Hunting Ground

1. Before the Storm

Night time. The time of dark corners, unseen back alleys, and silent predators. In the city, few venture out at this time. But two men have done so this night. Here, in the alleys and side streets, few are safe. But this night, these two men will come to no harm. No one would dare. It is said that there is honour among thieves and scoundrels. This is not true. But there is fear. And fear overpowers all other feelings, all wishes and desires, all intentions and needs. Fear is a useful commodity to those who can wield it. Both of these men can do that. It is their living, although their careers are quite different. At other times, these two men might find each other on opposing sides. Tonight they are united in a common cause. There can only be one motivation for such an alliance, although neither would admit it; perhaps they do not even realise.

They are afraid.

They meet here, in the shadows, away from the glare of the streetlights and the glow of the moon, so that they might not be seen. Those who serve them must not know of their new, and temporary, partnership.

Let us observe them.

Both are tall, both wear dark, heavy coats, collars pulled up. Their faces are barely visible in the darkened alley. One is slim and wiry, the other broad and imposing. Both radiate a sense of purpose and of power. Their voices have a tone of finality about them - their discussion is nearing an end.

The slim one speaks.

"The arrangement is acceptable. But know this - if you fail to keep your side of it, if any of your men get in the way of my associates, they will have no qualms about dispatching them. We both want this done, but it will be done my way."

"Agreed," replies the tall one. "But now you listen: don't push me. If you and your...associates...overstep the limits we have agreed on, I will personally see to it that you regret the day you crossed me for the rest of your miserable life - however long that may or may not be."

"And after our task is complete?"

"This...co-operation...will be dissolved. And then I suggest that you go back to whichever rock you were hiding under, and don't show your face where I can see it."

There is a pause. The slim one considers something.

"I had hoped to reach a more long-term agreement, a mutually beneficial one of the sort currently enjoyed by others within this city."

The other man responds immediately, as though expecting the question.

"If you succeed in this task, we will discuss it further." His voice now takes on a hard edge. "But do not presume upon anything. I'm not in the mood to give you any leeway right now. So watch it. And woe betide you if you fail."

The slim man inclines his head in acknowledgement.

"My resources are considerable, as you know to your cost. We will not fail. The Darkman will die."