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An excerpt from SPELL OF CATASTROPHE by Mayer Alan Brenner. Copyright © 1986-2007 by Mayer Alan Brenner. Made available under  Creative Commons license (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0).


CHAPTER 2. THE CREEPING SWORD


At the same time Haddo was flying Max toward Karlini's castle I was sitting at my desk minding my own business, the major thought on my mind being whether I'd be able to afford to eat after the day after tomorrow. There was no way I would have known about Max and Haddo at that point, of course, but I wouldn't have cared anyway since I'd never heard of Haddo or Max or Karlini. Food was the issue, and realizing it was already past the middle of the day and I hadn't had a customer in a week, and wondering how hungry I'd have to get before I'd be walking the streets looking for odd jobs and manual labor. Then someone knocked on the door. I put the half-drained flask I had been nursing in a drawer and said, "Come in.”

A woman came in. "My husband has been kidnapped," she said, and that meant all of a sudden things were looking up.

Her husband had a large warehouse on the docks and a fleet of barges on the river. He hadn't come home the previous night. According to her, he had always come home before. A note had appeared under the door in the morning. She passed it over to me.

Payment of 20,000 gold zalous will cause the return of Edrik Skargool. He is not hurt, yet search will cause death. More instructions will forthcome.

The Creeping Sword

"Huh," I said. The style was stilted, making me think of someone who was trying to sound educated without the benefit of actually having an education. On the other hand, the words were spelled right and the penmanship was neat. Still, I didn't have to look too closely to find the major unusual detail. The medium was a sheet of burnished copper, and the words had apparently been etched into it with fire.

"Do you have any idea who this Creeping Sword is?" I asked.

"Certainly not, of course not," she said. "That is your job, isn't it?"

I made a noncommittal sort of hrrumphy sound and let her start talking again. She had gone to the police, such as they were. With the current political situation, the police weren't about to investigate anything, unless the order came as a command from the Guard. So she’d gone to the Guard. The Guard was having too much fun enforcing martial law to worry about another kidnapping. The only kidnappings they were interested in were the ones they were doing themselves. I hoped for Skargool’s sake they weren’t the ones who had picked him up. I wasn't about to fight the Guard for him, even if she paid me a lot, and I didn't think anyone else would be prepared to either. "Will you find him?" she asked.

"I’ll do my best," I said, "under the circumstances. That's my job."

She made an unhappy face at me. Sometimes that was a good tactic - I'm a man, and like any man I’ll turn gooey under the right circumstances - but it wasn't going to work on me this time. I already didn’t like her. "If I pay you good money and give you my trust," she said, "I would expect that you would at least be willing to guarantee -"

I had been leaning back in my chair. Now I let the chair fall forward so the two front legs hit the beam floor with a sharp "thud", and pointed a finger at her for further emphasis. "Look, lady," I said. "Roosing Oolvaya is a big city. There must be fifty thousand people here. Any day of the week a bunch of them disappear and never get found. Now we’re sitting with a dead Venerance, the son who probably knocked him off is in charge, and mercenaries are running around the streets giving orders to the rest of the normal Guard. You think the mess out there doesn't make the usual mess worse? Well, it does, lady, a lot worse. People are getting rounded up, people are getting executed, and people are getting kicked into the sewers just for being in the wrong place. Not criminals, not only political folks, just people, you understand that? In this kind of situation, a lot of old grudges find themselves getting settled, a lot of nastiness pops up. It's rough out there."

"But." she said, still pouting, "but what should I do, then?"

"If you hire me, I'll find your husband if he's findable. Are you hiring me?"

"Yes, yes, of course I am, even if -”

“Then get ready to pay this Sword person."

"But 20,000 zalous! How could I -"

"I’ll get you the money back if I can."

"But can't you bargain with -"

"You might reflect," I said, "on the fact that money can generally take more wear and tear than husbands can."

She shut up. I asked questions, but none of the answers were helpful. She didn’t know of any disgruntled employees. The list of business enemies was short; she said her husband had a reputation as a straight dealer. They had no children.

"Who gets everything if he dies?" I said.

"Why, I'm not sure. I really don't know."

I had yelled down for a messenger earlier, after the scent of work had floated in with her, and the messenger now returned with Turbot. Turbot was in more-or-less the same line of work as me, whatever that was, and we used each other as backup man when things were happening. He was glad to have something to do that might pay, at least as glad as me. As the wife was leaving in Turbot's custody she paused and looked back.

"Will you find him?" she repeated.

"Yeah, I'll find him," I said. I strapped on my sword and headed for the man’s warehouse.

Skargool Cargo was a hulking two-story building with heavy timber walls attached to its own wharf. The manager was a hulking man named Kardu Chog. He wasn't attached to a wharf, but one finger was brandishing a ring with a stone the size of a rowboat.

"Me, I was first mate on the first barge Skargool ever sailed," Chog said expansively around a cylinder that looked like a cigar but smelled a lot more like a swamp after a range fire. Tobacco leaves were one of the things Skargool imported, shipped up the river from the south. "First mate, aye, and crew too. The two of us, like brothers." He waved at the humidor on his desk, offered me a cigar. I shook my head. He shrugged and took a massive pull on his own, a line of solid ash advancing toward his mouth. "Skargool and me, we go way back.”

"What about his wife?" I said.

"What do you mean," he said slowly, "about his wife?"

"His wife. How long does she go back?"

Chog leaned back in his chair and squinted up through the smoke. "Mind you now, I don't really know her, but she's been around now for, oh, five years, six. Why are you interested?"

"Just asking questions," I said. "Part of the job." I poked around, checking in with the workmen.

From all accounts, Edrik Skargool was indeed that rare thing, a rich boss well liked by his employees. Another relevant fact also came to light: Skargool walked home daily, along the same route.

I left the warehouse, crossed the street, and entered the dive on the other side; step out on any street around the wharves and there was bound to be a bar within arm's reach. When my drink came I laid an ool next to it. "The Skargool place," I said.

"Yeah?" said the bartender.

"Anybody seem interested in it?" I spun another ool in the air.

The bartender licked his lip and thought, then shook his head sadly, eying the ool on the counter. I pushed it toward him. "Let me know," I said, and told him how to find me.

I worked my way along. From the feel of the kidnap note this thing had been a job worked out in advance, not a bit of random work popped on the spur of the moment. The Creeping Sword, whoever or whatever he was or they were, would have hung around getting a handle on Skargool's movements, and might even still be keeping an eye on things. Maybe somebody had noticed something. It wasn’t a real good bet - the waterfront was always filled with transients, and with the number of out-of-town fighters bolstering the Guard things were bound to be worse, but maybe one of the regulars had an eye open. 1f nothing else, the Creeping Sword might hear I was asking questions and go after me. Coming out of the fourth bar I felt a bump and tug at my side. Attached to the touch was an arm. I grabbed it as the kid tried to twist away. He was somebody I knew.

"How's business, Glinko?" I said.

Glinko looked around at me and turned white. "It’s you," he said.

I shook him up and down a few times. "Yeah, Glinko, it's me," I said. "You’re losing your touch. You’re also turning into an idiot."

"I didn’t know it was you," he said plaintively.

"Save it. Just as well you’re here. Maybe you can do something for me."

A look of calculation appeared. I shook him again, then opened my hand and dropped him. The street was muddy. The streets were always muddy. "You didn’t have to do that," he said.

"You didn’t have to try to pick my purse, either. Fortunately for you, I generally take the long view." I showed him an ool out of Skargool’s wife’s advance.

Glinko stopped trying to clean himself off. The coin interested him. Coins always interested him. Coins interest most of us. "Who cares about mud anyway?" he said. "What do you need?”

"The Creeping Sword," I said.

"The who?"

"That’s what I want to know. This Sword kidnapped a businessman."

"Skargool?" Glinko said.

"Yeah," I said, "that’s right. Tell me about it."

"You going to give me that?" he said, meaning the ool.

"You going to give me a reason to?"

He glanced around the street, then slipped around the corner of the bar into a narrow alley. The street had only been about three times the width of the alley, but except for us the alley was empty. "I know Skargool," Glinko said in a low voice, "I know most of the guys down here. That’s what I do, I keep an eye out." Glinko was a spotter for one of the thief-gangs. "Skargool’s a right guy, pays good, he’s good to the workers, you know? Half the guys around want to work for him. Then a couple of weeks ago a lot of bad talk started. A ship of his was late, see, and all of a sudden there’s talk like Skargool might have sold the crew to the slavers. That’s how it started. Last I saw him was two days ago. He was walking home. He didn’t look good. He looked real depressed. Now today he’s missing, it’s all around the street."

"Okay." I gave him the ool. He said he'd nose around for me and check in later. He went back to the street, and I slipped out the other end of the alley.

I tried a few more bars without much more luck and ended up at the Grumpy Gullet. Civil unrest or no, Slipron was there, at his usual table in the back. I handed him the kidnap note Skargool's wife had given me.

Slipron screwed a lens into one eye, Oolvayan glass in a bone housing, and scrutinized the engraving, rubbing the copper plate between two fingers. Then he tapped the plate with a fingernail and swiveled the lens up at me. "It's worthless, of course, excepting perhaps only the metal itself."

Slipron being the best fence in Roosing Oolvaya, his comment meant he could move the thing for a profit and was willing to bargain, but selling it was not what I had in mind at the moment. I told him so.

"Ah," Slipron said. "Well. This engraving is not professional work." He rested a finger across the inscribed wards and closed his eyes. The letters around his finger swam briefly. He brought the plate up to his face and sniffed. "A firepen. Definitely a firepen."

The tapster was passing with a tray of foaming mugs, and I snagged a full one for Slipron. He handed me back the ransom note. "I know of Edrik Skargool, and I consider him a good man," Slipron said. "I also note the line of this letter that reads 'Search will cause death'."

"I figure they’re talking about search by sorcery," I said. If an anti-search spell had been set up around Skargool, any finder probe keyed to him would set up feedback in the protector field, feedback that might be enough to fry him. Whether the Creeping Sword had the facility or the money to get a spell like that was another matter. I thought it was a bluff. Even if it was a bluff and a sorcerous search might find Skargool, hiring a magician to run a decent search would cost a lot more than my own time. If it wasn’t a bluff, and the magician wasn’t good enough to avoid or neutralize the no-search field, that would be it for Skargool.

Of course, I wouldn’t hire a magician. I wouldn’t even go near magic unless it grabbed me by the neck and forced my nose into it. Magic is more trouble than it’s worth. It messes up everybody’s life. It had messed up my own life enough in the past to give me more of an education than I'd ever wanted. No, all this case needed was legwork, and legwork I know.

Slipron said. "What if they don’t care what kind of search it is, and they Sword people spot you looking for him?"

"Give me a little credit," I said. "This is my job, and I know what I'm doing. I know how to be careful."

Slipron looked doubtful. A chair scraped next to us, and a gust of garlic announced the arrival of Gag the Hairless. The name went back to the time when the bladder of gas Gag had been using to blow open the strongbox aboard a barge had blown up in his hand instead. His hair had grown back around the flash-burn scars, but a name is a name. "The word’s out you’re looking for a snatcher," Gag said.

"Sure," I said, "why not? Have you got one?"

"Who knows?" Gag said. "This town’s so crowded this week, you can’t keep anybody straight."

I tossed him an ool. Fortunately for me, Skargool's wife was paying expenses. Gag flagged the barmaid. The barmaid brought him a bottle, which Gag upended, wiping green froth off his mustache. He burped, and said, "Okay, now," leaning forward on one elbow. "A guy hears lots of things. You don’t always know what to think, you know what I mean? This guy Skargool, one day you hear one thing, then you hear something else. One day everybody wants to work for him, the next day you hear he's flogging his crews."

Slipron, whose attention had apparently wandered off to another part of the room, looked back at Gag. "Flogging?"

"Yeah, flogging," Gag said, "I mean like with whips. All these years he's shipping grain, oats, like, and then all of a sudden they say there's always been loot underneath. Treasure, I mean, gold, jewels, real loot. Buried under the oats, all these years. I mean, I've got nothing against oats, I've got to eat too, but oats isn’t the same as loot."

"That's an interesting story, Gag," I said. "Now work the Creeping Sword into it."

"You out of your mind?" Gag said. "What’s that?"

"That’s what I'd like to know. You find it out and it’s worth money."

"How’s about a, whatta you call it, a retainer?"

"I’ll pay," I said, "when I have something to pay for. Don’t push your luck. You hear plenty of stuff, Gag, and that’s good. Find out who started this talk about Skargool."

Gag scowled and drained the bottle. I had been keeping an eye on the rest of the room, watching for someone else, and now he came in, heading straight for a small table in the back of the place in a corner mostly in shadow. I rose and went over. A steaming casserole was already present on the table, and the guy was digging into it by the time I crossed the room.

I pulled up a chair across from him. "I want to talk to your boss," I said.

He didn’t bother to look up; I was sure he'd spotted me on my way over. He didn't miss much, that's why he had the job he had. "Are you on a case," the man said, swallowing a mouthful off his knife, "or you just looking for some action?"

"It’s a case."

He grunted, pulled a piece of fish out of the casserole, squinted at it, and threw it over his shoulder where it stuck to the wall. "We may have a job, too. Interested in some honest work for a change?" The guy laughed a coarse harsh laugh.

"Depends on the work," I said.

"Sure it does," he said. "Somebody'll come by your place."

"Right," I said. The table I'd shared with Gag and Slipron was empty, so I headed for the door. I was almost there when it crashed open behind a pair of lances and a rabble of tough-looking men wearing the freshly printed armbands of the Guard.

"All right, you goons," the corporal shouted as he raised a truncheon, "this place is closed! Move out to the street and -"

The place erupted. I ducked as a small table flew over my shoulder directly toward the corporal, plunged my fist into an eye, shook my left leg loose from a set of sharp teeth, and as I shoved a hand with a knife out of my way something crashed into my back and knocked me to the floor next to the wall. Sticking close by the wall, I dodged and crawled forward and climbed through a broken shutter onto the street. A knot of fighting guys spilled through the door to my left, the three Guard mercenaries watching the front of the building turned to deal with them, and I limped away from the bar down the street and around the first corner. My back was throbbing, but I figured that was part of the job; maybe I'd sock Skargool's wife for some extra expense money when I hit her with the final bill. I rinsed my face in a trough and walked away from the wharves into the city.

My office was over a laundry in the Ghoul’s Quarter near the wall on the south side, the clapboard sign with its open staring eye creaking gently in the breeze from the river. A man was waiting outside my door at the top of the stairs. "You are examining the disappearance of Mr. Edrik Skargool?" he said.

"What’s it to you if I am?" I said, unlocking the door.

He followed me into the office.

"I represent the Oolvaan Mutual Insurance Carriers."

Oh, no, I thought. "Insurance?"

"Yes indeed. Mr. Skargool has a substantial policy, amounting to perhaps 140,000 zalous."

I lowered myself gingerly into my chair. "Bonded insurance?"

"Yes, of course, bonded. Certainly."

Insurance, dammit, insurance. This was real trouble. I'd never worked an insurance case before, and I didn't want to start now. Look at it this way, a lawyer who’d once shared a bottle with me had explained things. When you can ride for an hour and get to a new place where there's a totally new set of laws and jurisdiction, when people disappear without a trace all the time, either because they're dead or just because they want to disappear, when you need to buy a policy in one city and know it'll be recognized someplace else, you’ve got to have one key thing. You've got to have some widespread authority nobody’s going to argue with.

Insurance was a contract with one of the gods.

The tweedy man crossed his legs. "Unfortunately, our organization is understaffed and" (he gave a delicate cough) "chronically overworked, so it is our policy to rely on local assistance for claims investigation whenever possible."

"Now wait a minute," I said. "Let’s clear a few things here. I -"

"I apologize if I have not made myself clear." With his faded tweed cloak and his slack pale face, he could have been any nameless functionary buried in a bureaucrat’s coattails. His voice, though, had the uncompromising tone of someone who always got his way, on his own terms. Even if he wasn't dangerous himself, he had to have big-time friends. “Whenever an investigation is in progress," he told me, "we employ its findings."

"Come on, at least you’ve got to pay a royalty on -"

"No. Consider the effort a tax on your business practice. You may also consider it a licensing test. We expect any investigator to comply with our own standards for proof-of-claim."

"Standards?" I said. "What do you mean, your standards? I know this job like I -"

"Then you will have no difficulties," he said, “will you. A causal chain or other validator of legitimacy must be demonstrated. Cases of fraud or collusion are punishable, both on the part of the beneficiaries and the investigator."

I'd never seen one of these policies, of course, but that wasn't going to be any excuse. If you got noticed by the gods, I'd always heard that the best thing to do was keep your mouth shut and do whatever they wanted, and hope they’d forget about you when you were finished. But what would it take to get finished? "What if this, ah, investigator can't come up with a definite solution? Sometimes nobody can tie up all the pieces, no matter how good they are."

"Ah," he said ."h’m. Indeterminate cases are not desirable. With proper validation and under special circumstances, they may be, ahem, reluctantly accepted. Quite reluctantly."

"Okay," I said, "I get it. I’ve got no choice. I’ll do what you want, I'm not an idiot. So what kind of insurance does Skargool have, anyway?"

"Life," he said, "Of course."

"Don’t you have ways of knowing whether he's still alive?"

He turned up one corner of his mouth in what might have been a smile, or maybe just a nervous tic. "Omnipotence is not one of our patron’s virtues. These things take time and energy, and attention." He got to his feet.

"Just one more question," I said.

"Yes?"

"Who took out the insurance, and when?”

He gave me the tic again. "The wife," he said, "of course. One month ago."

“Right," I said. "How will I get in touch with you?"

"I will be in touch with you. Good day." The door closed behind him. I opened the desk drawer and took out the flask, then decided to just hit my head against the wall for a few minutes. I turned around, and while I looked for a spot on the wall that didn’t already have a dent the door creaked open behind me again.

"What now?" I said, but this time the man who’d come in was different.

With a shapeless cap pulled low enough over his face to rest on the bridge of his nose, and a generally squat frame, the guy looked like no further than second cousin away from a giant toad. "Da time ta see de boose is now," he said.

"Yeah," I said, "da boose." I forgot about the flask and followed after him out the door.

We wound around local streets, heading generally back toward the docks, and finally entered a shuttered house where we descended to the basement. Beneath an old rug was an iron grate. The guy rolled up the edge of the rug, being careful not to disturb a slender thread that ran from one frayed corner off into the darkness. Then he turned his back, did something behind him in the gloom, and waited. Running water gurgled below the grate, gradually growing fainter. Finally the grate clanged and squeaked open. The edge of a ladder was revealed, leading down into a big pipe that I hoped wasn’t the sewer.

A concealed mechanism drained the last swirls of water away as we reached the base of the ladder. Next to the ladder a section of the stone facing wall had opened, revealing a crawlway. Bending low, I followed the guy into the wall, through several ascending turns thick with slime and algae, and up out of the garbage into a small torchlit anteroom. Three other exits led down through the floor or into the walls in a similar manner as the one we’d entered through. Four men got up from a table and pushed me against the wall. One of them frisked me, two others kept their hands on their swords, and the final one nervously slapped a large cudgel against his palm. They didn’t find anything; as I kept finding reasons to reiterate I wasn’t an idiot. The thugs moved aside and one grunted, tilting his head in the direction of a wall tapestry. I moved the tapestry aside and went through the concealed door behind it.

The new room had walnut wall-panels, a bookcase filled with leather-bound volumes, and a large desk with a man seated next to it. The man was wearing a dressing gown embroidered with dragons and other mythical beasts and on his nose he had a pair of spectacles, through which he was studying a ledger-book. He looked mild-mannered enough, and he could be, but generally he wasn't: this wasn't the first time we’d met. The boss looked up at me, over the tops of the spectacles, and said, "Sit down. What's on your mind?"

"Its not a what," I said, sitting. "It's a who. Edrik Skargool. Somebody kidnapped him, but it doesn’t sound like you."

"Hah," he said. "The kid has a lip." He leafed through his book, alternately watching me over his glasses and glancing down into the book. "Skargool. Here he is." The boss read for a moment. "He's rich, yeah, but it's mostly property, not a lot of cash. He pays his protection dues regular, no trouble there. Kidnap rating’s low, so you’re right, hah, why should I take him out? Stupid. Whoever did it, stupid. Some people got no business sense." His eyes looked up at me again. "Like to know your own ratings, hah?"

"Sure, except I’m sure it would cost me more than I’m worth to find out. I'm sure you know that, too."

"Hah," he said noncommittally.

"Anyway, that’s beside the point," I said. "The one thing I do need is this. You have anything on somebody called The Creeping Sword?"

"The what? Creeping Sword? You got to be kidding. What idiot kind of name is that?"

I passed him the kidnap note.

"Creeps," he said, studying it. "Some punk. Punks all over the place. Whole damn town is crawlinl with punks." He glowered at the note, then glowered at me, and then spun the note back at me like a throwing star. Then, for good measure, as I ducked out of the way and let the note chew itself into the back of my chair, he grabbed his ledger book and hurled it across the room. It was big, and heavy for a book, and made a loud thud against the stone wall. The guards from the room outside the tapestry suddenly appeared and began to drag me out the rest of the way out of my chair. "Civil wars," the boss yelled, glowering now at everyone in sight. "I hate ‘em. Bad for business. Lousy for everybody. What?"

I had been gargling at him, hoping he would remember me before the boys actually started carving. The boss stared at me for a second, then said, "Forget about him, he's all right. Put him down."

They dropped me back across the chair and filed out. I sat up, worked my shoulder around a bit, and worked the kidnap note out of the wood of the chair as I worked on steadying my breathing. "Thanks," I said.

"Yeah," he said, which from him passed for an apology. "So I've got a job too you can come along and help. You know Kriglag?"

''I’ve heard of him, never met him." Kriglag ran the wharf rackets.

"He’s a dope. He thinks he's gonna work with this new Venerance, what's-his-name, cooperate with all these fresh mercenaries, end up fencing their loot maybe, I don't know what all. Maybe he's a big enough idiot to work with somebody who’d call himself a Creeping Sword."

"I’m listening."

"I'm gonna take him out," the boss said. "I'm gonna take him out tonight. You want to be there?"

"Yeah," I said, "I do. Thanks again."

"You're with Netoo." He jerked his head at the tapestry. I went through it and told the boys I was with Netoo. I followed the one with the cudgel through another tapestry and down a hall.

There were thirty of us, more or less, divided in four teams. I strolled around the assembly room, asking the usual questions, until we moved out.

Night had fallen by the time the first two teams sloshed off into the sewers; sometimes I think more activity and commerce in Roosing Oolvaya takes place in the sewers than overhead in the streets. Nevertheless, the bunch of us under Netoo headed into the streets with the sorcerer. She was up in the front, next to Netoo, helices of fine blue lines making gloves around her gesturing hands as she walked. The blue shapes left a slowly fading trail behind her in the air.

The clamor of some riot a neighborhood or so to the north came intermittently to us through the tangled alleys. There was no sign of the Guard, though, and I wondered if the boss had managed to convince somebody to concentrate on other areas for this particular evening. A tendril of river fog curled around a building ahead of us and up our street. We entered the fog, and Netoo stopped the team to confer with the magician.

The magician gestured a few times, almost lost from my view in the fog, cocked her head to listen to nothing, and nodded. Netoo motioned us on. We crept one block, exiting and then reentering the fog, turned right, and moved down an alley. Netoo touched the shoulder of a man holding a bow. The man fitted an arrow and shot. The arrow turned into a shadow and disappeared into the mist. This was followed half-a-second later by a soft clunk and rattle, and then the thunk of a falling body. The magician nodded again and whispered to Netoo. "Around the next corner," Netoo said. "The house with hanging plants. All ready? Okay, go."

We spread out and padded quickly around the corner.

Shadows dark against the light mist flitted over the rooftops from other directions. They hit the roof as we hit the front.

Steel abruptly clashed. I paused to let my teammates engage, then charged through the crowd and hit the door shoulder-first. The door burst easily open onto a courtyard with other forms already struggling there. I charged through them too, aiming for the inner door. Shouts of "No mercy for traitors” and "Death to the usurper!”, our attempt to disguise our origin by implicating local malcontents, came from behind, above, and below, indicating that the sewer teams had reappeared as well. I grappled with the inner door and it sprang open. A robed functionary scuttled past down the interior hall, looking frantically in my direction. I grabbed him by the collar and said, "The Creeping Sword."

"I know nothing," the man said, trying to faint, so I hit him over the head with the flat of my sword.

It went like that for awhile. Then I found Kriglag. Taken totally unprepared and with all his escape routes cut off, Kriglag was trying to make the best of a hopeless situation. He was drunk. I wedged myself into the closet with him and dragged him to his feet. Jugs rolled off his chest and shattered on the floor. "Kriglag!" I said.

"Hwazigah?" he said, eyelids sagging.

"The Creeping Sword, Kriglag. The Creeping Sword!" I said, yelling it into his ear.

"A bad, a bad guy," Kriglag said, and started to snore. I shook him. Then I broke the neck off a jug he’d apparently missed in the confusion and poured the contents over his head. Kriglag opened his eyes and said, "Wha?"

I put the tip of my award where his crossed eyes could focus on it. “The Creeping Sword, Kriglag."

"Gemmy outa here.”

"Tell me about the Creeping Sword."

“You get me outa here first."

I slapped him across the jaw. "Tell me why I should bother,” I said.

Kriglag’s head was clearing. "Creeping Sword, yeah. This guy from up-river someplace. Had this idea. He'd make cash and a good-guy image at the same time, snatching rich rats."

Maybe his head wasn't that clear after all. "Rich rats?"

"Rich scum." Kriglag paused to cough for breath. "Guys with lots of dough who got it by being scum. People nobody would miss, be glad to see them go."

"So he came to you. What did you tell him?"

"I’m no fool." Kriglag said. "I told him, try it out. If it worked maybe I’d take him on."

"Where did he go?"

"I dunno. He was supposed to come back when he had results."

"Anybody else know about it?"

Kriglag smirked and breathed a foul breath in my face.

"My partner," he said.

I lay the edge of my sword along his throat. "Who?"

Kriglag kept smirking. "Get me out of here or you'll never know."

I hesitated. Then, with a chorus of "No collaboration!", a bunch of my new friends burst into the room behind us. Kriglag looked over my shoulder at them, glanced back at me, and lunged toward my blade. I couldn’t believe a survivor type like Kriglag would go so far as to impale himself, but just in case I pulled the sword out of his reach. "You’re a sap," he yelled at me as they dragged him away.

I spent a few minutes with his ledgers. Kriglag kept records so lousy you couldn’t figure out a thing, which surely meant, from his perspective, they were some pretty fancy accounting. Still, I was able to tell that he’d done a lot of business moving hot goods, goods that had started out in warehouses on the wharf. I couldn't find out which warehouses, but I made a list of the stuff. One of Netoo's people arrived to take charge of the books, so I wiped off my sword and went home.

A messenger woke me in the middle of the night with a note from Turbot.

New message received. Ransom drop tonight.

Turbot, always maniacally terse, apparently had things under control. I went back to sleep.

I spent the next morning running down the list of business rivals Skargool’s wife had given me. None of them had anything bad to say about him, and none of them seemed to have anything to hide. None of them had missed any of the hot warehouse goods Kriglag had entered in his ledger books, either. It wasn’t until I was finishing up with the fourth name on my list that I suddenly wised up. I asked the guy for his own rundown of Skargool’s competitors.

The names he gave weren’t on my list.

Their stories were even more interesting than the ones from the list of Skargool's wife. They knew Skargool better. They knew him well enough to know he’d been getting upset. He’d found out someone was stealing from his stocks. And he’d gotten suspicious about his wife's fidelity.

They couldn't understand how Skargool had suddenly picked up these rumors about flogging, and slavers, and being a general taskmaster. They all liked him, and they were his competitors in a notoriously cutthroat field. According to them, he was honest to a fault and underworked his employees, if anything.

Then I wasted a few hours talking to firepen dealers.

The firepen had been a fad item a few seasons before. After the initial enthusiasm, people realized that the pens wore out much too fast to be of real use, and in any case weren't good for anything besides graffiti. They would write on walls, metal, pavement, indeed on anything but paper and parchment. Paper and parchment they would ignite. Flashy but impractical, and occasionally downright dangerous. The type of thing some upriver yokel might think was pretty hot stuff.

One minor sorcerer was still making the things, selling some out of the stall in front of his home and a few others to local merchants. Demand had settled down to maybe a dozen pens a month, so he was able to tell me quickly where each one of them had gone. The second merchant he sent me to was a hit.

"This kid with pimples and a big rusty sword and an accent," the woman said. Displayed on a table in her stall were an array of neatly stacked fresh fish and assorted gewgaws in baskets. "Thought he was heaven’s gift itself. Maybe he was, back home, with them country girls." She sneered at me and tried to sell me a fish.

The guy had bought the pen three days before, which fit.

I went back to the wharves to hunt up Glinko. When I found him, I wished I hadn’t looked. He’d been fished out from the ebb spot behind a piling under a wharf. Somebody had gotten his fingers around Glinko's throat. The marks of the fingers remained, and something sharp on one of the fingers had torn open his carotid.

As I gazed down at Glinko I became aware of another man gazing down next to me. It was the representative of the Oolvaan Mutual Insurance company. "You are making progress?" he asked.

"Absolutely," I said to Glinko. “Lots of progress."

“Will we have to pay on the claim?"

"Without knowing the exact terms of Skargool's policy, I don’t know. You might."

"When will I know?"

"Tonight," I said, "sounds like a good bet."

He inclined his head at me and stepped away. Since I was already in the area, I stopped in to see Chog, the manager at Skargool Cargo. The man with the boat-sized sharp-jeweled ring.

"Had some trouble, I see," I said to him. One of his eyes was red and purple and swollen shut, and his knuckles were scraped raw.

“With the Guard," said Chog. "Hounding me, they were, mercenaries hounding me, me with a reputation in this city."

"Right. Mrs. Skargool got another note this morning, did you hear?"

"Good news, that must be good news. My friend's return must be near. The two of us, Skargool and me, like brothers."

"So you said," I said. "I'm going to make the ransom drop tonight."

"I must know the outcome as soon as possible."

“As long as you mention it, you can hear it direct. Drop by Skargool’s house tonight around midnight."

"Midnight. I surely will be there." Chog smiled.

I went to Skargool’s myself and settled accounts with his wife. She was holding up remarkably well under the strain, tried flirting with me, more seriously this time, and everything. I took Turbot aside and discussed things with him, and then he took his sword and left.

I had never seen that morning’s note, so I examined it to pass the time. It was firepen on copper again. When I compared it to the first one, though, the script was slightly different. I showed it to Mrs. Skargool.

"You ever see this handwriting before?" I asked her.

She held it close to her face and studied it carefully, then looked up at me, her clear blue eyes wide and guileless. "No, no, I1m certain I've never seen this before," she said. "Is it important?"

"Not really," I said.

At dusk a messenger arrived with the last note. The messenger didn’t know anything, he'd just been handed the note on a street corner with an oolmite coin, and after handing it over he scurried quickly off into the dark without even asking for a tip. The note read:

Pack the money in two sacks. At eight the detective will take the sacks and walk to the corner of Avenue of the Fifth Great Flood and Brewer Street. He will come alone.

The intersection was in a shabby section of the wharf district. We prepared the loot, and at eight I left the house.

Tacked to a wall at Fifth Great and Brewer was a folded cloth. Inside the cloth was another copper plate. The inscription told me to go to the Haalsen Traders wharf, which was about a three-minute block away. At the wharf, yet another note instructed me to go down a ladder and put the sacks into a dinghy moored at the base. It was about time to put the sacks down somewhere; twenty thousand zalous could get pretty heavy on you. The note also suggested I wait at the bottom of the ladder for the next half-hour or so. I put the bags in the boat, a cable tied to the boat drew tight and pulled the boat away into the shadows under the wharf next door, and I cooled my heels for a time. When I decided I'd rested long enough I climbed the ladder and went back to Skargool's house.

As soon as I walked through the door Skargool’s wife pounced. I'd had trouble dragging a useful word out of her for two days, and now she’d finally decided to talk.

"Did you give them the money? Where's the money now, didn’t you get it back? Where’s my husband? What -?"

"Shut up," I told her. "I only want to say the whole thing once, and I1m not going to say it until everybody's here."

"Where's my husband?"

"I don’t think he's coming."

She started to snarl and spit at me, but at this point I didn’t care. I knew her too well by now, not that there was that much to know. Kardu Chog the manager arrived, followed shortly after by Turbot. He gave me a very slight nod and sat down by the door.

"Now will you tell me -" said Skargool's wife.

"Not yet," I said. "That's not everybody."

The wife and Chog both started. "What are you talking about'?" Chog said.

"What I said," I said. "We’re waiting for somebody else."

Mrs. Skargool looked around nervously, at everything and everybody except Chog.

Exactly at midnight, several minutes later, there was a final knock on the door. It was the guy from the insurance company.

I stood up and started to talk. "Skargool’s dead," I said, mostly addressing his wife. "He was probably dead before you came to see me. Skargool was kidnapped by The Creeping Sword, but that's about all anybody's told me that's been true.

"Chog, here, was the silent partner of Kriglag -"

Chog made a sudden lunge out of the couch.

"Stay," the insurance agent said.

Chog stayed. His hand had frozen in the air, on the way into his opposite sleeve, and one foot was raised. I nodded at Turbot. He went and pulled a long knife out of Chog's sleeve, then pushed him back onto the sofa. Chog was breathing, and his eyes were darting frantically, but otherwise he didn't move at all. Turbot sat down too.

"Kriglag ran the wharves," I continued, "and one of the things he ran was hot merchandise. A lot of the merchandise was stuff that Chog stole from his own warehouse. Skargool's warehouse, really, but Chog was running it. Since Chog kept the records and Skargool trusted him, it took awhile for Skargool to catch on.

"By the time he did, Chog had another plan. Kriglag had told him about The Creeping Sword. The Sword was this idiot kid from upriver someplace, probably, and he had this idiot idea. He would kidnap a businessman who was both rich and nasty to his employees, but not so nasty that someone wouldn't be willing to pay the ransom. I guess the Sword wanted to become some kind of folk hero, kidnapping only people who deserved it. If his victims didn’t show up again, either, nobody was supposed to be too upset. After all, they were bad people, right?

"All Chog had to do was run around spreading stories about how rich and how terrible Skargool was, and wait for the Sword to bite. I don’t know exactly how long it took, but he was right on the mark. The Sword showed up, right on cue.

"The thing was, Chog was following Skargool too, and when the Sword picked up Skargool, Chog followed the Sword. After the Sword wrote his first kidnap note, Chog came in and got rid of them both.

"That was it for The Creeping Sword, and that was it for Skargool. That’s about it for the case, too." I waited until I could see the look of relief appear on the face of Skargool’s wife. That’s how much I didn’t like her. "Except for one thing," I said to her, "the insurance. That was dumb, real dumb, taking out the policy yourself. I don’t know whether you love Chog or he loves you, or whether he made you think he does or you made him think you do, and I don’t care. I don’t even care if you deliberately set me up so I'd figure out about Chog and the Sword and think that was the whole story. What I do care about was the other thing on your husband’s mind, finding out that you and Chog were playing around behind his back, and probably figuring out the other reason he’d never noticed Chog stealing from him. You, keeping his attention distracted. It wasn't just Chog, it was you too. Both of you conspired to kill Skargool and get the insurance and take over the business."

She had frozen, like Chog, when I mentioned the insurance. The insurance man hadn’t bothered to interrupt, he'd just pointed a finger at her. I turned to him.

"Satisfied?" I said.

"Eminently," he said. He pointed a finger at Chog and then at Skargool's wife. Balls of flame materialized and consumed them. Then his form lit up in a quick flash followed by a column of billowing smoke. When vision returned a few seconds later he was gone, apparently dematerialized into the vapor. I think only I noticed the catch on the front door as it snapped shut, and the small puff of cold outside air. That was all right with me; I figure everybody's entitled to their tricks of the trade.

"Who was that?" said Turbot.

"Either a magician working for the insurance company," I said, "or some god, slumming." Hopefully he wasn’t a god, and if he was I hoped I'd done well enough by him so now he'd leave me alone. As it turned out later, I'd done too well for my own good, but I still didn’t think I'd had a choice. We split the ransom money, which Turbot had stashed outside after he'd recovered it from the hiding place he'd found when he'd tailed Chog from the ransom pickup spot earlier, and went home.

It had been a lousy case. I’d sort of liked Glinko. I thought I would have liked Skargool, too.

© 2007-2014 by Mayer Brenner             

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