DARK SIDE MATTERS
劇透 - :
My name is Elfin John, and The Dark Side is my club. It’s a gentlemen’s club of a sort. Very exclusive and hard to find. A word-of-mouth kind of place, where you need to be vouched for to get in. Just the way I like it.
At the end of the alleyway next to a theater is a wood and glass door with writing on it. At least, it looks like real wood and glass. Discreet and classy, you might think it’s an office of some kind. Maybe for one of those hardbitten detective types who could get you a tri-vid for your divorce proceedings? You’d pass it by without another thought.
And if you aren’t meant to be here, that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. I spent a lot of time, nuyen, and magic making sure only those who need to find my business do. Like I said, exclusive.
In truth, though, we cater to all kinds here: male, female, intersex, elf, human, troll, ork, dwarf, dragon, and any combination thereof. Whatever your desire, if you’ve got the nuyen, The Dark Side will find it for you.
Within reason, of course. I don’t allow BTLs or wetwork on the premises. That sort of thing isn’t for this sort of club. We’re upscale here, and I mean to keep it that way. But, as always, there are caveats and exceptions to the rules.
Take Sasha Jones. There’s a lowlife bottom feeder if ever I saw one. But he gets me what I need. Most of the time I can forgive his drek fashion sense and crude manners. For a human, he reminds me more of an ork on a bender—and that’s when he’s being good. Right now, I’ve got two of my most masochistic ladies serving him drinks and talking with him. I can only imagine the delicious torment they’re going through.
You see, just as The Dark Side gives our clientele sophisticated pleasure—music, conversation, beauty, art, wit, and yes, sex—we sell the illusion of companionship, of camaraderie, of connection. At the same time, there is so much more to The Dark Side… and that is what brings the unpleasantness of Sasha Jones to my door.
Ah well, in Dark Side matters, business before pleasure.
劇透 - :
“Sasha…on time as always.” I stride out to meet the human. I don’t shake his hand. I don’t know where he’s been.
In the back of my head, a notice pops up that I’ve received an AR message from my father. I ignore it. One unpleasantness at a time. Just the thought of the overbearing man makes me smooth down my dark hair and run my finger over the tip of a pointed ear. It’s a habit I’ve yet to break.
“Elfin John, my man, wouldn’t miss it.” Sasha raises his drink. “You got the best. The real stuff. Not that synth drek.”
“Well, yes. As you say.” I shake my head. Of course, I didn’t waste my best on Sasha. Just the very good. “How about we have this conversation some place a little more quiet?”
Sasha smoothes back his hair, styled in the latest trend—if it were ten months ago—and stands, dumping Maisie from his lap. “Gotta go, doll. The adults need to talk.”
Maisie giggles at him from the floor, then lets Shannon pick her up. “Bye-bye, Sasha.” Her little finger wave turns into a rude gesture as Sasha turns his back. I give her a warning look. She blows me a kiss.
I ignore it, promising myself to have a talk with her later. I probably won’t. Sasha isn’t a client she has to be concerned with. But if I catch her doing that to someone who matters, there will be words, and she won’t like them.
I walk Sasha through the hallway of private lounges to the back part of the club for the upper echelons of the club’s management. This is where the other business The Dark Side is known for gets done. I decide to start nice, and lead Sasha into my private office—the one I use for company, not the one I use for management business, or the real work I do.
It is a large room with a sitting area flanked by four leather chairs around a low table for setting drinks, contracts, and nuyen on. One side of the office is filled with monitor screens. I can see every room in the building through them. They are all dark now, of course. The other side has my desk, a large cherrywood thing polished to a high shine. There are the normal things you’d expect on it—sleek computer station, pens, paper, a holo of my pretend family. Then, there are the things you wouldn’t expect—an ornate dagger, a bowl of carnivorous flowers, and a silk fan in full display. All of these radiate magic to the arcane eye.
劇透 - :
Sasha plops into one of the chairs without being invited. I grimace, then swallow my ire. Instead, I smile, all teeth as I watch my expression in the monitor glass. My face is puffy today; pale skin around hazel eyes. It doesn’t take away from my devilish good looks, but I notice it. “We’ve had a long working history, haven’t we?”
“Uh-oh. You sound like my dad.”
I turn and give him a look. I’ve discovered that if you just gaze at someone long enough without speaking, as if you expect something from them, they’ll talk to fill the silence. Too many people are uncomfortable with silence. For me, it’s my best friend.
Sasha smoothes his pompadour with a nervous hand, then rubs his fingers on his designer jeans. “Yes, Elfin John, we’ve had a long working history. I’ve always done right by you, and you’ve always done right by me.”
I nod. “We have. So, tell me about the Awakened angler fish lure.”
“Little dry? Sorry about that. My jar broke. I had to make do with what I had at the time. Lots of things trying to eat me.” He gives me a weak smile. “Got it back in the water as soon as I could.”
I don’t care about the fish lure. I just wanted to see what he’d say. Now I know I need to give it a thorough once over. In truth, I’ve had to give all of his recent shipments a thorough once over. This time with an eye for mistakes and glamour. I’d made the mistake of getting too comfortable with a shadowrunner once. It won’t happen again.
“Ah, totally understandable. Deep sea fishing for Awakened critters is a dangerous game…but you’re one of the best in the business. You and your team.”
“That I am. Don’t you forget it.” Sasha snaps his fingers and gives me a too-wide grin as he glances around the room like a trapped animal.
He still isn’t sure if he’s in trouble or not. He is, but I should put him at ease for what’s to come. “Would you like a drink? I’m having one.” I touch a button with my foot and a full bar rises out of the floor. “Taéngelé, I think. I’m in the mood for something with a touch of class.”
Ever a slave to his pleasures, Sasha relaxes. “Yeah. Scotch. Neat. Real if you got it. Synth if you don’t.”
I doubt he would know what real scotch tasted like…and certainly wouldn’t know the difference between a single malt and a blended version. I choose the blended brand. Like I said, I don’t waste my best on people like Sasha. Just the very good. “This is my private stash. Real, of course.”
To his credit, he doesn’t just swill the glass I hand him. He stops and gives it a deep sniff before taking a swallow. With a cough, he rasps, “Good.”
He didn’t notice I hadn’t poured myself a drink. For a runner, he is incredibly dense. “So, tell me about the Awakened narwhal horn. Where did you get it again?”
Sasha pauses, his glass halfway to his mouth. He finishes the gesture to buy himself time. After a moment to savor the alcohol, he shrugs. “Off the coast of Alaska. I told you that when I delivered it. It was on the manifest.”
“Oh, yes. I forgot. So many items come though my shop. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep up with it all. What did you do with the rest of the carcass? I’m curious. You didn’t deliver the rest to me with a bid price on it.”
劇透 - :
For a couple of long seconds, he doesn’t say anything. We both know that the narwhal horn didn’t come from an Awakened creature. In fact, I’m not sure where he got it…or if it was even real narwhal—and that is the crux of my current problem.
I watch him calculate the odds of me knowing whatever he says is a lie, and decide it isn’t worth it. He does the next best thing: deflection.
Sasha leans back in the leather chair. “Is that what all this is about? I was worried you were mad at me.” He shrugs, relaxes his shoulders, and feigns feeling comfortable once more. “You’re not the only talismonger in town, you know.” Then he frowns, his gaze dropping from me to the glass in his hand and back.
He sold me out to some wannabe competition? I wish I could rip his throat out with my teeth. Instead, I give him that wide, feral grin again. “I’m the only one of my caliber in the city, Sasha. You know that.”
He doesn’t respond. He can’t. The paralytic on the rim of his glass ensures that he can’t move. Though, he is very much awake and will remain so. Poor bastard.
I activate my internal comm. “He’s ready. Take him to workroom three.”
Two of my augmented bouncers come in without knocking. One puts a black bag over Sasha’s head and plucks the glass from his hand, setting it on the low table. The other picks him up and takes him to my workroom.
A notice pops up on my comm. Father has left another message. Apparently, he wants an answer now. Putting the drugged glass on the bar, I grimace at the thought of his voice. Shoving that away, I activate both messages to run one after the other. To my intense pleasure and annoyance, a placeholder screen appears in my comm. The man couldn’t be bothered to face me directly. Instead, his supercilious voice fills my head.
“Jonathan, it’s your father. I’m reminding you that we have an engagement at Lord and Lady Nordstrom’s home in Kensington tomorrow night. I don’t care how long it will take for you to travel from where you are to there. You are expected to be at my side at 1900 hours for cocktails. Don’t be late. Bring a date. But no one too trendy. I understand your little foibles and will allow it in you, but not your date. Let me know that you’ve received this.”
The first quick text ends without a good-bye. I shake my head. I want to go to this fête about as much as I want to deal with Sasha. The things we do for family. The second message begins without preamble.
“One other thing, bring a date only if you can bring an appropriate young lady. For God’s sake, do not bring a woman who works for you. I still hear grumbles about the last time that happened, and Lord Rutherford still won’t look me in the eye. I do not need my friends embarrassed by being reminded that they are one of your clients. Discretion is the watchword of the day, son. Remember it. If you cannot do as I ask, come alone and I will pair you with a suitable young lady. Let me know immediately.”
This message cuts off in the same abrupt manner as the first one. I debate for all of ten seconds and sigh before dashing off a quick text message: <I will be there on time. I will come alone. Thank you.> If he can’t be bothered to show me his face, I can’t be bothered with more than text on a screen.
That unpleasantness done, I follow my bouncers and Sasha to workroom three, warring with myself over whether or not I will enjoy this.
劇透 - :
My bouncers strip Sasha of every weapon he has—and it’s an impressive amount for a street thug like him—then bind him to the heavy metal chair provided. I let him stew in darkness for a good five minutes while I make sure everything is ready. Also, I let the drug run its way through his system. I want him moving when we begin.
As I check the restraints, I murmur, “I’m sorry it’s come to this.”
Sasha mumbles something incoherent. That means the paralytic is at the end of its cycle. Soon, he’ll be in control of his body again. I move behind and to the side of the chair and watch him in silence as I count in my head. I reach sixty-four when he speaks again.
“John, chummer…we can talk about this, yeah? No need to do anything drastic, right?”
I nod to my bouncer. He rips the black hood from Sasha’s head. I gesture for the bouncers to leave us in the workroom. They close the door with an audible click of the latch and clunk of the deadbolt. I keep my silence wrapped about me like a cloak as I watch him gaze around the workroom and understand what it could mean.
A talismonger’s workroom is a thing to behold. Especially mine. Well, it usually is. I had to clean it out for what’s to come. I keep things in here I didn’t want messed up. Still, the room is impressive, if I do say so myself.
It’s a large stone rectangle with deep ebon cabinets secured with ornate silver locks. The walls, usually filled with tools of the trade, are bare. You can still see where some things used to hang. The walls are cleaner there. The floor is covered with chalked ritual circles and seals…along with wax drippings and old, viscous stains. It looks a little like the large stone table I have to one side of the room. The ceiling is black from years of candle soot.
The Hermetic tradition is not the neatest of magic, but not the messiest either.
Sasha twitches. First his hand, then his head. That means the paralytic has fully worn off. I added that side effect to the drug so there’d be no feigning being paralyzed while plotting me bodily harm.
I step into view. “Welcome to my workroom, Sasha. Usually it’s got a bit more in it, but I don’t need you seeing how the sausage is made. Of course, a talismonger is more than the sum of his telesma…more than even the unspoiled and exotic telesma I sell here. Do you know what I mean?”
Sasha shakes his head in tiny jerks. I’m not sure if his silence is because he hasn’t quite regained control of his brain yet or because he’s suddenly developed some common sense. Either way, it allows me to go on uninterrupted.
劇透 - :
“Talismongers are the heart of their magical society. We buy and sell telesma, lore, and knowledge. We’re the one place that those with eyes to see can go for all things enchanted. Especially for those who cannot create for themselves. We have connections everywhere. As such, we have a duty to the magical society we tend to.”
Sasha is panting now, sweating in his panic. “John, I can explain. Please—”
I continue, overriding him, letting my anger show. “I have a duty to my clientele to make sure they get the best foci, telesma, and formulae. That everything I sell is well made, properly collected, and exactly what they paid for. Safe, unspoiled, exotic…exactly what that narwhal horn should’ve been, but wasn’t.”
I watch the fear crawl across his face. Then I soften my words, lacing them with the promise of salvation. “What was it exactly that you sold to me? It left a lovely young woman in a coma. Perhaps, we can undo the damage before it’s too late. Perhaps, it’s not too late for any of us.”
“It was narwhal. I swear…just not awakened…or fresh. But you gotta understand, I didn’t have a choice. Mr. Jones said he’d pay me double to bring it to him instead. And if I didn’t, he’d ruin me.”
This is the confession I need to save my own ass. “Mr. Jones?”
Sasha shrugs and twitches a little. “I don’t know his real name. Just Mr. Jones. You know the deal. He tells me what I need to do for his client…and I get paid.”
It’s interesting that it’s a “Mr. Jones” rather than “Mr. Johnson.” Tells me that the anonymous employer is from Great Britain rather than North America. That means this might have been a personal vendetta against my client. Same continent, different side of the border.
“Did your Mr. Jones hire you to steal from me or to give me fake components…or both?”
“Will you let me go if I tell you?” Sasha’s eyes beg me to lie to him.
So I do. “I’ll let you go…when we’re done here. I promise.” I don’t tell him that I’m not the one in charge for the moment. I won’t be done with Sasha until they are.
Sasha relaxes, believing me. “It was both. There’s some who don’t like you as the main talismonger in town…and they specifically told me to give you the regular narwhal horn. Gave it to me, actually, to give to you.”
The competition wants to play rough, do they? Well, we’ll work that angle after this business is done. No one threatens me or mine. Not in my city. I’ll set my people looking for who the up-and-comers are as soon as I get a chance.
“Thank you, Sasha.” I turn to the wall behind me. “Have you seen enough?”
劇透 - :
The illusionary wall disappears, revealing three elves—the beautiful woman who hid them, a young woman in a wheelchair, and an equally beautiful man. They have the same Germanic look and family resemblance that tells even the most casual of observers they are related. The man and woman glare at Sasha, while the girl in the wheelchair looks at nothing.
“Let me introduce you to Herr and Frau Schmidt. My clients.” These, of course, are not their real names. I’d rather die than reveal such to scum like Sasha. I point to the girl. “And she is the young lady your fake telesma hurt. It’s much more complex than a coma, I’m afraid. You see, she’s very much alive, but caught on the astral plane.”
“You said you’d let me go. You promised!” Sasha struggles against his bonds, panic beating about his head and shoulders.
“Oh, I will let you go…but first, reparations must be made.” I put a hand to my chest. “Not by me, of course. I’m not going to punish you. They are.”
I straighten and nod to Herr Schmidt. “He is all yours, sir. And if you’ll excuse me—”
That single word freezes me in mid-turn. “Sir?” I fight to keep his real title under my tongue.
“This is a crime against our people, is it not? You will witness the punishment.” His face is implacable.
The compliment and the threat are clear in that first sentence. I bow. “Of course, sir. I will witness it.” Part of me is terrified. Part of me is ecstatic. Our people. After all these years, to finally be accepted.
I step back and watch the elven nobles lay out their magical tools on my stone table. I wish I had taken the time to give it a deep clean. Well, Hermetic mages recognize each other and understand the stains. I hope.
“What are they doing?” Sasha’s voice is a harsh whisper.
I hunker down next to him and keep my voice low as the pair begin the summoning. “I believe they’re going to have a talk with the free spirit that has their daughter’s astral form captured.” As the sound of the ocean reaches my ears, I add, “Remember, this is your doing, not mine. I bargained in good faith.”
“Let me go, John. Please. I’ll tell you who hired me. Then I’ll walk away. You won’t have to worry about me anymore.” His eyes dart to the elven pair. “And I won’t tell anyone. I swear.”
I know it for the lie it is. “You know who Mr. Jones is and who his clients are? You know exactly who they are?”
Sasha shakes his head. “No, but I can get you the contact numbers. I can lead you to them. I swear I’ll do it.”
I stop paying attention to him as I see the power of what my clients have summoned. It makes me catch my breath. I know Sasha can’t see what is gathering on the astral plane. He’d be a lot less calm. At the first sight of the free spirit in question—a huge sea creature with many tentacles—I wish I was anywhere but here. I stand and watch it come, glad I’d taken down my astral wards as requested. I don’t think they would’ve mattered anyway.
劇透 - :
“What? What is it? John? John? What are you looking at?”
I shake my head. “You’ll see soon enough.” The power of the spirit is enormous. I’m almost breathless in my awe. I can’t help but take a step back as it enters the room. I know when Sasha can see it. He makes incoherent whining words in the language of pure panic. Shifting from astral to normal vision, the spirit is no less terrifying manifested in my workroom.
I lean over and whisper, “Silence. It may not notice you.” Sasha sucks in his words and panic, swallowing both with a will that would’ve been impressive in another circumstance. For now, it only proves he has a great desire to live.
Herr Schmidt bows and speaks in German to the spirit in a diffident tone I have never heard from someone of his stature. I listen to the request, the bargaining, and the terms the mage uses.
“John, what’s he saying?” Sasha hooks my pants with his pinky finger.
I slap it away. With a look and nod from Frau Schmidt, I realize they want Sasha to know what is about to happen to him. I return the nod and shift back to whisper in Sasha’s ear. “That is the spirit that holds their daughter. From what I gather, it has worked with this family for centuries, with some long-held traditions. It was disrespected by the girl’s poor choice of telesma…and has kept her astral avatar in recompense.”
I pause, listening as Herr Schmidt continues his polite bargaining. “Her father is explaining your deliberate choice to give her the wrong thing…and has offered you, a known killer of Awakened creatures, to the spirit…to do with as it will.”
“But it wasn’t me. I didn’t mean it.” Sasha all but wails these futile words.
The free spirit turns its full attention on Sasha and me. “Oh, look. I think it’s accepted the bargain.”
“John, move.” Herr Schmidt’s command brooks no argument.
I move—fast and without pretense—to my ally’s side.
劇透 - :
With a gesture, I lead my guests to the appropriate spot and activate the safe room. The walls of Securitglas surround us, making our ears pop as the room is fully sealed and pressurized. Not a moment too soon.
My workroom goes from dry to half-filled with water in a blink of an eye. Sasha screams and rips his skin bloody trying to escape his bonds. The water is up to his chest, but he thrashes as if it is already over his head. The spirit strokes a tentacle over Sasha’s hair, petting him like a dog.
Herr Schmidt points downward. I follow the direction he indicates. Fish that look like a cross between piranha and octopi tear at the shadowrunner’s clothing, then his flesh. Blood chums the water, exciting them. I can’t help glancing at the elven noble, and he challenges me with an arched eyebrow. I know what he’s saying: “If you want to be one of us, you remember this and treat all your enemies with the same mercy. If you have the fortitude for it.”
I turn back and watch Sasha’s pain, drinking it in. Another blink, and the workroom is filled almost to the ceiling. Sasha, still struggling, still being eaten alive, screams once more before sucking in a lungful of water. After that, it is a waiting game. Sasha takes another two minutes to die. I watch him every second of those two minutes.
劇透 - :
Herr Schmidt bows to the free spirit, communicating telepathically with it. A moment later, the spirit, the water, and its pets disappear. I look into the astral, but they are gone from the immediate area, leaving behind only the echo of the ocean.
“I would like to go home.” Frau Schmidt’s words are polite, but no less a command.
That is my cue to release the safe room. The Securiglas walls retract after the room unseals. Everything, except the ceiling and my safe room area, is scoured clean, with only the faint, brackish smell of salt water lingering in the air. Even Sasha’s body is clean—though that won’t last long. While blood no longer flows in his veins, gravity still does its job, and those bite marks are already leaking.
Frau Schmidt and her daughter leave the workroom without a word or a backward glance. I don’t expect anything more. Family reunions after a near-death experience are a private matter. Or so I’ve been told.
Glancing at Herr Schmidt as he gathers his work tools from my now pristine stone table, I ask. “Sir? Are we good? My debt is cleared?”
Even in private, I can’t allow myself to speak his true name. My astral wards are gone. Anyone could be listening. And after the ruckus we just caused on the astral plane, people are bound to be out and about, looking for the reason.
“It is.” He nods his affirmation as well. “You’ve shown your mettle.” He gestures to Sasha’s body. “I trust you will deal with that?”
“Of course. The Dark Side is full service. There is nothing more for you to do. Though, when you wish, the club is always happy to receive you and your family as an honored guests.”