It's 11:41pm, central Deling time, when there is a knock at the door and I see through seeded glass a woman's silhouette.
It's after hours. The only reason I'm in my office is because of a bad date with my old flame, and I made up some excuse about needing to look something up for a client to get out of it. That was at 9:30, but even now, over two hours later, I know she'll be waiting for me outside. I'll sleep here if I have to.
I squint. The glass blurs and distorts, but the figure is far too tall for the dame I'm trying to avoid. Well, one of them. It didn't take long to learn at this hour, any dame is worth avoiding.
I ignore the knock. Left the light on. Terrible on the electric bill, but that's the story she can have tomorrow.
Another knock. They're always persistent after hours, and they all come with a special brand of trouble.
The knocking finally stops, and I go back to the papers. Not research for a client, but the funnies get funnier as the bottle gets emptier.
The funny stops, when I hear the lock click, and the door swings open to reveal a woman who damn near takes my breath away. She's tall and blond, hair in a tight coif that shows off a neck I'd love to sink my teeth into, and a dress that hugs every curve. And her legs... I stare at her from behind my desk and raise an appraising eyebrow, not bothering to hide my opinion. Beautiful women who break into my office at midnight aren't granted the decorum of modesty.
"I believe the sign says 'closed,'" I tell her, gesturing at the glass behind her.
"I can read," she smarts back. "Seifer Almasy?"
She reaches out to shake hands and I immediately notice a ring on her index ringer, one bearing an insignia I recognize all too well.
"You're a mercenary." I stare at her hand.
"You noticed," she clenches her fist and holds it closer to give me a full view of the insignia. I'd know that logo anywhere.
"The office is closed. Come back in the morning." I shove a card at her, and tap a finger against the line reading 'hours of operation.'
She snatches the card and slips it into the bust of her dress, and raises her chin at me. "I can pay."
"You can pay in the morning," I step past her towards the door, one hand on the knob and the other gesturing towards the hall.
She walks towards me, a blank expression on her face and I almost think she's going to give up, when she stretches an arm out, clasping her hand around the doorknob over mine, and leans forward so her breasts are just grazing the lapels on my coat. She leans her head towards me and draws her lips against my ears, and whispers, "I don't think you entirely understand me, Mister Almasy."
I feel a hand against my side and narrow my eyes into her blonde hair, but it is not the weight of her fingers that fall into my pocket, but several paper notes. She draws her hand away, sliding it further down my leg than she really ought, and is out the door and into the night before I know what's happened.
I shake my head, trying to clear her from my mind, and close the door. I reach into my pocket and grab the notes, and almost freeze.
I'm holding more money in my hands than I normally take home in a month. I unfold them, and tucked neatly in the center of the bills is a piece of hotel stationary with Q. Trepe, Wednesday, 9am. The page smells like cinnamon, and the words are sealed with the impression of her lips in a dark, tempting, red.
It's 8:53am on Wednesday morning and I'm standing outside the hotel from the stationary, smoking a cigarette and watching the city streets rush past. I'm donning a coat that trails the sidewalk and an expression that lets people know I'm not in the mood for friendly hellos. I catch a doll in a light colored dress and follow her with my eyes to the corner, when the warm smell of cinnamon hits me from the other side.
"Well you figured out my note, but stealth ain' exactly your forte, is it?"
"Ms. Trepe," I draw my words out as I turn around, and give her a once over. She's wrapped in a coat with fur lining that stops just above her knees, and her gams go on for days. I know I've stared for too long when she snaps a finger at me and meets my eyes with a hard glare.
"I've found myself in a situation, and I need your help," she says briskly, and walks towards the hotel doors. She gives no command to follow, but oh, follow I do.
"And the details of this situation?"
"They can wait until we're in more private quarters."
More private quarters indeed. She walks ahead of me and I distract myself with those legs, following her into the elevator for a ride that lasts a year if it lasts a minute.
"So can you--"
She cuts me off with a Look, and I silence myself, thinking of that wad of cash in my desk. Off the elevator she leads me to the fifth door on the right, and once inside she walks to a suitcase and pulls out two pictures.
She throws one onto the single hotel bed and I immediately lift it for a closer look. It's a man about my age, dark hair, who looks so serious I'm afraid his picture is about to tell me I've got cancer. He's wearing a uniform from the same mercenary organization Ms. Trepe is from.
"What about him?" I ask, and drop the picture back onto the bed.
"My brother," she says, and then throws the next photo.
I'd know the girl in that picture anywhere. Any man in Deling City would.
Rinoa Heartilly. Daughter of Fury Caraway, Deling's most reputed mob lord, and a guaranteed death sentence for anyone who went near her. Rumor was, she and daddy didn't quite see eye to eye on his life of crime, but no one who went to investigate that rumor ever lived to tell the tale.
"You're kidding," I say. I don't even want to touch the picture. The more distance between me and the Caraway family I can keep, the longer I live.
Trepe gives me the first look since we've met that isn't covered in ice, and I know exactly what she's asking.
"You mean your brother was dope enough to go for Caraway's girl?"
Trepe nods, and she sure don't look proud. "She came to us for help, about a year ago. My brother got assigned her case, and then he went and fell in love with her. Now the Caraways've got him, and she's nowhere to be found."
"Your brother got a name?"
I look again to the picture of Ms. Heartilly, decked out in a dress that glitters like the stars. She's pretty, but she ain't worth what that Squall kid's probably payin'. Nothin' is. I tell this to Ms. Trepe, and tell her what she's payin' ain't worth it, either.
"Your brother's probably already dead, and if he ain't, he wishes he were. No sense you gettin' mixed up in that." I give a final look at the dame in front of me and wonder why a hard, smart, looker like her is hung up on a brother so dumb, and turn to the door.
"It's not for me," she cries. out, and her voice is rattled. I stop, and wonder if she's trying to play me with some wounded woman act.
"Awful lot of money to be actin' on someone else's behalf," I say, without turning around.
"My sister..." She trails off, and it's enough for me to turn and face her. The facade is gone, and the woman standing in the room with me is honest in trouble. The brother may be a sap, but the sister, now she's important.
"Don't tell me she's caught up with Caraway, too."
Ms. Trepe shakes her head. "She's right tore up over our brother being gone. I promised her I'd do everything I can to bring him back."
"No friends you can hire outta the Garden?" The Garden. My old home.
"You're my last chance, Almasy. You can keep the cash either way. But if you won't help me, at least help my sister."
The Caraways. Most powerful mob family in all of Deling, and this Sheba is standing here asking me to take them on for a brother with a wanderin' eye, and a sister I never met.
"You pay me double, Ms. Trepe," I tell her, those legs just begging me to stick around, "And you got yourself a deal."
I'm back at the office within the hour, and flip the sign on the door to "open." Not that I'll need the money if I decide to take this case, but business is business. I measure out enough coffee to get me through what is already a long morning, and turn on the gas, certain that everything about this gal is a mistake.
Fury Caraway. There's lots of rumors around how the Caraways got their power. Some say money, some say the war. I've even heard he got tangled up with some gypsies once and it's all their doing. No one knows for sure. What we all know, is about twenty years ago, the crime in this city went from disorganized gangs to somethin' structured, united under the name of Caraway. In a way, he did the city a favor. Smart criminals ain't as sloppy, and his boys'll take care of anyone who makes a mess before the public knows somethin's happened.
That's where the favor ends. There's someone workin' for Caraway just about anywhere you turn in this city, and don't bother going to the police for help. The Garden's about your only hope if you got a wrong done you want righted, and that's only because they're as ruthless and cut-throat as the Caraways themselves. The Caraways even hire their mercs sometimes, if they need somethin' done outside the city. It's their system. I don't question it.
And now blondie's pretty little brother has himself locked away over the Caraway Princess, and she wants me to help him out.
Coffee's done. I pour a cup and think through what I know about the Family. So, the Princess sought out Garden for help? Wonder what daddy did to make her so upset. Maybe those rumors about her discontent aren't so wild after all?
There's a knock at the door and I turn around, and give a nod to a delivery boy and point at the desk. He smiles and drops a heavy envelope and I flip him a coin and send him on his way.
The envelope smells like cinnamon and I know what it is without opening it.
She's sent the money I asked for, and I thumb through it, then add it to the stack in the drawer. Either Garden's payin' a lot better than it did back when I was there, or there's something this dame ain't tellin' me. I'm willing to bet it's both.
She's also sent a bunch of papers. Most of them official, from The Garden itself, but mixed in are letters in alternating hands. I refill my coffee cup, light a cigarette, and lean back in my chair, ready to learn their story.