For the first time in about as long as I could remember, I went to bed sober. I had a lot to think about. I’d have to be out of my damn mind to go wandering into an orc neighbourhood like Ironsmith had suggested, but I didn’t see that I had any option. Most humans stayed as far away from places like Treetops and Sirloin as they could, and those that did venture into their depths weren’t much better than orcs themselves. The cops had virtually no jurisdiction there, for all practical purposes, and gangs roamed the streets freely, daubing glyphs on every wall. Most likely, I’d get a bullet lodged in a worse place then my hip if I even set foot somewhere like that. But it was my only lead, and the long and short of it was that I was a private dick with a case to solve. Ironsmith’s words bounced around and around in my brain though as I tried to see the bigger picture. He was right that the orcs would need to be desperate or crazy to kill an elf princess in her own home. But who else would do it? The thought occurred that the elves might have done it themselves and were trying to cover it up, but then why bring me in at all? And obviously they didn’t want a war, because if they wanted to engineer that, their first move would have been calling the cops and getting the word out on the radio. That would have the whole of New Atlas in uproar right away. So, the only conclusion I could draw was that either the obvious culprit, this Orca Khan character, was the guilty party, or he’d been set up by one of his own. That made more sense. Orcs spent half their miserable lives at each other’s throats. And, the more I thought on it, the more sense Ironsmith’s words made, and I realised he was trying to hint at something I could use for leverage. Typical dwarf: always three steps ahead of the rest of us. If the ultimate aim of this whole dirty business was blood on the streets, I had to make the orcs see that that was bad news for them, even if went against their every feral instinct. Their squalid dens would end up burned to a crisp if the elves had provocation to descend on them, and who’d stop them if they did? No, I needed to find Orca Khan, get the measure of the brute, and decide if it was him or one of his enemies that’d done the deed. That way, I’d know which of them to turn to for help. And as much as it made my skin crawl to even think about relying on some filthy orc to solve this case, I had to admit to myself that this wasn’t about money any more: the future of New Atlas itself was riding on this.
Orcs are nocturnal, so I pretty much had a whole day to kill. I considered finding a quiet bar to while away the time in, but I figured I’d need a clear head for whatever was coming that night. I also needed supplies. House Amandir had advanced me a little walkin’ around money from my expenses so that I could get hold of whatever I needed and grease any necessary wheels. For now, all I wanted was bullets for my revolver and a fancy dwarf torch. These little miracles are no bigger than a beer bottle, but you crack the end and they light up like Yuletide and stay that way for a good couple hours. Where I was going, I’d need that. It was dusk when I headed out, wrapped in my trench coat and with a fedora pulled low over my eyes. The chances of running into any orcs I’d had the misfortune to encounter in the past was pretty low, I admit, but I didn’t want to take any chances. They don’t live as long as humans, but one of those scarred old bastards could be hanging around on a stoop and he might just have some glimmer of recognition spark in his thick skull. Something like that could end this before it began and, not for the first time, I wondered if my clients really thought I was the right man for this job. Treetops was the biggest orc neighbourhood in the city. It was in Upper Manahills, one of the oldest parts of New Atlas, which explained the name – elves had lived their originally, but they moved out and then Stonelanders and Northmen like me moved in, and then the orcs came. With each successive wave of immigrants forming a new underclass, we all got a leg up in turn. When I was a kid, being a third-generation Northman made you the lowest of the low. Now, folks like me were practically gentry. I couldn’t imagine what could replace orcs at the bottom of the pile though.
I followed Eressëa Avenue north to Treetops, then cut across 110th and pretty soon the city around me started to change. It happened gradually. You talk about boroughs and neighbourhoods around here, like they have real borders and belong to a certain species but that’s valley thinking, as Ironsmith might have said. In reality, everything bleeds into everything else. There were dwarfs and goblins and gnomes and even a few of the lesser breeds of elf – ones with human blood in them, perhaps – all in pockets here and there. Mostly people kept to their own. You might walk down a street with twee little gnome cottages all clustered together like they were still back in their mushroom glades, then turn and find yourself heading into the garbage-strewn chaos of a goblin shanty town. There were humans too. New Atlas was founded by elves more than two hundred years ago, but it had been a predominantly human city for most of its existence now, and it showed. Humans from every corner of the world were crowded into the crumbling architecture, in little enclaves around and within the streets belonging to other species. We had that luxury, not just because we were adaptable, but because most of the local government, most of the police force, were humans too. This was our city. If a human got robbed and killed by a goblin gang, chances are something would be done, even if it was just a token act of retribution. The other species feared us because of that.
Orcs were different though. Orcs weren’t scared of a damn thing. As I moved deeper into Treetops, the marks of orc dominance became more obvious. Their daubings were on the walls everywhere, and the stores and other businesses catered to their savage tastes. Weapons hung from shop windows, the butchers that I saw seemed to deal primarily in bloody, raw chunks of unidentifiable meat and the unsubtle aromas of heavy orc spices floated out of every restaurant – if that was even the word. There wasn’t much traffic; most orcs couldn’t afford a car, if they could even learn to drive it, and I didn’t see too many of them walking around either. It might have been too early still. I looked up. Night had fallen now, but the street lights can’t have been too comfortable on the eyes of a subterranean species like theirs. I did see a few of them slinking around in the shadows. Most looked scrawny and hard up, and they eyed me suspiciously. I felt an involuntary shudder down my spine as I passed the mouth of an alley and saw a collection of red, beady eyes staring out at me from the shadows. Rhythmic, bass-heavy orc music pounded out of an open window and I wondered how they listened to it without getting a headache. If you believe what you read in the papers, the human kids are listening to that junk too, down in the clubs. Supposedly it taps into something primal and animalistic, sends them crazy. It wouldn’t surprise me. Orcs are much closer to beasts than us, and anything that makes real people think like orcs scares the hell outta me.
I got my first indication of where I should be going just a couple streets later – the same eye, scrawled in what I hoped was just red paint, on a wall. ‘Follow the glyph’ Ironsmith had told me, and that’s what I intended to do. A little way down the street was another eye, and then another. There were more orcs on the sidewalk now. They didn’t seem to be going anywhere or doing anything much, just loitering around, making trouble. I knew there was a lot of unemployment around here. I guess they had nothing better to do. I kept following those ugly red eyes – the ones on the walls, not the ones on the orcs – and eventually I found what I’d been dreading. On a manhole cover, right in the middle of the street, was a big red eye, just like all the others. It was obvious where I was supposed to go. I hung around for a minute, trying and failing to look inconspicuous, and when no one seemed to be around to see, I crouched down and levered up the cover. I couldn’t be sure no one was watching; the street was pretty much empty, and it was all residential, but there were a lot of windows. The weird thing I’d noticed though was that all the upper floors of every building looked shabby and dark – like they were abandoned. Orcs preferred it underground, but you make compromises when you come to live in the city. Dryads prefer to live in trees, but there’s only so much parkland around, so they make do. Likewise, I knew there were thousands of orcs crowded into Treetops, but damned if I could see much sign of them.
Beneath the manhole cover was exactly what I’d expected: a long tunnel going straight down with iron staples cemented into the wall to provide a ladder. This is where the orcs found what employment they could, digging for their hated dwarf masters. Dwarven subterranean engineering was what made life in New Atlas bearable, or perhaps even possible. Their sewers prevented the streets from being awash with filth (except wherever goblins congregated, but there was no help for that), the district heating stopped us freezing over every winter, and when this grand project of theirs to replace the elevated railroads with their underground trains was done, I didn’t know what it would mean for us. But, miraculous as it all was, I didn’t like the idea of heading down into the tunnels alone. What choice did I have though? I didn’t know where I might find Orca Khan. My instincts said he would probably be holed up in a club someplace, and maybe this was just the easiest way to reach it. Orcs built a lot of things in basements.
I lowered myself into the tunnel and, bracing myself against the staples in the wall, I replaced the manhole cover over my head. I hung there in pitch darkness for a moment before I was able to fumble out the dwarf torch and activate it. Immediately, the tunnel was filled with bright white light. It was like a sunny day down there. I shone the lantern straight down and I was relieved to see there was only a short climb to the bottom. Holding the torch between my teeth – it wasn’t hot, somehow – I clambered slowly down the ladder. Even without my game leg, I wasn’t exactly built for climbing in confined spaces. My shoulders near enough brushed the walls, and I couldn’t imagine how an orc would manage it either. I got to the bottom and shone my torch down the tunnel ahead. There was an arch that led through to a narrow walkway alongside a slow-moving waterway. I wrinkled my nose in anticipation, but there was no foul odour at all. Flicking my light along the surface, I saw it was clean water – so this wasn’t a sewer, just an access tunnel, or maybe part of the steam system. There was no light except my own of course, and I could see other corridors leading off this central tunnel, other ladders leading up and down. It was a maze down here. I swapped the torch to my other hand and took out my gun, cocking it in readiness. I didn’t want to have to shoot anybody today, but if it came to it, I wanted to be shot myself even less. The wall ahead bore another red eye symbol, and I scanned ahead with the torch and saw another just a little way further down. The trail wasn’t hard to follow. I moved slowly, carefully, flicking my white beam of light around and about, watching for any attack from an unexpected direction. I passed by intersections and looked down every adjoining tunnel, but I never saw another soul. Eventually, I ran into a dead end and had to retrace my steps a little way back. I’d missed an eye that told me to go down using another ladder and, with a sigh, I holstered my revolver and put the torch in my mouth again. This one was longer than the first, and my hip was starting to ache with the unfamiliar movements by the time I reached the bottom. Now I certainly could smell something too, and I figured that this must be the sewer level. The tunnels were older, with brickwork from half a century ago and dwarf runes carved into every arch. Most were defaced with orc glyphs. I crept along another narrow ledge, and now there was a foul reek coming from the water that gurgled along beside me. I had my revolver out again and I realised my palms were sweating. Not a good sign. It was just hot down here, I told myself, but the truth was I was starting to regret coming here alone. But who would have come with me? I wondered if I’d get out alive, and whether that was the plan all along. Maybe the elves wanted me dead for some reason I couldn’t fathom. The old stories said they could see the future; what if I was supposed to be someone important someday? That ridiculous thought made me smile a little. If I had ever had a shot at being someone with a name worth knowing, it was long gone now.
The red eye glyphs led me down a narrow tunnel to the right, and then out into another wide sewer. I started to see strange things now: the detritus of everyday life on the floor, remains of food, scraps of newspaper, some scaffolding hung with thick canvas up against one wall, which I had to carefully pick my way around. It was a kind of shelter, and inside was a hammock and a table made from an upturned crate. So, some orcs at least were living down here. It was hard to imagine how they could bear it. I kept going, trying not to think of how hard it might be to find my way back, even with the glyphs to follow. I’d be underground less than an hour, but I already missed the sky something fierce. How long would my torch last anyway? I’d figured this would be a short trip, but maybe not. I came to another opening in the floor, and a ladder that looked old and rusty. The eye was right above it. How far down would I have to go? This descent was the longest of all, and the ladder was falling apart. I was in the oldest part of the underground network now, dug out of the bedrock below the city in ages past. There was an inescapable drip-drip of water from all directions at once, and the air was thick and foul. As I found my feet and reached for my gun again, I thought I heard the sound of voices behind me. I turned, but there was nothing there. I flicked the torch down and saw that there was an intersection of something like eight different tunnels, all going different ways. If there were orcs lurking down there, I’d have no idea which direction they’d come from. Trying to look everywhere at once, I edged my way down another narrow, slippery ledge. The water flowing past was thick with filth and it was all I could do not to puke my guts up. I silently thanked Crom when the next eye led me down a simple access tunnel with no hint of sewage running down it. I relaxed a little as I made my way down, but then I heard something that made me stop short. It sounded like a laugh. Low and sneering – orcish. Ahead was a t-junction. I raised my pistol, shining the torch along the barrel so I could pick out a target if it came to it. There was no eye at the end. I looked left. Nothing on the walls. Right. Nothing either. Except there, where the corridor turned, a hulking shadow that I swore moved. I heard another laugh. That made my mind up: I went left. I tried to move slowly, quietly, but I was the only source of light down here. I couldn’t exactly keep my presence under wraps. The tunnels divided and branched again, and there was no sign of any helpful glyphs now. There were plenty drawn on the walls of course, and I’d realised that, even if the rest of us had adapted to life in New Atlas, the orcs were stubbornly sticking to mountain ways. They were living down here. I wondered whether it was just gangs or if there were more of them hiding in the tunnels. I had a funny feeling I’d soon find out.
I was taking turns at random now, just trying to find some clue as to where I should go, but I was driven on by the sound of orc laughter that was just on the edge of hearing. I was sweating hard now, and my breath was pretty ragged in my chest. My leg felt like it was on fire as my body screamed at me to run, while my mind screamed back to just take it slow, look around, don’t get lost. I stumbled through an arch and I was back in a sewer pipe, the stink of the water hitting me like a wall. I choked back puke and flattened myself against the wall, trying to control my breathing. What had I been thinking coming down here? I knew exactly what I’d been thinking: I’d been thinking about a dead elf girl, sprawled out in a fancy courtyard, orc war glyphs written in her blood. I’d been thinking like a Northman, but I wasn’t carrying a broadsword, and this wasn’t a quest to destroy the Dark Prince. I was just a wounded soldier, carrying a gun with six bullets in its chamber, alone in the darkness. And it was just at that moment that my expensive dwarf torch sputtered and went dark.
I stumbled blindly down the tunnels. I’d spent a few unproductive minutes hammering the damn torch, trying to get it to spark back to life, before hurling it into the water in frustration. I’d been thinking my eyes might adjust, but there was no light down here at all. I trailed my hand against the damp wall, thinking that might help, but when the tunnel turned I stumbled forward helplessly and stepped right into the water. I slipped, fell forward, having just enough of my wits about me to keep my gun held up in the air, and went face down in the filthy water. Gagging, I reached out, put my hand in something soft and sticky and near enough jumped back onto the ledge. I couldn’t think of any way to find my way out, pitch black as it was, and having taken so many damn turns, so all I could do was keep going, and hope to find some way up and back to the surface world. The orc laughter wasn’t on the edge of hearing any more either: it was loud enough to make out clearly, and echoing off the curved walls, so I had no idea where it was coming from. I limped desperately onwards, trying to put my rattling thoughts back into some useful shape, but all I could think of was the blood pounding in my ears, the sweat making the handle of my revolver slide off my palms and the foul, cloying stink that made me feel like I was breathing coffin air. The laughter was everywhere now, cruel and mocking, and there was an undercurrent of something else. A rhythmic chant in the distance, coming from somewhere beneath my feet, felt as much as heard. There was a word there, repeated over and over. It sounded like their infernal drumming music, but there was definitely something intelligible to it. As intelligible as anything out of the mouth of an orc could be anyway.
I splashed through puddles of muck again, nearly tripped, caught myself on something – a staple in the wall, a bit of scaffolding, a bone? I had no idea. The pounding rhythm was getting louder, a counterpoint to my own thudding heart. I could hear the words now, a backbeat to the throaty laughter from all directions. They said, “Orca…Orca…Orca…” over and over. Hundreds, maybe thousands of voices, all chanting together. “Orca…Orca…Orca…”
I whirled around and saw, behind me, the way I thought I’d come, the dancing lights of dozens of orcish eyes, glowing in the darkness. They bobbed up and down, moving erratically. I pointed my gun at them. They could see in the dark: I couldn’t. I hoped just the sight of a weapon would be enough to spook them, but I didn’t much like my odds. And still, from all around, the chants echoed, “Orca…Orca…Orca…”
“Stay back,” I tried to say, but the words came out as a meaningless croak. Somehow, I felt something move towards me with furious speed and, with a yell, I unloaded three bullets into whatever it was. For a split second, the flash of gunfire lit up the tunnel and I could see dozens of the bastards down there, leering at me, and one coming towards me, the bullets not slowing down his berserk charge one damn bit. The heavy, meaty weight of an orc body collided with me in the renewed blackness and we both went down. I could taste the metallic tang of blood, his or mine, but the important thing I noticed was that I was moving and he wasn’t. Even an orc will go down if he takes three doses of hot lead to the chest. I heaved him off and he splashed into the water beside me to sink, I hoped to Crom, like a stone. I tried to get up, tried to aim my shaking gun again, pick out a target in the dark when all I could see were floating red pinpricks of hate, but it was no good. They were on me, pounding me with fists like sledgehammers, and all chanting the same thing over and over again. I closed my eyes and surrendered to the darkness, and all I could hear was, “Orca…Orca…Orca…”
I didn’t know where the hell I was. I was being carried, slipping in and out of consciousness. They’d taken my gun, my coat, even my damn fedora and I just have weird, disconnected memories of what I saw. We went through an archway, and then I was somehow high in the air, on the edge of a ledge looking down on something I didn’t fully understand. Then we were going down these stairs, hammered together from rotting wood and sheet metal, held together by rusty scaffolding. There was light. Dim, murky light, coming from grimy bulbs strung in rows above my head. There were glyphs everywhere and orcs. Hundreds, thousands of orcs, just walking around, doing their orcish business, staring at me with their red, slanted eyes. Big orc men wearing dirty overalls and carrying tools, orc women, broad and muscular to my eyes, pinkish whelps running around between our legs and the youngsters, the gang members, with topknots and war paint, openly carrying weapons and, on every one of their cruel, snarling lips, the same word. “Orca…Orca…”
“Where are we?” I tried to ask, but a sharp open-handed blow from one of my captors sent my head lolling to one side and it all went dark again. The next thing I remember is being in front of a big building, seemingly bolted together from junk and trash, lit by the same dim yellow light. There was a gang member on guard outside and he admitted us with a grunt. After that, there was nothing until the moment I woke up with a strangled cry. My eyes were wide open and I’d never felt more awake. I was still in a nightmare though. My hands were tied together with rough rope, and I was on a floor of dirty, unmatched floorboards. I looked up. I was in a room, or something a lot like a room, except it was cobbled together from bits of junk. There was a window, barred after a fashion with strips of beaten metal and I tried to stand up so I could look out of it, but found my ankles were tied together too. I slumped into the corner, trying to figure out where I was and what had happened. My room was totally empty, except for a battered old bucket in the corner. The flies already congregating around it made its intended use pretty clear and I made a face. It hardly mattered – I already reeked of sewage and, looking down at myself, I saw I was a complete mess. Blood matted my clothes, and I didn’t know whose it was, but the ache in my shoulders, my back and most of all my bad hip, told me the odds were good some it was mine.
The only door to my cell opened just then and a burly orc sauntered in. I sized him up. He was a little shorter than me, but broader and heavier: a real bruiser. Like all their kind, his shoulders were slumped and his head hung low over his chest, making him look brutish and dumb, which he probably was. He grinned at me, showing me his yellowed fangs. “Up,” he barked.
“You’re gonna have to take these off then,” I said, holding out my bound hands.
He grunted something that I suppose was some sort of curse, then untied the ropes. I thought about taking a swing at him, trying to fight my way out of wherever here was, but even with a couple blows to the head, I wasn’t that stupid. I’d seen how many orcs were around. I’d get about ten feet before one of them dragged me down and beat me to death. “You mind telling me where we are, buddy?” I asked him as I stood up.
“Orca,” he said without looking at me.
He backhanded me across the jaw, sending me back down to the floor again. “No more question!” he bellowed and I took the hint this time.
I followed my new friend out of the empty room and into a winding, uneven corridor. Like the cell, the walls, floor and ceiling were all made from junk, bolted, tied or nailed together haphazardly. The whole building seemed to be built the same way. We walked past a window – more like a jagged opening in the wall, really – and I got a good look outside. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. We were underground, for sure: in the shadowy distance, I could make out the shape of dwarf masonry, climbing up to a vaulted ceiling, but the huge chamber was filled with an orc shanty town, built out of wood, metal, whatever was to hand, and standing on ledges, bare rock, or rickety platforms. The scale of it damn near terrified me. Hundreds of buildings were heaped up randomly, and the tiny figures of orcs swarmed over and around the whole thing. “You’ve got a whole city down here…” I said, shaking my head helplessly.
“Orc city,” my guard confirmed, “Orca.”
“You shut up,” he said, showing me the back of his hand, “come this way.”
I did as I was told, ’cause my head was still ringing from his last little reminder, and we made our way down more passages, up a ladder or two, and then onto a platform. We were at the top, I realised, the summit of a huge, jumbled mountain of orcish architecture that stretched for miles in every direction. There were lights here again and, now I got a good look at them, I saw they were ordinary bulbs, smeared with something to make them dimmer, and suspended on wires that trailed back into the darkness. They were using the city’s power grid then. The low lightning must suit them and I realised what a fool I’d been to think I’d have to come down here at night to find them awake. They could work whenever they wanted, down here beneath New Atlas. Two more big orcs were standing at a door and they exchanged a few words with the one who’d brought me here. They spoke in their own language, all grunts and snarls, but I had a good idea of who I was about to see: the door in front of me was daubed with a big red eye.
I was shoved inside, alone. The room wasn’t as big as I thought it would be: it was really just a bedroom. There was an old four poster bed, obviously stolen from someplace, pushed up against the far wall. A huge orc was sprawled there, two orc women on either side of him. I try to be an open-minded guy, but I can’t help finding their females repulsive. There’s something about the way they look enough like human or elf woman that you can recognise them for what they are, but still have the thick, animalistic features of an orc that just turns my stomach. The big male said something to them in a low voice and they both disentangled themselves and sauntered out of the room through a side door, giving me glowering looks as they passed. Both of them were naked, and I looked away sharply, knowing I’d never be able to scrub that memory out of my mind. When they were gone, I could give my host my full attention. He was the biggest orc I’d ever seen, with a chest like a barrel and arms corded with thick muscle and sinew. He was marked, not with paint, but with brands in his gnarly green-grey skin. I knew the symbols for what they were: war glyphs. His red eyes watched me from beneath a heavy brow, but I saw something shrewd and calculating in him. This guy wasn’t like the others.
“You look like shit,” he said to me.
“Funny,” I smiled, “I was thinkin’ the same thing about your town.”
That made him howl with laughter and he swung himself out of his bed. He too was naked, and I averted my eyes as he pulled on a pair of pants and swung a jacket around his huge shoulders. “You’re Ragnar Ulrichson, is that right?” he asked.
“Yeah. I didn’t know my reputation preceded me.”
“I hear things,” the orc said. There was a desk in the room too, another reclaimed piece of furniture from the surface. From the robust construction and the carvings on it, I figured it was dwarf-made. On the top were some things I recognised: my wallet, my gun and my notebook. He jabbed a talon against that last one. “Why do you have my glyph written in this book?”
I nodded. I already knew who he was, but it was good to have it confirmed. “You’re the one they call Orca Khan then?”
“You didn’t answer my question, Ulrichson.”
“I was looking to ask you a few questions. The glyph was all I had to go on.”
He narrowed his eyes at me. “What questions?”
I tried to figure out how to play this one. In my head, this meeting would have taken place in the back room of an orc club, I’d have still had my gun, he’d have been some jumped up mob boss and I’d have left knowing whether he was my man or not. Instead, I’d ended up a prisoner in the court of a king, bloodied and battered, no idea how to find my way out. I fully expected to end my life in this strange, underground city. I decided to focus on something beside the case for now. “Well first,” I said, “I wanna know just what the heck is going on down here.”
“Why don’t you tell me what it looks like to you, Ulrichson.”
I looked around. “Well, it looks to me, like you got half the orcs in New Atlas down here, and you’ve built yourselves a little town. Do the authorities know about any of this?”
Orca Khan chuckled. “Down here, I am the authorities.”
“I don’t reckon the cops would agree with that particular view…”
Khan pulled out a chair from behind the desk and sat down. He didn’t say I could sit in any of the room’s other chairs, so I didn’t. “You didn’t come here to explore, Northman,” Khan said, “you’re not a dungeoneer, searching for treasure. You’re a private detective. And people like you don’t come looking for people like me unless someone’s paid them to do it.” He picked up my gun and pointed it right at me. “You killed one of my people,” he said.
“He tried to kill me first.”
“You came sneaking into our home with a dwarf torch.”
“I didn’t know anyone lived in the sewers. I thought even orcs had more self respect than that.”
Khan grinned, showing me long rows of sharp, pearly-white fangs. The gun was still pointed at me. I didn’t trust myself to get out of the way in time if he pulled the trigger, not as beaten down as I was. “I’ll overlook the trespass, Ulrichson,” he said, “in exchange for the truth. Why are you here?”
I looked at him. Really looked at him. He was dangerous. A scarred, battered fighter. But he was also smart; he’d spent a long time on the streets. No one knew how numerous the orc gangs really were and if, as I suspected, the name he went by was more a title than anything else, he might have been a big player for a long time before all of this. But, for all the streetwise bravado he was projecting, I saw something of the politician in him as well. If he was the man I was looking for, I felt sure he’d be more in control than this. He knew who I was, and I was willing to bet he knew some about my past too, but he genuinely had no idea why I’d come here. Time to lay my cards on the table. I’d given up hope of getting out of here alive, so all I had was the most desperate gamble of the broken down gumshoe in a scrape: the truth. “Do you know anything about Nienna Amandil?”
He stared at me blankly. “That bastard Findaráto’s daughter?” he asked after realisation dawned.
“The very same.”
“No. Should I?”
“What does that have to do with me?”
I pointed at my notebook on the desk. “The glyphs in that book were copied from the crime scene. They were written in her blood.”
Khan frowned at me and, still keeping the gun trained on my heart, he flicked open the book and glanced down. “My glyph, and the war glyph. In elf blood, you say?”
He cocked the revolver. “You’re lying, Northman.”
I put up my hands. “I swear to you, Khan. She was ripped open by an orc axe, and those glyphs were all around her.”
“How would I kill an elf princess? She’d be surrounded by guards.”
“Not in her own home.” I’d been hoping that might catch him out: that he’d let slip some detail I hadn’t mentioned, but damn it if this guy wasn’t clean. I knew he was telling the truth. “Something’s going on here,” I said to Khan, “something big.”
“It’s no concern of ours. Elf business is elf business.”
“It’s your concern if someone’s trying to frame you, Khan. You got any enemies?”
“I have nothing but enemies, Ulrichson,” he growled.
“Any that could break into the Amandil Building and brutally murder an elven noblewoman?”
“Any who’d be capable of something that stupid are already dead.” He put down the gun and sat back in his chair. It creaked beneath his weight. “I believe you, Ulrichson,” he said, “I believe you were dumb enough to come down here, hoping to ask me the right questions and figure out whether I was your man. I think you were hoping it was a simple matter of orc brutality, something you know a lot about.”
I tensed up. “I know the streets,” I said carefully, “I know what your boys can do.”
He pointed at me with a long, blackened claw. “You got a bullet in your hip that attests to that, yeah.”
I wondered how much he knew. I had to admit, the thought had crossed my mind that this guy might be the very same orc who I’d met in that alley five years ago. The same orc who’d killed the woman I was planning to make my wife. But no. They might all look the same to me, but this one was too young, too big, and way too smart. Still, he knew something. “Lot of men got old war wounds,” I said carefully.
“Sure they do. One thing you might wanna consider, Ulrichson: why would a wealthy elf family recruit a no-name private dick with a known grudge against orcs to investigate the death of one of their daughters? What could they be trying to do? Not bring me to justice. Just get you killed, seems to me. Maybe you’re the one being framed.”
I swallowed. “They’d never even heard of me before last night,” I said.
Khan held out his hands. “Likewise.”
So we stood there, at an impasse. Khan kept staring at me, waiting for me to say something. I didn’t know what he wanted from me. Eventually, I shrugged and said, “What now?”
“Now, we part ways. Hopefully for good. I don’t get involved in elf business.”
“I believe you.”
“Then get out of my city.”
“Can I have my gun back? And a map, if you have one?”
“No one who isn’t an orc leaves Orca under their own power,” he smiled.
“What? I…” I hadn’t even heard the door open behind me, so the first I knew of the attack was the sharp blow to the back of my head. I went down and tried to defend myself from the two burly guards, but I was less than useless right then. As I fell unconscious for what felt like the hundredth time that day, I heard Khan say, “You can have your gun back though.”
Crom knows how I survived. I don’t know where they dumped me, whether they just knew which way the currents of the sewer system would take me, but my next memory was being hauled out of the North River by a police boat and flopping onto the deck like a gutted fish, coughing up half my insides. I think they thought I was dead. They were half right. “You okay, bub?” someone asked me. I shook my head and blacked out once more for good measure.
When I came to, I was in another cell. Someone had dressed me in striped pajamas, and not the kind you put on voluntarily: we’re talking county jail issue. Not my first time, but I’d hoped it wouldn’t happen again. I was also hoping they were just the only clean clothes they had to hand. I swung myself slowly off the bunk and planted my feet on the bare concrete floor. My whole body felt like one big scar. I couldn’t see out of one eye and some careful probing showed that it was just swollen shut. My hair was matted with blood and seawater, and I had nothing to tie it back with now. I must have looked every inch the barbarian Northman, except for the outfit. A cop appeared on the other side of the bars and looked me up and down. “How you feelin’, rummy?” he asked.
“I ain’t drunk,” I told him.
“Not now you ain’t,” he smirked, “a dip in the river’ll sober anyone up.”
“C’mon, mac,” I pleaded, trying a new tactic, “I’m dried out. I learned my lesson. Can I go home now?”
“Not yet. The chief wants to see you.” He unlocked the door and slid the bars back to let me out. I stood stiffly and, limping pathetically, followed the cop out.
The office I was shown into was pretty nice. The ‘chief’ in this case meant the Commissioner. He was a tall, lean human with grey hair and weather-beaten skin. I knew him by reputation: McKinley, a Cimmerian, like a lot of the New Atlas PD, a tough, no-nonsense guy. In other circumstances, I thought we might have gotten along pretty well. But not today. For the second time that day, someone had all my stuff set out on their desk. The notebook was a little worse for wear from its time in the water. “You’re Ragnar Ulrichson,” McKinley said.
“Seems everyone knows who I am today.”
“Oh yeah, I know who you are.” He jabbed a finger against a file on his desk. “Got a record. Nothing major, just some youthful hijinks. Spent a little time in county. Then you straightened out. Got yourself a girl…”
“Why am I here, sir?” I interrupted. “Last I heard, swimming in the North River wasn’t a crime.”
McKinley smiled coldly and moved his hand to the revolver. “A pretty expensive gun. Heavy piece of kit for a private dick.”
“I’m a Northman.”
He flicked out the chamber. “Three bullets. Been doing some shooting lately?”
“Pigeons. On the roof of my building. I like to keep my aim sharp.”
“I bet. And this.” To the notebook now. “Orc glyphs?”
That was a bit more difficult. “Just something for a case.”
He snorted a laugh. “A case…goddamn PIs…” He leant towards me. “You’re nothing but mercenaries. But I don’t know who’d have the money to pay someone to dive into the North River, beaten half to death and covered in blood.”
“I got expenses,” I said.
“Yeah, I bet.” He leant back. “In two seconds, someone’s gonna come through that door and tell me what I need to know to decide whether I reluctantly let you leave here today, or formally charge you with every crime on the books.”
“All the big ones.”
The door opened, and a short figure walked in. She was about two-thirds my height, with narrow, delicate features and a slightly-upturned, button nose. She had broad, pointed ears and looked to me like something halfway between a dwarf and an elf. She had brown eyes, rosy red cheeks and strawberry blonde hair. It made me feel weird, because she obviously wasn’t human, but I felt something stir and I shifted in my seat uncomfortably. She noticed me staring and blushed slightly before handing over a report to McKinley. “Thank you, officer Redcap,” he murmured. That explained it then: she was a gnome, one of the dozens of Redcaps who lived in the suburbs of Jonastown, most likely. Not a people I’d paid much attention to before, but now one apparently held my life in her clever little hands. McKinley perused the report. “As I thought.” He slapped the folder shut.
“Sir?” I asked.
“Your coat, pal,” he snarled, “covered in orc blood. We fish you out of the river, looking like you’ve been on the losing side of a fight, three bullets in a six-round revolver and,” he tapped my record, “five years ago, your sweetheart was shot dead by an orc gangster. Now, what would you do in my position?”
I didn’t have much of an answer to that.
“Sir,” little officer Redcap said, “most of the blood was his own.”
“I bet it was. Just look at him.”
“And we’ve got no reports of any orcs killed recently.”
McKinley eyeballed her. “You’re dismissed, Redcap,” he said.
“Sir,” she squeaked and left abruptly, giving me only the briefest glance as she passed by.
“She’s a clever girl,” McKinley said, “but not a real cop.”
“Works in the lab. Damn but those gnomes are smart. I don’t know how they find out what they find out, but they’ve changed the way we fight crime in this city.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“Damn right you are,” he said, pointing at me, “because if I investigated every possible murder of an orc in New Atlas, I’d never get anything else done. Thank Lugh they mostly kill their own. That’s none of our business the way I see it. But look, according to this report, the blood found on you belonged to a mature orc male. And since you seem to have gotten the worst of it, I don’t see how I can make this look like anything but self defence without a bit more evidence.”
I relaxed. “So you’re letting me go?”
“In a manner of speaking. But I’m watching you, Ulrichson.” He pointed to one of his clear blue eyes. “Stay out of trouble, understand? You got a bad reputation in this city. You don’t want it to get worse.” He emptied the chamber of my gun and slid it back across the desk to me, along with my notebook. “Get your stuff and get the hell out of my sight, Northman.”
I didn’t need to be told twice. I got back into my bloodstained, damp clothes and limped towards the exit, when I realised I didn’t have my coat. I remembered what McKinley had said back in his office, and I asked after Redcap and her lab.
Naturally, they didn’t just direct me to it, and I was made to wait. After a couple of minutes, the pretty gnome girl came out, holding a brown paper bag that I assumed contained my coat. “You might wanna get this dry-cleaned,” she told me.
“Thanks. And thanks for getting me off the hook.”
She looked me up and down. “I got a funny feeling you ain’t off the hook yet, buddy.”
I smiled at her and turned to leave, but then something occurred to me. “Hey,” I said, “you studied that blood in your lab, right?”
She nodded. “Uh huh.”
“And you could tell what species it belonged to, how old they were and what their sex was?”
“You can tell a lot from someone’s blood,” she said.
“You got that right. Thanks, officer Redcap. That’s useful information.”
“Poppy Redcap,” she explained. “That’s my name.”
“Right.” I grinned stupidly at her. “Thanks, Poppy.”
I left the police station, flagged down a cab and only realised I didn’t get my wallet back from Khan when we got to my apartment. Luckily the driver was understanding and let me off with an IOU, saying he’d be calling ’round soon to collect on the debt. I waved him off and half fell up the stairs on the way up. It was all I could do to remember to lock my door before I collapsed, still in my disgusting clothes, onto my bed and fell unconscious again. This time at least I did it willingly.