony interested him—more accurately, the woman sitting and writing at the desk interested him. Tiny golden flashes surrounded her hands as they moved over the papers. There was his solution.
It took guts to approach the Golden Lady, but it was worth the risk if he could convince her to help him. If he couldn’t … well, there were other ways. Decision made, Dale towel dried most of the water from his hair and changed his jacket. He moved the guns to the new one and hid a blade in his boot. He didn’t expect a need to use them, but one could never be sure in this line of work.
After checking on Cole one last time, he left the building. The cold October air hit him hard, making him shudder. Shoving his hands in his pockets, Dale headed towards the rag bundle hiding behind the steps.
A pair of eyes set too close together fixed on him, watching his every move.
When only one meter separated them, he bent his knees to get to her level. The little girl scrambled back and pressed herself against the wall, ready to bolt. He wouldn’t have been surprised to hear her growl. She sat there, her bottom lip trembling while she stared at him, eyes wide.
Dale pulled his right hand out of his pocket and held it out, palm open.
The girl yelped at the sight of the shiny coins and scrambled forward, rushing to cover them with her good hand. Then she glanced up and down the street to see if anyone had noticed the small fortune.
“There will be more for you if you take me to see the Golden Lady,” Dale said in a whisper.
The inquisitive glare shifted from him to the balcony, and after a few seconds of struggle, greed won and the girl nodded for him to follow her.
“Just a moment,” Aurore said, calmly finishing adding up the long column of numbers before looking at the man standing in the doorway.
Tall, dark, and handsome, for those who liked the roguish type, but the short black hair and cold, gray eyes made no impression on her. She paid more attention to the set of his jaw and the way he carried himself when he advanced into the office. Strong physique, though too light for a bouncer. This was a man who knew what he wanted and was used to getting it.
He didn’t avoid eye contact while he crossed the room and continued to hold her gaze after stopping in front of her desk. He was a little too close for comfort, but he’d been searched before being allowed to come upstairs, so she didn’t fear him. Besides, no one dared attack the Golden Lady.
Satisfied with her assessment, Aurore put down the stylus and leaned back in her chair. A pair of lacy gloves rested on the corner of the desk, but she didn’t bother putting them on. She wouldn’t hide in her own home. If he dared to barge in here, he better put up with the sight of her hands, too.
“Little Rosie told me you have something for me…,” she said, pausing to give him another up and down look. Scruffy, old but good boots, a jacket that had seen better days … not flashy, but all good quality clothes. He was not from around here. Not a low-life, small-time scum, either. A hint of worry around the eyes combined with determined lines at the corners of his mouth. Ah. The man was desperate. “Or, more exactly, what can I do for you, Mr. …?”
“Dale Armstrong,” the man said. “I need access to your technician.”
He had guts, Aurore had to grant him that. If that was what he needed, no wonder her golden hands didn’t bother him.
“You can’t afford my technician,” she said. He didn’t argue. “Since you know that already, why come to me?”
“You own all the jewelry stores in the city,” Dale said.
Aurore nodded. “That’s common knowledge.”
“You also own all the pawn shops.”
She didn’t advertize that part of her business, but most people knew it anyway. “So?” Throwing her business into her face was not the right way to win her cooperation.
“You’re the only one who’s part of both worlds. One way or the other, you’re most likely to find me what I need.”
Sound reasoning, but it didn’t explain how he planned to pay for it. Aurore brought her hands together and tapped her fingers on her chin. The artificial skin that covered her prosthetics was warm and soft to the touch. “What is it that you need exactly?”
“A good and trustworthy technician.”
“A good technician is hard to find these days,” Aurore said. “There aren’t many left.”
“That’s why I came to you. I don’t want a hack. I want a good one.”
“It doesn’t matter what you want. Besides, mine has gone to Vienna and won’t return before the end of November. Come back then, and maybe we’ll talk.”
“I can’t wait that long.”
She straightened her back, ready to stand up to him and the anger boiling below the carefully constructed, calm appearance. The tension in his eyes gave it away. Had someone wronged him? “Funny, you don’t strike me as someone who wears prosthetics.”
“It’s not for me.”
She waited for him to continue, but he didn’t volunteer more information, and she didn’t particularly care to listen. It was time to send the visitor on his way.
“Regardless—” Aurore got up and walked around the desk so he could see her golden knees peeking from between the hem of her white skirt and the top of her beige, deer leather boots, “—you will have to wait. I don’t have anyone else waiting in the wings for a job like yours to show up.”
“You don’t know what my job is,” Dale said between gritted teeth. In two steps, he had a blade pressed against her throat. “My friend has burned his arms. I have only two weeks, and I need him to be able to use his hands by then. So think hard.”
This wasn’t good. The security downstairs was obviously slacking. She’d have to do something about that. Instead of panicking, Aurore held up her right hand. It was perfect, all except for the golden glow. “Do I look like I care?”
It took him a couple seconds for the words to sink in. “Well, there goes my leverage,” he said, releasing her.
“There wasn’t much leverage to begin with,” Aurore said, resisting the urge to check her neck. He acted too much like a professional to have nicked her.
Dale shrugged with a rueful smile. “So, are you going to set your goons on me?”
“Yes, sorry. I have a reputation to protect.” She reached for a button on her desk. “What happens in two weeks?”
“Don’t play dumb with me. I can get my ‘goons’ to make you spill it.” Her hand froze on the button. “You’re not from here, and you need a pair of working hands by a certain date. What happens in two weeks?” Aurore’s hand hovered above the button, next to an ad for the museum open night and a Nightingale Circus flyer.
Dale’s eyes briefly stopped on the two flyers.
“You want to enter the Hrad?” The open night was scheduled in two weeks, which meant access to the Bratislava Castle would also be free. “That’s a bold move. Why didn’t you say so?”
“So you can send me to a hack technician? If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, fine,” Dale said. “You’re the mayor’s protégé, but even you wouldn’t get away with it if I got caught. There’s a fortune stored inside the Hrad. That’s how I was planning to pay you. You’re into jewelry. There must be something you’d want in there.”
He didn’t know even half of it. There was something she wanted badly, but it wasn’t jewels.
“Well, in that case…” Aurore hesitated, her eyes scanning the desk. “I know someone who might be able to help. He doesn’t only do maintenance. He builds things from scratch. Of course, it depends on how badly your friend is injured and if you can keep him out of harm’s way long enough…” Catching a glimpse of the surprised look that flashed over Dale’s face, she smiled. “Do you think I don’t know what’s happening in my city, right across the street from me?” Shaking her head, she picked up the flyer and handed it over. “Ask for Big Dino.” From a drawer, she pulled out a business card with gold engraving, handing that over, as well. “Tell him I sent you. Do not tell him how you plan to pay for his work, just say I guarantee you.”
Dale slipped the two pieces of paper in his pocket and started for the door. In the doorway, he turned. “Why did you change your mind?”
“We haven’t had any excitement in this town in way too long. But it will cost you…”