-A Ship Story -

#4: Luck of the Draw

Read Time: 55 min

Griff and LaRue, a pair of street-wise employees at Shixi’s Hotel, are tasked with acquiring an antique watch… by any means necessary. But when they discover a secret about Griff’s childhood, he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands.

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Griff sat alone on his porch smoking a hand rolled cigarette, as he waited for his partner in crime to show up. It was raining as usual, and the dripping sounds from the low, gutterless roofs mingled together, creating a mismatched, chaotic pattering. A corrugated metal roof overhead kept the water off of him, and the persistent, metallic hammering of raindrops was relaxing for him.

Taking another drag, he looked around at the wet, bundled people making their way, watching them go about their business. Noticing a handful of street urchins that were heading in his direction, he began scanning for telltale signs of gang affiliation.

It wasn’t usually hard to spot their colors standing out against the dirty, dingy clothes typical of homeless youth. Every couple of years though, the runners would change things up to avoid getting stopped by private security, or to catch a rival gang off guard without technically breaking the code.

These guys were obviously making their daily rounds, and Griff didn’t want them getting the wrong idea, or looking at him as possible prey. He stood up to his full height and stretched dramatically, looking as casual as could be. Flicking his cigarette into the road, he cracked his neck, cocking his head one way, and then the other, and began popping each knuckle from index to pinky, showing off his thick, powerful hands.

The large boy out in front of the group was difficult to put an age on, and Griff tried to think back to his own early days on the streets. He was only nine when his dad got sent off, but every time he saw gang kids, they looked way younger than he’d felt at their age.

Still, he remembered the brutality and violence of his youth, and he knew that if they were armed and on the hunt, he could be in for some action. He reached for his waist, withdrawing a large knife from its sheath, and began using the sharp point to clean his fingernails.

A few of the street kids noticed the blade, and a quick murmur went through the group. Griff could tell by their body language that they didn’t want to tangle with him anymore, if they ever had in the first place. The hardened children cast their eyes downward until they passed him by, continuing down the road, and out of sight.


Life in this part of the sprawl was rough, but the fact that it had been raining almost non-stop for the better part of a week meant plenty of fresh water for locals to collect, and lots of grumbling about wet clothes. Griff didn’t mind though, the rain kept a lot of people off the streets and indoors, which made them easier to track down.

He patted his coat pocket, feeling for his tobacco pouch again, when he caught sight of LaRue, limping down the street with a makeshift cane.

Everybody who knew him called him Lefty, except for their boss, who always seemed to know more about people than he let on. Keeping secrets was common practice in their shady circles, and Mr. Brill made it a point to collect as many of them as he could. Sometimes Griff wondered how much the boss actually knew about him and his private life, and how it was that he knew so much.

“Hey-a, Griff! You fixin’ to stab somebody or somethin’?” LaRue yelled belligerently down the road with a smile. It was almost as if he were daring someone to pay attention, or to object.

“Nope. Not today. I mean, probably not,” Griff called back with a dark smile, replacing his knife in exchange for his tobacco pouch.

As he approached, LaRue gestured at the tiny leather satchel with his crutch, taking cover under the noisy awning, “Hey, roll me one of those, will ya?” he asked in a nasally tone.

“Sure thing, but you’re buyin’ my next can,” Griff shot LaRue a no nonsense look, as he began to roll up a second cig for his partner.

Anyone who knew Griff, knew that look, and LaRue fished around in his pocket for some money performatively, “Yeah, fine, alright. Next time,” he said, changing the subject, “Hey, before we collect we should have them make us some breakfast. I’m hungry.”

“Sounds good to me,” Griff struck a match on the concrete wall and handed the cigarette to LaRue, “I can always make room for a piece of pie,” he laughed, “Especially if it’s gonna be free.”

“You ever been to this place? I mean, I haven’t,” LaRue asked, “I hear good things about their food though.”

“Nope. Never been. I don’t go down by the Ship very often,” Griff’s voice tightened, “That thing gives me the creeps. I’d just as soon watch it sail away. Or sink.”

LaRue ran his hand through his greasy light brown hair, looking around nervously to see if anyone was near enough to have heard.

Griff let out a rough chuckle, “Don’t worry, Lefty. There ain’t many ship-lovers around here.”

“I guess there probably wouldn’t be, considering…” he left the rest unsaid, not wanting to insult Griff’s neighborhood.

“You can think what you want to, pal. I grew up not too far from here,” Griff gestured vaguely to the east, “Sure, the place is a little ratty, but there ain’t many pryin’ eyes out this way. No patrols. Nearest place with a security guard is that opium joint. And that guy looks high as a kite every time I see him,” Griff shook his head in mild disgust, “He ain’t reporting jack squat to anyone.”

LaRue surveyed the gray, glistening street and took a long drag, pulling his jacket closed with his free hand, “Well, you ready?” he asked. He blew out a long cloud of smoke, which was immediately tattered by the rain as it wafted out from under cover of the overhang.

“Yep. You lead the way,” Griff eyed LaRue’s new cane, the point clearly modified to double as a weapon. The large man motioned off toward the docks, “Like I said, I never been there before.”




Smiling and satisfied, LaRue chuckled, “Well, I gotta say. That was the easiest shakedown I ever did,” he double checked their take, looking up at Griff.

The big stone-faced man shrugged in reply, “Works for me. I just wonder how she came up with the money so quick? Or if she had it, why not just pay up in the first place?” Griff was taking long, hasty strides, carefully avoiding large pools of standing water.

“Yeah. I don’t get it. I mean, the lady had to know the boss would send somebody around to collect, right?” LaRue shook his head with a puzzled look.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Griff said dismissively, pulling his jacket tight, “Paid is paid. That’s all that matters, far as I’m concerned,” he continued his brisk pace, as the pair turned and began walking up a steep hill, opposite the waterfront and away from the docks.


The two thugs pushed their way through the rain toward Shixi’s Hotel, to meet up with their boss, Mr. Brill.

Technically it was a hotel, but just about everybody in the sprawl knew about the array of semi-illicit vices it was home to. From dealing in numbshine and cocaine, to providing rooms and a selection of willing women, Shixi’s was a veritable Shangri-La for those who could afford it.

Considering how far away it was from the city proper, the building’s well kept marquee stood out among the ramshackle repairs that dotted the skyline. The antique furnishings inside were a sign of strength, and in some ways even more lavish than what you’d expect close to the wall.

The front entrance was nearly as secure as one of the city’s gates, with a minimum of three door guards who collected weapons upon entry. Nobody was foolish enough to try and bull their way inside; armed sentries watched from the upper floors making sure of that.

Rather than use the main entrance, Griff and LaRue walked a ways, and ducked into a squat abandoned building half a block down the street. Once inside, they made their way down a flight of stairs to a rusty metal hatchway that had been retrofitted to open outward.

>Knock< Pause >Knock-Knock-Knock< Pause >Knock-Knock<

There was a long silence, followed by a pair of loud metallic clinks and squeals, as the large deadbolts securing the secret entrance were unlocked. The door swung open with a slow squeak, and the pair made their way inside. 

“Oh, hey Griff. Hey Lefty,” said a burly man in leathers, holding a handmade shotgun, “Comin’ in pretty early today for the likes a’ you two, huh?” 

“Boss had us out collectin’ at some breakfast joint, and they close up early,” LaRue answered for both of them, “Said to report back as soon as we finished,” he lowered his voice in confidence, “But man, I tell ya, we stopped for a bite, and their egg and potato skillet is something else. They got this green, spicy salsa…” 

“…and their blackberry pie…” Griff nearly moaned, chiming in. 

The door guard closed the gate behind them, and went to sit back down at his wide wooden desk, grabbing a pinch of shredded tobacco from the large cask at his feet. 

Griff derisively eyed the pile of loose cigarettes, glad to have his days of door duty well behind him. Shaking his head, he idly wondered how many cigars and spliffs he’d rolled for Shixi’s over the years. 

“I sure don’t miss that job,” Griff complained out loud, as they descended a flight of reinforced concrete steps. 

“What are you talkin’ about, man?” LaRue snorted, “You probably roll twenty of those things every day, just for yourself…” 

Griff winced a little, “I cut back.” 

LaRue shot him a mocking frown, shaking his head. 

“I mean, I cut back, some.” Griff muttered almost apologetically. 

“You still wheeze like a broken bellows whenever we have to chase somebody down,” LaRue shrugged, “Not to mention your little coughing fit that almost got us nabbed, out at th…” 

Griff interrupted, “I don’t need you rubbin’ it in, ya prick. Boss is still pissed about that, I’m sure of it.” 

There was a pause as their footsteps echoed through the empty stairwell above, “You’re just being paranoid, man. If Mr. Brill were gonna do something other than put you on notice, he would’ve by now,” LaRue said reassuringly, as they reached a second locked door at the bottom of the steps. 

“Yeah, probably. He did say ‘next time’…” Griff trailed off, fumbling around inside the collar of his jacket, “Shixi’s got a soft spot for me, and Brill knows it,” Griff produced a large key dangling on a leather cord, holding it up like a prize, “Plus they still trust me with one of these,” he grinned, inserting the key and opening the second gate with a click. 

Locking the door behind them, LaRue followed Griff down a long, straight passage, proudly patting his own key. Besides Griff, only a handful of people had earned the kind of trust and access that LaRue had managed, and it took some doing to climb the ranks so quickly. He often caught dirty looks from some of the toughs who’d been working hotel jobs for years, but they didn’t dare cross him; he’d obviously earned his place somehow, and jealousy wasn’t a good look in front of Shixi. 

The cool air inside the tunnel was still and stale, dimly lit by a string of bulbs running along the length of the ceiling, spaced about twenty feet apart. Halfway down the corridor was a third gate that led to Shixi’s basement, and at the far end of the hallway was the storage vault. 

Griff rapped on the door to the hideout, the same as he had earlier, but this time the door came open easily, as well lubricated hinges swung outwards into the tunnel, and the pair were met with the barrel of a snub nosed pistol.




A pug-faced man relaxed and lowered his weapon, recognizing Griff and LaRue, and he silently directed them inside, bolting the door. He put a finger to his lips, gesturing for them to keep quiet. 

The room they stood in was old reinforced concrete, and neither man was surprised to see someone tied to a chair, bloodied and unconscious. Mr. Brill usually referred to this particular room as “the workshop”, but most of the guys just knew it as the torture room, or just, “the shop”. 

A single, bright lightbulb hung from the ceiling above a metal chair, casting a shadow that only emphasized the brutal setting. One of the walls had an array of rust-covered utensils on display, from pliers and saws, to wicked, serrated blades. In all his years, Griff hadn’t seen them used once, though the floor was stained with the blood of a hundred different people who’d crossed Mr. Brill, or run afoul of the hotel staff. 

“What’s his deal?” Griff asked the guard. “Put hands on one of Shixi’s girls. Wouldn’t take no for an answer,” the guard spit on the unconscious john, and punched him in the ribs, waking him just enough to moan in pain, “Shix wanted to throw him down the sewer, but the boss says to make an example and dump him out front,” he paused, looking at his fists, “I’m still working on the example part.” 

LaRue smiled coldly, scoffing at the bloodied detainee, “Looks like hell. We trying to kill the bastard or what?” he pushed the man’s limp head around with the sharpened end of his walking stick, and then jabbed him in the knee where the leg appeared to be bent unnaturally. 

“Aaaahhhh!” the captive screamed, jerking himself fully awake, “Not again! I’m sorry, I swear!” his bloodshot eyes went wide with renewed terror, as he saw the addition of Griff and LaRue in the room. 

The pug-faced man elbowed LaRue and whispered harshly, “I said quiet, Lefty! Not, ‘make the guy scream’. The boss and Shixi are talki…” 

The door burst open and Mr. Brill stormed in, his face screwed up in exasperation, “Goddammit Ferguson! I told you not…” he looked at Griff and blinked a few times, the creases in his cheeks and forehead smoothing out into a deadpan smile, “Oh. I see,” Brill nodded his head toward the captive, looking him over from head to toe, before finally letting out a mocking laugh, “Well, this guy looks pretty cooked. Keep him bleedin’ some, then dump him out front when we fire up the marquee tonight,” Brill gave the order and turned to leave, motioning for Griff and LaRue to follow. 

The prisoner moaned pitifully, “Pleeease… I’m sorrr… >cough< s…sorry! No more!”

Griff backhanded him as he walked by, “You shoulda thought about that before getting rough with the ladies,” Griff considered going back to break one of the man’s fingers for good measure, but settled for an honest threat, “Next time you won’t be so lucky. Be sure to tell your friends what happens to tough guys like you, yeah?”

“Uhnghhhhuuungghn…” was the best he could muster, still dazed from Griff’s rock solid blow.

Brill chuckled and shook his head, turning and walking back out into the warm wooden-toned opulence of his secret hideout. Griff and LaRue followed close on his heels and latched the camouflaged door panel behind themselves.




Their boss was a collector, and the place was like a museum, with over a dozen working relics; everything from a pair of old Zippo lighters, to an old stone chess set with hand carved marble pieces with the year ‘1973’ etched into the board. Hanging on the wall was an old television with the screen still intact, and even though it didn’t work, the rarity alone made it a standout among the other artifacts.

Some of it was original, but a lot had been restored, including an old world ceiling fan, a matching set of brass lamps, and an oak rolltop desk, which had to be reassembled inside the hideout because it wouldn’t fit down the narrow staircase. Sometimes Shixi worried that the Ship might find one of the two secret entrances if they ever came back around, and confiscate Brill’s whole collection.

Not sure what they’d interrupted, they just stood, waiting for orders.

“You boys want a drink?” Shixi asked as she approached, gesturing toward the private bar where a one-eyed man in a suit stood polishing a hand-blown glass, “I mean, assuming you got my money?”

The dark haired woman stood in a form-fitting red and black dress, her hand outstretched expectantly. Instead of producing the money, Griff reached out, and kissed the back of her hand like mock-royalty.

“You asshole. You get it or what?” Shixi asked with a sharp smile.

“Good morning to you too, Shix,” Griff smiled jokingly and reached into his jacket, pulling out a heavy leather pouch, “Yeah, this is all of it,” he walked past her over to the bar and set the bag down on a nearby table with a clink.

“Weirdest thing, too,” Griff shrugged, “The old lady had it all ready and counted, just waiting for us to show up. Offered us breakfast on the spot, before we even asked.”

Brill grumbled at that little detail, having told them to hurry. He didn’t like it when his people didn’t follow his orders to the letter.

LaRue chimed in, “Good stuff, Shixi. They had clam chowder on the menu, and som…”

“Can it, LaRue,” Brill interrupted the small talk and ordered a round of whiskey for the four of them, motioning toward a comfortable booth in the corner, “You can work on your brown nosin’ some other time. We’re on a bit of a tight schedule today, and I want the two of you to get down to the city, pronto,” he said, sitting down at the table, “And Shix, the two of us can finish talkin’ later, eh?”.

Shixi nodded agreement, a small smile quirking at the corner of her mouth. She knocked back her double-tall whiskey in a single gulp, and walked off to do some paperwork.

“So… the city?” Griff asked, surprised.

“Yeah, got a live one for ya. There’s a raffle today at market square, and I’m gonna be the big winner.” Brill snickered, swirling his glass.

“What, you got it rigged?” LaRue raised an eyebrow, “I mean, how do you rig a raffle? You buy off the ticket-taker or something?”

“Nah,” Brill laughed, pulling out a cigar, “Too much work. This is easier,” he looked back and forth between the two men, “And safer too.”

They all knew what he meant; safer for him. If the Ship somehow got involved and sent out a team, they’d be looking for a guy with a cane, and a larger man with a thick brow and a wide jaw, not Brill.

“So, what’s the job?” Griff asked.

Brill’s freshly lit cigar issued curling wisps of smoke out into the air beneath the hanging lamp as he pointed the smoldering tip back and forth between his henchmen.

“Simple. You two get down to the city and watch the raffle. Follow the unlucky sap who wins. When you get a chance, rough ‘em up, steal the prize, and bring it back here,” he waved his cigar around in the air, and then gestured at the table.

“Simple? C’mon boss… that sounds like anything but simple. I mean, who knows who’s gonna win the thing…” LaRue looked suddenly perplexed, “And what’s the big prize anyway? It’s gotta be something rare, right?” LaRue asked, looking around at some of the more ornate pieces that his boss had on display.

“You better believe it’s rare,” Brill said, rolling up his jacket sleeve to reveal a steel wristwatch with leather straps, “You see this little baby?” he showed it around, as if they hadn’t seen him constantly winding it over the years, “I’ll let you two in on a little secret… It don’t work. Never has, not since I first got hold of it,” he shot the pair a conspiratorial look, “But in a couple of hours, they’re raffling off a workin’ one. Gold. And I want it,” he took a puff and exhaled calmly, a thick gray-white cloud slowly filling the space between the three.

A long moment passed before Griff spoke up, “So, like Lefty was askin’, what if it ain’t so easy? Anybody could win the raffle. What if it’s some Ship patrol guy or somethin’? Or…” Griff struggled to think of a better example.

“Look,” Brill interrupted, “You two just handle your business. If you can’t get it done, I dunno what to tell ya’,” his features hardened, and he frowned, “I guess maybe you two think I should give Ferguson in there a shot at it?” the porculent boss jerked his thumb toward the torture room with the bloodied man inside.

The two thugs sat up straight, nervously talking over one another, “No, no, boss. Nothin’ like that, it’s just…”

LaRue cut Griff off, “We just wanna make sure…” he tried to think, imagining the possibilities, “We just need to know how risky? We can’t go and whack a patrol guy… or a council member. We’d have half the city lookin’ for us, and your watch.”

“Just do what you gotta do. Ain’t no way outta all the people there it’s gonna be somebody that untouchable,” Brill shook his head, looking across the room at Shixi, “And if it is, well… yeah, you got a point,” the end of Brills cigar flared to a brilliant orange, “If that happens, just come back to base. Shix and me, we’ll figure somethin’ out.”

The three men rose, finishing their morning drinks, and Brill led the two underlings toward the stairs that led up to the ground floor of the actual hotel.

Shixi’s voice followed them up the stairs as they left “Good luck, boys. Don’t be too long now…”




The rain had finally stopped, and the sounds of dribbling gutters and splashing puddles filled the air, along with the scent of moist dirt and stagnant decay.

Accompanying the returning bouquet of odors was the sight of damp, mildewy clothes being hung from every window and line.

The streets were filled with people who’d been cooped up indoors for days on end, and there was a general sense of relief in their voices as they collectively grumbled about leaky roofs, standing water, and moldy mattresses.

Griff and LaRue made their way down toward the waterfront, and the city gate, with Griff leading the way. He wore a menacing scowl that acted like a plow, daring anyone who looked up at him to stand in his way. His size alone would’ve been enough, but he made sure the long knife in his waistband was visible, in case some tough guy wanted to test his luck.

With LaRue tagging along just behind him, the pair approached the gate to the city, along with what seemed like half of the population of sprawl, and got in line. Griff reached into his belt and removed the knife from his waistband, stuffing it down between his legs. He secured it in place with a pair of sheathed underwear that one of Shixi’s girls had sewn for him a couple of years back. He gave both legs a good shake, one after the other, to be sure it was firmly attached.

“Uh… what gives? You got a magnetic leg or somethin’?” LaRue joked, with genuine interest in his eyes.

Griff lowered his voice, “Okay, so get this. One time, back when I was doing protection work for Shix and escorting girls into the city, I was doin’ house calls, and I heard things starting to go sideways in the other room. As in, the client started getting out of hand, and the girl called out for help,” Griff kept his voice low, and LaRue moved in closer, “Anyway, she was screaming and there was a whole lotta banging and commotion. But when I went to go in and bust the guy up, the door was locked.”

“‘No big deal, I’ll kick it in’, I think to myself. So, I haul back to break the thing down, and somehow the guy had managed to barricade it from the other side,” Griff shook his head and grunted.

“Well? What happened?” LaRue asked intently.

Griff cleared his throat, “Well, she was still calling for help, so I move over a few feet and just start kicking this guy’s whole wall in, wailin’ on it, just trying to get inside. It was pretty flimsy, and I was making pretty quick work, but halfway through, I heard the client start screaming instead.”

LaRue’s eyes were wide with suspense.

“So as this guy’s screaming gets more and more frantic, I’m thinking, ‘What the hell is going on in there?’, right? But I just keep kicking and bashing the wall in, and then just like that…” Griff snapped his fingers, “It goes quiet.”


“Well, I didn’t know what to think. I mean, it was years ago, and what with all the rumors coming out of the Ship about zombies back in those days, I thought maybe the guy killed her and she turned into one,” Griff shrugged.

LaRue gave Griff a withering look of pity, “Geez, Griff. Ya shouldn’t go around telling people that. They’ll think you’re…” he tapped his temple, “Slow.”

“Ah, shut it, Lefty. You saw all the extra patrols going around. Out in the OB. Along the waterfront. Putting extra guards at the gates. It wasn’t for nothin’,” Griff grumbled defensively.

As the two milled closer to the gate, a few of the people shambling in line nearby perked their ears up, but Griff’s scowl kept them from making it too obvious.

“I think it was just the Ship flexing their muscle, keepin’ people in…” LaRue caught a look from a well dressed, portly man in front of them, and made a different point, “Like, keepin’ people safe, y’know? Just in case?”

They both knew the last thing they needed was to get reported by a snitch, and the closer you got to the city, the more likely it was to find people who relied on the Ship for work.

LaRue changed the subject back to the story, “So what happened with the girl, though?”

“Right, the girl. So, it gets all quiet, I’m still tryin’ to figure out what to do, when I hear a bunch of furniture gettin’ pushed around over by the door… and then it opens,”, Griff’s eyes hardened, “I was ready to kill the son of a bitch, but it wasn’t him,” he patted his inner thigh where he’d secured his own blade, “It was the girl… Trina, just covered in the guy’s blood.”

“Jesus, man. That musta been a sight,” LaRue said, shaking his head, imagining.

Griff smiled, “It was a beautiful thing, Lefty. I mean, she looked like the devil, and had a helluva black eye brewin’, which pissed me off. But she carved him up good. Told me the whole story on the way back to home base.”

“Well, out with it man. What happened?” LaRue insisted impatiently.

Griff lowered his voice further, “Geez, let a guy tell a story, huh?” he frowned at LaRue, “So, she tells me he smacked her around a bit, and goes to pull out his little pecker, fumblin’ with his pants, right? Problem for him? He wasn’t expecting her to have a blade. By the time he figured it out, his prick was…” Griff made a slicing motion, “Clean off. And she didn’t stop choppin’ there.”

“Oh, my!” a woman who had been listening in couldn’t help herself, and quickly lowered her eyes.

Griff didn’t miss a beat, replying as if he’d been telling her the story too, still keeping his voice low, “Damn right, ‘oh my’. Probably the last thing that went through his head, too,” Griff chuckled.

LaRue kept walking, calculating before speaking up again, “Wait, you’re saying she hid a knife in her, uh…” LaRue trailed off with a bemused expression.

“Strapped to her leg, you idiot,” Griff chided, smacking LaRue upside the back of his head, “I guess all the girls do it. Extra layer of protection. It gets past the guards every time, too,” he winked at the listening woman, putting a single finger to his lips.

He forced a smile, but coming from Griff, it looked more like a grimace, and the eavesdropper took the hint, slowing her pace and falling away into the milling crowd.




It had been a few months since either of them had been inside the city gates. Griff was feeling particularly uneasy, looking every bit like a street tough, with his grim, scarred face and long leather trench coat. The pair tried not to draw attention, moving along with the flow of the crowd, as they made their way toward the market square.

Griff had made it through the weapon search without incident, but LaRue’s walking stick drew some uneasy glances from the guards as they were allowed inside.

Normally it was just a quick frisk for guns or long blades, but LaRue’s makeshift crutch had a sharpened metal tip. If they’d wanted to, the guards could’ve left him limping for the rest of the day, cane-less, but the sheer number of people precluded any extra scrutiny.

The mood was upbeat and joyful inside the city, even after all the rain. Sounds of drumming and singing came from three or four directions at once, depending on where you stood, sometimes punctuated by the sulfur-scented crackling of children’s sparklers.

Raffles brought people in from all over the sprawl, and the city dwellers welcomed most of them with smiles. The timing couldn’t have been better for the clouds to part, and the late spring sunshine beamed down from directly overhead just as the market bell rang out, signaling noontime.

“Well, let’s get ourselves a few tickets, right? I mean, we might just win the dumb watch ourselves and then we could just take it straight back to Brill,” LaRue snickered.

“Yeah, fat chance of that happening,” Griff replied, scoping out a good spot to watch the crowd.

LaRue insisted, “Well, we should still get a couple each, just in case anybody starts hounding us about what we’re up to.”

“You’re just bein’ paranoid now,” Griff gestured into the throng, “Look around, man. You think everybody here is tryin’ for an antique watch?”

“Not just the watch,” LaRue answered, “They give away all kinds of goodies at these things. Pies, quilts, blankets, paintings, you name it.”

Griff’s eyebrows rose, and for a moment, LaRue could almost picture Griff as a little kid; a tough little kid, with a cigar.

The image made LaRue smirk, and Griff didn’t like being the butt of jokes.

“What’s so funny, Lefty? You think I’m just supposed to hang out in the city like you did growin’ up?”

LaRue shook his head, “No, no. You got me all wrong. It’s just… you went from ‘fat chance’ to ‘where’s my pie?’, in about two seconds. It’s funny, that’s all,” he raised his hands defensively.

Griff relaxed, “Well, I was thinking about pie,” he grinned, “You really got my number…”

“Well you had the same look on your face that you did eating that blackberry pie earlier, it doesn’t take a mind reader,” LaRue smiled, shrugging.

With a few more minutes to kill before the first drawing, the pair of criminals went to buy some tickets. The main booth was flanked by two armed guards, openly displaying their weapons to deter roaming street kids, who always found a way into the city whenever there was a big event.

“Three,” said Griff in a gravelly voice, slapping some money down on the counter. The woman inside slipped him three tickets, and turned her attention to LaRue.

“I’ll take three as well,” LaRue said flatly, looking around at the couple hundred people milling about. He started thinking about pie and his mouth began to water.

As the two walked away from the booth, LaRue’s sudden hankering for desserts led them to a long wooden counter, where fresh baked sweet rolls and honey were being served alongside double caffeinated tea.

Griff decided the view of the stage was good enough from here, and the pair had a seat at the counter. LaRue motioned the proprietor of the booth over to them with a wave.

“What’ll it be?” asked a red cheeked man with a smile as he approached.

“A couple of those rolls… for each of us,” LaRue turned to Griff, “You still off the tea?”

Griff nodded, frowning. He had a hard enough time sleeping as it was lately.

“And a double-caf for me,” LaRue said, holding up one finger.

As the chubby pastry maker bustled away, the pair turned their attention to the task at hand.

“So what’s the plan Griff? We can’t just go up and mug the winner in front of everybody,” LaRue squinted, imagining the scene, “It’s just… after they hand ‘em the watch, what then?”

“We treat it like a bad meetup. Just lay back and follow ‘em. Boss didn’t say when he wanted us back,” Griff nodded thanks as his pastry was set on the counter, and eyed LaRue’s tea jealously, “I say we just follow the unlucky sap and see if there’s a good chance to jump ‘em without getting spotted. Otherwise, follow ‘em back to their apartment, and drop in for a midnight visit.”

“But we don’t know who’s gonna win. It’s like I said earlier, what if it’s somebody… connected?” LaRue objected.

“Yeah, and the boss told us to come back if that happens,” Griff rolled his eyes, “Geez, Lefty, you got a reputation for being a real smart one, but it sure don’t seem like it sometimes.”

“Stuff it. You know it could get complicated,” LaRue shot Griff a hard glance and took a bite of his roll, chewing for a long while, “Good sweet roll though.”

Griff sighed, relenting, “You’re kinda right on one thing. These odd jobs have a way of draggin’ things out, takin’ weird turns,” he followed LaRue’s lead, shoving half of the still-warm pastry in his mouth, “Hopefully this one goes easy, like it did at breakfast.”

LaRue chuckled, “I doubt whoever wins is gonna just hand over the prize…”

“Just that it goes smooth, y’know?” Griff made his point just as an announcer took the stage.

After some platitudes about the Ship and its benefit to the community, a large box covered in a black sheet was wheeled to the center of the platform, accompanied by a member of the city council.

The crowd applauded and cheered, as the well dressed official began to stride around theatrically, clapping and waving, giving enthusiastic thumbs up.

The exaggerated movements of his bald, skeletal head and long, bony limbs gave the impression of a stringless-puppet, adding to the spectacle of it all.

He paused in front of the box and gave a toothy grin, before suddenly whisking the sheet away, revealing the wristwatch, and a bin full of hand-marked paper tickets.

The audience quieted to a dull murmur, as the tall, skinny man reached into the clear plastic receptacle to pick a winner.

The councilmember dramatically flourished the piece of paper in the air before reading, “The winner… of a meal for two… at the famous…”

“What the hell?” Griff grumbled to LaRue, tuning out the council member.

“Just hold your horses,” LaRue raised his hands defensively, “I told ya, they raffle off all kinds of stuff. It could be a while,” he took another bite of his pastry and washed it down with a sip of tea, “Just slow down on your snack there, and keep an eye on your tickets. You could win a fancy dinner yourself,” LaRue winked, looking at his own numbers.

“One-three-seven. That’s ticket one-thirty-seven,” the councilman announced, looking around expectantly.

A woman called out, waving her arm above her head, ticket in hand.

“And we have a winner!”




Nearly an hour had passed, with various members of the city council taking turns and announcing prizes. Griff took a long drag of his cigarette, well past the point of boredom, and snuffed it out on his boot. The crowd had thinned out some, but there were still enough people that Griff and LaRue could blend in unnoticed.

The original announcer took center stage once more, thanking all of the various people and businesses that had contributed to the contest. After another round of applause, he reintroduced the first councilman to draw for the grand prize.

“And the grand prize, a working wristwatch, certified solid gold by our own Ship metallurgists,” he drew the winning ticket, and took a long exaggerated pause, fanning himself with the tiny scrap of paper, “Ticket number… one-four-three. One-four-three.”

There was some commotion, as an old man who looked to be in his early seventies shuffled through the crowd to the stage.

“Well, well… I guess we’re gonna be earning our rep today,” LaRue said sarcastically, “I guess we ain’t above knockin’ an old timer over to rob him.”

Griff didn’t much care for preying on the weak, either, “We can probably just grab the guy and take it from him. I mean, how much of a fight could he reall…”, Griff’s voice cracked and caught in his throat as he got a closer look at the man who was putting on the watch.

LaRue saw the look on his face, “What is it, man? You look like you seen a ghost.”

Griff stood up from the counter and took a dozen steps toward a low wall, making sure he wasn’t imagining things.

It had been almost thirty years, but Griff would’ve recognized the guy anywhere; it was Dennis, from his old neighborhood.

LaRue strolled over, confused, “What gives, pal? You know this guy?”

“Yeah. Name’s Dennis. Known him since I was a kid.. Haven’t seen him in years… Damn it all,” Griff’s stoic face softened a little, a mix of disappointment, sadness and regret.

The vulnerable look on Griff’s face was a first for LaRue, and he was at a loss, “So, uh? What’s the story?”

The old man was up on the stage, showing the wristwatch around to the dozens of people who were still in attendance, including the remaining council members. He shook their hands and smiled broadly, showing off his few remaining teeth, and fastened the too-large watch around his leathery, age spotted wrist.

“The story is that we gotta do this thing, or it’ll be our ass, that’s what. It’s just… we’re gonna have to do it smart. But first, we gotta follow him to wherever he’s living these days,” Griff said grimly, “I can’t imagine…” he trailed off.

“Goddamn it Griff, make some sense,” LaRue scolded, “You can’t imagine what?”

“That he still lives in the same building,” Griff barked, “It’s a little more than half an hour to walk from my place. The neighborhood where I grew up.”

LaRue went quiet, remembering snippets of details Griff had let slip about his childhood.

“You mean this is the guy who…”

Griff elbowed LaRue, “Can it, he’s movin’. Let’s go.”

Dennis, watch in hand, thanked the officials one last time, and stepped off the stage, making his way toward the northeast city gate.

The pair of thugs split up and followed Dennis from a good distance back, appearing to take in the sights of the market, while slowly trailing him to a small outdoor bar where he sat down for a celebratory hard cider.

The people in the city were always dressed better than the average sprawl dweller, at least inside the city gates. Fortunately for Griff and LaRue, Brill paid them well, and they made it a point to look sharp when they were out and about. Nobody gave them a second look while they mingled, other than noticing Griff’s towering stature, or LaRue’s limping walk, and cane.

The breeze from the ocean mingled with the smells of the various outdoor food stands that were a hallmark of the city market district, and Griff felt his stomach begin to growl as the prospect of a late lunch tickled his nostrils.

You could find a variety of clean, fresh meats cooking in the market during special events, and a raffle day was no different. There were vendors selling everything from clams and chicken kabobs to fish, and even the occasional cut of beef or venison, if you could afford it.

Most of the red meat found in the city was dried and salted, but occasionally it was brought in freshly butchered, by rugged, enterprising farmers who lived out in the wilds.

LaRue had already given in to temptation, and was holding an entire turkey leg, leaning up against a cement wall watching their mark. Griff saw his counterpart chomping down from across the plaza, and grumbled to himself, looking around for a quick bite and a place to settle in. It looked like they might be there for a while.




Dennis polished off his third cider, and motioned to the waitress for another, showing off his new wristwatch in the process. Satisfied after eating a pile of hot sausages, Griff wiped the grease off his chin and stood, just as LaRue struck up a conversation with a young couple operating a small booth that sold candles and soaps. LaRue had been keeping an eye on their target for nearly an hour, and sighed as another drink was delivered to the man’s table.

LaRue was starting to grow impatient, but Griff had been thinking about how exactly he was going to steal a watch from the only father figure he’d ever had.

The three o’clock bell rang out, and Dennis hurriedly gulped down the last of his freshly poured cider, rising from his table. He nodded thanks to the bartender and waitress, and slowly walked off, away from the market and toward the gate.

Griff and LaRue shadowed him, and as he made his way through the checkpoint out into the sprawl, they had to get closer than they wanted to, just to be sure they wouldn’t lose sight of him beyond the gate. LaRue was the pointman, and Griff hung back, wary of being recognized by the old man.

The roads of the sprawl were a mishmash of dirt, chunks of asphalt, and pulverized cement from old collapsed buildings from the outskirts. Mostly they followed the layout of the old city, with square blocks surrounding large clusters of buildings all packed together, often with alleyways running through them. Besides all the apartments, there were rows and rows of makeshift wooden hovels with corrugated steel roofs, often with little more than cloth sheets for doors.

Dennis made his way through the familiar streets, heading nearly straight toward Griff’s current residence, with LaRue not too far behind. The number of people outdoors was no good for a snatch and grab, at least not without getting too much attention, and Griff was becoming uneasy again as he considered what they were planning to do. He realized at one point that he was following so far behind, that he was actually just trailing LaRue, and couldn’t even see their mark.

LaRue had no such concern, and the fact that they had been walking along a straight, well traveled street helped with his confidence. There was no way this guy Dennis knew his face, and since they hadn’t really been going around any corners, he’d never suspect he was being followed. LaRue looked over his shoulder and saw Griff a ways back down the road, rolling another cigarette as he casually strolled along, but when he looked back the man, and his wristwatch, were nowhere to be seen.

Griff noticed LaRue’s sudden change in body language, and quickened his pace as his partner began rubbernecking from one street to the next and back, looking for their mark. After nearly breaking into a run, Griff relaxed as he drew closer, recognizing the intersection of roads where his partner had lost their quarry. He let out a low whistle, looking around with a tiny smile at the corners of his mouth, taking in the sight like a tourist. Children as young as seven had always congregated around Dennis’ building, as far as Griff knew, just waiting for the fatherly man to come out and bring them whatever spare food he could wrangle up that day.

“Well I’ll be damned. Same building and everything,” Griff remarked, taking the lead, and heading around the backside of a large, squat structure. It was painted over with a claylike, creamish tan whitewash, commonly used in the sprawl to seal and fill cracks in the old buildings to keep them from deteriorating any further.

“You think he went in here?” LaRue asked with a tinge of fear in his voice, “Or should I get back to the four-way?”

“Nah, he’s here. This is it. Let’s look for a spot where we can figure out what to do next,” Griff remembered a place where he used to sit and wait for Dennis to get home, and began making his way toward it. As they approached an old building across the street, Griff realized there were a handful of older street kids milling around there already, just as he had done growing up.

Rather than chasing them off, Griff decided to double back and get a better look at the place, just to be sure his memory wasn’t misleading him. He saw the ground floor entrance he’d gone through a thousand times, still without a door, and was tempted to go inside and have a look around.

LaRue saw the way Griff was looking the scene over and nudged him, “Hey man, you kinda look like a creep, the way you’re looking around with all these kids everywhere. Just saying,” he winked, shrugging, trying not to look suspicious himself.

“There’s always kids around here. Dennis feeds the streeters and helps ‘em out when he can. Sort of a hobby I guess,” Griff shrugged, “I didn’t think he still stayed here though, but I guess he does. Sure looks that way.”

“Well that’s fine for him, but we stick out like a pair of sore thumbs,” LaRue glanced around for some plausible reason they should be hanging around the building, and decided that two guys just chatting at an intersection was as good as they could manage. He made his way back to the corner with Griff in tow, and the two men leaned up against a dilapidated wall that was covered in oil-chalk graffiti.

“So we do what? Wait around here all day?” LaRue asked, thinking about ways to lure their target into an alley or somewhere they could corner him, “I mean, why don’t you just stay here and I’ll go in and snatch the watch off his wrist? I won’t have to rough him up… probably.”

Griff shook his head and scowled, “You lay a finger on Dennis and I’ll throw you down into the sewer myself, LaRue. And that’s a promise,” Griff decided it was as good a time as any to put his knife back in his waistband, and LaRue took the hint.

“Geez man, so the guy’s a charity case. He helps out the street urchins. I get it, he musta helped you out some back when you were a runner but…”

“No. You don’t get it. More than just ‘helped us out’, Lefty. See that door over there,” Griff nodded, “Always open. For orphans. Kids whose parents died or got sent off, for good,” Griff looked down at the dirty sidewalk, remembering his dad being dragged away by half a dozen Ship soldiers, “I lived there off and on for years, before I took up with my ol’ gang.”

LaRue raised his eyebrows, but remained quiet, looking at the makeshift playground set up in the back alley.

“Most of us? We had nothin’. The older kids could get work sometimes to buy food. The youngest of us, not so much. I can’t tell ya how many times I got a meal from Dennis instead of havin’ to beg, or go rat hunting,” Griff waved away the memory, “Nah, I should be goin’ in there to thank him, not rip him off.”

“But the boss…” LaRue protested.

“Yeah, yeah… the boss. I know. It’s a pickle,” Griff concluded, pulling out his pouch of tobacco.

“You think I could just… y’know… threaten the guy? Maybe he’ll just hand it over?” LaRue had barely finished his question, when Dennis emerged from the building dressed in a different set of clothes, more ragged than what he’d been wearing before.

And he wasn’t wearing the wristwatch.




Griff didn’t want to make eye contact, even for a moment. He turned most of his body away, as Dennis strolled back down the block with a couple of kids following him, asking questions that neither Griff or LaRue could make out.

“Well shit, Lefty. I guess we caught a lucky break,” Griff exclaimed, “It’s anybody’s guess how long he’ll be gone, but we gotta get in there and snag that watch before he comes back!”

“What, just go in and toss the place?” LaRue asked.

“Yeah. I mean, we don’t need to bust the place up. Get in, find the watch, and get out. Easy,” Griff sounded happy at the prospect, “He might not even know it’s gone right away.”

“Alright, let’s do it then, before we overthink it too much,” LaRue pushed off the wall and began to stroll nonchalantly toward the building

Griff took a drag of his cigarette before flicking it out into the street, and followed suit. As he approached the house he almost felt like he was dreaming, seeing such a familiar place after so much time. He veered away from the front of the building and led LaRue to the doorless entrance, peering inside.

“Say, anybody home?” Griff called into the dim room.

There were no lamps burning in there during the day, and the only light came from the outside. Griff’s size cast an imposing shadow, cutting the light in half as he called out a second time.

“Heya? Billy?” Griff made up a name at random, “Billy, you in here?”

LaRue gave him a doubtful look, but followed his partner inside.

As Griff’s eyes adjusted, he saw that the room was largely unchanged after all these years. There were a handful of low beds lined up against one of the walls, barracks-style, and a large tub and an oilcloth bag of powdered soap for washing. Clotheslines crisscrossed the room with bedsheets and clothing, drying from the previous week of non stop rain.

The combination of smells hit Griff like a hammer, and a slew of long forgotten memories came flooding back to him. He remembered huddling together with other kids to keep warm one winter, during a three foot snowstorm, not having seen Dennis for days. He recalled how many orphans and runaways froze to death that year, and counted himself lucky to have a place to call home.

It was just a fact of street life; how often one or more of the kids went missing, never to be seen again. His best childhood friend was one of them. Dennis had helped look for every one the kids who disappeared, going around with their friends, visiting their favorite spots, asking adults for information. Sometimes they just grew up or found somewhere else to stay, but many just vanished without a trace.

“I guess nobody’s home. Lucky for us,” Griff muttered, still taken aback at how little had changed. He crossed the darkened room in a few strides and tried the door to the upstairs, where Dennis would often appear with food or little gifts.

The door was locked from the other side, as usual. But Griff wasn’t a little kid any more, and with a forceful kick the wood splintered, and the door gave way at the latch. After a little prying, he pulled the door open, hinges still intact, and made his way inside with LaRue right behind him.




“Alright, let’s split up. You look around in the main part of the house, I’ll go check the bedroom… or bedrooms,” Griff said looking around, vaguely recalling something from a distant memory.

“Right. But what if he comes barging in on us goin’ through his stuff?” LaRue asked.

“Just hurry, and try not to bust anything up,” Griff said, climbing the stairs, “I’ll take care of it if he shows up. He’ll remember me,” he tried to imagine some excuse, but he came up blank.

“Whatever you say, man. But if this goes bad, it ain’t on me, you got it?” LaRue gave Griff a fierce look, “If this was anybody else we’d have the watch by now, sipping cognac back at Shixi’s.”

Griff nodded his understanding, “You got it,” he acknowledged his partner with a thumbs up, and began to hunt for the bedroom.

LaRue glanced around the living room, hoping to spot the gold watch sitting out before he began rifling through drawers at random, or trying to discover a hidden compartment where the old man likely kept his valuables. He peered across a hallway into an adjoining room where an easel sat by a window along with what appeared to be some unfinished artwork leaning up against the walls. LaRue shook his head, scoffing to himself at the idea of trying to make paintings, or anything artsy for that matter.

Griff went up a second flight of stairs, realizing that the house was much larger than he had remembered. It seemed that Dennis had the entire building to himself, rather than renting a room, or sharing the space. On the second floor Griff began to really take notice of the place, and scratched his head at the sight of antique furniture and old oil paintings on the wall, a rare sight in this part of town, or just about anywhere in the sprawl for that matter.

Before he could start poking around, LaRue called out from downstairs, “Hey Griff, you gotta come down here, man. I… uh, I really think you ought to see this.”

LaRue sounded concerned, and Griff hurried back down the stairs to find his partner inside a small room. He had jimmied a lock on the door, and sparked an old, ornate oil lamp which illuminated three maroon painted walls and a large dark wooden desk. The smells of oil and potpourri were heavy in the air, and on the walls were pictures of street kids, obviously painted by Dennis.

Before Griff could comment, LaRue spoke up, “Now what have we got here?” he asked rhetorically, flipping open a hefty ledger filled with handmade paper.

Griff wasn’t paying attention, distracted by his own find, “And what’s all this?” Griff’s thick eyebrows climbed up his forehead as he spotted a large wooden box with its lid propped open, nearly bursting with large denomination coins.

LaRue spoke up, his voice uneven, and subdued, “Jesus. I got a pretty good idea… but… well, I’m not sure you wanna know. Maybe I’m wrong but…” Griff nudged LaRue out of the way and picked up the thick ledger, the notebook looking much smaller in his hands than in LaRue’s.

Dennis had taught Griff to read as a boy, and it only took a moment before his arms began to tremble as he considered the implications of what he was looking at, and what it meant. He flipped to the beginning of the book, going quickly and methodically, page by page until he found what he was looking for; what he hoped he wouldn’t.

Tommy B. Age 13-14. Brown hair. Deliver to Pier 13. Docks. Four hundred on delivery.

“Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?” a loud voice familiar to Griff suddenly demanded from behind them, causing both men to jump with a start.

Dennis stood pointing a ship-made pistol at the two would-be burglars, daring them to make any sudden moves. The pair of thugs had been so taken aback by their discovery that they’d let their guard down.

“Whoa, whoa now. Den, it’s me. Griffey,” Griff put his hands up defensively, “I… I can explain. I just.. we…,” Dennis turned the gun on LaRue, firing a single shot into his belly.




Before he knew what he was doing, Griff reached out and grabbed the pistol by the barrel, wrenching it out of Dennis’ bony hand just as he got another shot off. The bullet tore through part of Griff’s hand and hit the box of coins, sending blood and stamped metal flying.

Griff wasn’t phased, and he just stared at Dennis with simultaneous wonderment and hatred, his mind still processing what he’d seen in the ledger.

“You sold him,” Griff said flatly.

Dennis’ eyes went wide as Griff took a step closer, indifferent to the pulsing spray of blood coming from his outer palm.

“You… sold… my best friend,” Griff took another step and reached out, grabbing Dennis by the scruff of his tattered shirt, pushing him up against one side of the doorframe.

The old man frantically beat at Griff’s arm, but it was useless. He opened his mouth to protest or explain, but Griff was having none of it, and pulled Dennis close before slamming him back into the doorframe with enough force to knock the wind out of him.

Glancing back at the old ledger, Griff imagined how many names were in that book. How many little kids had trusted Dennis to care for them. And the whole time he’d been selling them.

“You… we loved you…” Dennis made one last effort to get away from Griff’s iron grip, wriggling frantically to get away, but Griff was done thinking. He reached out with his bleeding hand, grabbing the old man by the windpipe, and gave a sharp squeeze and a twist.

There was a loud, wet popping sound, and the man dropped to the floor, thrashing and clutching at his neck. There was a strained, wheezing noise as Dennis struggled in vain to draw enough air. It was just a matter of time.

LaRue had gotten to his feet and was doubled over, holding his stomach, hands covered in blood. He leaned against the desk and looked up at Griff, who stood stone faced, watching the man on the floor.

For the first time since he was a child, tears began to well up in his eyes, and Griff began to cry.




Brill sat in his private booth and smiled, admiring his new wristwatch and giving it a fresh polish with the sleeve of his suit. The Ship’s premier lounge, The Starboard, overlooked market square, where the raffle had taken place just a day earlier.

The plan hadn’t gone quite as well as he had hoped; one of his guys had been gut-shot, and his best enforcer, Griff, asked to be put back on door duty for a while. After hearing the full story, Brill couldn’t blame him, and told him to take all the time he wanted.

In addition to the watch, his man LaRue had managed to grab a notebook full of names linked to some of the darkest dealings he’d ever seen, and for Brill, that was saying something. Among the names was none other than a well respected member of the city council.

Now Brill owned him, and his secret.

Looking across the water at the darkening city, the market bell rang out, and Brill smiled at his good fortune.

He’d won the raffle after all.


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