Featured image unidentified, unfortunately.
This is a story I wrote as a test of a new character for the Rag & Muffin universe. It’s rather long, so I’ve divided it up. I’m not entirely sure what to do with it.
Just for the record, and for fair warning, R&M has content a bit harsher than what appears in Jake and the Dynamo.
Edmund Hilscher’s physical bulk was enough to intimidate most people, and his keen mind and boundless energy were enough to intimidate the rest. With heavy jowls and shoulders a full meter across, he got what he wanted by getting in people’s faces—and sometimes by beating those faces in. In Prussia, he had been notoriously brutal in underground boxing before a mob offered him a lot of money to become a heavy. Five years of thuggery and a lot of ill-gotten coin later, he had left his boss with a slit belly and made his way to the ancient, sleaze-ridden temple city of Godtown. There, he carved out his personal empire in the heroin and opium trade.
He scared people. He counted on his ability to scare people.
But, standing in the monsoon rain late at night outside a rust-coated warehouse down by the docks, he knew he could not scare the people he was about to meet. He’d heard the rumors, and unlike the criminals who had learned better only when it was too late, he chose to believe them.
He couldn’t afford not to.
He had fifty men covering the warehouse with high-powered rifles. Most of them were on rooftops, ready to shoot through the warehouse’s clerestories. He wasn’t sure that was enough. The people inside were some of the most dangerous he would ever encounter. His best men had advised him to stay away from here, but curiosity had him by the balls. He had to see. He believed the rumors out of self-interest, but Hilscher was a man who needed to know.
He stepped into darkness and out of the rain, folding his umbrella as he went. His shoes squeaked against smooth concrete. Somewhere in the dark, water dripped through a hole in the roof and made a flat, vulgar noise as it hit the floor.
With a loud, hollow boom, a spotlight turned on overhead. It shone straight down, creating a single shaft of harsh, white light. Under the light, absurdly out of place, stood a high, wingback chair of burgundy velvet, the sort of chair some ninny in a housecoat and ascot would sit in by the fire while smoking his pipe and waiting for a well-trained dog to bring his slippers.
Propped up in the chair was a girl. She looked to be about nine or ten, though Hilscher knew better than to guess her real age. Her face was fresh and pretty, but empty of expression, as if she was in a trance—or stoned. She wore a dress of eggshell blue edged with lace at the sleeves and throat, and her long, ruffled skirt was heaped up around several chiffon petticoats. She had a lace headband tied under her chin, and holding together her elaborately braided auburn hair, in the place of hair sticks, were two long, thin knives that glittered coldly under the light.
He could see her ears poking out through her hair: they were pointy and covered with fine fur, like a cat’s.
She didn’t move. She had a hand on each armrest, and she was so short that her feet, clad in dingy white trainers, stuck straight out in front of her. From a distance, she looked like a doll, but Hilscher could see her green eyes glinting and following him as, flanked by two of his best men, he stepped slowly forward.
He quickly dropped his eyes from the girl’s face, choosing instead to focus on the rubber soles of her shoes. It was a bad idea to look in the eyes of a girl like her.
Briefly, it passed through Hilscher’s mind that deliberately showing the sole of a shoe to someone was, in this part of the world, a grave insult. Was the girl simply too short to bend her legs while sitting in that chair, or too young to remember all the rules of politeness?
Or had she found a subtle way of telling Hilscher what she thought of him?
“Stop,” the girl said. Nothing moved except her mouth. She had a high, soft voice with a hint of a lisp: it was a child’s voice, the kind one expects to hear asking grandfather for a bedtime story.
Hilscher stopped, and he raised a hand to tell his men to do the same. A minute passed, during which there was no sound except the steady tap of water against the floor.
At last, impatience overrode caution, and Hilscher said, “You’re the Ragamuffin, I take it? I’ve got men all around this place.”
To his left, his man raised a Draganov to his shoulder. Hilscher grunted. “I twitch my little finger, Ragamuffin, and you get it. I know you’re wearing Synthsilk under that dress, but it won’t save you from a tungsten-tipped rifle bullet.”
The Ragamuffin raised her head slightly. Her eyes, green as fresh grass or a summer sea, seized his gaze. He stared into them for several seconds before he realized what he was doing and, with a painful wrench, turned his head.
Silently, he cursed himself. During those seconds, if she had wanted to, she could have killed him. It was a message, delivered wordlessly and flawlessly: it didn’t matter how many men or what weapons he brought, because she had him in her power.
Out of the gloom and into the shaft of light stepped another girl. This one was merely human. She looked about sixteen or seventeen, though it was difficult to say for sure, since she was as absurdly tall as the Ragamuffin was absurdly short. She wore the uniform of Valhalla Academy, the elite expatriates’ school up in the Arx Ciceronis, an enclosed and guarded community on Godtown’s west end. Her pleated blue skirt hung only to her knees; it was appropriate for the isolated fortress from which she hailed, but grossly immodest by Godtown’s standards. Nestled in her arms was a Kalashnikov. Resting the butt of the gun under her armpit, she pushed a thick pair of horn-rimmed glasses up her nose, and as she did so, her bright red ponytail flopped across one shoulder.
“This whole place is wired,” she said. “Incendiary bombs. One wrong move, Herr Hilscher, and you and your friends take an early trip to Jahannam.” Her accent marked her for a Brit, though not of the stuffiest sort. Maybe Essex.
Hilscher grunted. “Won’t that kill you, too?”
“Perhaps you haven’t heard,” the girl replied. “Miss Rags is well crazy.”
“I serve Miss Rags.”
Hilscher looked around. His eyes were growing used to the dark, so he could now discern details in the warehouse: the place was vast, stark, empty. A few crates stood in one corner, but he saw nothing else.
“Where’s the dog?” he asked. “I thought the Ragamuffin always had a dog.”
Another figure walked out of the gloom, and Hilscher started. He hadn’t seen him a moment before. This one was a boy, maybe fifteen, thin and somewhat handsome, though with shadows under his eyes and an unhealthy look. He wore plain black trousers and a stonewashed denim jacket. Dark, unruly hair fell over his forehead. Aside from his pallid skin, he could have passed for one of the boisterous lads who roamed Godtown’s streets.
“The dog’s mechanically inclined,” the boy said. “He’s disabling your vehicles at the moment—ah, he must be finished.”
Hilscher wasn’t sure he should take that seriously, but he heard a faint jingle and the rhythmic pad-click of an animal walking behind him. He turned to see an enormous creature, coated in gray fur now slick with rain, glide past. It didn’t look his way or stop to sniff him, but, without bothering to shake the water from its coat, merely walked into the light and curled up at the base of the Ragamuffin’s chair. It had the face and paws of a dog, but the long body of a snake.
Hilscher felt sweat beading under his collar.
The Ragamuffin finally showed signs of life. She moved her hands from the armrests and clasped them in her lap. In that same girlish, lisping voice, she said, “These are my friends. That’s Muffin.” She pointed at the dog. “And this is Nicky.” She inclined her head to the boy. “That’s the Lady Jeanne.” Now she inclined her head to the girl, who bowed slightly. “I can’t introduce you to Ryuji and Popkin, cuz they’re hidin’. They got a .50-caliber rifle pointed at your heart, Mr. Hilscher.”
Hilscher stopped sweating. He knew the score, so now all fear was gone. Pressing his hands together, he bowed deeply at the waist, making namaste after the local fashion. To his surprise, Nicky and Jeanne bowed back, though the Ragamuffin stayed in her seat.
“If we’re finished pointing guns at each other,” Hilscher said, “I have a proposition for you, Raga—”
“Please,” the Ragamuffin said, raising a hand. “Just Rags.”
“Fräulein Rags, then. I understand you’re for hire.”
Rags replied with a barely perceptible shake of the head, a shake of the sort that in the local estimation meant “yes.” Now the blank, doll-like look left her face, and she offered a girlish grin that showed off her sharp canines. Hilscher contemplated them for a moment and then realized he was looking in her face again. He slid his gaze back to her shoes.
“What are your terms?” he asked.
Lady Jeanne pushed her glasses up her nose again, though they slid right back down. “Any job, money up front, no questions asked. No women, no kids.”
Hilscher grunted. “Is Fräulein Rags so desperate for money that she’s following in the footsteps of the men she fights?”
“The guns and bullets are gettin’ expensive,” Nicky said. “Yes, we’re out of money.”
Hilscher chuckled. “Try a lemonade stand.”
“We did that,” said Jeanne. “We need more.”
“You probably know we nick cars when we want them,” Nicky added, “so what’s the harm in a little extra criminal activity on the side?”
Rags grinned again, and her feet wiggled. “Sometimes ya gotta do crime to fight crime.”
“You’re in luck,” said Hilscher, sweeping his hat from his head like a gallant addressing a lady. “I am throwing a party and am looking for extra security. For you and your little gang, that should be, ah, child’s play.”
Jeanne cocked an eyebrow, and her lips pursed, but she didn’t reply.
“You want bouncers?” Rags asked.
“You might say that. But you will also be a part of the entertainment, so to speak.”
Rags’s mouth twisted in amusement, and she moved her hands back to the armrests of her chair.
“So,” said Jeanne, again trying to push her glasses higher up her nose, “you want to show off to all your crooked friends that you can get Miss Rags under your thumb.”
“Many wealthy people will be at my party. Are some of them crooked? Who knows? I won’t pry. But as I’m sure you know, young lady, I run a perfectly respectable business: I am a dealer in antiquities. Thus, I am interested in curiosities, and Fräulein Rags and her companions are surely among this city’s most famous curiosities. Of course, I also operate a humble chain of hostels for pilgrims—”
“And the opium dens,” said Jeanne drily. “Don’t forget the opium dens, Herr Hilscher.” She flicked her ponytail from her shoulder.
Hilscher shrugged. “If any of my close associates indulge in unsavory activities, that is unfortunate—but none of my concern. As I said, I don’t pry.”