Best Served Cold

Conrad Jamboy

CEO of Jamboy Enterprises
Staff member
Level 2
Essence
€4,011
Coin
₡20,559
Tokens
140
Best Served Cold

Day 4
The last thing Conrad remembered was slumping over the yoke, delirious from blood loss. His weight jerked Gulliver into a sharp dive, indicators beeping and flashing their warnings, and the dunes outside Karim rose hungrily to greet them. Distantly, he heard Zebra shouting—felt the man’s huge hand tugging at his shoulders. And then, nothing.

*****​

For three days after the heist, Conrad slipped in and out of a feverish haze, plagued by nightmares of chemical attacks and the agents of vengeful merchants ambushing him in the dead of night. Unable to distinguish dreams from reality, he watched through bleary eyes as a parade of familiar faces entered and exited the room: Sori, Zebra, Brooke, Baldur, and Davroar came and went, sometimes lingering to exchange terse words or swab the halfling’s face with a damp cloth before unconsciousness took him once more.

At dawn on the fourth day, Conrad’s eyes snapped open. Lazy dawnlight crept across the bed sheets tangled around his legs and torso, dust motes swirling in its wake. The halfling scrambled up to a sitting position using his good arm. Even that motion brought on a wave of nausea and dizziness that threatened to push him back into unconsciousness. He wiggled the fingers of his injured arm and smiled. It seemed he had escaped the complex, if not unscathed, then at least without any permanent injury.

How long had it been? the halfling wondered. Judging by the audible growling in his stomach and his dry, cracked lips, several days had passed without any food or water. He recognized the room as his room in the Whispering Tankard. The memories came back to him piecemeal—waking up in the interrogation room, clearing out Whittaker’s safe, discovering the truth of the old merchant’s chemical weapon, and he and Zebra’s narrow escape from the hangar. Once again, slippery Conrad Jamboy had defied the odds.

In his youth, it would have been different. In those days, before the expansion of interplanetary trade and the arrival of all manner of advanced technologies, such as the weapons and surveillance systems employed by Whittaker’s security teams, the heist wouldn’t have been half as complicated and certainly not as dangerous. Dimly, Conrad remembered seeing Brooke and Baldur standing over his bed. Had it been a dream? The last he had seen of Brooke, she had charged headlong into the collapsing upper complex, amidst fires and explosions, not to escape, but to rescue her fallen friend. And Baldur… the halfling had witnessed the hulking Goron buried under tons of concrete slabs—a fate from which no one, not even a member of the hardy, thick-skinned desert race, should have emerged alive. Of course, they had also lost contact with Haruhiko in the chaos. Whether he had met an untimely end or simply judged the situation too dangerous—too out of control—to risk his neck, Conrad could only guess.

As the halfling took account of the events in Whittaker’s complex, voices, caught somewhere between a whisper and an angry shout, drifted underneath the door.

“—not a coin on the little bastard,” Brooke said.

“But Baldur said he cracked the vault,” came Sori’s measured, almost robotic voice.

“Baldur’s worse off than Conrad.” Brooke’s voice held more than a trade of venom. “We’re lucky he didn’t die following that pipsqueak’s ridiculous plan.”

Sori seemed not to understand. “We all followed the same plan, Brooke. We knew the risks.”

Reminded of the loot he had nabbed from the vault, Conrad glanced around the room anxiously, his gaze settling on a chair in the corner of the room, on which his clothes and weapons had been placed. His heart skipped a beat before he located the nondescript pouch dangling from his belt—the magical bag of holding that now contained a hoard of gold and artifacts that would be the envy of kings and dragons the worlds over. Before he could stop it, the audible sigh of relief escaped him. The sound was like a gunshot in the pre-dawn quiet. He clamped a hand over his mouth, but the damage was done.

The door banged open. Sori tried to hold Brooke back, but the larger, more physical woman bullied ahead, pointing at Conrad accusingly.

“A simple job,” she growled, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “In and out. What the hell was that back there?”

Conrad opened his mouth to reply, but only descended into a fit of coughing. His mouth felt like it had been stuffed with cotton balls. Finally, he croaked, “I’m sorry, Brooke. I couldn’t have known—”

Brooke’s eyes flared. “Couldn’t have known? You almost got Baldur killed. And for what?”

The halfling met Sori’s eyes and she looked down, smiling apologetically. So the last part of his plan—the part only the blue-skinned techno-genius knew—had not yet been revealed. In the chaos leading up to the heist, the group had planned every detail meticulously, from Haru’s initial infiltration, to Conrad’s kidnapping, to Baldur’s subsequent rescue, to Brooke’s disabling of the security system. But one detail—perhaps the most important detail—had escaped their notice. That is, and through no minor effort on his part, it had escaped the notice of everyone but he and Sori.

The question of exactly how Conrad, at just shy of four feet tall, planned to carry a vault-load of coins, jewels, and priceless artifacts, was one the seasoned duo had artfully dodged throughout their days of plotting. In their many years working together on more minor jobs, the two had grown accustomed to weaving their own brand of intrigue through the fabric of delicate operations, always emerging just a little bit better off than their fellow crooks while still avoiding suspicion. The heist had been no exception to their time-honored tradition. No strangers to the betrayals endemic to their line of work, and not yet ready to trust the four eager young criminals who materialized on their doorstep, Conrad and Sori had conveniently forgotten to mention the innocuous bag of holding—an item that responded only to the halfling’s specific commands.

“Did you hear me?” Brooke yelled, grabbing Conrad by the front of his nightshirt and hoisting him into the air. “What do you have to say for yourself, goddamnit?” Conrad yelped, more from pain than surprise.

“Enough, Brooke,” Sori said, boldly stepping forward to grab the taller woman’s forearm. “It is not his fault.”

“Not his fault?” Brooke echoed disbelievingly. “How exactly is it not his fault?”

“We all knew the risks.” Sori enunciated each syllable with the exasperation of a mother speaking to her child. It seemed the commotion had roused the rest of the group, as at that moment, Zebra and Davroar entered the room.

In the face of her growing audience, Brooke relinquished her grasp. Suddenly sheepish, she took a step back and flushed a deep crimson, refusing to meet Conrad’s eyes. “Sorry,” she muttered. “I just—”

“Don’t worry about it.” Conrad winced with each word as he eased back into a sitting position, cradling his injured arm. “It got crazy in there, I know. How’s Baldur?”

Brooke shrank visibly in response to his question. At that moment, she seemed much more a scared little girl than the headstrong woman of a moment before. She blinked back tears and said, “Still unconscious. He’s lucky to be alive. If he hadn’t gotten us out, I don’t—I don’t know what would have happened.”

“And Haru?"

“No word yet,” Sori said, filling the silence. “Not since that night. I have to imagine he’s…”

“Dead,” Zebra cut in flatly. “How ya feelin’ little guy?”

“Dead,” Conrad echoed back with a half-hearted grin. “Or damn near, anyway. How’d we get out?”

“Well, let’s just say it’s damn lucky you taught me how to fly before your little hero act.”

“And my ship?”

It was Zebra’s turn to wince. “You won’t be flyin’ it any time soon, but it’s in one piece. Stashed it outside the city where we landed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Whittaker’s goons found it by now. Too dangerous to bring it back to Dav’s place, y’know?”

The halfling nodded grimly. “Whittaker.” That word brought back a flood of fear and anger—images of shadow monsters bristling with quills and spines, and of a fleet of ships equipped to visit the old merchant’s unique brand of terror upon population centers throughout the Crossroads.

Growing up, Conrad used to idolize men like Ajax Whittaker. The escapades of high society enthralled him and made him believe, against all good judgment, that he was always one job from breaking into their ranks, from climbing the social ladder and amassing the wealth and notoriety of which his days as a starving street waif had implanted persistent fantasies bordering on an all-out obsession.

Now, though, the halfling saw the truth. It was not his height or his background that kept him from rising above his peers and claiming that coveted lifestyle. It was his conscience—that sense of morality which, although he was not opposed to the occasional robbery or the sale of implements of murder to his underworld brethren, always stayed his hand when faced with innocent, undeserving victims. He and Sori, along with the select few others they trusted for repeat jobs, had carved an ethical niche out of an unethical profession. Whittaker was another, more foul brand entirely.

“I have to stop him,” Conrad said on impulse.

Brooke frowned. “Whittaker? Didn’t we try that already? Look how far it got us.”

“We tried to rob him. This time, I plan to kill him.” His own uncharacteristic resolve startled him, but he gained momentum from Sori’s agreeing nod. “Look, at the end of the day we’re all crooks here… I get that. Well, except for Dav, anyway.”

The innkeeper, silent until that point, offered the halfling a deferential nod.

Conrad gathered his thoughts and continued. “None of us are innocent, not truly. But what Whittaker’s up to, developing weapons like that… it’s beyond the pale. We knock over casinos and banks. He wants to start wars—kill thousands of people—, all to make a quick buck. I can’t abide it, not after seeing what I’ve seen.”

“You know I am with you, Conrad,” Sori said, placing a hand on the halfling’s shoulder.

Davroar stepped forward. “Me too, pipsqueak. Anythin’ t’stick it t’that slimy son of a bitch.”

Nodding appreciatively, Conrad turned to face Brooke and Zebra, the question plain on his face. But both of them were already, unsurprisingly, shaking their heads.

“No,” Brooke said. “Once Baldur’s back in action we’re out of this place. He warned me he had a bad feeling about the heist. I should have trusted him. I won’t make that mistake again.”

“Nothing personal, kid. This whole fancy crime business ain’t my style. I’ll stick to fighting and feasting.” Zebra stared the halfling down from his position behind Brooke before his gaze flicked toward Conrad’s gear piled on the chair in the corner. “We’ll settle our business and I’ll be on my way. No hard feelings?”

Conrad nodded again, acknowledging both the man’s argument and his subtext. He expected to get paid, and the halfling had no qualms with that bit of business. “None. You two—you three—have done more than enough already. I can’t ask you to get involved in my personal vendettas, whatever the stakes.” With that settled, Brooke and Zebra made their way out of the room. Davroar shut the door behind them.

“Talk, pipsqueak,” the muscled innkeeper said in a low voice, leaning in conspiratorially. “I ain’t no genius, but even I know when there’s somethin’ ye ain’t tellin’ us.”

Despite himself, Conrad grinned. “Sori?”

The blue-skinned woman crossed the room and retrieved the enchanted pouch, bringing it to the halfling’s waiting grasp.

With a spoken word in some unintelligible, arcane language, Conrad opened the door to the pocket dimension held within the bag. He uncinched the drawstring and pulled the pouch open wide, tilting it forward to allow Davroar and Sori to look inside. Even Sori, always as placid as a still lake, could not suppress her appreciative gasp.

“By the Arbiters,” Davroar murmured, his voice stolen by the sheer breadth of the halfling’s haul. “Ye actually pulled it off.”

Conrad peered into the pouch himself and found it hard to breathe. Like looking through the peephole of a door, he could only see part of the expansive room inside, but if it had a floor there was no way of knowing, so crowded was it with the fruits of Ajax Whittaker’s sinister labors. Mounds of gold and jewels, piled as high as the halfling’s chest, caught and reflected the morning light, interspersed with paintings, statues, and rare texts. All in all, it was more wealth than Conrad had ever imagined, much less seen in one place—enough to last him the rest of his life or to fuel his most extravagant ambitions.

For now, though, Conrad had a more pressing matter at hand. “Don’t get too excited just yet,” he said, closing the pouch and speaking the word to deactivate the enchantment. “There’s work to be done.”

“So what is next?” Sori asked.

The halfling thought for a moment, a plan beginning to form. “We’ll need a team.”

Quest Progress: 2,199 / 20,000
 
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Conrad Jamboy

CEO of Jamboy Enterprises
Staff member
Level 2
Essence
€4,011
Coin
₡20,559
Tokens
140
Day 11

Riordan Glenn staggered down the detritus-strewn alley, his eyes on his feet to avoid tripping over piles of refuse and makeshift shelters of wood and fabric—the homes of some of Karim’s innumerable vagabonds. He half-sang, half-hummed an old sailors’ shanty from his days working aboard the space barges, the words sliding thick and slurred through his lips. From one hand dangled a bottle of dark liquor, clutched precariously between the tips of his mottled green fingers, its contents swishing and swirling in time with his uneven steps. Smoke followed close behind him, the little cat picking its way languidly through the debris.

In his stupor, the half-orc didn’t notice the forms emerging from the shadowy enclosures as he passed, nor those gathering at the bottleneck where the alley opened into the street. Only when Smoke elicited a low hiss did he tilt his chin upward, just in time to bump, chest to chest, into the burly man in front of him. A rough shove sent him stumbling backward, narrowly avoiding stepping on the tail of his feline companion.

“Oy!” Riordan whined, his empty hand turning tight circles to keep him on his feet. “Pray watch it, you lubberly ox. You’ll spill my drink!” He cradled the bottle in his arms like an infant.

The man, flanked by his buddies on both sides, took a menacing step forward. His right hand hiked up the side of his shirt, revealing the grip of a handgun. “What’d you call me, swampskin?”

Eyeing the weapon warily, Riordan took stock of the situation. Three in front of him and four behind, all bristling with weapons—pistols and knives and lengths of thick chain. “Hey big fella,” he said, showing his palms and attempting a disarming grin, “there’s no need for this to get physical. Now, I don’t have any money”—he turned out his pockets, demonstrating—“but if you simply point me in the direction of your mother I’m sure we can work out another form of payment.”

Riordan sensed the first attack less than saw it. Dropping flat onto his stomach in a pool of muck, he heard the whistle of the length of chain as it sailed above his head. Careful not to spill a drop of the precious liquor, he drew his dirk with his free hand and planted one foot, kicking backward with the other and using the collision with his assailant’s shin to propel himself forward.

“Now, Smoke!” he shouted. The cat zigzagged through the legs of the gang and darted up Riordan’s back as the half-orc rose, leaping off his shoulder and toward the three men in the mouth of the alley. They grinned stupidly until the cat began growing, its lithe form elongating, claws and fangs glinting in the bare moonlight. The man in front tried in vain to get off a shot before he was buried beneath two hundred pounds of muscled hunting cat.

Riordan came up with the bottle at his lips, turning away from the three men, who now had their hands more than full as Smoke raked and clawed, rending flesh and filling the air with red mist. The length of chain swept in at him again. He weaved back, narrowly missing a painful meeting with the improvised weapon as his depth perception wavered in and out. Still, when his dirk snapped out the half-orc’s aim was true. The man howled and dropped the chain, clutching his torn wrist. Swallowing the potent liquor with a grimace, Riordan advanced.

The first shot hit the wall beside the half-orc’s head, exploding brick and pelting the side of his face with sharp fragments. Riordan dove behind a pile of debris as a second shot rang out, then a third. Across the way, he saw Smoke recoil as a sword tip dug into her hip. The tenacious cat spun, its powerful leg muscles flexing as she launched forward like a gray arrow, her claws sinking into the attacker’s chest. A bullet clipped her haunch and she dropped to the ground, the hind leg buckling instantly. The last man standing dove on top of her, wrapping a forearm around her neck and keeping her pinned.

Once again, Riordan was unaware of the man slinking up behind him until the garrote wrapped around his throat. Instinctively, he kicked back with all his strength, smashing the man into the wall behind them. The man relaxed his grip for a moment, allowing Riordan to slip his fingers underneath the garrote. Warm blood seeped through his fingers. His attacker did not lament, tightening his grip once again. Riordan saw flashes of color dancing at the corners of his vision as he struggled against the iron grip.

Another of the attackers came forward and slugged him hard in the stomach, then grabbed him roughly by the hair and forced the half-orc’s gaze to meet his. “Conrad Jamboy,” the man growled, his brown eyes flashing dangerously, “where is he?”

Riordan tried to answer, but all that emerged was a guttural groan as the force against his throat began to crush his windpipe.

The man looked to his partner. “Ease up, Lyn. Y’can kill ‘im once we’re through with ‘im.”

Mercifully, the man with the garrote relented. Riordan drew a shuddering breath, his vision slowly returning. “Never heard of him.”

“Like hell y’haven’t.” A backhand across his face snapped his head to the side.

Riordan felt the metallic tang in his mouth. Eyeing the man with contempt, the half-orc spat, splattering his face with blood. “Guess you didn’t like that bit about your mother, huh?”

The man roared and reared back for a haymaker punch, but then he jerked and went rigid. A moment later, his arms began to jerk spasmodically, a touch of froth showing at the corners of his mouth. He dropped heavily to the ground, still jerking and twitching. The man behind Riordan dropped similarly, gasping for air.

The alley erupted into chaos once more as a familiar halfling, flanked by a huge, muscled man and a blue-skinned woman joined the fray. Conrad Jamboy’s crossbow clicked and whirred as a second volley of quarrels, followed closely by two flashes of light from the woman’s rifle, peppered the attacker with the gun, laying him low. The huge man barreled past Riordan and slammed hard into the one pinning Smoke, carrying him to the ground and crushing him beneath his bulk and a hail of heavy punches. Riordan dropped to one knee, still gasping for air.

A wide grin splayed across his cherubic face, the halfling approached. “How ya been, Riordan.”

“Same old, same old,” the half-orc said. “Still out of the business. Still running fat tourists from Nona to Karim.”

“An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,” the halfling droned. “How quaint.”

The half-orc chuckled. “Last time I worked a gig with you I almost lost a leg. Certain point, you just gotta call it quits.”

“Well, this isn’t that certain point. We’re working a job, and we need your help.”

The huge man and blue-skinned woman came up beside Conrad then. Now that things had quieted down, Riordan recognized them both. “Dav, Sori,” he said with a deferential nod. “How’s tricks?”

“He is drunk,” Sori said with a disapproving frown.

“Damn near got the life choked out of me a minute ago,” the half-orc replied. He retrieved the still-upright bottle from the ground at his feet. “Least you can do is cut me some slack, huh?”

Conrad interjected, sounding anxious. “There’s no time for this. More of Whittaker’s goons could show up any second. Whaddya say, my old and ugly friend?”

“I’m not running jobs anymore, Conrad. You know that. If I ever want back in the business, you’re the first one I’d call.” Riordan climbed to his feet, finally breathing normally. “Now, if you don’t mind, I suppose it’s time I get off-world till this shit cools down.”

The halfling nodded, toying with one of the many pouches dangling from his belt. “Fair enough. Just take a look at this before you go.” He loosened the drawstring and opened the pouch.

Despite himself, Riordan stepped forward and stared into the cavernous room within—the mounds of gold and gems piled higher than the half-orc was tall. A coating of sweat beaded up on his brow. He absently brushed it away with one hand, enraptured by the fortune before him. Without looking, the motion as automatic as drawing breath, he raised the liquor to his lips and took a long draw.

Finally, the half-orc wrenched his gaze away and met Conrad’s eyes. “Where, uh… where do I sign up?”

Quest Progress: 3,644 / 20,000
 
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