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00005. Dead Ringer

The Index sits alone at the round, stone table. They skim over the lines of a large book with the aide of with a small wand, a pointer tapering into the shape of a small closed hand with an extended finger.

They are dressed for the meeting in voluminous, jet-black robes lined with fur. And a black velvet mask with gold trim. The face depicted on the mask has large, owl-like eyes, and no mouth: they see all, and keep all the Hand’s secrets.

They look up as the door opens and the other four file into the small room beneath the wine cellar. All wear the same robes, and each wears a unique mask.

The masks are mostly for ceremonial purposes at this point. The true identities of the Hand are a fairly well-known secret within the inner circle.

Except for the Dead Ringer, of course. The current spymaster, nor their predecessor, have ever been unmasked.

The sit in order around the stone table. The Thumb to his right, the Tall Man to his left, then the Dead Ringer and the Pinky.

The Index marks their place in the book, closes it and sets it aside. They then produce another book from a bag under the table and opens it up.

“We can begin,” they intone after finding their place.

“Pinky has been compromised again,” rumbles Tall Man. His mask depicts a face twisted by anger, or in anguish. He is an imposing figure. Many enemies have assumed that his large physique must mean a lack of smarts. They were wrong.

Pinky’s mask has hooded eyes and a smile, a face of indulgence and merriment. “It’s to be expected,” she retorts. “I’m the most public member of this organization. My businesses operate in the open.”

“When they come back,” interrupts the Thumb. “They can contend with the Ringer.”

The Thumb is a fat man. His mask has plain, straight lines for the eyes, mouth, and nose. A study in neutrality.

Dead Ringer sits back in their chair, half in the shadows. Their mask is unique in that it has no facial features. It is blank, with gold trim only around the neckline, uncomfortably like a noose. They don’t speak in meetings.

They nod to the Thumb.

It is settled.

“We’ll up your protection in the meantime,” the Thumb says, turning to Tall Man, who grunts and agrees to allocate some muscle.

The Index makes some notes in their ledger. “Very good. I think that concludes unfinished business, yes? Very good, on to new business…”

                                 ~ * ~

Iofi makes herself busy building little shrines to Janice. Small altars with incense and dried flowers and tiny stone carvings of two-headed turtles. She leaves little offerings of brass hinges, keys with no locks, locks with no keys, bits of shell, small vials of colored sand, and bits of dried seaweed. She is fasting in preparation for the first of the month and the rites she will perform.

There seems to be a perpetual secret scrum of Maddoxes in this corner or that, whispering intently amongst themselves.

Meadowgloom has given up on trying to serve them tea after they keep emphatically passing their illusory hands through the cup. He almost spilled the entire tea set once, expecting some of the weight to shift from the tray to them. “Let them just come and get the tea if they want it,” he grumbles to himself. “Assuming they can even lift the cup and saucer!”

Soon it is time to return to Madam Walker’s Supper Club.

                                 ~ * ~

Her information network is comprehensive.

Even if one doesn’t actually use her services, it is possible to construct a basic profile based on the “you” shaped hole in the information provided by her existing customers and her runners and spies.

Nothing is really private.

It doesn’t take long to build a basic profile on Blackguard. He is an importer of goods, and an investor in trades and ventures. Which can mean good money in a busy port city like Kriteach. He doesn’t frequent any of the brothels. Never married. No children. Has a cousin in Coopers Kettle that he writes. Usually takes supper at the Yeoman’s Club.

Recently gone missing. House recently burned down.

She puzzles over that last detail, not for the first time. Each of her colleagues has assured her that they played no part in the arson. This suggests there may be another player with stakes in this game. She taps a pencil pensively on her desk.

Early last year Blackguard appeared to divest himself of most of his portfolio. It is assumed that he subsequently focused his full attenion and all of his capital in a single venture, but it remains to be known what that venture is. He went completely below ground around the same time. Stopped going out. Ceased correspondance. Refused visitors.

Some things, after all, do remain secret.

Madam Walker sits at the desk in her library trying in vain to concentrate on the memo in her hands. She keeps glancing up at the door and resisting the urge to get up and look out into the hall.

As an experiment, she kept the door open. Light from the reading lamps in the library spills out into the hall on the other side. Until suddenly it doesn’t.

The hallway goes dark, as though a curtain has been drawn across the doorway. Walker stiffens. The darkness recedes and she catches a glimpse of an unfurnished room on the other side as the short thief walks in, closing the door behind themself.

“You have the information we were promised?” they ask in a quiet voice.

Walker nods and slides a folder across the desk to them. They glance at it but make no move to pick it up.

“Will you read it to me?” they ask.

Walker raises an eyebrow and smirks a little, and tells them a summary.

“He’s not one of my customers,” Walker concludes. “As I told you when we first met, I don’t know him. And I don’t know where he is.”

“Is that true for the rest of the Hand? None of you know where he is?”

Walker presses her lips together and smiles. “I don’t know what the rest of the Hand does and doesn’t know. That’s not how we operate.”

Maddox grunts. “Sure, I–” but the they cut themself off abruptly with a sudden intense look, and they snap out of existence.

Madam Walker blinks a few times in surprise at the abrupt departure. She stands up and crosses the library and opens the door to the hallway, only to see the hallway.

                                 ~ * ~

Meadowgloom is walking back from the grocer clutching a bag of bread and fruit for dinner.

He passes under the etched wooden sign of the Bone and Feather bookstore and cafe: a rook perching on top of a skull. He turns the corner of the shop into the alley and walks up to the side entrance, the stairway that goes up to the apartment above the bookstore where he’s been living with the cleric and the thief.

He reaches into his coat pocket and fumbles around for the key. It took a while to even get him a key to the place. Not because they didn’t trust him, but because neither of them uses the front door. Iofi seems to be able to connect arbitrary doors, so she can walk into the upstairs closet and arrive at her destination. Maddox either uses Iofi’s doors, or else they just teleport around between their different illusory selves.

“Meadowgloom?” a voice from behind him asks.

Meadowgloom startles, and fumbles and drops the key just as he pulls it out of his pocket.

Standing behind him, between him and the entrance to the alley, is a backlit figure wearing a coat and scarf and a flat crown hat with a brim. The figure is backlit, its face hidden in shadow.

“Yes? Who’s there?” Meadowgloom answers, and stoops down to fetch the key.

The figure steps forward out of the shadow revealing a lined, determined face wearing glasses and a mustache and goatee.

Still crouched down, Meadowgloom stops with his hand hovering over the key. He says in surprise, “Mister Blackguard?”

Blackguard’s seems about to break into a smile, but instead raises his hand in alarm and shouts, “Meadowgloom!”

For when Meadowgloom bent down to retrieve the dropped key, Blackguard was able to see a shadowy figure clad all in black with a black mask over their face step out of the gloom. It lifts an arm up over its head, a long bladed dagger gripped in its hand.

When it hears Blackguard’s name spoken out loud, it pauses for a fraction of a second, blade suspended in air, and tilts its head slightly. And then it plunges the blade into Meadowgloom’s back.

                                 ~ * ~

Upstairs in the apartment Iofi and Maddox hear a man scream in anguish outside in the alley. They look at each other and leap up and rush toward the stairs. Two other Maddoxes appear at their side as they go, running alongside them.

Iofi quickly unlocks the door and throws it open and a bunch of Maddoxes flow through the opening out into the alley.

They find a man sitting hunched over on the ground cradling Meadowgloom in his arms, rocking back and forth, both of them in a pool of blood.

Two Maddoxes dash away toward either end of the alley as the third steps forward, daggers in hand, surveying the immediate area. There is no assailant to be found.

Iofi stoops down and touches Meadowgloom. His face is frozen in one of curious surprise. He doesn’t respond or react. He doesn’t breathe. There is no pulse.

The man is crying. He looks up at Iofi and takes a couple breaths to compose himself.

Iofi squeezes her eyes shut and, hands on Meadowglooms chest, whispers forcefully, “The tide goes in, the tide goes out. All things come to an end, but not for you. Not here, not now. Your story isn’t over yet. Come back to us.

She opens her eyes and peers expectantly at Meadowgloom’s face. Her countenance falls in defeat when nothing happens. But then his eyes go wide and he takes a violent gasp of air.

She sighs with relief. “Get him upstairs,” she commands the strange man. “He’s still gravely injured. We must tend to him if he is to live.”

The man nods and together the two of them lift Meadowgloom up to his feet.

“Who are you?” Iofi asks.

“My name is Dedric Blackguard. I heard you were looking for me. I need your help. I’m in danger and there’s nobody I can trust.”