They lifted him off the streets in broad daylight, scooped him out from under the noses of his watchers. It gave him some grim satisfaction, as he found himself pinned with a hand rammed up his back and past his shoulder blade by one man and his hooded face buried in another man’s groin, to think of the heavyweight bollocking they would get for losing him. He could have fought harder, much harder, but he got curious why Shame Cullen of all people wanted to talk. So he let them take him in.
Although the best known of the crime bosses on Thuringen for the last quarter of a century or more, no one knew what Shame Cullen looked like, or if he was even a ‘he’ – or a single person, come to that. One theory held he might be a shadowy council of local politicians. Another, that the original Cullen died long since, his name being kept alive by his successors. It made no real odds, though. All those who ever had dealings with Shame Cullen knew that Cullen was a strong backer, a good paymaster, but not someone to ever, ever cross.
The last time Jaz met Shame Cullen, she had been the owner of one of the more classy cabarets. The time before that, a corrupt lawyer in a high-rise office at the heart of the ‘City. This time he looked to be a well-dressed businessman, deep into middle age, large in all dimensions and wearing a patronising smile.
“You’re going soft on us Jaz,” the man called Shame Cullen said, in a mild tone. “Or is it old age getting to you already? A few years ago no one could have lifted you that easy; I’d have counted on losing at least one of my people just to get the chance to have a quiet chat with you like this.”
Without doubt, this Cullen occupied one of the most luxurious houses Jaz ever got to see inside. Even this room, furnished in some extreme, minimalist style, looked designed to the highest standards of quality and taste, down to the polished stone floor – or a good synthetic equivalent. Cullen’s plush chair sat beside what looked like an antique table, great works of art eased on and off the walls as the ambience sequenced them and the music was subtle, tasteful and unobtrusive. Through the wall-sized security screened window, Jaz could see a wide view of tranquil grounds with stunning biodiversity and even fountains.
It looked elegant, sophisticated and fashionable. But Jaz would have appreciated it so much more reclining in a chair like Shame Cullen, instead of having to stand. And if he did not have his elbows and wrists crudely restrained behind his back by over tight magnocuffs, restricting the blood supply in his hands enough to cause him pain. He tried to ease his arms in an obvious gesture.
“Seems you don’t think me that soft, Shame.”
Cullen grinned at him. All teeth, like a shark. “Course not, son. I think you have your reasons for being co-operative – which just makes me wonder about you more than I was before.”
“I don’t mind talking to you. But you could just have sent an invite.”
“And have you bringing your rent boys and tarts along to the party?” Cullen tutted and shook his head. “No chance. I don’t like that kind of garbage littering my garden.”
“If they don’t know by now, they will figure it out soon enough and then you’ll find them putting footprints through your flowerbeds and pissing in your water features anyway.”
Cullen made an odd grunting bark which seemed to be what passed in him for laughter.
“I heard you always were good for a joke, Jaz.”
They were not alone in the room, two of Cullen’s people were supporting the wall either side of the door out, looking very bored – and another sat, feet up, in a chair by the huge crystal-plex window, seeming to be engrossed in a sports VRcast up on a remote screen. Less obvious – and more dangerous – was the stick thin woman who sat at the back of the room, she appeared to be lost in her own screens, but Jaz could see she was missing nothing. He watched her because he knew she was very good. She led the group sent to lift him.
“I like to spread a little happiness around,” he said.
Cullen nodded and reached for some snacks from the tray on the antique table beside him. The table was beautiful, all carved into leaf and flower shapes, and it looked like real wood.
“So now, son, why don’t you tell your Uncle Shame about your little problem?” Jaz saw no reason not to.
“You know as much as me. They picked me up soon as I got back here and have been with me ever since.”
“They don’t seem to take very good care of you.”
He must have heard about the hospital.
“I don’t think they care what happens to me.”
“Then why do they bother themselves with you at all?”
Jaz would have shrugged, but to do so would have meant taking the risk of dislocating both his shoulders simultaneously.
“You can make the guess for me.”
Shame sat back, his look assessing. “You wouldn’t be holding out on me now, would you Jaz?”
He saw the woman give the slightest nod and the two wall props by the door eased themselves vertical, one flexing a deltoid as if making some kind of threat. The sports fan swung his feet to the floor and wiped the screen from view. Jaz became aware of the movement, part of his perception tracked it with the habit of years and his heartbeat kicked up with adrenaline, but his main attention stayed focused on Cullen.
“I can’t see any reason you might think that,” he said.
“You’ve been gone a long time Jaz, and word is you’ve come back – changed. You’ve turned down sensible offers of making good money and taken to whoring yourself cheap to outsiders. Then you get a bad dose of the parasites – and I hear even your woman wants nothing more to do with you.” Cullen eased himself back a little in the comfortable chair and rested his hands along the arms. “You can see all put together, it makes you look bad, son.”
From Trust A Few, the first book in Fortune’s Fools Haruspex Trilogy by E.M. Swift-Hook.