What is Winning by Gabe Smith

I have another guest writer to feature on The Ink Owl, Gabe Smith. I’ve worked along side Gabe in the past, and it exciting to see how far he has come with his writing. This post features an excerpt from a larger story. Enjoy!

The holiday atmosphere of the pub spilled into the street where the festivities continued.  Neon lights seemed to shine more brightly and in the joy-soaked minds of the celebrants the lights would always be remembered as bright and beautiful and never the garish yellows, pinks, and greens that they actually were.  Fireworks were launched into the night sky with pops and bangs that served to punctuate the excited shouts and laughter that were in the throats of all the gathered crowds. But even in the most brightly lit and star-studded sky there are dark spots and, in the effervescent crowd, that dark spot was named Jeron Smythe.

Jeron wore the Peace-keepers uniform, faded blue with tarnished silver, a complement to his dark looks, a glower and a frown.  The uniform had been a beacon of hope for years during the War of the Master.  Though, Jeron’s uniform was dirtier than usual with burned patches, dirt, and blood crusting large swaths of the jacket and pants.  The fighting he had engaged in the night before had been close and nasty where fists were used when it took too long to get a spell off or ammunition had run dry.

Though now, the pub denizens slapped his back, hugged him, gave him kisses on the cheeks, and generally praised him for his role, no matter what the role might be, in the now ended conflict.  Last night Jeron was a rebel fighting for a slim chance of peace, today he was with the establishment and a hero.  Yet, with each touch his frown deepened and he glared across the pub at another Peace-keeper, his uniform a bright sky blue with shining silver, receiving the same accolades.

The other man, a wizard who’s speciality lay in illusion, was named Ian Kimball, though everyone called him Kimby.  His uniform, in addition to being much less worn, bore a swath of unfaded fabric in the shape of manacles, the sign of The Master.  Yesterday, Jeron had knocked Kimby down to protect his family, friends, and even complete strangers in the name of freedom. The other man had fought just as hard in the name of duty.  Today, The Master was dead and it was Jeron who had to be pardoned.  While Jeron glowered at him, Kimby stood up and moved through the shifting crowd, turning down drinks and returning handshakes, to make his way to Jeron’s corner table.

“Hey, Jer.  It’s been a while.  I mean since we talked and everything.  Yesterday was crazy but we did it.  The Master is gone and I hear that old Nabiri McMahon’s star is rising in the East.  With her at the helm that’s going to be a big change…” Kimball’s ramble slowly ground down as he saw Jeron’s frown tighten.

“Look,” Kimball tried again. “Look, it’s all over.  We won and we can put the past 3 years behind us.  Come on, now, don’t give me that look.  I did my job but we both know I was always on your side.  I stood in Freedom’s Light and all that.  But, I have a family.  There was too much at risk for me to go all out.  I had to provi…”

“How are Reggie and Arline James doing?” Jeron interrupted him.  “What about Mary Wilds? Or have you kept in contact with Helmut Yarman?  I hear he is still alive, at least, though his brain isn’t much to speak of.”

“Hey, that’s not fair.  We both know I was just doing my job.  We both did things we aren’t proud of.”

“You’re right.  I regret waiting a week, following orders for a week, after that bastard took the government.  But I guess in my defense I used that time to figure out who to pass information to and how to cover myself so I never had to hurt anyone that didn’t have it coming.  So, yeah, I guess we are the same here,” Jeron said to Ian’s gaping face.  “Why are you wearing the blues when it’s only pardoned keepers for the next 3 weeks while the hunts play out?  Taking advantage of the general goodwill for those who fought?”

“Just because I wasn’t stupid enough to fight the inevitable doesn’t mean I didn’t want it over.  I did what I had to survive and all the others just weren’t good enough.  They’re not on my conscience and I won’t lose any sleep over it.  In a month, no one will remember ‘em anyway.  But if you want to go, let’s step outside.  I let you go last night but we both know who the better man is,” Kimby said, standing up and roughly pushing his chair out behind him hitting several other bar patrons.

Jeron stood slowly without a word, the fire and energy that had lit his words now extinguished and replaced with an immense weariness.  Ian stood with one arm extended as though to say “after you”.  Jeron led the way to the front door, his shoulders hunched forward, a look of defeat in his eyes.  As Jeron walked past the other man, someone in the crowd shouted a warning and an electric crackle sounded sharply.

Jeron whipped his head around to see Kimby with his hands extended, thumbs touching and his index fingers extended with a bright line of electricity discharging between them, lunging at him.  Before he could react, a small man who looked vaguely like a rat, with ears pointed a little too much and buck teeth that needed a dentist’s touch, poured beer on Kimby’s head with one hand and grabbed his left wrist with the other, breaking the spell, leading to a harmless discharge of energy into the people around him.

“Watch it, Kimby.  I remember when you kept your shackles shiny on your chest.  Taking ‘em off one day doesn’t make you a hero the next.  Tell you what, you go home and I won’t kill you here,” the rat-faced man, named Jacob Tunn, said without raising his voice.  His whole expression showed an amount of pleasure at the exchange. “Ah nevermind, I’ll let our dearly esteemed Mr. Smythe decide what to do with you. What do you say?  Do him like the Master? Put him in a pyromantic feedback and let him burn to a cinder?”

Kimball didn’t reply though his face grew pale.  He brought his hands up as though to grip Jacob’s wrists but he lowered them before he made contact.  Kimball looked around and when no one would meet his eyes he looked to Smythe.

“No, Tunn. It was just a disagreement.  It happens with emotions running so hot.  We were both on our way out anyway.  No need to do something we would regret when we’re sober.”

“Whatever you say, Jer, but I’ll tell you I just lost my first drink.  I’m as sober as a stone and I could sleep like a babe every night knowing I got rid of the shite who did that girl Marci Grimes.  Saint of a girl and she would have been a saint of a woman.”

Before Ian Kimball could respond, Jeron patted his rescuer on the shoulder and said, “We’re all on the same side now, at least we should be.  We fought yesterday, let’s let someone else be the judge and jury today.”

“Right, Mr. Smythe.  Right, I see what you are saying. But, you see, I know I’m a rat, or at least I look like one, and it burns me up to see the real rats get away from the exterminator. Sure, we cleared the nest last night but you know the dirty, plague bearers will be back.  Breeding and filling up their hole, it makes me sick to let ‘em go.” And with that, the shorter man began pummeling Kimball with his fists.

This fight, unlike the first attempted fight, was not broken up.  Other bar patrons began to pile on top of Ian Kimball, venting their fury at his continued existence.  They did not use their magic and they didn’t need to.  In seconds his blood began to flow freely from cuts caused by muscle and skin being pressed so forcefully against unyielding bone that they split in long lines.  Kimball’s face was unrecognizable before the pile of inhumanity began to really pulverize him.

Jeron was shocked at the sudden brutality of the situation and looked on in a stupor that he gradually shrugged off.  He made as if to turn but shook his head and began moving his arms in sweeping movements, his hands making arcane symbols to gather large amounts of energy.  With a sudden gesture a shock wave of force shot out from his left hand bowling the attackers off of the now bloody Peace-keeper, his uniform now just as bloody as Jeron’s.  Kimball was still alive and moving though he seemed to have lost his sense because his movements were sporadic and did nothing to either address his wounds or help him stand.

“You all know me to be a fair ‘keeper.  I try to show justice and I fought and sacrificed with all of you.  You all know I sacrificed for all of you.  But you know I can’t let you kill this man.  What would that get you?  What happens after he’s dead?  Would you kill me next?  I may not be on duty now but I would have witnessed this.  Why don’t you all go home.  Go home and give your husbands and wives and children and whoever else a hug and a kiss.  Go be with them and be glad that you are alive to celebrate today.  There is no victory in punching down,” Jeron said.  It had started with a yell and had finished in a voice so low that the people lying on the floor had to strain to hear him.

The group who had attacked picked themselves and each other up, not meeting Smythe’s eyes.  Some moved back to the bar for another drink and others left the bar out of embarrassment or perhaps looking for other unprotected prey for their ire.  There were no apologies and not a single one attempted to help the still twitching Ian Kimball.

Jeron walked to the spot where Kimball lay bleeding, a growing puddle of blood surrounding him.  Jeron bent down, hands gathering energy and laid hands on the man.  The puddle seemed to flow in reverse, the body reabsorbing the blood.  Audible crackling bore testament to the number of broken bones that had knitted back together.  Had Kimball been conscious he would have howled at the pain but, with all the trauma, he didn’t even whimper.  After the blood had cleaned itself up and the bones stopped shifting under the skin, Jeron again moved his hands gathering the magic from the air and pressed his hands on Kimball’s head.  With a jerk Kimby regained consciousness, stumbled to his feet and out the door of the pub without a ‘thank you’ or a backward glance, leaving Jeron crouched over a, now clean, patch of wooden floor.

He stayed crouched for a moment until a shadow loomed over him.  It was a large woman. She stood taller than everyone in the building including the barman positioned on an elevated platform behind his bar.  She stood with hands clasped behind her back and shoulders squared.  Though she wore civilian clothes everything in her demeanor seemed to shout that she was military.  Her hair was gray and missing where shining patches of scar tissue crisscrossed on her scalp and face.  She was not fat and the chords of her forearms and neck spoke volumes about an era of meager supplies and lean times, nevertheless, she radiated power.

“You were always good with healing and I shudder to think I was the one that drew you away from a higher calling to serve in the trenches with the dregs of society,” She said, putting out a hand to pull Smythe up from his crouched position.

“I think the healing was a necessity when we worked together.  You remember our first case when I broke your arm falling down the stairs? How are you Nabiri, or is it General McMahon or…” Jeron trailed off accepting the hand and using her support to lift himself from the floor.

“Nabiri will always be just fine coming from you.  Our friends mentioned to me that you haven’t been in to check on your wife since yesterday.  Let me walk you there,” McMahon responded.  It was not a suggestion or invitation; the tone spoke of command and Jeron followed as he had done for years as a Peace-keeper in training.

McMahon did not say anything to her former protege as they walked out of the bar.  The continued fireworks gleamed off the older woman’s scars as they walked out the door. The larger woman put her hand on Smythe’s arm to prevent him from walking further, gathered energy with her hands, and launched a much brighter light into the sky that hung for a moment before bursting into the shape of a key.  Within seconds four men and two women appeared, their clothes were plain but each had a pin of a key on their lapels and worn, silver and blue ribbons festooned their arms to set them apart from the common man.

“You can never be too careful right now.  Recent shift in power and a change in official policy.  This makes for a prime time to settle an old score,” the general said to her former partner.  “Alright, my friends, we are just taking a walk to Mr. Smythe’s house.  Eyes alert, yes?”

The group of 8 turned out from under the awning and passed the sign of the upside-down crown that advertised the pub they had just left.  They turned left walking down a lit street with flashes of light illuminating revelers, men and women alike.  The six men and women took their places naturally, and without needing to be guided, around Jeron and Nabiri their positions constantly moving as though to disguise the actual position of their leader despite the fact that she towered over all of them by no less than six inches and was taller than the shortest by more than a foot.

“You know, Jeron, I have heard reports about what your wife has been up to today,” Nabiri began as they walked.

“She’s a hero.  Working harder than the rest of us,” said one of the bodyguards, the intermittent illumination insufficient to give away defining details of her face.  Judging from height, Jeron thought it might be Clarissa Tanner, one of McMahon’s inner circle.

“She is a hero,” Nabiri agreed. “I notice you have not been with her today.  I do not mean to call you her keeper but, Jeron, you have been very careful with her since your…”

“I know, you don’t have to bring it up.  I know.  Just don’t bring it up,” he pleaded.  The first flicker of emotion other than defeat flickered to life on his face.  It was pitiable and pitiful.  Volumes on loss and sorrow were writ large on the man’s face.  “Please, just say what you came to say.  Don’t bring him up.  Please.”

“I was saying, you seem to be okay with letting Marija go on her own again.  This is good, I think.  She will heal better with getting back to work.  I could definitely use her again in the Peace-keepers.  But you, Jeron, do you want to be a Keeper forever?  What I mean to say is, I could use you in the new government, Secretary of Security.  You’re passionate about justice and mercy equally.  I need that kind of levelheaded thinking around me.  The people, our people, deserve to have someone like you watching out for their welfare.”

They walked in silence for a time, Nabiri McMahon letting Smythe roll the invitation in his mouth, to swallow it, and see how it sat deep in his gut.  The silence stretched thin until it turned to tension.  The tension stretched taut to razor wire that threatened to cut whomever would attempt to break it.

“Mr. Smythe, we must have you at the top.  I worked with your wife when she was with the Keepers.  We all knew when you both were married that you must be something special.  And if you were heading Security perhaps Mari, I mean Mrs. Smythe would return to duty,” the shortest guard said in a deep bass that resonated in Jeron’s chest.  He did not know the man and had never heard his wife speak of someone with such a distinctive voice.

“I know you mean well and I understand your sentiment.  You may have known who my wife once was but you don’t know who she is now.  The way you talk about Marija sounds like you may have been close but there’s probably a reason that I’ve never heard of you.  I’d guess that reason is you’re a pompous ass.”

The tension snapped, lacerating the bass-voiced man, leaving his mouth agape and his eyes bugged.  In the flickering light the man appeared distinctly like a frog.  He sputtered and gaped but at a gesture from his general he spoke no more.  The silence had been broken and the large woman laughed softly.

“Jeron, that is why I want you in power.  You so obviously don’t want the job that I think you would never abuse the power.  You would be so conscious of that power all of the time that you would be practically untouchable when it came to bribes or blackmail.  And the way you spoke to the prospective Secretary of Finance tells me you wouldn’t let anyone else get away with anything either.  Besides, we need one of us to make sure the right people get arrested and the right people… don’t. It’s basically what you’ve been doing for the past three years, just on a larger scale,” Nabiri said. She looked down at him to catch his eye and winked large enough to be visible in what little light remained.

“There are going to be trials, Jeron.  There are going to be very public trials that will be widely reported.  The evidence needs to go where it can be best used.  There are certain supporters that came to our side, after The Master fell, that have ties that need to be protected.  We just need to sweep a few minor indiscretions under the rug to have their continued support. With your well-known zeal for justice added to your family history, you would be perfect for the part.  If you say someone is clean, everyone would have to agree.”

“Nabiri, I don’t mean to be slow here but I’m not sure what you mean.  What I hear is you telling me that you want me because I look clean.  Then, you say you want me to be just a dirty as The Master’s old cronies who swept evidence under the rug for favors or money.  I know you wouldn’t ask me to do that.  But if you were to ask me to do that you should already know my answer.”

“Jeron we were partners for 2 years and we saw a lot together.  I taught you the ins and outs of keeping the peace.  Let this just be another lesson about how to keep the peace.  This conversation is really just a courtesy.  Our sources in the media are already reporting that you will be the next Secretary of Security.  You are going to act as judge in the coming high profile cases.  For the first three weeks, we will have some of the more well-known or heinous criminals.  You can be as holier-than-thou as you want to be, sentence them to death if you want.  The people will love it because, honestly, these criminals deserve to die.

“After the three weeks are up, we will start having trials for some new supporters who will need to be acquitted so they can continue business as usual…”

“Who,” Jeron interrupted. “Who am I going sell myself out for?”

“What?  Oh, just a few of the old guard who have advantageous connections.  A genius or two who got wrapped up in the wrong group but have seen the light.  Don’t worry too much about it.”

“If it’s my name attached to the record, I’m going to worry about.  Nabiri, General, we go back and you know me.  You know me well enough to know that I am clean and these people you want pardoned better have good excuses and give me a solid show of faith.  But most of all, I need to know who you want me to let go,” Jerron said, stopping short and causing two of the guard to stumble into him before the group noticed the his change in speed.

Another voice spoke up.  Jeron looked around to see which guard was speaking but could not see any mouths moving.  He realized one of them was wearing an illusory mask to hide to face. “General McMahon, we already had reservations about your dog.  If you can’t call him to heel, we’ll have to withdraw our support.  I’ll take my leave now, to report to my colleagues what was said tonight.” The figure stepped away from the group, gathered energy in a way that was clearly meant to be showy, and disappeared as quickly as if he had never been there.

“Jerron, I’m disappointed in you but I’m not surprised,” the General said turning to face her guards.  “Northwood, you and Benoit go to that group of idiots and let them know the deal is still on.  If you can’t assure them that everything will go according to plan, at least stall them until I can get there.  Make sure you don’t threaten them, though, that’s last thing we need.”

She turned back to the man who had caused her the trouble and said, “Well, if you’re done with your little tantrum, perhaps we can talk like civilized people again?  Yes, I do mean to pardon most, if not all, of the Stars.  That includes Müller, Kahn, Williams, and Chen.  Yes, I know you have history with them and that’s where it will stay, in the past.  When you pardon them, people will know you are fair even to your enemies. Now, I don’t have time to coddle you anymore.  Claudius Alistair and Jamila Mayhew will escort you to my office tomorrow.  You will be there for the inauguration and the trials will begin immediately afterward.  I wanted to do this as friends but, either way, you are my subordinate.  Now go home and sort your wife out.”

Turning to her guards she said. “What a ridiculous fiasco.  You all go to the Diet for the Emergency Session.  Keep things moving in our direction.  I don’t need anymore roadblocks.  If there is any opposition, make them out to be traitors.  We need to lock this down tonight.  No excuses.  I’ll deal with the Stars and be there in, let’s see…” She checked her watch. “Five minutes to make the deal and ten to seal it.  If I’m not with you in fifteen minutes, send Jabar to get me on ‘Diet business’.”  The general and the three remaining guards gathered energy with short sharp movements and vanished as one, leaving Jeron standing alone in the middle of the street with nothing but the occasional flash of light for company.  

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