velvet mace

The Red Hand

It was the kind of night a soldier learns to hate fast: where heavy clouds smother every source of light out of the sky until you have no choice but to turn on flashlight that screams out your existence to every hostile in the vicinity. That or you risk tripping on some piece of crap and falling face first onto sharp stick. Breda liked both his eyes, so he flipped the switch on his military issue lantern took the risk that the Fuckers in the main house wouldn't choose to greet him with a hot lead handshake.

Breda growled out his frustration, as he broke from the cover of the woods and slogged his way across the soggy lawn of the Armstrong Estate. Mud sucked the soles of his shoes like a whore, while Mother Nature pissed ice water down the back of his woolen overcoat. He would have killed for a hat at that moment, but Armstrong didn't wear hats. Armstrong fucking didn't whine about the elements, either, so Breda stifled a curse as the unending trickle of rain drilled spikes of cold induced migraine through his shaven skull.

The floods hit him with 20 paces left to go. Bright light instantly killed his night vision, searing purple spots straight into the center of his corneas. Breda resisted the temptation to drop to the mud and shield himself with the steel suitcase he carried. Armstrong wouldn't do such a thing.

Instead he tightened his grip on the handle and continued walking, using more memory than vision, straight into the trap. He pricked up his ears, listening for the voices and footsteps that would tell him how many of them he was facing and for the ominous click of a rifle cocking.

"Armstrong?" called a voice, harsh, gruff, male.

"Here," Breda called back, putting down the case, and slowly pulling open his coat to show he had no weapon holstered at his hip.

"Bracers on the ground," called the voice again, and Breda fancied he heard the bitterness of middle age carved into the syllables.

Breda reached over and with a careful twist of his wrists, let the heavy, useless shackles fall to the ground. It was a relief to shed them. He couldn't do alchemy anyway, the heavy hand gear was just slowing him down.

"Don't do anything stupid," the terrorist called out. "I got two guys with guns on you right now, and more with your family. One wrong move and Great and Noble Armstrong House will be known as the Slaughter House."

Oh fuck you, thought Breda. These guys couldn't tell stupid unless it was spray painted in three foot letters. But that wouldn't keep them from shooting if something random spooked their twitchy rat sized brains

"I'm here as you requested," he called out, trying his best to make his r's roll with Armstrong's aristocratic flourish. "I have the money. Let me in and we'll negotiate."

There was a hesitation, broken by what sounded like whispers. Breda held still, arms raised in surrender, even as the rain changed to a more sadistic angle, pelting his face and soaking into the front of his uniform. His abs tightened painfully, and the first deep shivers tore at his chest.

"Alright," growled the voice. "Pick up your suitcase and walk straight forward. Through the French doors—straight down the hall to the big room. Lose your way, and your sister here's gonna lose an ear."

"Catherine!?" Breda called out, because he knew Armstrong would. He'd never met the Major's sister, but he still felt the sick pang of fear at the threat.

He was answered with a choked cry from the upper floor.

"None of that!" came the answering bark. "You'll see her soon, I promise. Grab the case, Major, and get your ass in here."

Breda opened the French doors and let himself into a small parlor. Warm air hit him like pure hedonistic bliss. He stopped momentarily to scrape the soles of his boots clean. Though Armstrong didn't explicitly state it, Breda suspected that he wasn't the type to tread mud over his family's antique rugs. His mind, waking up to the warmth was already running strategies in his mind.

The ear thing—A crude threat, but not a random one. It confirmed his earlier assessment that this was the Red Hand at work, or at least the fragments of that unit that managed to limp their sorry way out of Ishball seven years before. Formally known as the 42nd , they took their orders to kill a bit too eagerly, and were known to cut off the ears of Ishballans and wear them like leathery beads from thongs at their waists. Prowess for them was measured in gruesomely stacked inches.

For years in the hot, dust choked alleys of Ishball, the Red Hand lurked like a boogy-man. Once, Breda had actually spotted one, a monster in a uniform identical to his own, a dangling string of rotting flesh brushing against the ground as he knelt to carve the flesh a dead child. Breda froze, mouth gaping in horror, as the wild man looked up, favoring him with a snaggle toothed grin. You're next, soldier.

Fuck it. That was years ago. Breda pushed the thought aside. This was no boogie man holed up in the Armstrongs rambling manor home. It was something much more mundane—a group of desperate terrorists, having one last criminal hurrah before being summarily squashed out of existence.

There couldn't be many of them left, after all. Most came to an end on the Night of Fire, when the state alchemists reduced the city to rubble. Whether it was lack of communication that led to the Red Hand being right in the center of that hellstorm, or if the unit had been deliberately hung out to dry, Breda didn't know. Either way it was no great loss.

Too bad the Alchemists hadn't hadn't gotten all those sadistic fuckers. It would have been a mercy to everyone. Most of all to the Armstrong Family, who had been put through who knows what kind of hell in this siege. Twenty-eight hours and counting. One way or another it wouldn't be thirty.

Breda walked down the hall in long loping steps. He heard doors slamming above him, the rattling thumps of boots on hundred year old hardwood. His eyes scanned for strategic help. Could that statue be tipped across a pursuers path? Could that curtain be torn down quick enough to fling into the Enemies eyes? Where were the windows. Where were the doors. He'd studied the blueprints of the house for hours, but was he actually where he thought he was?

Concentrate. Concentrate. Be Armstrong. Think like him.

At the end of the hall, two wide wooden doors had been flung apart, and Breda stepped through into the Great Room. This was the place where it would all go down.

He took in the Enemy first. They four men lounging on the furnature, reeking of expensive cigars and macho overconfidence. They were an ugly looking lot, all of them. Every single one had some burn or scar marring his face, and from the way their shirts and pants bulged, Breda could tell there was a lot of automail. Breda had seen hell in Ishbal, these guys looked like they'd wrestled with it personally.

Breda turned his gaze to the rest of the room. With quick sweeps of his eyes he took in the u shaped arrangement of leather couches, the large roaring fire. The rifle slung in a thoughtless diagonal across the low coffee table that served as the rooms focal point. He heard footsteps above and behind him, and he turned to see a mezzanine running the length of the wall behind him.

There stood Catherine, bleach paled in a girlish nightgown. Breda's mouth grew dry. He hadn't been expected her to be gorgeous, but she was. Delicate and thin, blonde hair falling straight against her sides. Breda took comfort that the skin of her bare arms and face was still perfect, unblemished by bruise or cut. Behind her was a burly man, easily twice the woman's width, his thick fingers digging into her waist, his whiskered mouth near her ear. She met Breda's eyes, and her lower lip drop in a gasp.

Disaster loomed. Breda's shaved head, and the single lock of dyed hair might fool a soldier who at best had seen Armstrong from a distance years before, but it wouldn't fool Catherine. There were a thousand ways she could blow his fragile cover.

Pick it up, figure it out., Breda thought at her, willing his thoughts into her mind.

And she did. The effect was subtle softening of her eyes, her mouth closed. Her body was still tight as a wire, she had a focus now. She trusted him.

That was good, because she wasn't the only one. Breda was putting more than a little faith himself into his mission. He had to trust that Mustang knew the crap what he was doing, and that when the moment came, Breda's own acumen would be up to the task. He had to trust that these guys were as slow witted Hughes intelligence reports had made them out to be and that the Enemy's mind would be more caught up in the mechanics of this transaction, than it would be on the particulars of Armstrong's physique. Yeah that was the real sticky point. Breda wasn't a small man by any means, but he was no walking giant either. The longer he stood there in that room, with pictures of the real Armstrong waiting like mines on the wall to debunk his story, the greater the danger to all of them.

One of the Red Hand bent forward and grabbed the rifle off the table. For the briefest second Breda thought the jig was up, but the man just let the gun lie across his lap. He then gestured to the table. "Let's see the money."

Breda walked forward, his jaw set, and with quick efficient precise movements he set the briefcase down and opened it up. Inside were 82 million 300 hundred thousand cenz, wrapped up in neat rolls, and bundled together with rubber bands. The money had a satisfyingly solid feel in in Breda's hand as he snapped the rubber and casually let a thousand cenz roll across the glossy waxed wood table.

With a sudden, predatory snap, one of the ex-soldiers grabbed the roll, lifting it up and twisting the paper shell apart. The small silver coins escaped between his fingers, falling and rolling like beads across the coffee table. A slow scar-crooked smile graced the terrorist's face. Three others followed, leaving their seats to dig their greedy hands into the open briefcase. Rolls of cenz were broken open and poured in silvery mounds, one after another. Silence was broken by a huffing of laughter.

Breda kept himself expressionless and taut the way he knew Armstrong in this position would have.

The one with the gun across his lap didn't budge. His eyes were fixed on Breda. He was a bit younger than Breda expected, probably only mid-thirties, but he had the aura of a man twice that age. Though his brown hair had been trained to fall over his face, it couldn't hide the massive ropey tangle of ruddy scar-tissue that marred one cheek, and pulled his lips up in a false one-sided grin.

Wilkes. Had to be. He was not the Red Hand's leader—intelligence had him pegged as the rogue unit's second in command. That meant there was one guy out of the picture somewhere. Where could their leader be? What was he up to?

"So, you didn't cheat." Breda recognized Wilke's voice as the one that had spoken to him outside. "You know, I'm a bit disappointed."

He was expecting Armstrong to talk. This was no time for Breda to get tongue tied. "If my parents have been harmed—" Breda said. It sounded like Armstrong. And hell, he even meant it. For the moment it felt like it was his own parents at risk.

"Then?" said the man, the man spread his hands casually. There was a sickening dismissive quality to the voice. "If I have hurt your parents, then what? What will you do?"

"Then there is no place where you can go where you won't be hunted down." As true as the threat was, in that moment it felt hollow to Breda. If they were dead—then the damage was done, and no amount of punishing these bastards would be enough.

Wilkes leaned forward, one hand oh-so-casually curling around the butt of the rifle on his lap. "And that makes our lives different from now? How?"

Breda broke into a cold sweat. He held his expression still. Armstrong when angry was the epitome of tight control. He did not lash out. He acted yes. But he acted with precise deliberation. He'd negotiate, not posture. This was tough, because Breda wanted nothing more than to beat that smug expression off of Wilkes lips and grind his face into the reality that he would never, ever, ever get to enjoy a single cenz of the money Breda had given him. The rest of Wilkes life could be counted in minutes.

Instead Breda pushed the words Armstrong had coached him with. "You have your money," said Breda. The room was too quiet. Talk, damn it. his mind urged. Rant, make your foolish demands for the moon. "Now tell me, why have you chosen my family as hostage? Why now?"

"Why?" said Wilkes. "I don't have to tell you why—but because I'm a nice guy I will. Because you owe us." He suddenly made an expansive gesture towards the high open-beamed ceiling, his eyes bright with wonder. "Look at this house! Goddamn but you live well. It must have been swell growing up with the finest chefs, and the best teachers, and every luxury your little boy heart could want." Wilkes smirked, the whole side of his face briefly mirroring the ruined side. "Last couple of days, me and mine have been living the life here. And I tell you, we've had a pretty good time here."

That earned a few snickers from the others.

"Wine. Cigars. Nothing cheap for the Armstrong family." He patted the leather couch. "Cushy chairs."

"What does my family's wealth have to do with you?"

"But riches weren't good enough for you was it?" continued Wilkes. "You didn't have to work a day in your life to have everything you could want. But you did go to work anyway." He straightened up. "Why? Because you needed power, too. Because that's what the in folk do. Once you give a man a little, he goes and he takes as much as he can. He rips it way from anyone he can."

There was a pause, heavy with unsaid words. Breda broke it after an uncomfortable thirty seconds. Repaint the Armstrongs as sympathetic victims, take control of the image. "My family has always paid it's employees a fair price. And I joined the military to prove that the Armstrong family is not above putting themselves at personal risk for their country." Breda had no idea why Armstrong had joined the military or how the Armstrong's even got their money, but it sounded good, and that was the only thing that mattered.

"Risk, yeah that's a laugh. Like the Fuhrer would ever put a member of your class in a dangerous position. The only time you risked yourself is when you knew you had the overwhelming tactical advantage on your side. Don't talk to me about risk."

Before Breda could respond, Wilkes stood up, holding the rifle casually at his hip. The man was fired up now, full of righteous indignation and dangerous as fuck. Now was not the time to challenge him. Breda could see the ball of verbal fury was already rolling and from now on the bastard would talk.

Which was good because Breda's ears heard the first distant, muffled sounds of backup.

Wilkes had missed it. Right now Wilkes looked like he'd miss a train crossing in front of his nose, and the rest of his men were no better. Staring at him while he launched into his victory speech.

"Yeah, you had the power, Armstrong. But not so much right now. You are at our mercy here. Your life is in my hands for a change. That must make your insides twist. You have no idea what we've done with your parents. Maybe they are tied up in their beds upstairs. Maybe they are in pieces."

Breda couldn't help but look up at Catherine. The girls eyes were wide again. He could actually see her shaking with horror.

"Don't look at her!" said Wilkes. "She doesn't know. She hasn't seen mummy or daddy since we got here."

"What do you want—" said Breda, spinning to face him. He didn't know if he was being Armstrong anymore. There was only so far anyone could push him before he snapped, and this sadistic taunting was hitting that limit hard.

"I want you to listen," said Wilkes suddenly. "Clean this fucking mess up," he shouted. His men stiffened at the sound of command in his voice and moved to sweep the piles of cenz back into the briefcase.

Wilkes voice softened. "I want some goddamn member of the military to fucking listen. Tell me. Will you listen?"

Breda nodded. Here is where the real demands would come in. The pleas for grand sweeping changes in government. For the Fuhrer to step down. For the release of prisoners who had probably already been executed. For any number of demands that the military would never, ever give in to.

"For once in your life, I want you to use that smart, alchemist mind of yours to see that life is not the cherries and cream your parents told it was. Not for other people. Not for me or my men.

"You see, we were born poor. My papa was a farmer up near the Drachma border. The land up there is fucking terrible. You get one crop a year. On a good year, that farm kept us fed, but if there's say, drought, or a flood, or an early freeze? Or insects, disease, fuckall anything that messes up that one precious crop, well then we went hungry. You bet I joined the military as soon I was fucking old enough to sign the papers, because any life was better than that one.

There was a faint knocking sound, so soft that it was easy to mistake it for a gust of wind against the side of the house. Breda's heart sped up, but he didn't shift his gaze.

Wilkes didn't notice. He thrust his chin over at one of his guys. "Brisbane grew up scrubbing dishes in a shithole restaurant on border. Darbs was put to work in a canning factory at 10. He ran away from home to join. No tutors for us. No cushy desk job to look forward to. Marriage? What girl is going to want to date a man who can't even afford to buy her a meal? The military was our chance."

"So you see, we risked our lives in Ishball because we had no fucking other choice. So, forgive us when your noble talk about risking yourself doesn't exactly make us fall to the floor with admiration."

What would Armstrong say to this? Breda asked himself. Probably something like "the military has a long history of providing a good life for men and woman who are courageous and disciplined" or some such nonsense.

Breda's background was much closer to Wilkes' than to Armstrong's. During the war, he'd seen plenty of officers with fuckall to offer but a trust fund and fancy name lead good men into stupid battles. Mustang was the first commander he'd been placed under whom he actually thought competent for his position. But Armstrong—yeah, Armstrong was—what was the kind word for it—idealistic. Armstrong was a good man, but he didn't see half of what went on with the lower ranks.

The house shook again, a slight rumbling that could have been thunder. But every eye was on Wilkes, who suddenly waved his gun around, his finger curled dangerously around the trigger.

"They call us murderers now. They call us monsters. But we were just following orders. You can't give a soldier a gun, and order him to shoot, and then come back in peacetime and call him a fucking murderer. That's not right. That is not </i>fucking</i> right.

"You gave us a promise!" Wilkes screamed. Up on the mezzanine, Catherine echoed the cry. "A promise!" Wilkes went on. "You remember what that promise was?"

"No." Breda said.

"We were promised for every ear we collected we'd be given a bonus of a thousand cenz." Wilkes smiled.

Breda's heart hammered. No. Impossible.

"A thousand cenz." Wilkes said. "That's nothing for you, but for us, that's freedom. That's something we could turn into a livelihood after the war. And it's not like the Desert Rats were hurt by it. They were dead anyway. Who cares about their fucking ears after they die."

Breda's throat was dry.

Wilkes seem to calm down. "Yeah, that's what we thought. You wanna know who cares about those fucking ears? Fucking EVERYONE. It was all praise during the war, but as soon as we stepped away from Ishball, suddenly we were war criminals. We were treated like lepers. Like you could catch evil by standing too close to one of us. We were doing what we were told to do, but no one remembers that now."

Silence again. Even the "wind" seemed to have died down.

"Did they pay?" Breda asked. "Did they pay the 1000 cenz?"

"Hell no," said Wilkes. "They sent us into the middle of Ishbal, and had you clean, pure, alchemists try and sanitize us off the map. That's the word they used. Sanitize. Like we were shit to be cleaned off the heel of the army."

A dull grumble that was not any sort of natural phenomenon swelled up around the house, the upper windows were briefly tinged with purple light. Breda lept on it verbally, covering over the noise with noise of his own."

"IT IS A TERRIBLE INJUSTICE," he boomed out, his vocal cords straining to reproduce Armstrong's thunderous outrage. "But it was in the past, and it did not involve me or my family. We have done you no harm, made you no promises." The last snap of alchemic power faded from the windows.

There was a derisive snort from one of the couches. "What's the difference?" muttered another of Wilkes men.

"No harm huh. Not only did we not get our money, but you harassed us. You chased us down, every time we tried to make a clean start. Always poking, poking, poking at us. Your department, Armstrong. Internal investigations. Poking up shit, until no one would give us a job and we were chased out of town. Till the only thing left for us to do is be the thing you kept claiming we were. The only thing keeping us from going after you, was our Leader. But he's dead and now I'm in charge. And I say, we finally get what we are owed."

Wilkes turned and, placing his rifle on the chair, picked up a small cardboard box. With a quick dig of his thumbs, the top flaps opened up, then in one swift movement, he tipped it over. Small brown objects, not much larger than the cenz, spilled out over the coffee table.

They didn't look like ears, and for that Breda was thankful. They were dark, shriveled, irregular things. They smelled softly of dust and mold, rather than rot.

"We kept the ears. Three weeks ago we counted them all up. Between the five of us, we had eight hundred and twenty three of them. That's a lot of ears. We want our money. The price has gone up a bit, what with late fees." Wilkes reached down and picked up a stray leathery chip. "I think for all the hell you and your kind has put us through, a 100,000 cenz per ear is about right.

Wilkes nodded at the ears. "These belong to you now—we are free of them. Now we are going to take our money and we are leaving this fucking country and going to start fresh somewhere else. And you are going to let us, because you know in your mind, you owe us that."

Breda stared into the man's eyes, peripherally taking in his ruined face and torn body. Goddamn stupid man. Nascent sympathy soured into fury, that shot down Breda's arms and legs like hot sticks. His fist curled of its own accord, and the muscles of his face hardened and pulled up, in a sneer that threatened his Armstrong façade. He longed to beat that smirk off of Wilkes face.

Wilkes smile did fade then. For just that moment Breda saw a glimmer of understanding flash in the man's grey eyes. Later Breda's mind would turn back on that second, like a skipping record, replaying over and over the way his eyes suddenly bulged and his mouth fell. And he wondered if it was because the Outlaw recognized that Breda wasn't Armstrong. Or if he'd caught a glimpse of the real Strong-Arm Alchemist up on the mezzanine. Or if it was a deeper epiphany. Perhaps after he'd finally said his peace, some dim form of sense had taken over and he realized how deeply and irrevocably his life was screwed, and that no amount of cenz would ever set things right.

The second past and the room exploded into violence.

Wilkes turned and reached for his gun, but his fingers never made it, because suddenly the room was filled with flying shards of wood and marble. Three fist sized spikes hit him, the first in his back staggering him into the couch, then another in the thigh. The last hit the nape of his neck, shattering his skull.

It was fast, too fast for Breda to really take in. The only thing he could do was throw himself to the floor and try to put the coffee table between himself and the real Major Armstrong.

The expensive leather couch next to him jerked and undulated under a sudden pelting rain of missiles. Tufts of cotton batting puffed up into the air. The coffee table shuddered under the impact of fist sized spikes, and ears and cenz were sent flying, as the wood split.

Breda rolled and found himself eye to eye with one of the Red Hand, who was crouched in the lee of one of the couches. Man stared, huge eyed with panic at him, and for the briefest moment Breda though he was going to attack. But then, the man scrambled about, bent over nearly double, he skirted the ruined couch and flung himself through one of the many-paned windows. The glass shattered, but the man didn't fall through. Instead he came to an abrupt stop, pressed against a solid wall that had not existed an hour earlier.

Armstrong's spikes found him in the next second.

Just as suddenly as it started the noise died down. Breda found himself shaking, covered in fluff and splinters, but unharmed. His eye focused on a leathery thing clinging to his coat. Biting back nausea, he batted it away.

"ARE YOU ALRIGHT, LIEUTENANT?" Armstrong boomed out.

Breda picked himself up and looked around, seeking out the enemy. The Red Hand were pierced and pummeled into rag dolls, their dead bodies seeped blood on the Xingan carpets. If Armstrong's aim had been off—

"I'm fine," said Breda. He dusted his jacket off, the buzz of adrenaline still jangling his nerves.

Major was leaning sideways over the mezzanine rail. one arm around his sister, pressing her face into his large chest. The house was in shambles, large chunks of the walls gouged out by the Major's alchemy. It was hard not to look just a bit over to the side, were the last member of the Red Hand still stood, frozen, skewered in place by the floorboards.

"It is over then," said Armstrong. "Well done, lieutenant. My family owes you a debt of gratitude."

Breda waved his hand, meaning nothing. "All I had to do was be you."

Clean up began with carrying out the bodies, but it continued long into the night. Mustang had found Armstrong's parents, tied in closet. They were tired and frightened, but the Hand hadn't harmed them. For some reason that bothered Breda—not that he could ever voice it, or really understand the dread that coiled in his belly. He didn't wish ill on the Great and Noble Armstrong family after all. It was a good thing that the Red Hand, in the end, were really no great threat at all.

Idiots, Breda thought, while patiently putting the loose cenz back into fresh rolls. It wasn't a surprise that they died, taking their sad story with them. That had been their orders from the start, straight from the concerned lips of the Fuhrer himself. The Red Hand were doomed the moment they'd stepped foot on the Armstrong estate.

Breda paused in wrapping, his fingers too shaky to hold onto the coins. In his mind, the images of Ishball's final fiery demise played out again.

It was so easy to forget how uneven Alchemy made a fight. The Red Hand never had a chance. No ordinary guy did.