The King of Coins, in The Cups
rating: +38+x

Patrick slipped through the streets of London like a forgotten memory. Young, handsome, and free (for the moment) of both limb and responsibility, he strolled the evening-lit byways of the city with the ambling grace of a man who has nothing at all to lose. His life before this morning seemed like something of a murky memory, like a poor daytime drama. Nearly everything gone, and so quickly, and so totally…he felt he should be looking for a place to drown himself, but there was such an airy sense of freedom in his heart. Perhaps ride the cloud until it finally dumped him into the river, or a bullet. No need to rush, however, plenty of time, yet.

The city seemed to have reordered itself to better feed his giddy, masochistic high. Twilight lingered in the sky like a smear, a deep, low fog curling and slithering through the streets like a living thing. The damp and the cold seemed to be keeping people inside as well, the few figures shuffling through the fog little more them dark ghosts. This was old London. The London of Sweeny Todd, Dr. Jekyll, of Jack the Ripper and penny dreadfuls…Patrick smiled, wondering if perhaps the fates would favor his recently ex beloved with a visit to the barber, or good doctor…perhaps too much to hope for. However, as he slipped down a side street into a gloomy alley still clad with cobblestone, high row houses clustering overhead as if trying to peer at his face, he couldn't put it totally outside the realm of possibility.

The pub announced itself shortly after he entered the tiny sidestreet, a dingy, faded sign proclaiming it “The Night's Shade” with ivy-latticed block script. The door was scuffed and dull, the tiny windows clad with warped glass, too coated with nicotine and despair to let more than outlined shadows through. The wood was dark and scummy, the stone steps bowed with generations of drunks. Patrick could feel the place pull with the same nauseating allure of a high cliff. This place was an elephant graveyard of drunks, the final home for those who seemed too broken to truly die. He admired his turn of phrase as he pushed open the groaning door. That same poet's heart his grandmother had lauded had likely earned him that final “failure to perform to expectation” review as well. Well, as The Bard should have said: “Fuck'em.”

The inside went sublimely beyond even his lowest expectations. Dark, fly-spotted lighting. Grimy posters and black-streaked paneling. A formica bartop, stained to a murky nicotine gold, scratched and chipped. Split and patched chairs, leaking foam like pus. The radio warbled sounds that could only be called music by the most tone-deaf. The barman looked to be an impostor, obviously a well-fed boar who had managed to balance on his rear trotters, put on overfilled flesh toned gloves, popped a hearing aid into one ear, and wobbled out mere hours ahead of slaughter. The sole patron was a balding, sallow old crow, wearing a thick, shabby fur coat, the knobby hands holding a half-dead pint with a drunk's shivering tenderness. Judging by the empty glasses, he was already well on the way. Patrick couldn't think of a better place to drink oneself into oblivion. His suicidal bliss was nearly shattered as the old man turned, and favored him with a long, jagged, yellow-toothed smile.

“Ahh, Patrick Franklin, good lord. Never trust a man with two first names, eh? Must be why people like me so much, I've neither. Well don't stand there like some prized castrato waiting for a pat on the head, sit down, you sodding bastard.”

Patrick blinked several times, sitting on the next barstool like a sleepwalker. He had never met this man in his life. As he watched the elderly man produce, light, and drag a deep pull from a cigar in a single motion, letting the smoke curl from his long, sharp nose, Patrick was damned sure he'd remember whoever this was, if he had.

“I'm not sure-”

“No, I'm sure you're not, which is why you're here, but you've picked the worst bleeding time you could have. Oh don't make that damned face, you come by it honestly, you damned Franklin's always jumping the rotting gun. Doesn't mean I have to like it. Bah, bleeding tosspots, all…”

The old man's bizarre rambling trailed off as he took another drink, Patrick looking to the bartender, seeking some sort of aid, or at least acknowledgment. The jowly face wobbled in time with the tinny music of the radio, the tiny, pinched eyes seeming absorbed with cleaning various glasses. He didn't look to even be aware of the two. Patrick finally had a drop of real concern penetrate the dense filter of his joyful nihilism. Nobody knew where he was…hell, he didn't even know where he was. If something were to happen, this place was so isolated…his smile was still wide, but there was a growing ember of worry behind it.

The old buzzard seemed to scent it, and grinned that death's head smile after dragging on his vile cigar again, letting the smoke ooze between his gapped teeth.

“Oh don't be that way, lad. If something was going to happen to you today, it'd have been back around lunch when you popped off at that darling little strumpet of a boss. What was it you called her…oh! That's right, 'stupid bitch of a whore, who wouldn't be here if daddy didn't hand you the job'. A classic, that. More right then you know, even, you know she likes it up the rear? Makes that pup of a boy who trails along behind her wear ear binders and calls him daddy while he does the job. Bleeding idiocy, I swear.”

“H-how did you-”

“Know? It doesn't matter, but I can see that's not enough. I know everything, love, at least everything that might be worth knowing. Might forget the odd empire here and there, but the important things, that I keep. Birthdays, who killed who, favorite sweets, the important things. How? Now that really doesn't matter. I do, that's enough. Fish swim, birds fly, rabbits fuck, I know things, there you are.”

He held open his hands expansively, eyebrows raised as if he'd provided some sort of gift or magic trick. Patrick was starting to reel. The man knew, somehow. He'd known as if it was a foregone conclusion. It didn't make any sense, and he should have been more scared, or upset, but it felt more like a dream then anything else. That sludgy feeling of unreality and open acceptance of the bizarre seemed to be acting as a buffer. He knew he needed to get a handle on this somehow, and seized the chance as the old man took another drink.

“N-now listen, this has gone far enough! What…who the hell are you, and why do you know this? Have you been following me?”

The old man slumped, dropping his glass back to the counter with a weary thump. That cadaverous head turned, and glared at Patrick. The young man suddenly realized he had no idea what color the man's eyes were. They didn't seem to shift, but the color was something he couldn't place. A suppressed shiver squirmed through his back.

“You lower your voice when you speak to me, lad. I've shat better men then you. You lose your tongue with me again, and I'll drill through your teeth and have your tongue sewn to them to make sure you keep track. Follow me?”

He said it with the mild reprimand of a man admonishing a child for playing with the wrong toy. Normally, Patrick would have laughed. The old man's stare, however, filled him with a horrible certainty. He'd do it. Lord help him, he had a sickly suspicion he'd done it before.

“…I'm sorry.”

“Oh stuff it, you're not sorry, you're scared. No point to it…the sorry, not the fear, that's valid. Never be sorry for being human, love, never. Our passions make us, drive us, the only ones who bring shame to it are those who don't understand. Soulless bleeding cattle…”

“Ahh…but…who are you, if I may ask. Sir.”

The old man laughed, a snorting bark that sent smoke spewing from his face, a knobby hand slapping the bar as he chortled.

“Oh, oh, the sirs now, the politeness! Such a good lad you are, most stay snippy for a bit, have to gentle them down, parlor tricks and that rot. Good to see a few sons of the Empire still wafting about. Who, that's infinitely dull. A rotting soul, born to die, stumbling about like idiot, like everyone else. What I am, that's much better. I'm a businessman, Patrick. Now you tell me, what's a businessman?”

He looked at the young man expectantly. Patrick looked about briefly, waving his hands as he struggled for a reply. The conversation was like trying to ride a spooked horse.

“Someone…who does business?”

The old buzzard laughed again, slamming a fist on the bar. The barman nodded absently, his monotone bobbing seeming to condone the action.

“There it is! That's it boy, that! A man who does business. What business? What the fucking hell does it matter? It's business isn't it? Today a shopkeep, tomorrow a banker. Lord, con man, slaver, foreman, it doesn't bleeding matter, it's all business. That's what I am lad, a businessman. I do a lot of it, in a lot of places, for a lot of people and lots of things. Whole world runs on it, don't you know?”

“But…how do you know me? How did you know about…today? I don't…I don't understand. I'm not even sure why I'm here…”

“Ahh, there we come to it. I could tell you, and it wouldn't mean a thing. I know because I do. You're here because you're supposed to be. I'm here to help you, love. At least I would normally. Been an off day, you know. Happens to us all, I suppose, turn down the wrong corner of the heart and suddenly you're noticing the wrinkles on your favorite whore. Terrible thing for a businessman.”

The man finished his glass, ordering a pint of bitters from the barman, who pulled the glass and provided without breaking his rhythm or providing even the slightest hint of understanding. Patrick finally gripped at least something of a handle on the conversation. This was an old man moaning into his drink. The rest was madness, but that at least he could follow. At least somewhat.

“Wait, you said you were here to help me?”

“I said I would normally help you. Supposed to help you, truthfully. Not feeling it today, though, off my game and all that. Gah, but it's galling. Get it all, see men tremble, repulse ladies across the globe, boil your enemies alive in vats of molten shit, and one little black thought can trip you up. Enough to make you want to run away. Had a half-brother, did that. Ran all the way to America, joined the circus, can you believe it. Lots of good businessmen out that way, lad, make no mistake. The kind that lick up pain and find it sweet. Not a ounce of class between them, but vigorous.”

Patrick blinked, watching the man mumble into his glass, taking another deep drink. He felt like he'd stepped into some storybook, and not a very good one. He considered getting a drink himself, but had the powerful feeling that if he did, the whole situation would get even less real. Instead he leaned forward, catching the older man's gaze and holding it with minimal struggle.

“Sir, I don't understand anything you're saying. Business and…all this, I'm not following. Now, I get that somehow you know me, but…I'm just not seeing the point here. The big picture.”

The man put down his glass, and sighed. He nodded slowly, looking back to stare at the bartop.

“And that's it, isn't it. Trying to find the edges of the puzzle, get it all to fit. That's what I'll tell you, lad. It won't help. There's no end to it. There's no one truth, no one…anything. Just more and more. You get chasing it, and it's the worst kind of addiction. You learn to use it, harness it maybe, and it'll help…but eventually you end up on top of a heap of everything you wanted, and it doesn't show you a goddamn thing. Doesn't fill or help or anything. Just more cozy, pretty chains.”

Patrick shook his head. Yep, an old drunk, moaning away. Put aside all the insanity, and that seemed to be the core of it. Still, he was interesting. Probably some nutter who used to run something, until he got too old to keep up. Sad, but none too rare.

“Sir, I'm not looking to rule the world. I just want to be happy. Seems enough of a struggle just to grab that. Like you said, you get to chasing…what?”

The old man was staring, a slow smile creeping across his face like a spreading stain.

“Just want to be happy? Job's blood, but I didn't know there were any left like you. Just say it out plain like that. Too many gussy it up, paint it like a slattern whore, instead of just get their hands down in the mud like that. Bored, angry, lustful, sure…but unhappy? Never hear that these days. Not much, anyway. Is that what you are, lad? If you are, say it, clear. Say it.”

Patrick pulled back involuntarily. The old man's eyes were alight, watery from the drink, sure, but there was a burning interest there that had been totally absent before. Like a cat hearing his favorite treat bag. That drop of concern started to spread.

“I…I don't know if…”

“Say it, lad. Say it if you mean it, and if you don't, you get the hell out of here.”

He stared, those odd eyes seeming to bore into him. Patrick could feel an odd weight in the air, the same pressure he'd felt when his parents had called him downstairs to talk about his father's illness. He knew somehow that this wasn't just idle conversation. Something was tied to this. Yet, he felt a certain reckless curiosity. He'd lost nearly everything…why not take a gamble?

“…I'm not happy, sir.”

He clapped his hands, cackling with glee as he rubbed his palms together. He started to rummage in his coat, and produced a small, flat leather pouch, quickly grabbing Patrick's hand and pressing it in. He quickly stood, and Patrick was a bit shocked at how short the man actually was. He was stronger then he seemed, too, as he started to all but drag Patrick out of the bar.

“There we are! Now, you take that and get the hell out of here. Going to be a lot to do…so long since we had anything really fresh, really new, you know? Hellfire, but I have the spark, lad, I do! What the hell is the point of filling a full cup? Why not fill the empty, yeah?”

“Wait, I don't…what is-”

“Oh shut up and don't fucking spoil this for me love, I don't like that at all. You take that, and you find where it goes. You find that, and maybe you find something that might make you happy, yeah? Going to be a trick, sure, but it's not like you have a lot to lose for trying, yeah?”

He laughed, clapped the young man on the shoulder, gave him an alchohol-sodden kiss on the cheek, and sent him tumbling out the door and into the street with a rather stinging swat on his ass. As Patrick collected himself after nearly slamming into the cobblestones, he could hear a thick lock being shot on the door, followed by a roaring shout.

“Hogwood, you filth, wake the fuck up and get the phone, get the board on the line. Yes, that goddamn phone, you overbloated homunculus of pork, what other one would we use?”

The roar trailed to muffled rumbles as the voice seemed to recede from the door, Patrick left staring as the lights suddenly went out behind the windows. He tried the door, found it locked, and shrugged. One more bit of madness to stack on an already mad day. Patrick sighed, and resumed walking through the foggy streets, wondering if maybe he'd hit his head, or taken something without knowing, and just dreamed the whole madness.

It was nearly an hour later, waiting for a bus, when he remembered the leather package. He fished it from his pocket, and found it was a rather nice sleeve, like the type that holds credit cards for posh gentlemen. It felt oddly heavy, and as he opened it, he quickly found out why. Inside was a small sheet of frosted glass, etched with tiny, complex patterns. It was the size of a business card, and seemed to be one, but it had no actual information. No addresses, no numbers or names. Just a image of a somewhat blank coat of arms, with the stylized outline of a bat, of all things.

A small banner along the bottom proclaimed the names Marshall, Carter, and Dark, Ltd.

Patrick stepped onto the bus, turning the glass card over and over. Something about it seemed to ring a bell. He almost thought he'd seen it before, some office meeting with new investors, but couldn't place it for the life of him. He kept puzzling over it as the bus pulled away.

On the street a short distance from the stop, a massive, heavyset man wrapped in several thick coats and scarves watched the bus with black, beady eyes under a low pulled knit hat. Pedestrians avoided him, dismissing him as homeless, crazy, or both. He grunted once, then turned, nearly bowling over a young lady as he joined the crush of foot traffic. It'd just be time now, just time. He was the type that needed to find things for himself. Rare, but not impossible.

Mr. Dark did know his clients, even before they knew they were.

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