Veera insisted they leave immediately, claiming that Penelope would be waiting for them at the Nerve Center, but Andrew refused to step foot in public looking so disgracefully unkempt. He made her wait in the kitchen while he took a shower. By the time he was done, he had turned his bathroom into a refreshing sauna. Andrew thought about squeezing in a straight razor shave, too, but an image of Penelope’s face, puffed up like a red balloon, cussing him out for making her wait so long, made him decide against it. Instead, he grabbed an electric razor she had gifted him last year, which had only seen one courtesy use since.
“The Irwin Razor. No fuzz, no fuss,” Andrew muttered, reading off its side. It buzzed to life in his hands and he went to work. It was quicker, no doubt, but after the third pass, he found the cut lacking. He scrutinized himself in the mirror, through a small porthole he had made in the fogged glass. It was passable, he thought.
After combing out his hair, he picked out a royal blue suit and matching bowtie, slipped into polished shoes, and gathered up his usual accessories—coin purse, pocket watch, cigarette case, and academy ID card and pin.
Andrew caught Veera’s eyes lingering as he stepped out of his bedroom. He adjusted his bowtie and flashed the corniest smile he could muster. “It’s okay, you can say it. I am very handsome.”
Veera visibly cringed and headed for the front door. “Sometimes you can be so insufferable.”
He gave himself a mental pat on the back, thinking himself the funniest man alive, then chased after her, grabbing a homburg hat off a rack on the way out. Andrew caught up to Veera in the hallway and fell in step with her. “So, you going to give me any details about this contract I’m supposed to be accepting?”
“We were not told much. Penelope received a call from the Nerve Center yesterday,” Veera explained, “and they simply said a Zholese gentleman wished to contract Andrew Maxwell for an investigation. We are to meet him this afternoon.”
Andrew frowned. “A noble, I’m guessing?”
She nodded. “A baron. Why would a baron be looking for you?”
He racked his brain for any connection he had to the Zholese Imperial Court. The Viridian Vipers had taken a couple contracts in Zho before, but he couldn’t remember dealing with a baron, specifically. Andrew stopped at the end of the hall and pressed an elevator call button, then shrugged slightly. “I haven’t a clue. Did Penelope mention what kind of reward we’re talking?”
She gave him a meaningful look. “Three thousand gold.” Veera leaned in for emphasis. “Each.”
Andrew blinked, his brain taking a moment to comprehend what she had said. “Pardon my language, but fuck! That’s several years’ worth of work!” He slapped his forehead in disbelief, already dreaming of the possibilities. He could buy so much. A new car—no, a new everything. Great daemons, with that kind of coin he could buy a permanent place in Upper Kings if he wanted; it wouldn’t be a mansion, but he’d easily be able to afford a single-family house in the borough’s suburbs.
“It worries me, though.”
Andrew shook himself from his fantasies. “Huh?”
“That much coin.” Veera’s brow pinched together. “The contract must be incredibly dangerous.”
He rubbed his chin pensively. “You got a point,” he admitted, suddenly deflated. “It’d be hard to enjoy all that money from the grave, but then again, we both know mercenary work is rarely safe work.” The elevator dinged and the door opened. He let Veera in first.
Andrew and Veera were out the lobby door within a couple minutes and on the bustling sidewalk. They were greeted by car horns blaring and drivers shaking their fists at each other; their engines sputtered loudly as they fought for rank down the streets.
“Extra! Extra!” a young boy bellowed from the street corner, a stack of newspapers piled beside him. “Dr. Zest faces new lawsuit over tar poisoning cure! Read all about it!”
Skyscrapers went in either direction as far as the eye could see, their windows gleaming like a million jewels in the afternoon sun. Massive signs hung from their walls at street level, vying for the attention of the masses; they were huge and gaudy, and at night lit up in brilliant yellows, greens, blues, and reds—the shinier the better. They advertised all manner of food, entertainment, and most importantly, alcohol. Lots and lots of alcohol, guaranteed to keep the nightly parties in Van Buren going until dawn’s accusatory light sent people stumbling home to deal with the regrets of the night.
Veera wrinkled her nose and looped her scarf over her head, as if the soft silk could shield her from everything happening.
He turned to the voice, which sounded like rough gravel being mulched in someone’s throat. A scraggly man emerged from the crowd, a pungent, sour odor hanging over him, and he wore an oversized trench coat with too many hand-sewn pockets of mismatched cloth patterns.
Andrew’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Jimmy?” he whispered, “what’re you doing here?”
The older man opened his mouth wide in a jovial, albeit mostly toothless, grin that barely showed through a coarse and tangled beard. “Ain’t you a sight for sore eyes!”
Veera looked upon him with pity and tutted, reaching into her coin purse. “You poor soul. You must be starving.” She held out several silver coins. “This should buy you enough food for the week.”
The grungy man reeled back from her offer and scoffed indignantly. “Excuse me? Jimmy don’t take handouts.” He eyeballed Andrew. “Who’s the kavi lady?”
“She’s a coworker,” he replied slowly. “Veera, you can put your money away. This is Jimmy. He’s an old acquaintance.”
“So . . .” she drawled, “he is not homeless?”
“Well, I didn’t say that,” Andrew replied.
“I don’t need a home. The sky is my roof, and this great land always provides.” Jimmy dug through one of his pockets and produced a moldy, half-eaten sandwich. “See?”
Andrew gagged. “Jimmy, come on, get rid of that thing!”
He shrugged and stuffed the sandwich back in his pocket. “What’sa matter? You run off to play mercenary and suddenly you’re too good for perfectly good leftovers? I remember a time when this was fine cuisine to you.”
“That was a long time ago, and never by choice,” Andrew grumbled.
“Who is this ‘Jimmy?’ The two of you seem quite familiar,” Veera said.
“I met him in Anchors when I was a kid.”
“Yup!” Jimmy chimed. He held his hand up to his waistline. “He was only this big back then. Oh, the stories I could tell you about him. I taught him and Samson how to survive, every scam in the book, and boy was he sharp as a tack. Picked it all up like that!” he proclaimed with a snap of his fingers.
Andrew felt the fires of embarrassment creep up his neck, making his face flush. “It wasn’t the proudest part of my life, and it’s certainly not something I want to be talking about in broad daylight for the whole world to hear.” He grabbed Jimmy by the collar of his dirty shirt and yanked him aside, out of earshot of Veera. “Let’s cut to the chase, Jimmy. You never poke your head out of the docks, so why are you here?”
“Andrew,” he scolded, “is that any way to talk to an old friend?”
“I really don’t have time for this. What do you want?” he pressed.
Jimmy’s friendly air evaporated and a spark flashed through his eyes. He lowered his voice to barely a whisper. “Someone’s looking for you.”
“How do you know about that? I’m going to meet him right now, some Zholese noble.”
“Huh?” Jimmy shook his head. “This wasn’t no pansy Zholese boy. It was a woman. She didn’t look like much, but I know a dangerous fella when I see one.”
“A woman? Who? What did she look like?” Andrew probed.
Jimmy shrugged. “No one’s gotten a good look at her. She’s been asking around the docks for you all week. Always at night, though, and always in the shadows. It was givin’ me a bad feeling, so I thought I’d let you know.”
Andrew folded his arms and glanced into the faceless crowd walking past them. The island of Hafland had a population of almost twenty million. “If someone really wanted to find me, they could have easily done so by going through Gast Academy.”
“That was my thinking, too,” Jimmy said. “This lady doesn’t want the mercenaries involved for whatever reason.”
“So, did she find out anything about me?”
Jimmy’s cheeks pushed his eyes up into an amiable smile, creasing his leathery face and accentuating his age. “Andrew, the only people who could’ve told her anything were folks you called family, once upon a time.” He sighed. “Look, I know you’re on the straight and narrow now, and things have been weird ever since Samson . . . but you still go friends in Anchors.” He gave Andrew a reassuring pat on the shoulder and winked. “Don’t you worry, nobody slipped a word.”
A smile tugged at the corner of Andrew’s lips. “Thanks for the heads up, Jimmy. It’s been too long since I stopped by proper, but—” He paused, eyes squinting on Jimmy’s outstretched, open hand. “What—what is this?”
Andrew’s old friend grinned sheepishly. “Oh, you know . . . I thought since I just gave you a heads up about a potentially dangerous foe and all . . . and with you making so much coin as a mercenary . . .”
“And here I thought we were having a real, genuine moment.” Andrew shook his head in disbelief. “I knew there was a catch to all this,” he said, glowering. “What happened to ‘Jimmy don’t take handouts?’”
“I would argue that this is more so an exchange for information,” Jimmy rebutted. “Besides, what have I always told you?”
“Don’t do nothin’ for free,” he mumbled darkly under his breath. Andrew took out two silver from his coin purse. “Here,” he spat, shoving them angrily into Jimmy’s greedy clutches.
The older man looked up from the coins. “That’s it?”
Andrew’s eye twitched, but he found it in himself to give one more silver. “And not a copper more!” he shouted.
Jimmy guffawed. “You’re a fine, kid, Andrew! A fine kid! Samson woulda been proud.” He hid the money inside his trench coat, then tipped an invisible hat to Veera with a gnarled hand. “And a good afternoon to you, ma’am!” He winked at Andrew one last time before striding off into the crowd. “Stay out of trouble, boy!” he called over his shoulder. And then he was gone.
“The nerve of that guy.” Andrew snorted. “I can’t believe I used to look up to him.”
Veera approached with an air of caution and asked, “Are you alright? What did your friend want?”
Andrew pursed his lips. “Money,” he said bluntly.
“Is that all? You were talking for a while.”
He made the split decision not to mention anything to Veera. “Yeah, typical Jimmy, he only shows up when he needs money.”
Andrew didn’t know the intentions of this mystery woman searching for him, so there was no need to worry his team yet. They needed their minds clear for the meeting with the Zholese baron, after all.
But still . . .
Andrew pondered Jimmy’s words as an amorphous idea started to form. First he hears his brother’s voice, then a contract worth thousands falls into his lap, and now a strange lady is seeking him out. It was unsettling, and if there was one thing mercenary work had taught him, it was that there was no such thing as coincidence.