A pigeon that came rapping, gently rapping on my apartment window. I opened it and waited for the bird to fly away. It didn’t.
“Can’t this wait?” I asked. “I’m in the middle of dinner.”
The pigeon cooed, turned its head to one side. He wasn’t taking no for an answer, and I didn’t need to piss off his master.
“Usual place then?” I said.
The bird flew off. I threw my macaroni in the refrigerator and grabbed my coat. It was a lousy night out. Rainy. Not cold, but muggy. But when a Major Player called, it didn’t pay to keep them waiting.
The Game was played across a number of domains and power levels. No one knew the exact score, but the levels were obvious enough. I was no slouch, but I wasn’t a Major. There were Players who had more Mojo than most, and they sat atop the food chain.
Beggar was an urban shaman, lord of the forgotten city. You wouldn’t know it to look at him. The dirty, shaggy old man looked as if he’d spent centuries wandering these city streets and never once stopped to take a bath. Most homeless people ended up homeless because of a bad break, maybe poor choices, maybe just shit that happens. But Beggar had chosen this life, and he’d become a virtual god by embracing it. A god with bad teeth and a stench you could smell from twenty feet, but that was his price.
We all paid a price for our Mojo.
He had no residence, wandering the city as he willed. But whenever he called me, we met in in the same alley. He was digging through trashcans when I approached. Pigeons milled around him.
“I’m here.” The steady rain poured down my face. A trickle ran down my back.
Beggar didn’t turn his attention away from his treasure hunt. “I need you to get something for me.”
I didn’t ask what he needed. It didn’t matter. It always paid to have a Major owe you a favor in the Game. There was only one question that concerned me.
“Any reason you can’t do it yourself?” I asked.
I was hoping he’d say he was too busy doing whatever it was he did or that it was a minor task, beneath him.
“Vermin has it,” he said as he tossed some aluminum cans into a shopping cart.
The Game was played across many domains, and those domains overlapped here and there. Beggar was lord of the city, but Vermin held all the creepy crawlies in his pocket. They’d been fighting a shadow war over ultimate control of the bugs and rats and whatever else crawled unseen all around us, in our walls, under our feet, in the dark while we slept.
I hated Vermin. My particular talents weren’t much good against a man who controlled an army of cockroaches. But I couldn’t turn down Beggar. It wasn’t only that it’d be nice to have him owe me. Telling him no was the equivalent of pissing off the city itself. I’d once seen a guy push Beggar aside, only to have an air conditioner fall on his head. I was a Player, so I wasn’t quite as vulnerable, but my plumbing could back up and my electricity could go out. The city had plenty of ways to punish a person who pissed off its master.
“Where is it?” I asked.
“Follow the signs,” said Beggar as he pushed his cart past me.
It’d be nice if he’d given me an address, but that wasn’t how he operated. You played the Game by its own rules. A pigeon crapped on my shoulder before flying away. I followed the bird until I lost sight of it. Then a rat showed me the way a little farther. And then a series of flashing detour signs took over. If you knew what to look for, it wasn’t a hard path to follow.
It led me to a condemned apartment building, covered in graffiti. The windows had been boarded up and a fence had been thrown around it. I bought a pocket flashlight from a convenient store and found a way in. It wasn’t difficult, and the place was populated by dozens of squatters. I knew then why Beggar couldn’t do this on his own. He couldn’t go inside. His Mojo diminished with every minute he spent indoors. It was his only practical limitation.
The squatters scurried deeper into the shadows as I prowled the crumbling halls. Every so often, graffiti arrows marked my path into this nest, and the farther I went, the more I risked. Meeting Vermin on his own terms was a losing proposition, but you couldn’t play the Game without taking risks.
In the basement, I was met by a trio of mangy stray dogs. Growling, baring their teeth, they moved forward. That was a new trick. Vermin hadn’t been able to control anything bigger than a large rat last time we’d met.
He spoke from the shadows. Like the beasts he commanded, he preferred to stay out of the light. “Didn’t expect to see you here, Shaolin. Did he send you? Of course, he did.”
“I don’t want to hurt you or your pets. Why don’t you hand it over?”
I caught a glint as Vermin’s eyes reflected in the dark. “Go away. Leave me alone.”
“I can’t do that. We both know I’m stronger than you, so do us both a favor and hand it over.”
“You were stronger than me.”
Things moved in the shadows. I swept my flashlight across the dozens upon dozens of rats scrambling across the floor. That was a problem with the Game. The goddamn scoreboard kept changing.
The dogs advanced.
“Tell him he can have the city,” said Vermin, “but its shadows are mine.”
He stepped into the light. His face as long and thin. His skin was pale from all the time he spent in the dark.
“Better yet, I’ll tell him myself when I have my dogs drag your corpse to his feet.”