The Birthday Party

The door was locked and bolted. It also had a large cupboard pushed up against it, and six guards who were not entirely human posted outside. There were guards on the four floors above the highly locked door, mostly human, and the entrance to the warren was hidden in the very heart of a very dangerous slum, the kind of slum you avoided looking at, let alone entering.

Behind the highly protected door, a quarrel was brewing.

“This”, said the smallest one, the one who looked like someone’s grandfather from a nightmare, “This is silly.”

“I agree with Mr. Dalal” quavered Mrs. Maria, who looked like an average middle-school teacher, if the school was in hell. “We are not the ones who hide. People hide from us.”

“That is true, darlings. Very true,” said the third occupant of the room, a serious-looking gentleman in his early forties. He was obsessively taking out and cleaning the various guns that were strapped about his large frame. “But I have heard, from very good sources that the one coming to retrieve this particular piece of merchandise is the Lawyer himself.”

“The Lawyer!” sneered Mrs. Maria. “We have dealt with lawyers before. Lawyers don’t scare me. Ate one last Tuesday, when he came to my place of business with a search warrant. He was bony.”

“Not a lawyer, Mrs. Maria. The Lawyer. Note the capitalization.”

“And what, pray,” hissed Mr. Dalal, “is so special about this lawyer?”

“Did you hear about the fire at Dr. Manish’s market?”

“Yes, very unfortunate. He lost an entire consignment of African whores, did he not? What does his carelessness have to do with us, though?”

“Well, the good doctor told me that it was no accident, and insinuated that the entire thing was caused by a certain Lawyer.”

“Doctor Manish is a fool.”

The three lapsed into silence. Mr. Dalal slowly stood up and wandered around the room, poking through the clutter and muttering under his breath. It was not a very large room, but it was full of evil-looking artifacts, and one very large cage. Behind an old and decidedly deathly grandfather clock in one corner, he uncovered an ancient hookah, covered in dust and despair. He smiled a smile that could shatter glass, and hauled it out to the centre of the room.

“Shall we smoke, then, while we wait?”

“You need to clean that first.”

All the heads turned towards the one that had just spoken. It was the occupant of the rather large cage in the corner.

He was a big man, six foot two at least, and very thin. His hair and beard were unkempt, and his shirt was filthy. He smelled like someone who has been in a cage for a week, which was not surprising, considering that he had been in a cage for a week. He was smiling, which surprised the other three occupants of the room. They were not used to people smiling around them.

“I beg your pardon?” Said Mr. Dalal, quite mildly.

“I said, you’ll need to clean the hookah first, before you use it.”

Mr. Dalal regarded the hookah carefully. The caged one seemed to be speaking sense. The hookah looked foul, but then again, Mr. Dalal had smoked worse looking things, in worse looking places. He scratched his giant nose and looked at Mrs. Maria.

Mrs. Maria heaved herself off her chair and hobbled up to the cage.

“Well hello there, young man” she said, her voice quavering unpleasantly, “would you like to clean this hookah for us, then?”

“I’d be delighted to, if you’d let me smoke it as well.”

In reply, she reached up and ripped the great iron lock off the cage door in a single smooth movement. Even Mr. Dalal had the grace to look a little impressed. The young man smiled and stepped lightly through the open cage door, stretching like a cat.

“I do wish you wouldn’t let the merchandize run about, Mrs. Maria,” sighed the worried-looking man, as he reloaded a shotgun that looked like it killed angels.

“Don’t be a big baby, Mr. Olmar,” she replied “I think we can handle ourselves quite well.”

The young man began to expertly dismantle the hookah at the sink in the corner. He rummaged in one of the cupboards and came up with brushes and soap, which he used to vigorously scrub the dirt off the ornate glass base. As he worked, he whistled a little tune.

Mrs. Maria joined him at the sink and watched him work.

“So,” she said, “tell me about yourself, boy.”

“What would you like to know?”

“What you’re doing here, for starters.”

“As you might have guessed from the cage, I’m not here voluntarily. That is the doing of Mr. Olmar, over there. I was out for a walk when he attacked me with a lead pipe, some guns and thirteen goons. I woke up in that cage, and I’ve been there for a week. It’s been very distressing, but I’m sure it will all work out for the best.”

He finished washing the various parts of the hookah, and set them out to dry. Then he dug through another cupboard until he found a carved wooden box that smelled of oranges and mint, and he proceeded to pack the clay chillum with the molasses from within it. As he worked, he chattered on amiably.

“You must be Mrs. Maria, of course, the Madam of the South District and the Half-Bloods. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“All bad, I hope”, simpered Mrs. Maria.

“Absolutely vile”, grinned the young man. “And you, my good sir, must be the famed Mr. Dalal, banker to Mrs. Maria and Mr. Olmar here, launderer of ill-gotten wealth and possessor of the finest collection of esoteric torture devices this side of hell.”

Mr. Dalal inclined his head sagely.

“It’s an honour.”

Mr. Olmar’s head whipped up suddenly. “Did you hear that?” He snapped. The other three listened carefully. They all shook their heads.

“You are very twitchy today, Mr. Olmar”, said Mr. Dalal, sadly. “This is distressing to see, especially since you have so many firearms about your person.”

“You haven’t told us yet why we’re all here in this little hole of yours.” Said Mrs. Maria, as she picked her teeth.

The young man filled half the base of the hookah with ice from the shiny new refrigerator in the corner, and topped it up with a little water from the sink. He settled the stem into the base and put two pieces of coal on the stove to heat. As the coal went from black to orange to red, he neatly covered the top of the chillum with a square of foil and leaned over to Mrs. Maria. “Would you be so kind as to lend me your earring, ma’am?”

She slipped off the giant blood-ruby stud in her ear and gave it to him, and he used the sharp pin at the back to pierce a perfectly symmetrical pattern of holes in the foil before returning it.

“Well, Mr. Olmar?” Said Mr. Dalal sharply. “You didn’t answer Mrs. Maria’s question.”

“I told you — the Lawyer is supposed to be coming to retrieve our young friend here. I needed you two to make sure he didn’t leave alive.”

“My men and I don’t take kindly to being used as insurance, Mr. Olmar”, said Mrs. Maria acidly, “and I’m sure neither does Mr. Dalal”

“And why, pray,” said Mr. Dalal, “do you want this lawyer dead so badly?”

“The bastard has burned down all my business in the docks, and my men have been disappearing from all over the city. The only ones I have left are the ones you saw when you came in. If this goes on any longer, I will be completely done.”

“But that,” said Mrs. Maria silkily, “is your problem and not ours.”

“Don’t be stupid,” snarled Mr.Olmar “Do you think he’ll stop after he’s done with me? You’ll be next, and the exact same thing is going to happen to you. We all ignored Dr. Manish’s problem, and now the Market is in chaos, the entire whore — trade completely gone. Well, I’m not going to go quietly — you two will help me, whether you like it or not.”

“I do not believe in this Lawyer threat being so great” shrugged Mr. Dalal. “He is only one man, after all.”

“I think I’ll leave now,” said Mrs. Maria quietly. “You’ve been wasting my time.”

Mr. Olmar narrowed his eyes and drew his shotgun. “Sit down, Mrs. Maria.”

“Oh shut up and put that away,” she said, as she hauled the giant cupboard away from the door. “You think your piddly little peashooter scares me? Have you forgotten who taught you to shoot?”

“Don’t be dramatic, Maria,” said Mr. Dalal, “At least smoke the sheesha before you go.”

The young man had set up the hookah, which was now spotless and billowing fragrant orange-mint smoke. Mrs. Maria hobbled back to her chair and sat down, glaring at Mr. Olmar, who quietly put away his gun. She took the long pipe from Mr. Dalal, changed the mouthpiece and took a long, slow drag.

The young man was still whistling.

She exhaled exactly a hundred perfect smoke rings, and showed her yellow tombstone teeth in satisfaction.

“Tell me something, young man,” she said “why on earth have you been whistling Happy Birthday?”

“Because it’s his birthday” he replied.

“Whose?”

And then the door opened, quite soundlessly. Mrs. Maria turned in her chair, faster than any woman who looked like that had any right to turn, but the knife was already in her throat. Mr. Olmar roared and raised his shotgun, getting off three shots before he went down in a flurry of swirling black coats and sharp knives. One of the shots hit Mr. Dalal in the face, and the other two slammed into the grandfather clock, which was just striking twelve.

Mr. Dalal fell and did not get up.

The young man stayed very still until the struggle with Mr. Olmar was over. Then he picked up the pipe and took a long drag before handing it to the handsome young man in the long black coat who was putting away his knives.

“Happy birthday brhrr” he said, and grinned.

The Lawyer carefully stepped over Mr. Dalal, sat down on his chair, took the pipe, smiled at his brother, and inhaled.

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