Four Dead Queens(9)

I pulled my wrist out of Mackiel’s grasp and stepped away, hating the way Kyrin’s eyes lingered on the contact. Sure, there were the late nights in Mackiel’s rooms, discussing the future of the auction house. But nothing had happened, although I felt us teetering on the precipice of more. Or at least, I was teetering. In the last year, he didn’t seem to care as much about me anymore.

“What is it that I always tell you?” Mackiel’s voice was melodic, but still authoritative. His deep-set eyes flicked among us all.

“Never detract from the wares,” we replied in unison.

I kicked Kyrin’s shin for good measure. He grunted in reply and took a step away.

“Very good,” Mackiel said, fiddling with his bowler hat. “And we have a generous collection tonight. Let’s stay on track, shall we?”

Generous? I caught Mackiel’s eye. He hadn’t answered my question about the comm case’s worth and the chips inside. He avoided my probing gaze and scratched briefly at his neck, his eyes landing on me, then darting away again. Mackiel was never nervous, not when it came to an auction. This was what he lived for now that his father was gone.

“Places, dippers,” he said. “Let’s begin!” He swept onto the stage, his long coat flapping behind him.

“Mackiel seems distracted.” Kyrin’s breath wafted over me as he whispered in my ear. “Didn’t put out last night?”

This time I went for Kyrin’s toes with the spiked heels of my boots. I reveled in the squelch as the spikes pierced through the leather and into his skin.

“You bitch!” he yelped, hopping up and down on one foot. “One day you’re going to get yours!”

I shoved past him and the rest of the gawking dippers.

“Maybe,” I called back over my shoulder, “but you won’t be the one to deliver.” Not while Mackiel had my back.

I pushed my way to the entrance of the auction house to watch the proceedings from behind the crowd. Perspiration dotted my brow from the crammed bodies heating the cavernous room; the only relief was the salty breeze, wafting in through cracks in the timber floor.

A groan shuddered the building. The bidders quickly shuffled a little more to the left to balance out the weight.

“Welcome to my house!” Mackiel boomed, his voice filling the theater. “For tonight, you and I are family. And my family deserves the best!” It was his father’s line, but the crowd still lapped it up as if hearing it for the first time.

His father had built this black market business from nothing. As a young man, not much older than Mackiel was now, he saw the opportunity to capitalize on the curious nature of his fellow Torians who couldn’t afford to own a boat or purchase interquadrant approved goods. Instead, he provided the goods at a much lower price.

“You’re in luck tonight,” Mackiel continued, “for we have our best selection.” He said this each and every night, but tonight it was true. Second only to the thrill of acquiring the wares was the clamor during an auction. I grinned in anticipation. The perfect distraction from my mother’s letter.

“Before we begin, we must cover the auction guidelines.” The crowd spread a groan like fleas on a stray dog. “Now, now,” Mackiel tsked. “First business, then pleasure. That’s what I always say.” He grinned, and the crowd was back in the palm of his hand. Mackiel’s proclivity for spectacle had increased the bidders by dozens, ensuring they didn’t stray to his competitors after his father’s death. In fact, some of his competitors were here for the show, keeping their quartiers warm in their pockets.

“Right then, as you know, we don’t trade in full payments here; it’s too tempting for those with sticky fingers.” Laughter circulated through the crowd, the audience knowing full well how Mackiel “procured” the auction items, and the hypocrisy of it all. “That said, a ten percent down payment will be required to secure the bid. At the end of the auction, my darling dippers will follow the highest bidder home to collect the remaining quartiers. If you can’t find the funds, the dipper will return with the wares, and the rest of you will have the chance to bid for it tomorrow night. But I don’t give second chances to those who play games.”

What Mackiel withheld from the audience was that his dippers had one hour to return with the payment and then we were given a five percent cut for our troubles. New dippers often tried to pocket more than their cut or keep the stolen valuables for themselves. Mackiel used to banish any disloyal dippers, leaving no quartiers to their name, but now he used his henchmen to enforce his law.

A shiver ran down my back at the thought of their skin on mine, or worse, their whiteless black eyes upon my face. It had been two years since Mackiel had hired them and I was still not used to their presence. And I couldn’t deny the impact they’d had on Mackiel. As a boy, he used to rescue rats from the Jetée sewers; now that was where he dumped the bodies of those who betrayed him.

“The henchmen got a little carried away,” he’d say. But the darkness behind his eyes made me question who had in fact done the deed. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the truth.

Mackiel continued with the rules. “There will be no further negotiations after the auction is complete. If I see the ware appear at another house, well, let’s say you’ll never set foot in here again.” He smiled widely, though the message was clear: the day you cheated him would be your last.

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