Pluffkin had been nipping purses and jacking wallets since he was nine years old. As he often introduced himself, he was born to nothing, raised by the low, and he only drank from the top shelf.
Aside from purses and wallets he was certified master of every sort of con. He could deal himself a high pair and roll a hard six at will. He had once relieved an old widow of five gold with nothing more than a jacket, a banker’s apology, and terrible news about a recent wave of counterfeits – and after she made him her special tea and showered him with gratitude she offered him her only umbrella for the rain. A more upscale hustle, he and a few buddies used to run the Oakridge Tumble on the rich daisies on Westborough and Central Plaza: one fool thief making a racket, one guard to take him away, and another guard to walk through and secure the premises of the frightened owner, snatching a few gold-lacquered candlesticks and silver cutlery for his time. (That shuffle ended when Flack got his head shoveled in for scamming the wrong lumberjack, rest his soul). His biggest score to date was eleven gold and twenty-two silver, a broad daylight transaction between an ambitious young graduate and a smirking entrepreneur.
Always on the outside looking in, forever smash-grabbing and conning and looting, Pluffkin had pulled from the street the only philosophy that could support him – that earning gold was for the suckers not wise enough to steal it. It was a code he believed in and lived by, and he understood it as the invisible pillar that kept civilization from crumbling. Those daisies living it up in the inner city, they were nothing more than a savvy guild of thieves. They were the ones wise enough to enfranchise the looting, to stamp it and market it and call it business, call it economics. They had whole masses of men out in the fields reaping gold for payments of copper. Their genius wasn’t in producing or manufacturing; their genius was in the hustle, the greatest con ever played. It was a fact that Pluffkin saluted, and a position he aspired to.
That is why, when a storm of angry working men swept through the Reformatory shouting the words “Equal Opportunity!” and “Corruption!” and “Fair Share!”, Pluffkin’s heart sank in his chest. When they came round to his cell and unlatched it, he grabbed one of them violently by the shoulders, and pressing him to the wall he demanded,
“Who told you?”
He looked around and saw the furious action of ragged men, men who belonged plowing fields and forging iron and whatever else suckers did to feed their families. The excited glow of newfound freedom lit their faces as they marched and cartwheeled through the cavernous halls of the Reformatory, throwing wide the steel gates and setting loose every sort of murderer and rapist and beggar.
A burly man with spit caked in his beard paused as he ran by, a torch throwing red across his creased forehead.
“Gods bless you, son,” he panted, shaking Pluffkin’s shoulder with a comrade’s compassion. “Those bastard’s can’t keep you in chains no longer. The reckoning has come!”
As Pluffkin watched the torch sink into the black distance of the hall, several more men came whooping after him, slapping Pluffkin on the back and offering him their flyby congratulations.
“Go free, son of man!” they shouted.
“Tyranny has ended!” they proclaimed.
“We gone light this bitch up like a dandy’s pyre!” someone added.
Their hollering filled the darkness, rattling down up and through the long halls, echoing and stomping and squealing. It was the laughter of mad banshees, awakening from a long slumber and ecstatic to find that their voices could still wail.
And each voice was an arrow that pierced his ego along with his dreams. The one thing that he had ever been able to hold over other men was his secret knowledge, knowing that it was a world with thieves up on top and suckers on the bottom, knowing that the true worth of a man was measured by his cunning and his loyalty unto himself. He had been sentenced by the court to serve six months for “swindling a good man of some repute”, had served only three, and somehow in those three short months the secret seemed to have gotten out.
The suckers got wise.
The thought made him shudder as he searched for a way out of the chasm of the lower dungeon. A world without suckers was a tree without roots. A soft breeze and it would all be over.
The excited shouts of freed prisoners began to join those of the liberators. Toothless, half-starved, jubilant faces skittered by, picking up the righteous chants or making some of their own. Some of these men had been down here a long time, most for good reasons. Pluffkin had spent plenty of his life in rotten company, and he knew lechers and psychos when he saw them. It was the constant suspicion in their eyes that gave them away, a paranoia that made them jittery.
Finally he found the stone stairs that led up and out of the dungeon. Once he navigated the labyrinth of upper level cells and hallways and the cheering clusters of victorious morons, he stepped outside into the bright cold afternoon sun and was accosted by a chaos leaps beyond his expectations.
Fires of pitch and hay grew into black plumes of smoke. Taverns, smithies, homes were ablaze. Those not on fire were swarming with desperate women, fanatical men, laughing children, all pulling what they could from the wreckage. Glass mugs, picture frames, cabinet doors, mirrors, ash trays, chairs, broken off railings and torn up squares of carpeting, lamps, wash rags, bedding, bars of soap – people scurried through the streets with armloads of junk and faces full of exhilaration and wonder. Hundreds of them. Thousands. And he could hear more of them down on other streets. Two bodies hung from nooses outside a tavern called The Copper Pint, a poorly scrawled caption marking them “Suns of Greed.” Pluffkin watched as one man hucked leather bound books out of a third story window, to his friend waiting with a wheelbarrow below.
There wasn’t a second that passed when the air wasn’t filled with one of their battle cries. It was either, “Free the poor!” or “Hang the king!” or “Zebithias!” Pluffkin wasn’t sure, but he assumed the last was their leader, or at least the man who had whispered to them that powerful secret.
Pluffkin saw in his mind’s eye that pillar of civilization crumbling, one bar of soap, one empty desk drawer at a time. The shroud had been lifted, and the suckers were hacking away at the pillar with generations of latent rage and anguish. It was they who suffered and toiled, they who bled in the field, they who sweat in the shop, they who were the sacrifice necessary for progress, the willing victims of institutionalized thievery. He saw it in their faces, the elation of a long awaited revelation, the eureka behind their eyes.
Dazed, distraught and disheartened, Pluffkin wandered the teeming streets. The Reformatory was near the edge of River End, and he knew the area well. Or he used to know it well. The whole thing seemed up in flame and looted to hell. He watched as two women fought over a crystal chalice in the snowy mud, screaming at each other all sorts of obscenities, drawing even more obscene jeers from the men around them. One of them finally twisted it from the other’s grasp and dashed her in the head with it and hurried away with her prize. The woman she had dashed, a scrawny wretch of a thing, lay unconscious and facedown in the muck. Pluffkin felt his blood heat when the laughing idiots around her moved on to other entertainments and diversions. He walked over to her, bent down, rolled her over, scraped the mud from her face.
She wasn’t beautiful, and she wasn’t young, but goddammit she was a woman. What the hell was wrong with these people? All the years he’d spent running cons he never did anything half as despicable as those savages who just walked away. As he looked down at her shapeless plain face, her ruddy hair, he felt a tinge of hope.
Maybe they don’t have any damned idea what they’re doing, he thought. Maybe they’ve just gone mad. It was a strange hope, but it was hope.
The woman’s eyes fluttered open, glazed at first before they came into focus.
“You alright, miss?” he said.
She looked at him, felt his arms cradling her, and went stiff with indignation.
“Well aren’t you the fucking hero,” she chided. She threw his arms away, stood up, spit in his face, walked away.
For the life of him, he could not understand what had caused her to say and do such a thing.
“Power is need; fuck their greed! Power is need; fuck their greed!”
Five men, faces black with soot, came dragging a sixth through the muddy street. The man was in such a condition that Pluffkin’s stomach turned on him, and it took a hand over his mouth and a strenuous conscious effort not to vomit. His right leg was broken, flopping along the ground, the bone protruding from his skin. The whole left side of his body was horribly burned, and where his flesh wasn’t black it was an angry bubbling red and purple. A face that was only recognizable as a face because of its location on the front of his head was swollen and bloody and broken.
His begging was a hopeless whimper, a choked plea that was already beyond the grave.
“Please – I’m just an armorer. Chain mail, I could make you some chain mail. Please.”
One of the men had a length of rope with him. He fashioned a noose, put it around the armorer’s neck, and they strung him up. His mouth worked desperately and silently. His leg dangled horribly. His arms were free to clutch and paw at the rope that was pulling him into death, but they were panicked and feeble. His entire body convulsed, convulsed, was still. Empty eyes in a shattered face, and his final expression in this life was the vacation of his bowls, shit and piss dripping from his legs and staining the snow.
Pluffkin had thought he’d seen men at their worst. He’d once been an unwilling witness to a brutal gang rape outside of Dusty’s Tavern; he had been part of a black market winterleaf deal that went bad and got his accomplice’s throat slit; he’d seen the bloody aftermath of a loan shark’s collection methods. But he realized now, as he stared up at the amorer’s wrecked body, and listened to the cackles of his assailants, that he had only glimpsed a shadow in the corner of the darkness. Those things he had previously witnessed he at least understood. The violence of lust, the greed that inspired treachery, the power of brute force – though outside his own code of morality, these things were at least within the realm of comprehension. They followed their own internally cohesive logic. But this – this was an abuse and a debauchery that soared high above his understanding.
One thought haunted him above all others: What have they gained?
He pulled himself away from that place and moved to another. And to another. But it didn’t matter where he was; the chaos was everywhere.
A ragged man with a pointed beard declared from the roof of an inn that the best rum was free rum, and taking a swill from a bottle he lost his footing and fell two stories to his face. Inexplicably, he stood up unwinded and apparently uninjured without having spilled a drop of the liquor. He looked up at the roof, laughed, enjoyed another swill and went on his way.
Around the corner were several children, tossing between them a finely painted clay vase, laughing and spitting venom Pluffkin had thought impossible for such creatures. Between them, her fine linen dress torn and muddied, a young woman stumbled about desperately, pleading with them.
“Please,” she begged, “it was my grandfather’s. He was a good man. It’s all that’s left. It’s all we have left of him. Please.”
A freckled boy with ratty curls of hair caught the vase in one hand. “My grandy never had such a nice vass. Never had nothin. Cause of greedy bitches like you.” He tossed the vase over her head. She fell in an effort to intercept it, and chorus of heckling followed her to the ground.
“You dirty bitch!”
“Yeah! What a dirty bitch!”
“Nice tits, bitch!”
“Ohhhh! You hear what Kenny said!”
“Good one Kenny. She’s a real titty bitch.”
“Titty bitch, titty bitch, titty bitch!”
The chant took on the poisonous rhythm of blind mischief, the kids tossing the vase about the woman, who lay weeping, soaked, begging. Then her eyes found Pluffkin’s, and he saw in hers a terrifying bewilderment, the wide and shocked orbs of an animal whose world had just been ripped from its feet. The shock, discovering its own uselessness, ascended to rage.
“Why don’t you do something!” she screamed at Pluffkin. “How can you just stand there! We isn’t anybody doing anything! Why isn’t anybody stopping this! Help me!”
“Titty bitch, titty bitch!”
Pluffkin, feeling every bit as lost as the woman, remembering the strange result of his last encounter, was about to quietly walk away when he heard a familiar jingle. He glanced toward the freckled boy and saw a leather purse hanging dumbly from his belt. A fat purse. Probably nipped it from someone’s house, Pluffkin thought.
“Do I smell a titty bitch?” he said, sliding into the laughing circle. He held up his hands, calling for the vase. The little girl who currently held it looked at him, looked at the freckled boy, unsure of what to do.
“Don’t give it to him!” yelled the freckled boy. “He’ll just give it back to her!”
But Pluffkin smiled at her, and she smiled back and tossed him the vase. He caught it, and the children waited silently and expectantly. He took two steps towards the woman and bent down as if to give her the vase. The children gasped and moaned, thinking their game over, but as the woman reached for it he pulled it back and kicked mud and snow into her face.
“Titty bitch,” he said, and passed it over to the freckled boy.
The children cheered wildly, taking up the chant with redoubled voracity. More importantly, Freckles was impressed. He threw the vase to another boy.
“You’re smart not to trust anybody,” Pluffkin said to him. “Most people, they trust too much.”
The kid’s chest grew bigger by half and his freckled head tilted up. “I don’t trust nobody,” he said.
Pluffkin suppressed a grin. When the vase came back to him, he walked it over to Freckles, handed it to him, crouched down to eye level. The boy looked at him defiantly but couldn’t hide the respect and the fear from his eyes.
“If you’re really smart,” Pluffkin said, “you’ll take your prize and get the hell out of here.”
“Because I’m going to drag this titty bitch down that alley and fuck her face until she learns some good manners.”
Pluffkin almost laughed. The boy’s eyes went wide in sheer terror and his freckles turned ashen. This game had just gotten a bit too adult for him.
“Come on, guys,” he said to everyone. “I’m sick of this bitch anyway.”
The little gang of hounds kicked a storm of muck on the disheveled woman as they ran past, Freckles leading them. In a final gesture he turned back and raised the vase high and threw it against the side of a building, shattering it into several pieces. When they disappeared down an alley, Pluffkin looked at the purse cupped in his left hand. When he pulled back the string and looked inside, he laughed. The kid had a small fortune on him. There were no coppers at all, only silver and gold. Fingering through the coins he counted almost fifteen gold.
“Please, don’t hurt me.”
The woman was staring at him. She didn’t seem to have the strength to get up.
“I just wanted his purse,” Pluffkin said. She scuttled back as he approached her, and he stopped and held up his hands. “I’m sorry about your grandfather’s vase, and I have no intention of hurting you. I’d like to share some of the loot with you. For your assistance.”
He held out three gold coins in his hand.
“Gold!” she screamed. “Gold! What am I going to do with gold! You goddamn coward! You kicked mud on me! They came into my house! My husband is dead!”
Pluffkin added a fourth coin, and he flinched as she let out a wail that shook his bones.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He left the coins on the ground, and tried not to hear her screaming at him as he walked away. The purse he tucked beneath the waist of his tattered pants, leaving only the drawstring and a small bulge visible.
What little pleasure he’d gotten from his heist quickly faded. Everything he saw made him feel more lost, and he wondered what use was gold if there was no one around to covet it, no one to keep it sacred. More and more frequently the looters he saw were drunk, and the looted beaten and torn if not dead. The hollers and the cheers and the chants of the people had waned considerably, but it was still often enough that they would come rampaging by, shouting, “Born free!” and “Burn the gold!” and “Hang the king!” Pluffkin felt the cold weight of the purse against his thigh as he shuffled out of their way, thinking it was more gold than he had ever held at one time and that these lunatics had rendered it completely useless.
There weren’t any guards out here, none of the king’s soldiers to put the rebellion down. From what he had seen, they had focused their efforts at the wall that divided the districts from the rest of the city. They were letting the mad ones eat each other.
And theirs were ravenous appetites. He wandered the streets, all littered with empty bottles and casks and bedding and broken stools and burning piles of refuse, with all the direction of a ghost returning to a place it once remembered. Around him swelled the energy of life and chaos that he couldn’t define or comprehend. A man running along the walk and breaking out all the remaining windows for no other reason than to hear the glass break; another trying to mount a spooked horse, taking a hoof to his belly, screaming in agony until he was silent; an old and withered raisin of a woman, with a fine mantle of fur draped impudently over her cotton rags, smoking a fine cigar from the comfort of a plush recliner that lay drowning in the middle of the muddy street; a couple of prepubescent teens probing each other in fascination in front of an inn engulfed by flame.
Unconsciously his legs carried him to a place he knew very well. The Riverside Shuffle was a sprawl of a three story bar and casino, with a few rooms on the top level for anyone with enough scratch to purchase the services of one of the serving girls, and a kitchen that served food in name only. His father, a man called Desh, had been a hard luck wheelwright and a poorly adjusted sucker; he went down to the Shuffle any time he had more than a silver in his pocket. He often brought Pluffkin along to “help tote the winnings home” and on one such night he lost more than he was worth and fell from the table with a knife between his shoulder blades. Pluffkin didn’t like his mother so much, and his sisters were hellish creatures whose only ambition in life was to reform him into a little girl; unwilling to go home, he haunted the Shuffle, the ghost of his father, until the owner took some pity on him and gave him some work. Pluffkin soon proved his grit to Ribbald, the owner, and he wasn’t ten years old before he was cooking the books, soft-dealing the “copperheads”, or even beating the heater out of a half-drunk fish in a stand-up game of poker. Ribbald showed him all the ropes, became a father and a mentor to him, showed him all the reasons Desh had been a sucker. Pluffkin remembered with stark clarity the day Ribbald had planted a big hand on his shoulder and spoken to him as if he were an adult:
“Your father got axed because he was a sucker. Suckers are scramblers, bottom feeders, wishers and hopers. He should have wished for some sense, if he really believed in that sort of thing. Look around you, damn near all of them just like your old man, hoping and wishing, hoping and wishing. Oh please give me that three of hearts; mother of mine I need to roll a seven. But a thousand lucky turns can’t save a sucker, because on the next one he’ll just lose it all right back.
“Desh was a good man, if they come that way, but he was the worst kind of sucker. He played to lose. Never even tried to walk away. He came to flush it away so he could tell himself rotten luck was the stick in his spokes. Cause suckers can’t see themselves. All they see is everyone else getting all the breaks.
“But you ain’t a sucker, Pluffkin. You ain’t your father. It’s got nothing to do with blood. For every hundred suckers born there’s a wolf to lick them clean – clean as a temple bust, you hear me?”
Pluffkin heard him. When he thought of that moment, surrounded by cigar smoke and the clatter of silver and gold chips wrinkling through the air, it rose up like a great tower that cast a shadow over all the rest of his life. It was a shadow in which the wolf prowled, darting out of its cover only when some sucker wandered in too close.
Now, as he looked at the Riverside Shuffle, the only place he could call home, he saw that it was besieged on all sides. At least fifty men surrounded it, waving torches or throwing rocks or wielding makeshift bludgeons. Above them, leaning out of a third story window, was Ribbald’s shining old tobacco-creased face. Pluffkin was amazed to see that it was peeled back in laughter.
“It’s all here, boys!” Ribbald shouted from the window. “Everything you ever lost, what was never found! Your self respect, your pride, your common sense – everything! Hhey haa!”
He was forced to duck inside as a number of rocks clattered around the window, a few of them making it through. The skirmish over, he poked out his shining face again.
“But you’ll never get it back! I ain’t the giving kind!”
Inexplicably, Ribbald’s laughing, almost good-natured taunting was a contagion that spread through the mob beneath him. Their shouts and their demands remained the same, cries of “Burn him out!” and “Hang all sons of greed!” issuing from their lips, but the venom was gone. They might have been cheering on a horse race or heckling an out-of-key minstrel.
“Ribbald!” cried one of the men wielding torches, stepping forward, “We’re fixing, at long last, to purify that golden ass of yours!”
“Is that Sodermock?” returned Ribbald.
“Not the goldsmith!”
“How is it you’ve not been purified yourself?”
“I lost everything I had at your damned tables!”
“Hey hhaa!” Ribbald laughed, howling it to the sky. “Indeed, here stands the worst card player the land has ever known. I myself have seen this man flush a month’s wages on a naked pair of jackals!”
The men guffawed, and the goldsmith’s face went red.
“They were ladies, you old bastard, and they nearly won!”
“And good fortune has come to you at last. The worst hand is now the best; the losing strategy has won!”
“Enough of this!”
“Hang the prick!”
“Power is the people!”
Ribbald’s shining head rolled back in the deepest, most guttural fit of laughter Pluffkin had ever heard. It sounded like the death rattle of a man who had just come to understand the nature of all existence, and finding it absurdly angled he was unable to hold it, instead letting it escape out his throat.
“There are a thousand princes at this sucker’s ball!” he declared from his euphoric height, “And lo! they are all prettier than I!”
The men with the torches and hammers apparently understood just enough of this statement to know that it was the gravest kind of insult, and their collective demeanor became grim and resolute. The torches were set and flames began running up the walls, crawling at first and then rising faster and faster. The men cheered as the flames engulfed the sign that marked the establishment as The Riverside Shuffle, and hollered with increasing fervency as they licked inevitably closer to the laughing visage above. Just before the fire engulfed him entirely, Ribbald’s eyes came down on Pluffkin.
“Pluffkin, my boy!” he shouted through the cackling flames. “It was good to know you!”
As he said it, the flames finally roared up past him, and the whole building became a pulsing, waving storm of heat. As Pluffkin watched his home, and the man that had been his father, being reduced to so much smoke, he was scarcely aware of the men that surrounded him, grabbed him by the arms, dragged him forward.
“Good to know you, eh?”
“Then he should have kept his mouth shut.”
Pluffkin looked from face to face, seeing only hate and malice in all of them. Dead-set eyes and sooted cheeks and foreheads, tangles of unwashed beards and the smell of stale sweat and rancid breath.
“And what’s this here?”
One of them pulled at the string that hung from his waist band, and the purse opened and spilled its contents down his leg and onto the ground. Gold and silver coins shimmering in the light of the fire.
“Saving that for a rainy day, were you?”
“Feed my family for a year with that, I could.”
“Goddamn sons of greed! String him up!”
“You ain’t no better than us!”
“Feed him to the fire!”
“Rope! Do we have any more rope?”
Pluffkin discovered that they did, when he felt the coarse twine of the noose tighten around his neck. As they pulled him beneath a hooked post and threw the end of the rope over, he found himself wondering why the same people would liberate a thief and then hang him for thieving. He felt his feet lifted from the ground and his breath cut short, and the blood in his face became thick and hot. He didn’t have the heart to put up an honest struggle, and could only cling to the rope around his neck and kick his feet against the post.
The last thing he saw, from the height of the post, was a mass of skeletal apparitions floating down the street, emaciated shades with green orbs for eyes. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Moving toward him with the creeping conviction of a thunderhead. As his vision blurred and began to fade, all that was left were those glowing green eyes, all of them looking at him, waiting for him. In his final moment he mistook them for the ghostly messengers of the gods, come to carry him away to a place he had never believed in.
You can find Jarmo on Amazon right here.
Or check out some other short stories here.
Or get lost in Paradise with Jim over here.