Chapter 10

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Rell dragged his feet over the threshold and pushed the door shut behind him. He stood for a moment with his eyes closed and his back to the door. It was still as solid as the day it was set in place. The tower creaked as the ever-present wind attempted to push over the jumble of stone and wood. The beer had worked on Rell and now that he was inside, he could feel the alcohol running to his head. He took in a deep breath and then pushed away from the door allowing the forward momentum to propel him to the bannister and the first step.

“Why do I have my bed at the top?” Rell groaned as he started to climb. “Why not at the bottom or somewhere in the middle?”

The steps passed him slowly, each one taking an effort that was surely going to run out before he reached his bed.

“Well, Rell,” Rell said in an upbeat voice that belied his true disposition. “I don’t sleep on the bottom because that’s where the rats are and there’s no view from down there. A view, see is important to our Rell. He has to see the sky.”

Rell climbed in silence as he passed the first landing.

“What’s so good about a view, Rell? I don’t know, Rell, maybe it’s more about the jumping from high spaces thing? We wouldn’t do that, would we? Not after climbing all the way up, it would be a waste of exercise. That’s right, Rell, all I want to do when I reach the top is have a good old-fashioned sit-down and rest my eyes. That sounds nice, Rell.”

Rell paused on the middle landing. The door to Charlotte’s room was open but no cat came out to greet him. Rell made a slight clicking sound with his fingers but not a single feline appeared. Rell twitched his nose and then resumed his climb.

“That does sound nice, Rell. Do you know what doesn’t sound nice, Rell? No what’s that? Whatever Sabler’s selling.”

Rell passed the landing beneath his and looked at the closed door. He narrowed an eye, trying to focus but the door refused to stay still. Rell wiped the sweat from his forehead and flapped his shirt a little.

“You know what else doesn’t smell nice, Rell? You’re going to say me, aren’t you? Yes I am, Rell, yes I am. First thing tomorrow we take our sorry selves…” Rell paused on the stairs and screwed his eyes closed, “self, Rell, self. We take ourself to the baths. I go to the baths even.”

When he reached the ladder to his loft Rell was breathing heavily, and rubbing at his knee. He could feel a good whinge coming on but pushed on the last few feet until he reached the rickety door.

“How much did I have to drink? I swear Ariella slips something into mine.”

Rell fumbled with the lamp until the wick flared to life and the shadows fell back.

“Maybe she does, Rell.”

Rell jumped out of his skin and the clay bowl of the lamp bounced on the wooden floor. Rell saw the look of fear flash across Vern’s face and the thug on his left took a step forward to catch the lamp. The realisation of what would happen if the lamp cracked struck Rell and he leant over quickly to pick it up.

“No cracks, thank the gods.” Rell lifted the lamp searching for any leaks.

“You fool, have you never seen a tower go up in flames?” Vern said waving his hands at the wooden roof. He was seated in Rell’s chair, a heavy cloak wrapped around him to keep the chill off. Rell’s things were scattered to the side. The thug returned to his roost by the window.

“Why did you scare me then? It would have served you right if we had been roasted alive,” Rell yelled at Vern, fear overriding the usual care that he took when dealing with the money lender. “Why in Gorphin's name are you sitting in the dark?”

Vern gave his bodyguard a quick glare, but the man kept his eyes fixed firmly on Rell either because he knew he'd done something wrong, or he was oblivious to what had just happened.

“I wanted to see where a man that owes me money slept. To see what he chooses to spend my money on.” Vern looked around at the sparse furnishings. A bed that whilst being comfy would be more fitting to a flop house, a mound of blankets, a chair, a small trunk of clothes and a dozen or so books. It wasn’t much to show for a person’s life, but it was warm enough and the rain no longer poured through the window. Rell had proved adept at coaxing the hot water pipes back into life and then shown a skill with wood that had amazed him. Even the cats seemed to know that it was Rell that they had to thank for the warmth that now filled the rooms.

“I don’t spend my money on silk shirts if that’s what you’re thinking,” Rell said. Vern’s bodyguard settled against the window shutters, he was short but solidly built, with a bald shiny head and a thick sleeveless leather coat that ran almost to his knees. A woollen jumper kept his arms warm. Rell frowned at the thug, he’d met him a dozen times before, but he always struggled with the name. “Durnt?”

“Ruediger,” the thug said and Rell murmured an apology.

“So, where’s the other one then?”

“That’s what I was going to tell you,” Vern said testily. “I have come to the end of my patience with you, Rell. I gave you a chance to come good but instead, you let the man go free. I am now convinced that you not only won’t repay me but that you are intent on making a fool out of me.”

“No, Vern,” Rell said but then saw Durnt shake his bald head. “Mr Vern. I will get you the money. I have this plan you see.”

Vern held a hand up and Rell, rather sensibly, shut his mouth.

“Here is what will happen. That old lady will be thrown from the tower, then you will follow her. After that, I will visit your sister and tell her that she now owes me what you owe me.” Vern let his words sink in. Rell took a step forward into the room but Durnt was on him in a flash, punching him in the stomach. Rell doubled over but held the lamp up so that Durnt could take it from him.

"Thank you," Durnt said politely and set the lamp on a rickety table before spinning back around and bringing a sledgehammer of an arm down on Rell's back. The room shook and the lamp wobbled but Durnt caught it before it could fall over again.

“That’s enough,” Vern said but not quickly enough to stop his bodyguard from dropping a knee into Rell’s spine. “Durnt! What’s wrong with you? I don’t want you to kill the man.”

“Ain’t we going to throw him out the window?” Durnt looked up from his spot on the floor. He had a fistful of Rell’s hair and pulled his head back so both of them could see Vern.

“Well yes but I don’t want him dead beforehand, that would ruin the effect. Get him up and throw him on the bed. And tell Ruediger to get on with it.”

Durnt hoisted Rell up with ease and then threw him onto the bed. Rell hit the straw mattress with a thump and a wooden slat snapped. Rell rolled over and fixed Vern with an evil eye but Vern looked back calmly.

“Ruediger!” Durnt yelled from the doorway.

“What?” A deep voice rumbled from a few floors down.

“Boss says to chuck the old lady.” Durnt glanced at his employer for confirmation and got a tired nod.

“And the cats?” Ruediger shouted up.

“What about the cats, boss?” Durnt enquired of Vern.

“Cats?” Vern asked.

“The old lady has cats,” Durnt explained.

“Throw them out too.”

“Boss says to throw the cats out with her,” Durnt shouted and then turned back to the room and slowly approached Rell.

“All of them?” Ruediger called and something in the tone of his voice said that he wasn’t too sure about the order.

“Boss…” Durnt started to say but Vern held up a hand.

“I heard him. How many cats are there?”

Durnt relayed the question and then stood with his ear cocked.

“More than five.” Came the answer.

Durnt waited patiently as Vern groaned.

“May I say something?” Rell said recoiling as Durnt brought a meaty fist up.

“Let him talk, Durnt.” Vern picked up a book and flicked through the pages.

“I was just this night arranging…” Rell touched his nose and stifled a cry of pain.

“A parade in my honour?” Vern suggested.

“More of a criminal outing. I might be able to lay my hands on something very valuable. If I give it to you then it will more than settle my debt.” Vern narrowed his eyes at Rell but gestured with the book for him to continue. “Worth more in fact, probably. I’ll make sure of it but only if you leave Charlotte alone.”

“Got one out!” Ruediger shouted.

“Is Charlotte the blue cat? It’s got lovely fur,” Durnt asked.

“No, it’s the woman. Who names a cat?” Rell said. “If you hurt her then you may as well kill me.”

“That’s the plan,” Durnt said with a toothless grin.

“You have four cats left so talk quickly,” Vern said. “What is this outing you have planned? And speak plainly I dislike word games.”

Rell glanced at the door and then at Vern and the window behind him.

“The monastery. Ariella and I are going to break in, I can steal you something while I’m in there.”

“Do you want the old lady next?” Ruediger shouted.

“Tell him to get the cats first and leave the lady till last,” Vern said and then waited while Durnt relayed his order. “What is it that you and your sister want from the monastery? She failed the test, didn’t she? A bit of spite maybe?”

“That’s her secret. I can get you an artefact or something. I don’t know what’s up there but there must be something. A book or a statue perhaps?”

“And when will you do this?” Vern asked. “I have no real interest in books.”

“In the next few days, a week at most. There must be something, a relic or something shiny. They have gold and jewels on their relics, I’ve seen them.”

“Do you understand what will happen if you betray me once more?”

“Yes, you’ll kill my sister.”

“No. If you get caught then there’s a good chance, you’ll both be dead. I will kill the old lady and your friends. I will burn down your family home and, if your sister survives, I will sell her. You know what that means?”

“I won’t betray you and we won’t fail.”

Vern pondered the deal for a moment and then stood up. He slapped his gloved hands together and Durnt stepped forward. The thug gave Rell an apologetic shrug and Rell scrambled back on his bed.

“No, Durnt,” Vern commanded in a weary voice, Durnt paused as he leant toward Rell with a guilty look spreading across his face. “What are you doing?”

“I thought you just gave me the nod to throw him out the…” Durnt trailed off as he saw Vern’s frown. “No?”

“I simply clapped my hands together. It’s a common sign of saying the meeting is over.” Vern raised an eyebrow at Rell.

“That’s what I thought you meant,” Rell said with his back pressed against the wall. “I didn’t think it meant to throw me from the window.”

“Oh, it’s just we were planning on doing that. We were talking about it just before you arrived,” Durnt said and stepped back from the bed.

“I can see the confusion,” Rell said and chuckled weakly.

“Last cat gone, boss!” came the shout from downstairs.

“No, stop him!” Rell jumped to his feet but bounced off Durnt’s fist.

“Durnt, go and tell the idiot to stop.” Vern stood up wearily and followed his bodyguard to the stairs but stopped at the top to lean over the balcony. “It really is a long drop.”

Rell carefully got off the bed and stepped towards the door. It was a hundred-foot drop to the bottom. Rell stepped quietly towards Vern’s back with his hands raised as if to push him but he froze at the last yard. A simple shove and all his problems would be solved but he'd also be a murderer.

“Got him, boss,” Durnt shouted up from the next landing.

Rell dropped his hands just as Vern turned around but the loan shark saw the movement and gave Rell a knowing smile.

“That wouldn’t be too smart. I have left a bit of a scorched earth directive if something should happen to me. Durnt and Ruediger might not be the smartest men, but they have a singlemindedness that many find terrifying. I, however, find it of great comfort.”

Vern carefully negotiated the wobbly staircase all the while avoiding looking at the void beneath his feet. Ruediger and Durnt waited for him on the landing and for once Rell could tell the difference as only one of them was covered in scratches and bleeding from a dozen cuts to his face and hands.

“Rell, don’t forget to keep me updated. If I don’t hear from you in two days, I’ll assume you have gone against our deal and you know what that means.” Vern shouted over his shoulder.

Rell watched them descend unable to move, his heart beating so quickly that he feared it might explode.

“There are no more cats left, Rell.” Vern’s voice echoed up the tower.

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