I was just beginning to think of taking my coffee break when they arrived.
It was a lonely night, and getting cold; I’d had a tiring enough day without pulling a night shift as well, but of course when I was offered extra duty I hadn’t said no.
“What, again?” Gruoch hadn’t been happy when I’d told her. “You’re going to end up working yourself to death,” she’d said.
Same old nagging, and even though she is my Significant Other I often get irritated beyond tolerance. “We need the money. You know that.”
“By sacrificing your sleep sitting up all night? They’re taking advantage of your good nature, Mab. It’s just a pittance they pay you, anyway.”
“What, for sitting up doing crossword puzzles?” I’d snorted. “There’s never anything that happens during the night shift. It’s a sinecure. Nothing...ever...happens.”
“Someday something will happen. That thing will be you dropping dead from overwork.”
“Or maybe it’s going to be my finally making money,” I told her.
“Ha ha.” Even on the phone her voice was mirthless. “That I’d like to see.”
That was this afternoon, and I’d expected another night of doing nothing, with the sight of nary a soul. But now, just as I began thinking of a cup of coffee, they arrived, on a mechadragon they parked across the street. At first I thought they had some kind of engine trouble, but then they got out and sauntered across to me.
There were five of them. Four elves and a fairy. The elves all stayed hanging back, kind of, and let the fairy do the talking. She was a good looking one, too, small and elegant, but with huge eyes, and her wings were all gauzy and fluttering so they caught the fluorescent light and made rainbows.
“Yes, ma’am?” I asked, looking at her across the counter of my guard booth. “What can I do for you?”
She smiled at me prettily, and for a moment I almost believed that she liked me. She was that good. But even then, of course, I knew that she couldn’t possibly. I mean, she was a fairy and I’m only...what I am.
“I just wanted a little bit of help.” Her voice was nice too, like tinkling silver crystals, or the sound of a mountain stream in spring. They all think we don’t understand poetry and stuff, but we do. Just because we look like what we do doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the finer points of life. She clasped her pretty hands below her pert little breasts. “You’re the right person for it, I’m sure.”
“And what would that be?” I asked, and then, even before she replied, I realised my mistake. It was a beginner’s blunder. While she’d been taking up my attention, the four elves had come up quietly, on either side of her. One of them leaned over the counter and pointed the business end of a blaster at me.
“Make the slightest move for that alarm button, orc, and you’ll have a hole in your face,” he said.
I looked at him and at the blaster, and withdrew my hand carefully from the vicinity of the red button. There are risks worth taking, sometimes, and then there’s idiocy. This would be idiocy.
“And from the blaster you probably have under the counter,” the elf added. “Put your hands where I can see them.”
I put my hands where he could see them.
“That’s a good orc,” the elf said. He was dressed up in black, except for his face which was very white. It was so white, even for an elf, that he looked as though he was wearing enough makeup to make a mask. His black eyebrows arched over the glittering wet orbs of his eyes like leaping gazelles. “A good, smart orc.”
“Good orcs get to not have a hole in the middle of their face,” the elf on the fairy’s other side laughed shortly. He’d a marked accent, and his ears were so pointed they ended in spikes. I recognised the signs; this one would be a denizen of the Middle Dark, not a local. “Not that it would make a difference anyway, as far as your looks are concerned.”
I glanced from him back at the fairy. She was looking at me, her eyes huge. Her lower lip trembled.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I wouldn’t have done it if we’d had a choice. I...”
“That’s enough.” The third elf was brown as seasoned wood and had a very handsome face. He smiled at me, flashing white triangular teeth. “Now, you understand,” he said, “we don’t want anyone to get hurt. We’re just businessmen, and business goes so much better without bloodshed and unpleasantness, doesn’t it?”
“What do you want?” I asked, though I already knew.
“As Fairy Twinkletoes here said...” The brown elf glanced at the fairy with absolutely no trace of affection. “We believe you can help us. We’re, as you can probably see...” He indicated himself and the other elves. “...foreigners. Tourists. We want a guide who can show us around.”
“Show us around,” the Middle Dark elf said, laughing again. He had a shrill, yacking laugh. “I like that.”
The brown elf ignored him. “We’ve got this...” he gestured vaguely in the air, but his eyes never left me. “This...love...of safes and vaults. You have a nice big vault here in this building, which we’re just dying to see. Lead us to it.”
“We also have a dislike of loud noises,” the pale elf with the blaster said, “such as alarms. So we need you to disable them while we’re looking.”
“That’s right. So, let’s get going. And, by the way...” the brown elf patted his hip, where something coiled and writhed and twisted as though it was alive. “You do know what this is, don’t you?”
I knew a neurowhip when I saw one. “Yes.”
“Good. That’s just in case someone – just someone – gets ideas that we won’t use the blaster at close quarters. We won’t have to.”
“What’s all this talk about?” the Middle Dark elf yacked. “It’s just a stupid, ugly orc. Order him to do what we need, and that’s all.”
Now, I don’t mind being called ugly – I mean, I do own a mirror, as well as eyes – and I’ll also admit that we orcs aren’t the fastest thinkers in all the Darks. But, though we might take our time, we aren't stupid. We do get there in the end, and isn’t that what really matters?
“Just one thing,” I said. “When you get your look at this vault, you aren’t planning to just look at the outside, are you? You’ll want to see the inside as well?”
“See what I told you?” the pale elf said. “A smart orc. No, orc, we’ll want a look at the inside too, at all the money. We like money as well.”
“That’s going to be a problem,” I said, “since though I know the alarms, I can’t open the vault. I don’t have the combinations.”
“We’ll handle that part,” the brown elf said, and glanced briefly over his shoulder at the fourth of their number. I hadn’t paid him much attention earlier. He was just an ordinary elf, short and thin, but he carried a large black case in one hand. “He knows how to go about all that.”
“So let’s get a move on,” the blaster elf said. “Or do you want a hole in your face after all?”
I didn’t want a hole in my face. We got a move on.
Though I’d been on night guard duty so many times in the past, on average once or twice a week, I’d rarely been inside the bank at night. And I’d certainly never been inside like this before, with a blaster pointed at my back. As I opened the main door, reaching inside to flip the first alarm switch off, I wondered for a moment what they would do if I simply bolted into the dark building. But they were elves, and faster than any orc; and, with my bulk, I’ve never been known to be anything but slow. I wouldn’t get ten paces before that neurowhip came curling round my neck.
So it was with a feeling as though intruding into unknown territory that I entered the building. The pale elf followed right behind, but not so close that I could turn round and knock away the blaster. He wasn’t that overconfident. The spike-eared Middle Dark elf crowded close behind him, a torch in his hand, and the silent safecracker at his back; while the brown elf, who was obviously the leader, followed behind the pack.
“Twinkletoes!” I heard him shout. “Stop hanging around there and come on.”
“The vault’s on the first floor,” I explained, as I led them past the counters. “We’ll have to go up top.”
“We know.” The leader laughed shortly. “If it had been underground, we’d just have tunnelled in, without all this rigmarole. Your employers could have saved you this trouble.”
“Sue them,” the Middle Dark elf yacked. I was getting terribly tired of his yack. “Sue them for mental distress. You might get awarded what’s left when we’re done.”
“Shut up, Candun,” the pale elf snapped. “Just shut up, can’t you?”
Candun complied, but I thought I saw him dart a look at the pale elf that didn’t bode well for the latter’s future. I’d already decided that the Middle Darker was the most dangerous of the lot of them. If the rest of them didn’t know it, they’d probably find out soon enough.
We went up the stairs. Nobody suggested using the lift, which meant, again, that they had their wits about them. In the confines of the lift, the advantage would’ve been entirely on my side.
The vault was at the far end of the long line of offices on the upper floor. It was in a room guarded by a sliding iron gate, which was, of course, itself locked.
“You know where the key to that is,” the leader said flatly.
I knew. “It’s in that office, in a drawer. The drawer has an alarm too.”
I did. The key was half as long as my forearm. In the wavering light of the torch – Candun seemed to have as much difficulty focussing it as he had keeping his mouth shut – it took me several tries before I got it into the keyhole of the lock set in the gate. It probably ought to have screeched reluctantly open, in keeping with the darkness and the atmosphere of the moment, but, of course, it slid smoothly aside on greased wheels.
“There,” I said. The vault was a slab of metal set in the wall. “That’s all I can do for you.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” the leader purred. “I think there’s a lot more you can do for us. Disarm the alarms on this door now.”
There were three separate sets of alarms on the vault door, and strictly speaking I shouldn’t have known about them, since this room was only supposed to be accessible to bank officials. But of course there was no point in telling them that, and the leader watched while I shut them down one by one.
“Good,” he said. “Now wait there, by the wall.”
I waited by the wall. The pale elf watched me, the blaster in his hand pointing at my midsection. Candun pointed the torch at the vault door while the safecracker bent to examine it. The leader looked at all of us in turn. At his waist, the neurowhip twitched and rustled.
The fairy came to stand beside me. In the reflected torchlight from the vault doors, I saw she was giving me sidelong looks which seemed apologetic. The tip of her red, pointed tongue came out to lick her lips nervously. Her wings, almost invisible in the shadows, moved, stirring the air faintly.
“Look,” she said, “this isn’t my fault, not really. They said they’d hurt me if I didn’t.”
“Shut up, Twinkletoes,” the pale elf snapped. “Shut up” seemed to be something he liked saying. “Nobody’s going to get hurt if you all do as you’re told.”
I’d serious doubts about that, but there was nothing much I could do at the moment. The safecracker, who hadn’t said a word all the while, had taken out tools and was putting them on the vault door here and there. Some I recognised, most not. I’d never had much of a head for that kind of thing anyway.
A thin metallic buzzing sounded, and sparks spiralled through the air. There was a smell of metal burning.
“Shut up,” Pale Elf repeated. Nobody had said anything, so I don’t know who he was saying shut up to.
Time passed. The room grew very hot. I felt sweat start on my scalp and begin to roll down my face. Finally, I took off my uniform jacket and hung it over my arm. Pale Elf’s black glittering eyes watched every move, but he made no attempt to stop me. He rather looked as though he’d have liked to take his black sweater off as well.
“What’s your name?” the fairy said. Her wings beat harder, fanning us both. For a wonder Pale Elf didn’t shut her up. Maybe he couldn’t hear over the noise of the safecracker’s drill.
“Mabketh,” I said. “Do you usually ask orcs their names?”
“I’ve never really talked to an orc before,” the fairy confessed. “I didn’t even really believe orcs could talk. You probably think I’m awful.”
“I don’t think anything,” I told her. She glanced at me and away again, quickly. She looked like a fairy with a lot of things on her mind.
“Stand back,” the safecracker said. It was the only time I ever heard him speak. There was a flash of light and a soft crack, and the vault door creaked open.
I’d expected that they’d take as much of the money as they could carry, and then leave, probably after carrying out whatever plans they had for me. But of course they didn’t.
“You,” the leader said, pointing at me. “Pick up all the money and dump it in these sacks. And then carry them down to the mechadragon.”
I was stronger than all of them put together, of course. I should have anticipated this. Well, all it meant was that they’d let me live until I got the money to the mechadragon. And then? And then we’d see.
I shovelled the money into the sacks from the shelves, using both hands. There were four sacks, and they were soon all full, bulging, and still the shelves weren’t empty. Not quite.
“What about that?” Candun said, pointing with the light of the torch at the money still filling one shelf, as I heaved the sacks on my shoulders and, one-handed, picked up my uniform jacket.
“We’ve enough,” the leader snapped. Now that they had the money, he seemed to be tensed up, like a spring, getting ready for violence. “Come out of there and let’s get down.”
We went down the stairs. The sheer bulk of the sacks of money made it hard for me to walk easily down the narrow steps. Pale Elf, impatient, prodded me with the blaster. “Get a move on.”
“No,” I said, and threw myself over backward on top of him. His blaster went off, the charge searing harmlessly through a sack, burning only money. I raised my elbow and brought it down hard on his neck, which was against the edge of a stair. There was a cracking sound and he went limp.
I rolled quickly on to my knees, wrapping my uniform jacket round my hand. The leader had fumbled the neurowhip from his waist and was just bringing it down when I grabbed hold of it. What? No, my hand didn’t get burned into a paralysed, useless claw. Did I mention that my uniform jacket has an insulating lining inside? It isn’t much, but it can protect against a neurowhiplash. And we orcs are nothing if not tough.
Elves, even sharp-toothed elf leaders, aren’t tough. I didn’t have to raise myself from my knees to drag him down to me by the neurowhip and, literally, break him in half.
There was a sharp yacking sound. It was Candun, of course. He had a long black knife in his torchless hand, and was creeping down the stairs. There was a fixed grin on his face.
“Good orc,” he said. “Took care of those two and spared me the trouble. More for the rest of us, eh?”
I’d been right. He was the most dangerous of them all, and crazy to go with it. And he was obviously an experienced knife fighter. On my knees, exposed to him, I had no chance at all.
I didn’t attempt to go for the blaster, which was buried somewhere under corpses and sacks of money. As for the neurowhip, those things are always keyed to a particular owner. I couldn’t have used it even if I’d tried.
So, as he lunged, I raised the nearest sack of money and threw it at him. It met his knife thrust in mid air.
Of course it didn’t stop him. No experienced knife fighter can be stopped by so basic a tactic. But it slowed him for a moment, enough for me to try and get to my feet.
I wasn’t fast enough. He tossed aside the sack and came at me again, giggling. There was a distinct insane note in the giggle.
And then he stopped giggling when Fairy Twinkletoes bashed him over the head with the safecracker’s kit, hard. He stopped giggling, dropped the knife, and a moment later I’d got my hands on him and he’d stopped making any noise at all.
Twinkletoes was standing on the stairs, the safecracker sprawled behind her. She wasn’t even breathing hard. She smiled at me triumphantly. “Did a good job there, didn’t I?”
“Very.” I brushed myself off and pulled on my uniform jacket. “A very neat job indeed.”
“He threatened to cut off my wings,” she said, kicking at Candun’s body with one neatly booted foot. “That’s why I said what I said to you, you know...down there.”
“I see.” I opened the sack which had been hit by the blaster and looked in. It was filled with charred paper and ash.
“I suppose it’s covered by insurance,” she said, looking over my shoulder. “The bank does carry insurance, doesn’t it?”
“I’m sure it does,” I said, straightening up. “But that doesn’t make any difference. You still aren’t getting away with the rest of the money.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, beginning to back away. “I never said anything about going away with the rest of...”
“But you were about to, weren’t you?” I dropped the sack. “I always did figure you for the smartest of the bunch.”
“I told you,” she said, “I was never with them. They forced me.”
“You know,” I told her wearily, “we orcs may be slow thinkers, but we aren’t stupid. If you’d known us better, you’d have realised that. You gave yourself away over and over again.”
“What do you mean?” She was backed against the stairway railing. “What are you talking about?”
“If you really weren’t with them,” I said, “you could’ve warned me in time to get to the alarm button. They were nowhere near you then. If you weren’t with them, you could have run for it when you were at the back of the bunch and we were entering the bank. You didn’t. And if you weren’t the smartest of the bunch, you wouldn’t have hedged your bets and kept your options open, so that you could switch sides when you saw I was winning.”
“But I’m just a weak fairy...”
I laughed. “Just a weak fairy,” I repeated, stepping towards her over the sacks and bodies. “And that’s why you took down the safecracker without even breaking into a sweat. Just a weak fairy, indeed.”
There was not enough space for her to try to fly away. She tried to run, and then she tried to fight. But she didn’t do either very long.
“Look here,” I said to Gruoch, opening the little bag and pouring the contents on the table.
Her eyes grew wide. She sat back in the chair and stared. “Where did you get all that money?”
“All the money you keep saying the bank owed me for all the overtime,” I said. “As you said, they were taking advantage of me. Well, they finally paid me all that.”
“Really?” She frowned at the money and at me. “Are you sure you didn’t steal it?”
“I didn’t steal it,” I said. And it was perfectly true. After disposing of Twinkletoes I’d stood, pondering, for a while. Then I went up to the vault and took the money the elves had left on the shelves, popped it into the bag, and hid it under my uniform before I reported the robbery. The bank had, as I’d known they would, assumed it had all been burnt in the sack Pale Elf had blasted.
Gruoch had been right; the bank had been taking advantage of me. And the fairy had been right, the money had all been insured, so the bank hadn’t lost anything. And surely I deserved something for foiling the robbery, didn’t I?
I told you. We orcs may be slow thinkers, but we’re not stupid.
Give us some time, and we’ll get there in the end.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016