The Tools We Have

A prospective venture with a mysterious contact in pursuit of a rare book yields unexpected hurdles.

The capital city of Anaxas and the seat of the government.
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Tom Cooke
Posts: 253
Joined: Fri Dec 21, 2018 3:15 pm
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Location: Vienda, but also hell
Race: Raen
: "disturbingly unheimlich individual"
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Writer: Graf
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Thu Aug 01, 2019 5:58 pm

Hollow Street The Dives
Morning on the 9th of Roalis, 2719
It was sunny and warm, among the first proper sunny days in weeks, but a chill breeze whistled down the winding warrens and crooked angles of Hollow Street. Second stories loomed heavy brows over the streets, and them that didn’t leaned over and forward, heads together as if in a conspiracy, all the better to send secret whispers between their windows. Or to guard the conspiracies below, maybe, to shelter the market with bowed heads and watchful old eyes.

If so, they’d done a damn good job of it: unlike Kingsway upstairs, you’d’ve spied the Queen on her litter before you’d’ve glimpsed a green uniform. In all seriousness, ’course, Tom reckoned that was more from lack of care than anything else – that, and the tipsy architecture, too.

In the two and a half months he’d spent living in the Soots, he’d come here often enough. It was, after all, the place to do business if you didn’t want anybody knowing your name, or you didn’t have a name, or you had the wrong one. You wouldn’t get asked for a writ around here, anyway, which’d been a mercy beyond belief in those days.

It didn’t surprise Tom that somebody around here, behind some misshapen doorway crouched deep in one of those alleyways, tucked into some dust-choked snarl of passageways that’d once been a tenement hall, had the kind of book that a kov like him might be looking for. What had surprised him was the source of this knowledge, the hand that’d penned the note that’d brought him down here – Ava Weaver.

In the first place, he found himself wondering – again – just who in the hell Ava Weaver was. Wondering at her connection to this mysterious contact. It was just another door, he reckoned, swathed in silk, just another gap between the puzzle pieces. Of course, he’d never asked, and he never would; being who he was, he knew the ostas that lived the longest were the ones that kept their noses to themselves. Didn’t keep his mind from working at it, though.

In the second place, it hadn’t been two weeks since they’d last spoken. It’d been more cheerful altogether than when they’d parted in Loshis, but he’d still left with the scratching need for something – anything – to help him untie a knot that’d been left in his heart. He’d kept himself dry that night, sleepless and splitting with a headache, but all it’d taken was an attempt at what Weaver’d taught him and a polished mirror to show him what she’d seen. The end of the political season had sent Diana visiting relatives in Hesse, and the house had echoed with a kind of encouraging emptiness.

But he’d admitted it, now, and it hung between them like a thread, and there was no taking it back. When he’d received the note, neat and succinct, and when he’d opened it with drunk, fumbling fingers, the thread gave a little tug. He’d slept it off before he’d replied, and he hadn’t had a drop to drink in the last two days.

And after all that, he wondered what she’d found in all this madness that was so important to him. He wouldn’t ask that, either, though he was grateful.

He’d written back the next day, getting the note to her in their usual fashion, spilling the requisite shills to ensure the silence of the messenger on his end. He was as succinct as she’d been, if a little less artful.


Will be at old pawnbroker at
corner of Hollow & Bergmot at time

So when the ninth of Roalis’d come, he’d readied himself insofar as he could. He’d cleaned up, but he was tired to his bones, and he was dressed like any other tsat that scraped out a decent enough living in the Dives, if a little more layered against the cold than he ought to’ve been. He’d kept a pair of gloves he’d come by when he lived down here, kept them tucked away at the house – they were patchy and threadbare and a little too big, and with the fingers cut haphazardly out, they reminded him of the gloves he’d worn and worn out back in the Rose.

Little things.

He’d come early that morning, too early, maybe because he’d wanted to spend a precious hour or two slipping in and out of the crowds, chatting about the high, roiling Arova with the fishmongers in the crisp dawn air. Weaving among the nattles haggling at stalls, cutting-sharp raised voices – joining Estuan, snatches of Heshath and Riverword and Mugrobi – mingling with the burble of the crowd and the distant trill of a flute or plucking of a guitar. He saw long, tired faces, too, and clothes worn thin, and plenty of beggars; and once or twice, he’d felt the jostle of a sloppy pickpocket.

He got a few stray glances, a few that edged round the frazzled ends of his field, but in the whirlwind of that crowd, anyone who found themselves looking at him would soon find something more interesting to look at. For a little while, he blended in.

It was still too early when he tucked himself in to wait under the awning of old Burton’s, in sight of the crooked street-sign of Bergamot and Hollow. Somewhere along the way, he’d found himself in possession of an orange, and it was his intent to break his fast hastily before he had company. So he stood leaned up against the dusty, dark window in the shade, half-watching and -waiting, half-engaged in peeling the orange.

“You sharin’?” came a sharp little voice at Tom’s elbow.

He didn’t look down. “Nah. Beat it, lad.” He’d got half the peel off.

“Ain’t a lad.”

“Ain’t a lad?” Tom glanced over, then down.

There was a boch standing beside him, a wiry little thing in too-big clothes; two glittering black eyes peered up at him from underneath thick, serious-looking eyebrows. A couple of frayed braids fell over her thin shoulders.

“Huh. You got the birds to pay me?” he asked, once he’d peeled off the last scraps of hide from the orange and tossed them to the dirty stones.

The girl pouted. “Ain’t got no birds,” she shot back. “Mean old golly.”

Tom pulled a couple of wedges of orange free, then offered them to the girl. After a few suspicious moments, during which she looked him up and down several times, she took the orange slices. He tore off one for himself, and they stood there under the awning, side by side, chewing on orange slices contemplatively and watching passersby.

The girl held out her hand for another one, and Tom passed her the whole orange. Her brow furrowed. A few seconds later, through a mouthful of citrus, she asked, “What are you, anyway?”

“That’s a rude fuckin’ question.”

“Tell me an’ I’ll share.”

“I’m a hatcher.”

“Really?”

She tentatively offered him a couple of orange slices, and he took them, undeterred by her sooty little hands. “Honest,” he replied, popping one in his mouth. “Them that lives in the sewers. Didn’t you know? I’m civilized, but watch your fingers.”

A giggle got a smug, satisfied smile out of Tom. Headache might be easing off, he thought. To his surprise, the girl passed the orange back, and he took it, tearing off a couple more wedges for her and a couple more for himself. They spent the next few minutes passing the orange back and forth, sharing slices, and Tom idly told her about sewer life. He kept an eye out, glancing over each passing face in search of a familiar one.

When he saw one, he tossed what remained of the orange back to the girl. “Right – get gone, hey?” But she didn’t go. With a sigh, Tom fumbled in his pockets, then bent and pressed a few shills into her outstretched hand. “Be a good lass an’ dust, an’ not a word,” he murmured.

With an abrupt nod, she turned and ran, and it wasn’t long before she’d disappeared into the crowd. Tom rose and turned, lifting his brows a little apologetically.
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Last edited by Tom Cooke on Thu Aug 01, 2019 11:48 pm, edited 4 times in total. word count: 1493

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Ava Weaver
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Thu Aug 01, 2019 7:34 pm

Evening, 4th Roalis, 2719
Best Left Unsaid, The Dives
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Ava smiled across the table.

“Books, Silk?” Archive asked. He shifted, once, made as if to look around, then brought his gaze back down to his tankard with a scowl.

“Books,” Ava said, her voice no louder than his - easily lost to the hum of music coming from the room outside, even if someone knew how to enter their little alcove. “Strange books,” she grinned.

“Strange - Ahh, chroveshit,” Archive grumbled. He paused, looking across the narrow table, and flushed, flapping his hand at her. “Er, sorry. It’s just - how did you know how to find me, again?”

Ava let her grin shift to a smile, knowing and mysterious. She picked up the little glass of wine on the table in front of her, and took a sip. She set it back down again, and lowered her hands back to the lap of her pale green dress, the light green made to look even lighter by the white detailing across the front. Even in the dimness of their little cove, with her cloak slipped off and set aside, Ava knew the color was visible.

“Chroveshit,” Archive grumbled again. He scowled, running his fingers through hair that was rapidly thinning on top, shifting his stomach against the edge of the table. “Uh, sorry. You know, when I got your note, I –”

Ava raised an eyebrow.

Abruptly, Archive found himself much too embarrassed to continue. He cleared his throat and tugged at his collar. “This official?”

“No,” Ava smiled again. “It has possibilities but - for now, no. I thought we could keep it between us, Archive.”

Archive huffed, drummed his fingers against the table. He took another swallow of his beer, wiped the foam off against his sleeve. “Between us. All right, tell me.”

Ava did.

By the time she finished, Archive was doubled over at the table, groaning softly and massaging his temples with his fingers. He sat up, adjusted his waistband again, and stared at Ava. “Tell me it’s official,” There was a faint note of pleading in his voice.

Ava shook her head, gently. “No, not this time. But – I understand. I’m sure it’s very dangerous. If you can’t help me...” she lowered her eyes, slowly, letting the words trail off into silence.

“I never said can’t!” Archive grumbled. “Never said can’t. Aww - chroveshit - hells - sorry - Silk, I never said can’t.”

Ava blinked, once, long, mascara-laden lashes smoothing gently against her cheek - and she waited.

Archive stared at her across the table. His jaw worked, silently. He rubbed his hand through his thinning hair again, shifted uneasily against the hard bench.

“Fine! Fine. Look, I know a kov, sure,” Archive made a face. “Don’t tell anyone I told you - not even this codename. Got it? Chroveshit, just knowing this guy’s enough for the godsdamned uncles to haul you off.”

“Of course,” Ava let a pleased smile curl over her face, let warmth seep slowly into the crinkling of her eyes. It wasn’t hard. She was, indeed, very pleased, pleased enough not even to bother to rebuke him for the cursing. “Just tell me how to get in touch with him, and I promise - you won’t hear any more about this.”


Morning, 9th Roalis, 2719
Hollow Street, The Dives
Dressing for Hollow Street was always a challenge, and the warm sunny weather didn’t exactly help. The trick, Ava thought, was to hide everything while looking very much like you had nothing to hide. Alternatively, you could try to look like you had something very obvious to hide; that was a delicate game. Too obvious, and it raised its own questions; not obvious enough, and you never knew what someone might think.

The other challenge, of course, was that she still had to be seen leaving the shop in whatever she chose, and there weren’t many safe places to change on the route she’d chosen. And Ava did, very much, need to be seen going out; it would be best to be thought running errands, and not to have mysteriously vanished. The Painted Ladies were terribly small in that way.

Ava left the windows of the shop shut and drawn, and made her way out of the front door, smiling and pleasant in a cool brown dress, a broad-brimmed hat with a length of silk wrapped around it perched over her hair. The dress was a simple enough style, with long points at the front and back. The fabric was a light looking cotton; it shifted in the faint breeze that Roalis brought with it, stirring the dust on the streets and whisking around the neat boots that hid Ava’s ankles. She carried her errand basket over one arm, brown and green ribbons threaded through its weave, soft fabric inside to cradle anything delicate she might buy - eggs, naturally, would need that sort of swaddling.

“Good morning,” Ava waved to Ms. Marlin from next door, smiling pleasantly and lingering as if she meant to chat, as if she didn’t see the tension in the other woman, the way she looked nervously down the street. “Such lovely weather, isn’t it? Of course, it’ll be too hot soon.”

“Of course,” Ms. Marlin shifted. “Ms. Weaver, I’m terrible sorry, but I’m - I’d really better -“

“Oh! Of course,” Ava said, wide-eyed. “My apologies, please.” She let the other woman go, then set off as if on her own errands.

A few blocks, a few more turns, and then a quiet nook on a not-too-near street. Ava slipped the ribbons loose from the hat and the basket, and tied one up into a headband, pushing her hair back off her face. She left the hat behind, patting it once as if in apology, and took the fabric out from the bottom of the basket, revealing a light tan summer cloak, worn and slightly threadbare. She slipped it on over her dress, smoothing the hood into place over her hair, and slipped a scuffed, worn wedding ring from her pocket onto one finger. Beneath the cloak, she wound a long length of fabric around her waist, carefully thickening her silhouette.

Ava hitched the now worn-looking basket onto her arm, and began to walk, the fast, brisk movements of a person with somewhere to be. Whenever possible, her free hand rested lightly, delicately against her stomach, emphasizing the faint hint of a curve she’d arranged there. An embarrassed young woman, pregnant, hurrying somewhere on Hollow Street; she doubted anyone would look twice, let alone long enough to recognize Ava Weaver. She hoped they wouldn’t.

Tom was easy enough to find. Even dressed as he was, Ava thought she would never forget the look of Anatole’s profile. Tom’s, now, she reminded herself – as if she needed reminding, with him passing an orange back and forth with a too-thin little girl. She didn’t look at him, not much, and when she stopped she turned as if the only thing she intended was to look in the window of the pawn broker. She lingered a few moments there, free hand settling comfortably back against her stomach, letting her gaze wander over the odds and ends inside. If she let herself think a little, it was with her gaze fixed firmly on the display of rings and watches.

Tom turned to her, smiling, and Ava looked back at him, over her shoulder, and smiled, just enough of one to let him know she’d seen him. If she looked at him - without knowing, if she really looked - he might be a tsat. Maybe, anyway, although she was close enough to feel the awful frizzing of his field against her skin.

“This way,” Ava said, quietly.

She turned and walked away without waiting for Tom to acknowledge her, sliding back into the shifting crowd, trusting him not to follow her too obviously. She hoped she could trust him; Ava supposed she would know soon enough. Another block, a turn, and then Ava slipped away from the flow of people, stepping into a narrow alley, tucking herself back and out of sight. She stopped there, and by the time Tom joined her, her hair was loose over her shoulders, the hood of the cloak tucked back, the worn wedding band slipped away, and the fabric that had lined her waist tucked away in her basket.

“Good morning, Mr. Cooke,” Ava said, pleasantly. She smiled at him, now, and hoped, very seriously, that he wasn’t drunk. “I hope you’ve been well?”
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Tom Cooke
Posts: 253
Joined: Fri Dec 21, 2018 3:15 pm
Topics: 29
Location: Vienda, but also hell
Race: Raen
: "disturbingly unheimlich individual"
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Writer: Graf
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Fri Aug 02, 2019 11:05 pm

Hollow Street The Dives
Morning on the 9th of Roalis, 2719
He’d seen the cloak first, a benny thing that looked like it’d seen better days; he’d registered the quick, awkward gait of somebody who wanted to get someplace fast, without being noticed. Then he’d seen the face.

She wasn’t looking at him, now; he’d felt her eyes on him for a half-second, maybe, with no recognition in them, but there wasn’t much chance she hadn’t recognized him. For his part, he didn’t look away immediately. As she stopped to glance over the shop display, he let his gaze linger, detached and easy-like, casual, a passing look any kov’d give a pretty chip. Not too long. He glanced down at the delicate hand on her stomach, then at the scuffed ring on her finger – then away, out over the bustling street.

She moved on, but he caught the little smile she threw over her shoulder. He stayed outside Burton’s for a few moments more, leaning his head back against the cool brick, putting his hands in his pockets. Studying the stall across the way with a half-occupied, half-interested look.

She disappeared to the edges of his sight, now a glimpse of a pale cloak buffeted by the breeze, now gone behind a gaggle of chattering washerwomen or a tsat stopped to look at his watch. He pushed himself up off the wall, sliding back out into the street at just as easy a pace. After another glance back at the pawnbroker, like he was thinking hard about something, he started a slow, indecisive walk up the street, weaving over to the opposite side. All the while, he kept an eye on that cloak.

If Tom knew how to do anything at all, it was tail a kov (or a chip) inconspicuously.

Hadn’t been easy back then, either. Back when he was alive, that was, when he was him. Even among humans, you noticed if a man big as that – and scarred-up, too – was following you. It’d taken him years, half his life, just about, to figure out how to make it work, and he’d still had problems with his cleverer targets; ’course, there was only so much you could do, and by the time you got Tom sent after you, being followed was only the first of your worries.

Still, he’d been a good hand at it, especially there at the end. Like he could feel the ebb and tide of the Rose, the way the streets wove through the folds of her petals, how her moods shifted from neighborhood to neighborhood. In the night, in the broad, quiet ways of Castle Hill, Cantile, he knew how to walk soft and move graceful, to follow the shadows. In the day, he knew what to look at, where to pause, how far ahead to let the mark get. How to laugh and chat with passersby, how to make his conspicuousness look harmless. Hell, he’d done that just walking down the street, mark or no mark: looking the way he had, you had to, ’cause anybody’d just assume you were up to no good.

It was different, now, ’course. Felt different. He was more than a head shorter than most of the men around him; he could barely see over a nattle’s shoulder, and that was making it hard to keep track of Ava. But he felt the crowd like he always had, felt the way it moved, and now, he felt the tingle of glamours against the edges of his own field, felt the curious movements of the mona brush his ley lines.

And he was getting more graceful, even if he still fumbled with his fingers, even if he still felt weak and strange; he was starting to be able to move like he always had, starting to settle in. Right now, even sober – and he didn’t think that helped – even still, even with his head full of cotton and pain, he felt almost like he had a hundred times before in the Rose.

He was glancing over a paper stand when he saw the cloak disappear from his periphery, darting into a narrow alleyway a ways ahead. With a shrug, he walked up the street just a little more, eyes wandering; then, when he’d come right up to the mouth of the alley, he slipped sideways, tucking himself into it as well.

In the cool darkness, he took a breath.

“Mornin’. Dead and enjoyin’ every minute of it, Ms. Weaver.” He took off his hat, tucking it under his arm, then ran a hand through the tousled mess of his hair. He still wasn’t looking at her; he shot a look up the alleyway, toward the bustle of the street, where his eyes lingered for a handful of seconds. Sucking at a tooth, he nodded. Then he turned a wry smile on Ava. “Well enough, hey? Yourself?”

There wasn’t a whiff of liquor to be smelled on him, but this close-up, one of his eyes was a little red, and his face was just drawn enough to make him look like somebody who hadn’t slept in awhile.

She’d taken off the ring, and the shape of her looked different, a little more familiar, a little more right. He couldn’t’ve said how, though. If there was amusement in his expression, there more than a little admiration, too. He didn’t have as sharp an eye as he used to, and if she hadn’t stopped beside Burton’s, letting him see her face full-on, he didn’t think he’d’ve recognized her.

His expression turned serious, and he inclined his head and shoulders in a half-bow. The alleyway was narrow; he didn’t have room for a deep one. “Thank you,” he said finally, simply, voice lower. He put weight on the two words.
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Ava Weaver
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Sat Aug 03, 2019 11:07 am

Morning, 9th Roalis, 2719
Hollow Street, The Dives
Ava smiled a little at Tom’s greeting, watching him look up at the alley, towards the street. She wondered, curiously, what he was looking for, but she didn’t ask; she thought it likely that Tom Cooke knew a thing or two more than she did about following and being followed, and she wouldn’t presume to ask. There was something pleasant about his little nod; Ava felt it almost like praise.

“Well enough, thank you for asking,” Ava said, politely. She didn’t lean in to check, but all the same she was well aware that she would have been close enough to smell the liquor on his breath, were there any to smell. He looked – tired, she thought. He looked like a man who couldn’t sleep at night, a man with something weighing on him and keeping him awake. Ava supposed he had plenty to choose from.

She didn’t let her gaze linger on his face, though; she didn’t let him see the curiosity in her eyes. There was only a warm, friendly smile, and perhaps the faintest hint of tension around her shoulders.

Ava made a delicate little curtsy in response to Tom’s bow and his thanks; the depth matched his, neatly, and if she needed to adjust around the little basket tucked over her arm, she did it flawlessly and without the faintest hesitation. She smoothed off the skirt of the brown dress; the cloak was drawn open now, slightly, revealing the cotton beneath, the way the dress was neatly tailored to her. A bit of ruched fabric across the front was the only detail on it, just a few tucks of fabric here and there. The neckline was soft, a smooth curve that left her throat bare.

“You’re welcome,” Ava said. She wouldn’t demean Tom’s thanks by ignoring it, by brushing it aside or pretending it had been nothing. This wasn’t nothing. It wasn’t all for Tom either, of course, not anymore, but she thought he knew that and offered her his thanks all the same. And so – Ava was glad to accept it.

Ava hadn’t told Tom much in her note; it wasn’t safe, she thought, to write down more than necessary. She thought, now, carefully, about what he would need, what he might already know. The book he had mentioned in his notes – she thought he would have understood from her writing that it was what they were in pursuit of.

And what more was he learning from all this? What did he wonder about her? Ava was all too aware that she had showed Tom – too much. What did he assume? She had never been able to act with him like she had nothing to hide. No, Ava thought, it was a bit late for such doubts now.

“I don’t know for sure that Binder has it,” Ava said, quietly. She met Tom’s flat, gray eyes, unflinching. “But he’s the likeliest – and if he doesn’t have it now, he may be able to.”

Binder also had, Ava had learned, something of a reputation. He liked to see who the book was going to; and Ava knew he would never buy that it was for her, not as a human. Whatever Tom was, he clearly had a field; and the only thing riskier than bringing him would have been able to bring someone else in on this.

Ava smiled at him again, warm and friendly once more. She wished, for a moment, that she could take his hand – squeeze, gently, to reassure him or perhaps herself. But she didn’t; her hands didn’t move, didn’t even come close to reaching for him. Instead, she turned, a careful, neat motion in the little alleyway, stepped a little further along, and opened a small half-hidden door, slipping inside.

What greeted them was a narrow hallway that reeked of mildew. It was oddly cool and damp inside, as if Roalis’s sun hadn’t yet managed to reach this far. Ava tucked her basket down inside the door, leaving it behind, stepped deftly around an odd and unpleasant looking stain just visible in the lingering light from the alleyway outside, and made her way slowly towards the warped wooden staircase at the back of the hallway.

Ava eased her weight, slowly and carefully, onto the lowest step. It groaned and creaked loudly beneath her foot anyway, and she glanced back over her shoulder at Tom, lifting her eyebrow. After a moment, though, Ava would continue up the staircase; she didn’t see that they had much choice but to continue.

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Tom Cooke
Posts: 253
Joined: Fri Dec 21, 2018 3:15 pm
Topics: 29
Location: Vienda, but also hell
Race: Raen
: "disturbingly unheimlich individual"
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Sun Aug 04, 2019 12:55 am

Hollow Street The Dives
Morning on the 9th of Roalis, 2719
Binder. Huh.

’Course, Ava hadn’t mentioned the kov’s name in their correspondence, same as she hadn’t mentioned how she knew him. Which’d been fine with him; he hadn’t needed to know, being honest. All he’d needed was word that he might actually have a chance to get his hands on the Tzcks book, that the thing might be in Vienda right now, and he’d pricked his ears up like a dog to a whistle. He thought it was Tzcks’ lost notes, at least; he didn’t reckon he’d mentioned any other rare books in the journal he’d lent her.

Binder was a funny name, Tom thought. Convenient, maybe, if you were any old book-binder, but there weren’t a lot of those. Not natts, anyway. Binder, he thought, sounded like a nickname, and he didn’t like it none, though he couldn’t’ve said why. For just half a second, he found himself thinking of Barnabas Penley, and he didn’t like that none, neither.

Still, this thing wasn’t just rare. It was borderline-nonexistent rare, rare like a bloom of Imaan’s Breath in the desert, rare like a Shothan – rare like a raen. So rare you just about couldn’t bring yourself to believe it actually existed. Wasn’t a chance he reckoned he could pass up, no matter who was on the other end of the deal, no matter if he might be risking his neck by showing up in person.

And at the end of the day, he trusted Ava, too. With all her secrets, with all the unknowns. He couldn’t help but return that warm smile; because he saw the tension in her shoulders, because she’d accepted his thanks so readily and with so much grace, he couldn’t help it. When she met his eyes like that, he made sure to look into hers, even though it was still hard, knowing which eyes he was looking out of.

She respected him, and she saw him; he was going to respect her right back, even if it meant that he wasn’t completely sure what he was getting into this time.

Another brusque, determined nod, to let her know he knew.

Tom followed her a little ways down the alleyway, feeling out the brick with his fingertips in the dark. Then she opened the little door – how’d he missed it? (How could she see it, more like, with all these damned shadows?) A wave of chill, damp air hit him, and he shivered. He noticed her leave her basket behind. For a moment, he stood there, peering into the close, dark space. Was like the building he’d lived in growing up, with Meggie, he thought. Familiar and alien, all at once.

He caught the door, tucking himself into the dank little hallway behind her. The first thing he did was breathe, and that was a mistake; he felt something like fire in his face, in his lungs, and he cupped his mouth and squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them, they prickled awful. He husked a little against his hand, trying not to cough too loudly. He thought wryly that these lungs hadn’t breathed a lot of this kind of air.

Then he followed her, squinting in the dimness, stepping around a laoso-looking dark patch that bloomed out from the baseboards. He moved twice as careful on the staircase; again, he wondered how she kept her footing in all this dark. She took a step, and there was a loud creak, and he met her eye as she turned.

He thought he heard something behind him, some kind of shuffling. When he turned to look, all he saw was an empty hallway, a shut door. Nothing but the cobwebs, the flowering dark stains of black mold.

He turned back. As they reached the first landing, he paused and shook silently with another suppressed cough. Then, wiping a tear out of his twitching eye, he followed her all the way up the first flight. The second floor hallway was much like the first; it was quiet and still, though he thought he might’ve heard muffled sobs somewhere down the way, accompanying the distant creak of unsteady floorboards.

Ava took him to the second door on the left. It was as unmarked as the rest of them, though Tom thought he could see a little light trickling through the crack underneath. He thought he smelled something, too, something off. Just a whiff. He couldn’t be sure. Not with his nose acting up like this.

He couldn’t see the expression on her face when she opened the door, and he couldn’t read much from her posture. He followed her in without hesitation, suppressing the prickling of dread he felt.

When the smell hit him proper, it was stronger than the old wood, stronger than the mildew. Gritting his teeth, he pushed down a gag; his stomach lurched, but he kept it still. This didn’t seem planned.

It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the dark, even deeper than the dim hall, and even then, he couldn’t see much.

It was a tiny, tight space, this room, the walls and the ceiling seeming to bow inward – sagging, maybe, with the same godsawful dampness that haunted the whole place. There was room for a couple of bookcases, all packed with what, in Anatole’s poor vision, looked like records; they were big, unlabeled books, sandwiched between sheaves of curling, dark-edged papers. A desk crouched at the center of the room, unmanned. One of its legs was half-rotted and propped up with an old brick. A rickety chair stood behind it, and one of the drawers’d been pulled wide open, maybe in a hurry, ’cause it was at a crooked angle.

There was another little door behind it and to one side. Tom stepped out into the room despite the smell, but his lip curled. It got stronger, that corpse-reek, he thought, as you got closer to the door. He looked at Ava grimly.
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Ava Weaver
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Sun Aug 04, 2019 3:13 pm

Morning, 9th Roalis, 2719
Hollow Street, The Dives
T
he air didn’t clear as Ava proceeded slowly upwards, the wood protesting beneath her feet with every step. If anything, Ava thought, the smell seemed to grow a little worse. Not just mildew, she thought, although she saw plenty of that along the walls, slimy and spotted. The color was hard to make out in the dim light, but in the corners of the hallway above, she saw dark-looking fuzz, and she knew it for mold.

Mildew and mold. Ava knew them both – not only half-remembered from her childhood in the Rose, her mother and aunt airing out every inch of their houses during those precious months of Roalis and Yaris, when – however briefly – the world was dry enough that one could throw open the shutters, dry up every inch of whatever had been sitting beneath the baseboards. She remembered her aunt shouting at her uncle to clear the gutters, her voice rising to an almost hysterical pitch as she described, in depth, the unhealthiness of mold for childrens’ lungs.

And Ava remembered, too, recent and sharp, the desperate fear she’d known her first rainy season in the house in the Painted Ladies – knowing, knowing, that if a deeper rot sprang up, she had nowhere near the money to have the boards replaced. She remembered wearing a dress little better than a rag, thick heavy gloves, a kerchief for her hair and another for her face, and trying tonic after tonic for the stains in the lower basement, checking every day until she was sure they wouldn’t return – until she was sure that she could move in her too-expensive inventory of fabrics. If they molded – it hadn’t been worth thinking about, but sometimes she had woken in the middle of the night, and had to burn precious oil checking them before she could sleep, before the bone-deep fear would settle and smooth away.

An ounce of prevention, Mr. Smythe had told her, surveying the old house with a wise and knowing glint in his eyes, was worth a pound of cure. Ava had agreed; she had been grateful for the man’s small general shop two streets over, for the little twists of paper he had given her with patented mildew cures, for the caulk he had sold her to seal up the little cracks in the old house where water crept in. It was never a mildew problem and not a mold problem either, he had explained: it was always a water problem. Keep the water out, and mildew wouldn’t dare grow on the strong wood of the old house. Keep the water out, and a bit of spot cleaning would always be enough.

This place, Ava thought, was long past spot cleaning. It needed to be ripped up and begun anew; it needed light shone into its deepest, darkest crevices. But she was here for darkness, not for light, and she knew that not all secrets were best kept in the open.

The smell in the room, though – that was even worse. Ava made a little face; this one, she thought, she couldn’t identify. Some other strain of mold, she wondered. Something sick and a little sweet; it turned her stomach. She glanced over the shelves, over the sad drooping ceiling, over the messy, half-opened desk.

Tom shifted towards the door, and Ava thought she saw him look at it. He looked at her, and she couldn’t quite read his face.

Where was Binder?

Ava made a little face of her own. They had not, she thought, set a precise time, but from what Archive had told her – it was odd for the man not to be here. Perhaps, Ava thought, he was in the little room off to the side; that must be where he kept his books.

It looked as if the door was normally locked; it had a big, heavy sort of lock, much nicer than what had sealed the little office from the hall. The door was heavy too; Ava couldn’t hear anything through it, but, then, she wouldn’t have expected to. Ava stepped past Tom, though, and the handle turned at her touch – turned and swung in.

Ava gasped – spun away, shaking, moved from the open doorway back to the desk, her face drained of color. She fumbled a handkerchief from a secret pocket and pressed it to her mouth, shaking, breathing in the crisp, clean scent of linen, the faintest smell of lavender from the sachets she kept in the drawer. It helped, but it wasn’t enough – it wasn’t enough to drown it out.

It. The body. Because – in addition to rows of bookshelves, packed with Binder’s inventory, there was, lying on the floor of the room, a large and unwieldy body, face down in a pool of blood, his hair unidentifiably dark in the dim lightning. Flies buzzed and swarmed over it; Ava, at least, hadn’t looked long enough to see how they’d gotten in. The smell was horrific; sweet and rotten and almost metallic. Ava had seen dead bodies before, more than once, but she had never smelled anything like this, never seen anything like it.

Ava gripped the back of the rickety chair with one hand, kept the handkerchief pressed to her face, and took deep, slow breaths, shaking as she tried to calm herself. A body, she told herself, meant danger; danger to her, and to Tom. She had brought him here, and he deserved better than her panic.

When her voice emerged, it was tight but otherwise close to normal. Ava wiped her watering eyes on the handkerchief, and turned to Tom. “It’s not him, I think,” she said, taking a deep breath and trying to ease some of the tension from her shaking shoulders, her hand clasped too tight.

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Tom Cooke
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Joined: Fri Dec 21, 2018 3:15 pm
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Location: Vienda, but also hell
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: "disturbingly unheimlich individual"
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Sun Aug 04, 2019 10:06 pm

Hollow Street The Dives
Morning on the 9th of Roalis, 2719
Ava moved past Tom, toward the door, and he didn’t presume to stop her. He reckoned he had a good enough idea of what they’d find, but he couldn’t read her expression; it was dark, damnably dark, and for the first time, he wished he could use those ley lines of his to cast some kind of light spell.

He braced himself a little when she put her hand on the knob and turned. He half-hoped the door’d be locked, but if there was an Ever out there where he didn’t have to look at a corpse today, it wasn’t this one. She opened the door, stopped –

Then whirled, pale as paper.

The smell hit him, too, square in the face, like some fetid cloud’d been let out of its box. He thought he’d been prepared for it, but when he got a lungful of that laoso, he broke out into another fit of coughing, this time poorly-suppressed. He struggled with himself a few moments, wheezing into his hand, then squinted over at Ava. By now, she was by the desk, holding herself steady against that chair, a handkerchief under her nose.

Tom pushed down a gag, eyes moving back toward the open door. He clicked his tongue, hissed a curse through his teeth, and then moved carefully toward the doorway. There was more light trickling in from the side room; as he drew near, he saw it came from a dingy, filth-caked little window above a row of packed bookshelves. It gave out on another row of dark, dirty windows, the apartments across the narrow alleyway; even up here, the space was wreathed in shadows, but the thin thread of sky between them was enough to let in a fraction of the early Roalis sunshine.

Easier to look at the window. Putting one hand on the doorframe and pinching his nose with the other, he squinted down at the shape on the floor.

Big man, he thought first. For a second, he got the surreal, nasty feeling he was looking down at himself, with that tangle of dark hair matted and seeping with the blood from his head. He couldn’t make out much else – couldn’t tell where the blood was coming from, whether he’d been shot or what – but he could tell the kov was six foot at least, and well-muscled but not cut, built strong and hardy. With a brief glance back at Ava, Tom took another step forward, waving away an errant fly. Just enough to stick his head in.

Then another step. Then another. He husked with another half-cough, cursing again, irritated. He would’ve sworn he could see something on the kov’s arm, splayed out as it was, bare, the tangle of his sleeve pushed up around his elbow. Could’ve been a bloodstain. He gave a cursory glance toward something nearby, something that gave a brief little sheen when he moved – a sharp, lying not far from that hand.

Pushed down another gag. Stomach churning. He leaned a little. Then he blinked.

He turned and left the room quick enough, waving away more flies, teeth grit hard against the nausea. He shut the door behind him, waiting for the soft click, then slumped against it. “Oughtta –” Another wheeze cut him off; he took a deep breath. “Oughtta dust,” he finished quietly. After a moment, he said, “You sure that ain’t Binder? He’s got a funny tattoo. On his arm. I don’t recognize it, but I think I might...”

Tom tried to meet Ava’s eyes, but there was a strange look on his face. If she could see it, it was drawn and pale – Anatole’s twitch had started up with a ferocity – but curious, and dubious, and maybe a little distrustful. There was a pinched look to the lines on his face.

It’d been a stag’s antlered head. He hadn’t been lying; he didn’t recognize it, though he thought he might know a few of the connotations. He felt something tugging at the back of his head, something telling him not to let go of his suspicions, but something else in his mind – something a little more obvious – was telling him to be careful. He trusted Ava, or he wanted to. What if it was this Binder kov, though? What if she knew what he was involved in, and she was involved in it herself? What if he’d already said too much?

Slowly, he moved closer to the desk, peering hesitantly into the yanked-open drawer. It was empty. He glanced up at Ava, frowning slightly as he noticed the tension in the set of her shoulders, the way she held that handkerchief. Her voice’d sounded – normal, he reckoned, but there was something strained there, and up close, she looked like she was working hard to breathe as even as she was.

“You okay?” he asked, trying not to breathe through his nose. He thought it made him sound silly, but he didn’t exactly care. “You say the word, you think it’s wise for us to dust, we dust. I’m not asking any questions, now or later.”
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Ava Weaver
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Mon Aug 05, 2019 8:56 am

Morning, 9th Roalis, 2719
Hollow Street, The Dives
T
om muttered a creative curse. Ava glanced over her shoulder at him; she couldn’t quite bring herself to turn back to the door. She wanted to, or at least part of her did, but it asked for more than she had to offer. She watched, quiet, breathing through the handkerchief, as he forced himself slowly and steadily into the room. One step at a time, she thought, and had to squeeze her eyes shut.

Tom, Ava thought, managed to stand the room a startlingly long time. She wondered how many bodies he had seen before; she wondered how many lives he had taken himself, back when he was alive. She wondered what he saw in that awful room; she wondered what it meant to him. She wondered anything and everything she could think of; any thoughts were better than the body lying nearby and the smell seeping through the office.

At last Tom emerged, and shut the door with a click. A shudder rolled through Ava at the sound, and she looked up at him, still too stiff, too tense, her whole body almost aching with the strain. Ava was looking at Tom when he began to speak; at first, it felt normal enough.

Then, slowly, his eyes slid away from her; his face pinched tense and taut. His eye was twitching and jumping. Ava pressed her lips together beneath the handkerchief. She didn’t try to hide the strain on her face, not anymore. By the time Tom approached she was trembling, more than a little, her hand white-knuckled on the chair.

He asked if she was all right; he asked if they should go, and Ava heard worry in his tone now. She took a deep breath; that faint lavender scent was all but gone now, nothing but a faint memory. She lowered the handkerchief, slowly, holding it gently in one hand. Her face was nearly as pinched as his, her skin pale beneath the lip color and eyeliner.

“I don’t know,” Ava still did her best to keep the strain from her voice, but she didn’t, anymore, keep Tom from seeing the fear on her face. She looked away, slowly, back to the closed door. “I don’t think it’s Binder,” Ava said again. What had Archive said? A small, sandy-haired kov with a face like a ferret. “He’s - too big.” He had been big, hadn’t he? And his hair - in that narrow trickle of light through the dusty window, it had looked dark. Had it only been the blood?

Ava wanted to ask about the tattoo - but Tom had gone so stilted and hesitant. He had come to meet her here; his trust had extended that far, but - not all the way, it would seem. Ava supposed she ought to understand that; she supposed she ought to respect it. Painfully, she didn’t ask; she wouldn’t force him.

Was she okay? Ava looked down at the handkerchief in her hand. Carefully, she folded it and tucked it away. Carefully, she took a deep breath, smoothing the fear from her face, relaxing her shoulders and jaw. She let Tom see it; she didn’t try to hide the subtle transformation. If he watched, if he understood, he would see Ava take her fear and master it. Her eyes fluttered closed for a second, and when they opened again, there was calm in them once more.

“I’m okay,” Ava used the slang with the faintest little smile for Tom, a deliberate choice. She turned to the desk, looking down at it. The yanked drawer was empty. Had it contained a weapon? Or had Binder, whether he had been taken or he had fled, thought to bring his books.

Ava began to try the other drawers. One contained what looked like a spare set of handkerchiefs and drawers; another, towards the bottom, a bottle of something dark and brown and a glass. That drawer Ava shut quickly.

One on the other side had a flutter of yellowed papers, what looked like assorted notes. Ava lifted them out and set them on the top of the desk. The one below it was locked. Ava looked up at Tom, raised her eyebrows, then went back to studying it.

Ava, slim and delicate, knelt gracefully on the floor next to the desk - careful not to actually rest her weight against it and smear her dress with dirt, although one knee nudged slightly against the desk itself. She tugged at the drawer, lightly once, then again, giving it a firm yank. It rattled slightly but didn’t move, and the desk itself groaned rather noisily and unpleasantly. Ava grimaced. She looked at the mechanism, then pulled back and studied the desk.

After a moment, smiling and pleased, Ava reached for the drawer that had contained the papers. She lifted it up, slightly, then, smiling a little wider, carefully eased it off its track and took it out of the desk, setting it on the floor next to it.

“There,” Ava reached into the still locked drawer beneath, and took out a large bound book that looked very much like a ledger. “His finances, I imagine. Perhaps Tzcks is in here, or some kind of reference.”

Ava rose and lifted the ledger to the desk. She set it down next to the loose papers, then delicately slid them towards Tom. “Would you look at these?” She asked. Ava wondered if he had brought his spectacles.

Ava looked down at the ledger again. She took a deep breath, and opened the cover. Almost, she had to turn away to sneeze, delicately at the soft flutter of dust. She fetched out her handkerchief and sneezed into it again, dabbing at watering eyes.

Then, and only then, did Ava lower her gaze to the ledger in front of her, flipping steadily through the neat columns of debits and credits, intently skimming ins and outs and whatever notes Binder had left on them.

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Tom Cooke
Posts: 253
Joined: Fri Dec 21, 2018 3:15 pm
Topics: 29
Location: Vienda, but also hell
Race: Raen
: "disturbingly unheimlich individual"
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Writer: Graf
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Mon Aug 05, 2019 3:25 pm

Hollow Street The Dives
Morning on the 9th of Roalis, 2719
Tom nodded.

“Big kov, he was,” he agreed; then, more quietly, with a frayed thing of a laugh, “Thought it was me in there, for just a second.” He ran a hand through his hair as if to steady it. “Couldn’t tell what killed him. Blow to the head, that’d be my guess. I could go back and give it another look, but I’d rather not let in more flies.”

At the word flies, he paused, looking at her.

It was strange, watching her bring her fear back under her control. He knew she was letting him see it, and something about that touched him deeply. As it was, she’d been fair composed; Tom realized with a pang that he might’ve underestimated how much that laoso sight’d shaken her. Again, he reminded himself he only knew a fraction of the woman’s life, had only a jumble of pieces with too much space in-between to make out any clear image. He knew her strength, and he knew some of what’d shaped it — for better or worse — but the rest of her past, and most of her present, was behind a shroud. At her use of the word okay, a faint smile flickered on his face.

As she started to go through drawers, he came closer, pausing again as the edges of his porven came into range. He stood squinting over into the shadowy space. Caught Ava open and shut one of the bottom drawers a little too quick, and he pursed his lips, but he didn’t say nothing — especially not seeing as he heard the rattle of glass and the slosh of liquid.

When she got to the locked drawer, he frowned deeper. He noticed how carefully she knelt on the dirty floor. As she worked at it, he fumbled in his jacket, then opened his mouth to ask her if she had a hairpin on hand, but her smile cut him off. When she took out the drawer above, rattling, and laid it gently to one side, something tickled him; even in that musty, cramped space, he couldn’t help laughing. He wouldn’t’ve thought of that.

Tom was relieved when she slid the papers toward him and kept the ledger to look through herself. All those tight-written, spidery rows and columns and numbers and dots made him feel a pina mant queasy. Never was good at that shit, not even with his own money, and he figured Ava Weaver had more than enough experience balancing accounts.

So he took them, and settling himself half on the edge of the desk, he took out his reading glasses, perching them on his nose and using them to pinch it. He jumped when she sneezed, jarring the desk a little, and muttered an epaemo. As his eyes refocused, he shuffled through the curling papers, trying to make out their contents in the dimness.

Most of them were notes in the same cramped, spidery hand as the ledger, but there was something funny about them. Letters crammed up against letters they shouldn’t’ve been, words that didn’t make sense. Some words that were all vowels, some all consonants. Some kind of code, he realized grimly, but he didn’t want to look at them in more detail within smelling range of a corpse.

Then: “Writ of Literacy,” he grunted after a few moments had gone by. After a cursory glance, which told him it’d been co-signed by someone (of dubious existence, Tom thought) named Aidan W. Sauveterre, he laid it beside him on the desk. It was dated 2702 and smelled strongly of mildew. He coughed. “Never had one of those,” he mused. “Uh, huh — what’s this, then?”

Stuffed haphazardly in with the old papers was an envelope, crisp and new. The seal was plain, but it’d been broken; he fumbled a paper out of it, folded once neatly in the middle. It was heavier paper, velvety-smooth as he ran a thumb over it. Expensive, like the shit Anatole kept in his study. There were a few lines of tidy, elegant writing, lined-up almost perfectly with imaginary margins. Because of this, the content struck Tom as almost surreal.


I do not care to whom you have promised the book. I do not care about its worth. Money is no object to me, but if you do not comply, there will be consequences. If it is still in your possession, you will keep it safe until my return to Vienda; if it has left your possession, you will have it again by the aforementioned date.

The note was unaddressed and unsigned. Tom turned over the envelope. In small letters, in the corner, were written the initials CM.

Tom shifted in his seat to look at Ava, then laid the folded note and the envelope down near the ledger. “Anybody like that in there?” He raised his brows, peering over his glasses.

Whatever she said or did, she wouldn’t get a chance to finish. There was a rattle, and the door opened.

Tom looked up, taking off his glasses — then jolted. He stood up from the edge of the desk and took a step back, raising his hands. There was a pistol pointed at him, and it was in a steady hand.

The man had moved surprisingly quiet, seeing as he had a stiff, awkward limp. He was small for a human, but Tom didn’t think he was a wick, though he couldn’t tell from here. He had a furtive little face underneath a mop of dirty blond curls, and his teeth were fair crooked, giving his speech an odd quality Tom couldn’t quite put his finger on. There was a scuffed satchel at his hip, the strap around his opposite shoulder, dragging his posture down.

Tom opened his mouth, but the man cut him off with a brusque wave of his free hand.

“Not a word from you. If you think you can get through a nice bit of Monite before I pull this trigger, you’re welcome to try.” The kov’s sharp blue eyes flicked to Ava, focusing on her. “Who sent you?”
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Ava Weaver
Posts: 118
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Mon Aug 05, 2019 8:02 pm

Morning, 9th Roalis, 2719
Hollow Street, The Dives
Ava nearly bit back a shudder at Tom’s words - then she didn’t. She let it sweep through her, let the soft line of her skirt twitch lightly in the air, fluttering for just a moment. She didn’t look away, and she didn’t say anything. At the mention of flies, when Tom lifted his gaze back to hers, Ava met his eyes and held.

But it wasn’t too much for her; Ava refused to let it be. Tom’s chuckle when she brought out the ledger made Ava’s smile widen too, and she couldn’t help that odd little tickle of pride again. Nor could she help the soft, warm, dangerous feeling his laughter settled in her chest.

The narrow winding columns of numbers were almost a relief. Ava didn’t squint or she frown over them; she kept her forehead smooth and unwrinkled, without even the little lines that often seemed to etch between people’s eyebrows. But she was focusing; she kept her gaze fixed on the pages, skimming them quickly and intently. The numbers matched; she couldn’t do the full sums herself, and she couldn’t know whether there were inflated sums or extra entries, not without something to compare against. But she saw no obvious signs that this was anything more than his ledger.

It was, of course, obviously in code. The business was a thriving one, such as it was, but Binder had not written down any of the names of those he bought or sold from. There were familiar sets of symbols here and there, though, and Ava guessed that some of them must have been regular suppliers and others regular purchasers.

The Tzcks book, Ava thought, would have been a big purchase. She noticed sometimes that Binder would note such items separately - there might be two debits from the same supplier, one with a scrawl of numbers after it, and the other with a word - clearly some kind of code. She did her best to track those codes, trying to find where he exited - but the air was thick with mildew and the smell of blood, and the slow, buzzing flies that waved around them made her stomach turn.

When Tom spoke, Ava looked up. She set the ledger down, and crossed closer to him, standing close enough to read the letter over his shoulder. She had already shifted back to the ledger by the time he spoke. It was recent, she thought; it had to be. Ava shifted towards the end of the book, fingers turning the pages -

Ava froze too at the sound of the door opening, her hands still half between the ledger’s pages. She looked up at the man at the door, eyes flickering over him. Binder, she decided; this had to be Binder. Binder, and if they were right, he had likely killed the man in the other room not too long ago and fled.

Ava eased her hands slowly, carefully, out from the pages of the book. She smiled, an embarrassed, sheepish sort of smile, as if she had been caught making some sort of mistake in etiquette. She didn’t look at the gun; instead, she looked directly at Binder’s face.

“No one sent me,” Ava said. Her tone was warm, still with that faint hint of sheepishness to it - as if they were already friends. As Binder looked at her, she let her smile broaden, ever so slightly, doing her best to hold his gaze. Her posture had changed too, subtly; the faintest pulling back of her shoulders to draw the dress ever-so-slightly tighter across her chest, a slight shift to her posture that seemed to emphasize her hips. It wasn’t flirtatious - merely feminine.

“But,” Ava let the smile deepen a little more. “You come highly recommended,” she let her head tilt to the side slightly. “Of course, it is - rather uncomfortable, to talk business with that thing pointed at my friend.” Now, deliberately, she let her gaze drop to the gun, then lift back to Binder. Her eyebrows lifted, slightly, her expression somewhere between expectant and faintly embarrassed, as if on his behalf.

Beneath her dress, Ava’s heart was pounding in her chest; it was fluttering like a bird. For all that she knew the fabric of her dress wasn’t moving with it, the temptation was there to reach up and smooth it out. She resisted it; she held her hands still and clasped before her, and waited, patient and easy.

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