Authors: Glen Cook
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
e light was fading, though it would be a while till sunset. The clouds had thickened. A misty drizzle was back. I hunched some but didn’t hurry. I was working my thinking muscles too hard.
Morley had spread out a couple of steps more than usual for friends walking together. “Pay attention! People are killing people. Brood when you have four brick walls around you.”
He was right. I had learned during the war. Men who stroll their interior landscapes while the enemy is afoot are begging for an early separation from service. “I’ve gotten out of the habit.”
“I’ve gotten a little weak myself,” he admitted. “Happens when you move up the food chain. But you’ve been warned. You smelled what I smelled when we left Strafa’s place.”
“Lurking Fehlske doesn’t do hits. He watches and reports.”
“Maybe to somebody who does do hits. You have to remember who other people think you are, not what you think you are.”
I didn’t quite get that. “What?”
“You have a reputation. You’re connected to people with darker reputations. It’s a sure thing, you aren’t happy about Strafa. People who don’t know you will make decisions based on what they’ve heard about you, not on hard facts.”
“All right. I get that.”
“You’re a threat because you’re you. You could become the cutout between them and everybody who might help get them.”
“Meaning that if they eliminate me, my friends might lose interest.”
Killing Strafa might have taken the Algardas out of the tournament, but that now made them a potential source of backflash. Eliminating me should soften the dangers.
So in the moment when I came fully alert, I glanced into the shadows between two brick buildings on my left and saw a pretty little blonde somberly watching. She seemed sad. She held the right hand of the big ugly I’d seen her with before.
I stopped to gawk.
Morley barked, “Get down!”
My instincts had not eroded entirely. I slammed down against the cold, wet cobblestones. Something buzzed and crackled and hummed through the space I’d occupied a moment before. More nastiness ripped through the space I would’ve occupied if I hadn’t stopped walking.
I was focused now, oh yes, I was! I crawled and rolled and slithered toward shadows and shelter with great vigor. A third bolt of crispy whatever singed my waggling heinie and went on to hit a granite watering trough. The water therein turned to steam. A hustling hunk of granite ricocheted off the funny bone on my left elbow. I squealed like that proverbial stuck pig. And I crawled!
The steam became fog that filled the street. Cover! I got some feet under me and sprinted into the alley where the little girl lurked.
The attackers couldn’t see me, but I couldn’t see much, either. Feet pounded behind me, headed several directions. I heard shouts. I heard cussing. I heard Morley yell something. I heard somebody’s startled, sharp cry cut off on a sudden high note as . . . something unpleasant happened to somebody who hadn’t expected serious difficulties.
Then I had a feeling, supported by no physical evidence, that some huge and terrible bane was headed my way.
My navigation was less than perfect. I tripped over something, plunged through the fog, scraped my face against the side of a building, fetched up with my nose between an expensive pair of small brown shoes capping the bottom ends of little girl legs in white stockings.
A little girl voice announced, “And here we have proof that being lucky sometimes trumps being smart.”
A meat hook bigger than my head caught me by the scruff, set me on my feet.
The girl said, “You have to start taking this seriously. Otherwise you are going to die.”
Then her mouth opened into a large O of surprise. I looked behind me.
Tin whistles filled the entrance to the alleyway. There was a fight going on somewhere else. It made a lot of noise. These red tops, perhaps envious, appeared to be looking for a fight of their own.
Two came forward.
A volcanic rumble came out of Mr. Big Thing. The girl said, “Yes. We should.”
Then I was looking up as that thing towed the girl up the side of a building using one hand and his feet, which were bare and apelike. They vanished in an instant.
“What the hell?” I said. “What in the hell?”
The red tops backed me in chorus. We were the Alley Cats doo-wop crew for several seconds.
A rebel soul broke off to ask, “Are you all right, sir? I’m sorry we were so slow getting here.”
“Huh? I got some abrasions. Hands. Right knee. Right cheek. Got my funny bone rung. Otherwise I’m hunky-dory. You were slow, how?”
“We had to hang back so we weren’t noticed by the bad guys, sir. So we could strike unexpectedly, like. The trade-off was, they got a little time to work some mischief before we could begin the roundup.”
I wished the light was better. I couldn’t tell if the guy was having fun or was just one of those people raised with a stick up his butt.
One fact that I did get quick was that the Guard had used me for bait. They wanted Garrett stomping around knocking things over and ambling into traps, whereupon they could drop from the sky and sweep up the trash.
A studly move fully worthy of the secret police. Or of the commander of the Guard.
I took a last glance skyward and was startled. Little blond doll was silhouetted against the overcast, by herself. The light wasn’t good. I could not make out her expression. She was holding a stuffed bear.
The tin whistles prowled the alley in search of something useful. One runty type wore a forensics wizard badge on the side of his beret.
Relway had believed me. The Guard were rolling it all out. No doubt Relway smelled a chance to gain some leverage on the Hill crowd.
The talking red top asked, “Do you know the child or her companion, sir?”
“I do not. I have seen them before, the night before my wife was killed.”
How was that for a new Garrett strategy? Utter, complete, total, devoted cooperation, with nearly full disclosure.
The tin whistle shrugged. “We’ll find them. People with their skills can’t help leaving traces just by being themselves. Let’s go see what Karbo caught.”
Karbo proved to be the leader of the squad involved in the other ruckus, which hadn’t gone well for the ambushers. Three men in cuffs sat on the cobblestones looking thoroughly miserable. Morley was doing the same a few yards away, without cuffs. A medic type attended him. He had some scrapes, nothing serious. He hadn’t opened any old wounds. My team leader, Stickman, told the medic to do me next, then went to consult a guy who looked like somebody named Karbo. He was thick, wide, and ugly.
Two men lay stretched out by the three in cuffs. They had the deflated look of the newly dead.
Morley said, “They got downwind of the Specials.” Specials being the shock troops of the secret police. “And didn’t get their hands up fast enough.”
One of the two had been a killer wizard and doubtless the first to die.
I let the medic check me out and salve my scrapes. He gave me rote advice about treatment and how I could expect to have bruises in the morning. He mistook me for a special client but didn’t let himself get carried away with the VIP treatment.
I asked Morley, “We know who they are yet?”
“People who don’t like you.”
“Amazingly enough, there are some of those out there. Don’t seem right, a big old harmless, lovable fuzz ball like me. I usually recognize them, though. Dead or alive, these guys are strangers.” I nodded then, upwind, to let him know I had gotten his hint about being downwind. These people were out of business, but Lurking Fehlske was still out there.
Just for grins, I asked, “You wouldn’t have a jealous husband or disgruntled girlfriend out to get you and I’m collateral damage?”
“I have become seriously monogamous.” He had powerful health reasons for doing so, since his main lady these days was Belinda Contague. He had made the grand blunder of breaking his own first law of relationships by getting involved with a woman crazier than him. That beautiful psychopath didn’t have much forgive and forget built in.
Better him than me. And it had been me in the once-upon-a-time.
Stickman came back. “We haven’t learned much yet, sir. The survivors will be questioned, but the way things work, the ones who give up easiest are the ones who know the least.”
“The hired hands.”
“Exactly, sir. I do know that the Director has a strong interest, so I’m sure he’ll keep you posted as information develops.”
“I appreciate that.” Look at me, playing the politeness game.
“This incident appears to be closed, sir. There seems to have been no connection between these people and those in the alley. I would urge you, sir, to be more aware of your surroundings. You should get off the street, into a safe place, as soon as possible. You should stay there till the Guard unravels this antisocial behavior.”
Morley must have done some growing up himself. He kept a straight face, too.
I said, “Thank you,” again, and, “I do appreciate your help. I’ll do my best to follow your advice.”
Good old Morley kept right on with the blank face. He has skills. But he did look at me like he was wondering who the hell was wearing the Garrett suit.
We made it to Macunado Street without further misadventure.
Dean served supper in Singe’s office. She and Old Bones had guests: John Stretch and Belinda Contague. They were in related businesses, so some of that might have gotten done during the socializing. Belinda fussed over Morley like he was a toddler with a serious ouchie. The display was revoltingly mushy.
I downed some shepherd’s pie and a pint of beer before I told Belinda, “You might not want to roam around on your lonesome, the way things are going around me lately.”
She asked, “Why should I worry? You’re the target.”
John Stretch agreed. “I put the word out to my people when I heard about Strafa.” He was yet another soul that my sweetie had conquered.
John Stretch is handy to know. His people go everywhere, doing the dirtiest work, and people pay no attention. They should worry about protecting their secrets.
“Not yet. There is a hole in the tapestry. Many on the Hill would like to know who attacked her. None of them do know, or even have strong suspicions.”
Singe added, “I get the feeling that they are not planning anything, they just want to know if there is a danger to them.”
That made sense. There have been doctrine-driven insurrections directed at sorcerers before.
Soon I was feeling full enough, mellow enough, and safe enough to collect myself and go to the Dead Man’s room—after a side trip to my old office, the broom closet next to the space Singe used, where I put on one of my ratty old sweaters. It can get cold in there with His Nibs.
“Any thoughts?” I asked as I adjusted a chair so I could settle comfortably with my pint. “I see Penny is still learning her oils.” The girl is a talented artist. Old Bones does what he can to help her develop her skills.
His pet stray is one of few females, of any species, that he not only tolerates but actively likes.
You have someone worried. More likely, several someones, probably all determined to win the Tournament of Swords.
“I have the magical skills of a large boulder. As long as all I have to do is sit there, I’m golden. I’m a powerhouse.”
It occurs to me that Strafa may not have been attacked for the reasons that we have assumed.
She was indeed, Furious Tide of Light and the likely Algarda Champion, but suppose she was eliminated instead in a fool’s effort to make sure that you do not enter the game. An ill-reasoned effort that has fired a raging blowback already.
“My head is running slow tonight. Elucidate your reasoning. Pretend I’m a dim five.”
Damn! I whipped a flashy word on him and it went completely to waste. Of course, his being able to tramp around inside my head whenever he feels like, he always sees my best stuff coming.
Consider the response to events. Since Strafa’s demise the Civil Guard, the Syndicate, the rat people nation, the Algarda family and its allies have all mobilized to hunt the assassins. I submit that it may have been such actions that the assassination was intended to forestall.
“Oh.” I got it. Sort of.
Somebody might think the Tournament of Swords game would be rigged against them if I was Strafa’s Mortal Companion. My connections could give her an intelligence edge. Take her out and those resources no longer mattered.
“I can see somebody with an upper-class attitude thinking that way. Somebody committed to the premise of the tournament and expecting a win. But it wouldn’t be somebody who knows me because I wouldn’t buy into the tournament in the first place.”
Indeed. At the moment it appears unlikely that the tournament will occur. After the embarrassment those men suffered . . .
“Yes?” There had been more than one embarrassment, I thought. That doll-child had toyed with me, then had gone her way with ease.
Of course, however clever she was, she couldn’t remain unseen by all the eyes that would be watching for her now. She would be identified. She would be taken out of the game. Gently, of course. I wouldn’t put up with anybody attacking children in my name.
We shall have to come back to this later. We are about to have company.
Damn. I had been hoping to explore his thinking about the girl who had attacked me in the cemetery.
y proved to be Barate Algarda, Kevans, Kyoga Stornes, and one of the Machtkess girls, all of whom arrived in Shadowslinger’s coach. The wicked old witch did not come with them.
She had an excuse. Barate explained, “She had an apoplectic breakdown.”
It sounds like it may have been a stroke.
We settled in Singe’s office. Dean served tea. Lady Tara Chayne and Kyoga were pale and severely stressed by the company, though they didn’t know Belinda or John Stretch. They just couldn’t be comfortable in a situation where rat people were not only present but were equals—and maybe even the smartest people in the room.
Why hadn’t Barate warned them?
“Got it.” Naturally, several people wondered why I would chat with the air.
Mr. Algarda did not know that Pound Humility would be here. He did tell them about Singe. They did not believe him.
I sensed some serious disgruntlement on his side of the hallway. Something was not what he wanted it to be, either.
They are all wearing those silver hair nets.
So what? People have worn those to the house, trying to keep him out of their heads, since Kevans and Kip Prose thought them up. They don’t work. Not for long, anyway. Old Bones always finds a way around them.
These are working quite well, below the surface. If they conduct their business quickly, they will be gone before I find a workaround.
They would argue that they did not want the Dead Man to have unrestricted access to the insides of their heads, which wasn’t unreasonable. The problem is, no one believes he will stick to peeking only where he is invited, an attitude not based on real-world evidence.
My racket has taught me that most people judge others by the way they think themselves. Claims otherwise are tactics and deception. Villains know we’re all exactly as black hearted as them. Naive pacifist vegetarians are sure that everyone else really would rather sit down and talk it out.
There is a bell curve of character from irredeemably vile to blind romantic idealism. The predators on the dark side feed on folks from the other, confident that they deserve it for their idiot outlook.
Which would seem to be inconsistent with the conviction that everyone thinks exactly the way they do. But if you brought that up, the villains would give you a blank stare and fail to grasp your point.
This explains why the world needs us smug-ass sheepdog types from a shade to the bleak side of the median point on the curve.
Thank Singe for that poindexter imagery.
“Why would she have a breakdown?” I asked.
“Anger. Word came, I don’t know how, that the Algardas are in the tournament, like it or not, and Kevans is now your Mortal Companion.”
The girl had been a zombie since she arrived. Now I knew why.
“What?” Why hadn’t Old Bones warned me? “Screw that. But how can that be?”
“Simple. The Operators decided that since Strafa was attacked prematurely, they were free to change up on us. We’re still in. You see why Mother was upset.”
“And then some. I might do some changing up myself, by means of cranial redesign, once I find these Operators.”
Remain calm. Do not say anything more. I believe this is extremely important.
He has me trained. Despite my inclination to rage, I put it away.
The others may have received similar suggestions. Neither John Stretch, Belinda, Morley, nor Singe said a word, though questions could have fallen like heavy snow.
There was some Dead Man gamesmanship afoot. He was hoping to maneuver someone into doing something they did not want to do.
Not particularly comforting. Most times, someone turns out to be me.
Curiously, Kevans has the most accessible mind. Ironic, inasmuch as she designed and keeps upgrading the hair nets. Her father is almost as accessible. He is sure that Shadowslinger’s episode was not calculated to avoid this visit. He is close to being paralyzed by dread that it may be worse than the physician reported.
That wouldn’t be good. We couldn’t have that darkness, as a looming threat, missing from our quiver.
Barate said, “You did ask us to come see your partner, Garrett.”
“I did, hoping he would have access to your minds. It’s finding things that you don’t know you know, and the connections between them, that makes him so valuable. Closed up the way you are with those nets, you may as well not have come.”
Kevans was startled. Frightened even.
Had she really thought that we didn’t know?
Yes. Really. I did my best to keep it from being obvious.
My bad, giving things away, here.
Me at my age still having trouble thinking things through beforehand.
I didn’t expect anybody to shed their protection. I wanted them thinking about whatever it was that they really wanted to hide. Old Bones could skim those thoughts off the surfaces of their minds. But Barate began untangling the net that had been so artfully installed in his hair.
Old Bones touched me lightly, approving my tactics, offering suggestions, then noting,
This one is deadly serious about this.
You don’t get a lot of tonal information from the Dead Man’s communications. There was plenty in that, though.
I asked Barate, “Did Constance have any thoughts about who the Operators might be?”
Algarda was startled. The same question must have occurred to him.
I needed not pursue that now that the mesh was off.
Kevans began removing her net.
Garrett, you smooth talker, you. Look at this. All these people who swim in seas of secrets taking a leap of faith because of the murder of a woman they all loved.
I will not betray the trust they have offered me, even to you. Nor to you, Singe. Gossip and speculate as you will. I shall neither confirm nor deny.
That made his position clear to them, too.
I told my father-in-law, “I got the impression that she had someone in mind but wanted to test her suspicions before she said anything.”
Tara Chayne started trying to remove her hair net. That got ugly fast. She was wearing a partial wig with hair extensions. The mesh was integrated into those, which she did not want to do without.
There was some serious vanity there. Or maybe more than vanity. She was partly bald beneath the appliances.
Barate relaxed slightly. “She didn’t say anything to me, but I think you’re right.”
He has mild suspicions of his own regarding his friend Kyoga and someone called Bonegrinder.
The Kyoga suspicion was off to the boneyard already. Stornes had his mesh halfway off. Old Bones assured me,
This one is an empty vessel. Almost literally. The only thing going on inside his head is obsessive concern about the safety of his children.
“Plural?” I had heard only one mentioned before.
There are several. You have encountered two of them before, as members of the Faction.
“Egad. Life. Everything ties back into everything else.”
I got looks. People aren’t comfortable when Old Bones and I have private sidebars.
Which point please keep in mind. Mr. Algarda has given us the complete and literal truth, as he knows it, regarding his mother’s thinking.
Interesting way of putting that. It might mean that Old Bones had stumbled over a low-grade suspicion that he did not yet want to share.
Grumble, grumble. Why do these things have to be so complicated?
Just once why can’t it be easy?
Because the stupid people get rounded up and sent to the labor camps before their careers begin? Before they get far enough in life to cause me grief?
An intriguingly solipsist hypothesis.
I stumble over stupid villains like I dodge road apples in the street. Stupid is the fifth element of creation and, probably, the most common, or else some magnetic power attracts it all to TunFaire.
Penny showed up with fresh tea. She was surprised to see the size of the crowd. Dean had not warned her. I expected her to flee to the Dead Man’s room, her own, or to the kitchen, but she just backed off to the doorway and asked, “What’s going on?”
Old Bones handled the updates. His responsibility, after all. She was his pet.