The sun burned the morning fog from the streets of the Gut, only to be replaced by smog from breakfast fires and industry. Giles Berithos rose and splashed water on his face. The odor from the butcher shop mingled with the smell from his own surgery practice, creating a charnel house stench. Berithos did not mind. Although he was a newcomer to Babbage, having only arrived a few weeks ago, he was quite used to the odor of his chosen profession.
The surgeon walked downstairs to open up for the day’s business. Flinging open the door, he was greeted by a towering, thin man. Underby! Cold sweat formed beneath his collar. A terrifying moment passed before he realized this was not the skeletal owner of the Bucket that he had glimpsed from his window several days ago, but rather a complete stranger.
“Dr. Giles Berithos?” It was more of a statement than a question. The stranger took a few steps into the surgery, removing neither his hat nor coat. “My name is not important. I represent several of your former patients, or perhaps I should say victims, from your native land. I have come to instruct you in how to make amends to them.”
Berithos stood his ground, shaken but indignant. “What is this, sir? You burst into my office, give no name, and speak of amends. This is outrageous!”
Giving a wide, rictus grin, the visitor held out a strip of paper and dropped it in Berithos’ trembling hand. “This, sir, is the amount you will pay in compensation. It will be paid in full, to me, within one month.”
The surgeon looked at the figure printed on the paper. He had to read it three times before he was certain he was seeing it correctly. Impossible! He did not earn this amount in five years. In fact, the sum was so large as to be ridiculous. Berithos laughed aloud in spite of himself.
The tall man’s grin disappeared. “I assure you, sir, this is no joke. The sum must be paid.”
Berithos gritted his teeth, “Oh, is that so, sir? And exactly why must it be paid, hmm? You’d have more luck squeezing gold from one of the cobblestones in the street. What’s your angle? Difficult to prove a crime alleged to have taken place in a foreign land. Or is it extradition you’re after? I doubt you’ll have much luck with that in New Babbage.” He unconsciously placed his hand on the scalpel in his pocket.
The visitor calmly replied, “Come now, sir, give us more credit than that. Do you think it is happenstance that we approach you now? We knew the very minute you crossed into New Babbage. We’ve been watching you all along. And now, now you have a gap in your armor. You have no family, no friends, no leverage we could apply before… but now there is a lady. Very special to you, isn’t she? Not very popular here, though. No, no, not at all. I dare say few would miss her were she to vanish, except for you, of course. In fact, most people here would probably be grateful. It’s said she’s a wi-.”
“Close your bloody mouth, sir!” Berithos shouted. He drew the scalpel and waved it through the air. “Out! Get out now or I shall slit your filthy throat!” His face scarlet, he felt his heart pounding in his ears.
Dropping a card to the floor, the stranger turned and strode through the door. Berithos was left trembling, his brief courage giving way to panic. He picked up the card and went to sit at his desk.
His face felt hot but the rest of his body was freezing. What to do? He bowed his head and tried to sort his thoughts. This was bad, very bad… but priorities must be maintained. Priorities, yes. What was most important? What must be preserved? He closed his eyes and a single, clear response came to his mind.