Authors: Glen Cook
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
ything was about to change. Everything was about to head off at ninety degrees from everything that had gone before.
I had just stopped shaking my head when Helenia appeared outside Relway’s den. The Director called his failed gatekeeper off, beckoned Helenia into his presence. Helenia gave me a scared, sad sort of look as she scuttled to her boss, bent, put a hand to his ear, whispered busily.
Them being near each other made me wonder if her unusual assembly specs might not be a result of the same rowdy raids on the family tree that had produced Deal Relway himself.
Toneless, he said, “Shit,” language so uncharacteristic that it was as startling as a scream. He tried to appear blank when he faced me, but I could tell that something was wrong. Something was most definitely wrong.
“What?” I demanded.
Relway sucked in several gallons of air. “No beating around it. Never actually softens it. Furious Tide of Light has been killed.”
It was like . . . Like nothing. No. That couldn’t be true. That couldn’t happen. Why was he messing with me?
“What?” Like I might have heard him wrong? Like I had heard him from way off in another universe? Or something. He was saying something improbable, so something impossible had to be happening. “I don’t get . . . I didn’t get . . . That can’t be.” Head on down to the bottom line of what everybody knows. People can’t get close enough to a sorceress like Strafa to actually hurt her. “Killed?”
“Attacked and killed. On the street in front of her house.”
Ambush? I knew the perfect place and time. Right when you were fiddling with the pedestrian gate, going into the property. Only . . . What would Strafa be doing going through the gate? She would have been airborne when she arrived home.
“There isn’t anything more yet. But she wasn’t alone. The woman she was with was injured badly but survived.”
“But she may not last,” Helenia added, staring hard at the dirty stone floor, probably distracting herself from the intensity of the moment by making cleaning plans. “We will have more information soon.”
Of course. An attack on someone from the Hill, especially of Strafa’s stature, would make the Guard drop most everything.
I had gone numb emotionally. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what to do. This was a twist beyond imagination. I had seen some harsh times, especially during the war, but I’d never been smacked between the eyes by something as sudden and evil and unexpected as this. Even when Mom left us, the process had taken a while. There had been time to hone my emotional defenses.
For no special reason I recalled civilians sitting among the ruins of their homes and lives, surrounded by the desolation the people and stuff of those lives had become once the fighting swept through their part the world. Lost souls, every one, every time.
I tried to remember that we humans are resilient. Most of those people came back, eventually.
I tried, but at the moment had little inclination to believe.
“You should go out there, find out what really happened. The reports might be mistaken.”
Early reports often are. Usually are. Yes! That might be . . .
There had been no mistake. I knew that right down to the core of my soul. “Yeah. I guess.” But I did not get up. I put on my best thousand-yard stare and just sat there, mind empty.
“There might be something you can do. Familywise,” he amended, since it was too late to help Strafa.
My response must have seemed too-long delayed. “Yeah. Maybe.” I did get up then, still focused only on what was happening on the far side of the horizon.
Relway said, “Helenia, find Target. Tell him to bring Womble. Wait up, Garrett. I’ll send some people with you. This may turn out to be a job for my section.”
I held up. Even rattled and numb I realized that he wanted to look out for me. But in that state I would just do what I was told, slowly, or I would do nothing at all. I had learned that about me during the war.
In seconds Helenia was at it again with the man who had tried to keep her away from the Director. It sounded like there was a relationship there. Concern underlay everything else.
“Shouldn’t take but a few minutes,” Relway said. “I know you’ve seen all this before, even if you haven’t lived it. The numb will start to wear off soon. You’ll be mad as hell. That’s when you really need to watch it so you don’t do something stupid. You have to control yourself. If what happened is connected to your blood tournament, the Civil Guard will handle it.”
I looked straight into his eyes. And didn’t see their color, though I knew they must be . . . brown? I was still empty, but he saw something behind the emptiness. Something that left him exceptionally uncomfortable.
He knew that Garrett isn’t somebody you get in front of when he gets hot. It takes him a while to get there, then . . .
“Don’t do anything to put yourself on the wrong side of the law, Garrett.”
I grew up in TunFaire. Till the last few years, justice was a craft industry. You made it yourself. A lifetime of that wasn’t going away because some dreamer wanted me to live up to his ideals.
I said nothing to contradict him, though.
The crew member of unusual size from the gang that snagged Preston Womble turned up quickly. He had Preston with him, Womble scampering to avoid being dragged. The big guy stopped outside Relway’s cage. “Set to go, boss,” he said. “What do you got?”
Womble lost some color after he looked at me.
I didn’t feel it consciously, but the next stage was getting some traction.
Relway said, “Take Mr. Garrett home. I want you both to stick with him. You understand me, Womble?”
“Yes, sir. I do, Director. Yes indeed. How long shall I pursue those instructions, sir? What is my function to be?”
Womble belonged to that class of people who go a long way in very small doses, obviously.
“We’ll tell you when you’re done. Your job is to look out for Garrett. You will do whatever it takes to keep him healthy and happy. You’ll also do whatever Target tells you to do.”
“Yes, sir, Director. I understand you perfectly, sir.”
“Get moving, then. Garrett, I expect you to control yourself. I’ll see you again soon, hopefully with something to report. I must get matters rolling here.”
And that was that, a little confusing in the state I was in.
I didn’t get to ask Target
how he got his name. Having been to the war zone, I expect that it had to do with his size and capacity for attracting enemy fire. He clearly did not like being called Target, but he wasn’t going to argue with his boss about it.
He led us back to the entrance I had used getting into the Al-Khar, muttering about the damned woman being so damned slow, she should quit playing her damned games with that damned dick Merryman . . .
I caught the stench of horse before I heard or saw the monsters coming, with fiery evil eyes and fangs like the mother of all saber-tithed toogers . . . I have a problem with horses. No, actually, horses have a problem with me. I’m willing to live and let live, but they are equally willing to do what it takes to wrap my story up early. Then they could let bygones be bygones and get on with live and let lie down dead.
These nags were not the worst. No smoke rolled out of their nostrils. After a single flash of contempt, they chose to ignore me.
My companions paid the monsters no heed. Target just stayed near Womble in case Preston got struck stupider and tried to make a break. Helenia and an old red top who would drive the coach hung on behind the pair of scruffy devils. Each led one animal by the harness. I looked for their muzzles and failed to spot any. The coach was not a big one. It was marked but not with any official insignia.
Helenia noted my interest. “We confiscated it under the racketeering statutes.”
Um. Yeah. There was a good idea. Give the tin whistles the power to take anything they want from anybody they cared to take it from just by accusing them of being criminals. That had to be too much temptation even for a straight arrow like Deal Relway.
Target told me, “We didn’t figure you were up for walking.”
He had a good point there.
So. He or Helenia, or both, were the thoughtful sort, belying their looks.
I hoped the coach belied its looks.
It felt like maybe it used to belong to Shadowslinger’s evil older sister. It was all black, decorated with carvings of critters who would give voodoo priests the heebie-jeebies, and it had no springs. Walking might be less painful if we hit some really bad streets.
“Let’s get rolling,” Target said. “You get in first, Womble.”
Helenia opened the door on the left side of the vehicle. There was a crest carved there, but the lighting wasn’t good enough to show it clearly. No doubt I didn’t really want to see it, anyway. It might redouble the kind of nightmares I had already from being around my future in-laws.
Helenia urged me in behind Preston, then came aboard herself. The interior was nicely appointed in silks and leathers. I hoped the latter was sheepskin, not peopleskin.
There was room for four people if three were half my size. Womble did not take up much space, but Helenia was wide at the base and came armed with a big leather case. She said, “I’ll be trying to take witness statements.”
I figured, good luck with that, even if you can write fast enough.
No two witnesses ever see the same thing.
I heard some creaking as Target opened the gate.
The old man said something in Horse, probably offering to feed me to the beasts if they did what he asked. The coach lurched. Preston and I had our backs to the direction of travel. I almost fell into Helenia’s lap.
The coach stopped after thirty feet. The gates creaked again. The old man clambered up to the driver’s seat, making the vehicle rock and squeak. Meanwhile, moisture began to sneak in through the side windows even though those were supposedly shut against the weather. I peeked. The rain had grown a little more vigorous, though it was still only slightly more enthusiastic than a desultory drizzle. It was very, very cold, however.
Helenia was chatty. “This coach belonged to somebody off the Hill. One of the necromancer types. His own people turned him in because he was so rotten.”
“Sounds like my grandmother-in-law.”
Cynical me, I suspected that there must have been legacies and estates involved that someone had wanted resolved in a manner other than the one outlined in the relevant documents. The Unpublished Committee would not back that kind of play, but Relway’s crew was still only a small faction at the heart of the new law enforcement.
Helenia continued. “The Director uses it when he wants to keep a low profile.”
Yes. Of course. Send out the ugly. Nobody would notice that.
Target cracked the door, poked his mug in. “All set?”
Nobody declared any serious lack of readiness. How do you answer that kind of dumb question?
He pushed on the door. A catch clicked. The coach sagged and rocked despite its lack of springs as Target mounted the footman’s backboard.
The coach lurched ahead.
I had recovered enough emotionally to realize that I ought to be glad that Target was not allergic to the damp. It would have gotten tight with him inside, too.
There was no immediately obvious
sign, in Strafa’s neighborhood, that anything huge had happened. There were people around, naturally, but the rain kept the Lookie Lous away and Barate had gotten the key people moved inside. A brace of forensics sorcerers roamed the street out front, pretending to be something else but not convincingly because they wore their red Guard berets.
Our driver took us in under the porte cochere. Target manned the door, helped Helenia dismount. Barate came out to greet me with an uncharacteristic hug.
Algarda said, “Mother is on her way. She’s been delayed because there were steps she wanted to take first.”
Did I even want to know? He made “steps” sound nastily portentous.
He eyed Target, Womble, and Helenia but kept his expression neutral and did not comment. They had red berets on now, too. Other tin whistles were all over. A squad had a couple of the Hill’s private patrolmen cornered and were asking embarrassing questions.
I showed Barate a raised eyebrow.
He said, “There was an explosion on the other side of the Hill. They all headed over there. Those two were dumb enough to come back. The rest have vanished off the face of the earth.”
They would be found. They would explain why they had not done the job for which they got paid more than your average tin whistle did. The Civil Guard were hard on the private side lately. Too often the private guys didn’t do their jobs or got caught taking tips to look the other way right before bad stuff happened.
Times were changing, though.
The weather was not. It seemed determined to get colder, wetter, and windier. I beckoned Target, Womble, and Helenia. “Let’s get inside.” I told Barate, “They’re with me.”
He went right ahead on having no comment.
I failed to notice that Helenia left her case in the coach, meaning it was just a prop.
• • •
We were still shaking the moisture off in the ballroom-size foyer when a bug-eyed Preston pointed and declared, “That’s Vicious Min!” like he could not believe his eyes.
“The woman who hired him to tail you,” Target reminded me.
A very large woman in a very sad state of repair sprawled on a big table brought in for the purpose. It was eight feet long and four feet wide. Parts of Vicious Min hung over all the ends and sides. She was a big girl.
Strafa was on another table, close by. She didn’t look all the worse for wear. I probed the sore tooth socket of emotion. I was in battlefield mode, numb and rigidly controlled, saving the hysteria for later.
Min had lost gallons of blood. It was all over her, all over the table, and had pooled on the floor. The leakage had stopped. She was still breathing, raggedly, but her color was awful. I said, “Shouldn’t somebody be working on her?”
“I am,” said a guy who had, apparently, had to step away momentarily. He looked like he knew what he was doing. I didn’t recognize him.
Barate proved he was agile for his age. He kept himself between me and anybody he decided I was bullying unreasonably. He kept reminding me, “Our innings will come after the nosies go. We’ll handle our family responsibilities.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant but did understand that he was well disposed toward me and definitely not so much so toward whoever had hurt his little girl. “Of course,” I said. “You’re completely right.” I noted that Target was sticking close to me. No doubt he had instructions to monitor my every breath.
Preston Womble had no attention to spare for anything but the big woman. He did stay out of the doctor’s way.
I could not see what Helenia was up to.
The doctor beckoned Barate, asked, “You know anything about this woman?”
“No. She’s a stranger. Ted, this is Garrett. Strafa’s husband.” He left off the to-be part.
“Nice to meet you.” I pointed. “Preston knows her.”
Ted deployed that most unhelpful of formulas, “I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Garrett. I didn’t know Strafa as well as I would’ve liked, but she was a fine woman. A fine woman. What happened here was a crime.”
Yeah, well. People can’t always get the words out right.
Ted gave Barate a look I took to mean that his admiration for Strafa did not extend to other members of the Algarda tribe. Barate didn’t surprise me much later when he told me that Dr. Ted had once had a serious crush on Strafa.
Ted wasn’t over that. He was quite intense when he grilled Preston. He got mad when Preston couldn’t tell him anything about Vicious Min but her name, that her money was good, and that she was generous with it. I chirped in to ask if he thought Elona Muriat could tell us more if we caught up with her.
Preston didn’t think so. Preston was very smug about our chances of finding his girlfriend.
Pular Singe lurked in the back of my mind. Singe was the cure for the elusive.