Ragnar Ulrichson thinks he’s hit rock bottom: back on the bottle and taking a job from a racist lowlife just to make ends meet, but life in New Atlas is about to take a turn for the worse. A simple missing person case turns into a battle for survival, freedom, and the future of an entire city. And at the centre of it all is a man with nothing more than an unerring sense of right and wrong and a will that can’t be broken. But will that be enough to stop the darkness rising in New Atlas?
I cracked my eyes open and tried to focus on what was in front of me, but no dice. My head pounded something fierce and my mouth tasted like something had died in it. Not a good start to the day, but I was getting used to it. It takes time for the body to adapt to a thing. After a few months off the sauce, I’d felt like a kid just stealing his dad’s beer for the first time again. Or maybe my body was just trying to tell me something. I rolled up out of bed and planted my feet on the floor. The whisky bottle on the cabinet next to me still had a mouthful in it, and I took a swig, just to stop the shaking that seemed to get worse every morning. I knew I was a mess, but I wouldn’t have thanked you for telling me so, not right then. I started every day in a damn foul mood these days. I kept telling myself I was only drinking to keep my head straight, just enough to top me up, kill the headache and keep going. I told myself it was no big deal. I wasn’t the only guy who woke himself up with a slug of rotgut every morning in New Atlas, was I? It wasn’t like I couldn’t handle it. Plus I was a big guy, and from the North. It’s not like I got rowdy on drink or nothing. It was just a bit of medicine. It was just to keep me going.
My cheap curtains let through a lot of light, but it was a dull, grey day outside. The heat was already under my skin. It was spring, but it didn’t feel that way. The steam rising out of the vents in the street met the warm rain drizzling down, and it all mixed with the smog and the filth of the city. It was like walking through grey soup. I cleaned myself up, found a shirt that wasn’t as stained as the others and threw on my old, dirty coat. I called myself a private investigator, but I didn’t know anyone who’d be desperate enough to hire a bum like me, not looking the way I looked right then. I ain’t a morning person though, that’s all it is. Once I got to the office, had some breakfast in me, another drink or two, I’d feel like a million bucks. Well, maybe not that good.
I shouldered my way through the streets. I didn’t know the time since I’d busted every clock in my apartment at various times for various reasons – all of ’em pretty sound at the time – but I figured by the light it was mid-morning. You’d never know it from all the people cluttering up the streets though. Traffic was as sluggish as ever and there were people hurrying everywhere, shouting, calling, getting in my godsdamned way. I was big enough to push past though: I was a Northman, near enough six-five, plus people knew me. In these neighbourhoods, time was I was almost famous. That had died down a little now, but I still got the odd funny look, like I was a person they oughta know. Well, that was just fine and dandy with me. I didn’t want no attention. I just wanted to keep my head down, live my life. I grabbed a bagel from the dwarf delicatessen on the corner then crossed the road to a newsstand. The kid in the booth looked at me like I was some wino, but I had a nickel for him that shut him up, and he passed me a copy of the Times. “You see that goober?” he asked me as I looked at the front page.
“Huh?” My mouth was half full of bagel. I had a good buddy who’d introduced me to the dwarf bread, and I’d developed a real taste for them.
“The new Mayor. Boy, who’d be Mayor a’ this city, huh?”
I looked up at the buildings, grey and streaked with filth. Trash in the gutters, hobos in doorways of every store, gangs of kids – humans, orcs, even a couple gnomes and the city’s newest additions, the scaly kobolds – loitering on every corner it seemed like. There was a picture of the Mayor with the article. He was a Northman like me as it happened, but he didn’t look a whole lot like the kids who’d grown up in my neighbourhood. He was tall, blonde, with a big smile. The newspaper seller waved his hand angrily. “What’s he got to smile about, huh? My grandma got mugged last week. Can you believe that, mac? A seventy-year-old woman, out buyin’ her groceries, mugged in broad daylight by some damn orc hoodlums, an’ no one does a damn thing about it. We tell the cops, but she ain’t gonna give no description. How’d you tell a bunch of lowlife orcs apart, huh? But there he is, just smilin’ like he won some kinda award.”
“I guess the salary’s probably got somethin’ to do with it,” I shrugged.
I didn’t give a damn who the Mayor was. Politics never interested me. Not real politics, I mean. I grew up on the street, and the street had been a home to me ever since. I’d seen wave after wave of newcomers take over New Atlas. Dwarves, orcs, gnomes and now these kobolds. Lot of bad feeling towards them too, after what happened with the dragon. I didn’t like to think about that too much. Hard memories. I headed down the street and walked the few blocks to Eldritch Street where my office was. The light in the stairwell was flickering, but I didn’t have the heart to call the landlord about it again. I opened the door to find my secretary, Willow, closing the door to my office. “Everythin’ okay?” I asked her.
“You got a customer.”
“Client,” I corrected her.
“Yeah, okay.” She was a dryad. Tall, pretty, with hair that seemed to get everywhere. I liked her, even if she could never seem to remember a damn thing. Not a great quality in a secretary but apart from that she was real smart. I’d helped her family out a while back and now I don’t think I’d be able to get by without her.
“I better go introduce myself.”
She gave me a look. Like most dryads, her eyes were real green and deep. “You oughta have somethin’ to drink first,” she said.
“That ain’t your usual advice…”
“No I mean coffee.” There was a little hob in a cubby off her office and she had a pot of coffee there. She poured me a mug and passed it to me. “It’s my mom’s own blend.”
I stopped with the mug halfway to my mouth. “Your mom’s…?”
“‘Cause y’know she works in that coffee house on 24th Street?”
“Oh right, yeah. Sorry.” You could never be too careful with dryads. Hard to know where the plant ends and the person begins, you know?
I went into my office. It was good coffee, but it didn’t sit right on the booze in my gut. The guy sitting in the other chair was a human. By his colouring he looked like a Stonelander, with black hair and grey eyes, but I figured he had a little bit of everything in him. He was New Atlas down to the marrow. He wore a dirty fedora that he took off when I came in and he had a long, pointed nose and a thin little moustache. He looked like a rat, and I didn’t exactly take much of a shine to him, let’s put it like that. He made a big show of standing up and shaking my hand. “Castamir. Frank Castamir.” I left the door a little ajar – sometimes, in my line of work, you got an instinct for when you might want a witness to hand – and took a seat behind the desk. “Okay, mac,” I said as I leant back, “lay it on me.”
He smiled. His teeth were yellow. “You’re Ragnar Ulrichson, right?”
“That’s the name on the door, bub.”
He pointed at me and nodded. His fingers were thin and long. “You ain’t so big as you look in the papers.”
“I ain’t been in no papers for a while now.”
“No, I guess you ain’t.” He reached inside his jacket and took out a pack of smokes. “You mind?”
“Sorry, pal, you can’t do that in here.”
“Your landlord some kinda hardass?”
“Nah, it’s Willow.” I pointed. “My secretary. She don’t react so well to the smoke.”
“Ah, I get it.” He tapped the end of his long nose and put his cigarettes back. “Gotta play the game. I know what that’s like. In fact, that’s kinda why I’m here.”
I didn’t much like the way this conversation was going, but I decided I oughta hear him out. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” He leant closer, and I wanted to lean back away from him, but I supposed I didn’t have much right to be getting all squeamish about shabby, smelly guys, since I wasn’t exactly no high-roller myself at that moment. “They say you’re an expert in dealin’ with…y’know…” he waved his hand.
Castamir shot a sly glance out the door, where Willow was sitting there, going through some letters. She was listening in, of course. Smart girl. “Non-humans,” he whispered, like it was a dirty word.
“I help anyone as needs my help,” I told him.
“Sure, sure. But you got experience with their sort, that’s all I’m sayin’.”
I had a good mind to throw him out on his ass but, despite the way he looked, the way he carried himself, I could see his threads were pretty expensive. Frank Castamir had money; he just stained everything he touched. I wasn’t in no position to turn down a paying gig either, so I just nodded. “Yeah. I’m pretty connected.”
“Right. Well, I run a club downtown. Real nice place. Surprised you ain’t heard of it – my name’s above the entrance. No? Well, it’s kinda exclusive I guess. No riffraff, if you catch my drift. Not that you’re riffraff of course!” He chuckled slyly and held up his hands defensively.
I caught his drift all right. I knew the sign that’d be on his precious entrance, a sign I saw more and more around New Atlas that I didn’t like one little bit. ‘No Non-Humans’. Everywhere you went, doors were being closed to decent folks, just ’cause they weren’t born the right species. It made me sick to my damn stomach, but what could I do? New Atlas had been threatening to explode into outright war for decades now and, Hel, maybe keeping people apart was the answer. A lot of people had told me before now that jamming all these different kinds of folks up in one place like this was bad news. “I think I know the kinda joint you mean,” I said, keeping my voice real level.
“Right, right. But you know how it is these days. We got a few of ’em workin’ for us. They’re hard workers, mostly, but I got suspicious ’bout a couple.”
“What kinda people are we talkin’ about here?”
“Gnomes, mostly. You know about them, right?” There was a nasty little gleam in his eye. How much did this guy know about me? Up until last Yuletide, me and a nice gnome girl from Jonastown had had something I thought could’ve been real special. But it didn’t work out. Losing her is what had driven me back to the bottle. But how could Castamir know that? It sure as heck never made the papers.
“I know about gnomes, yeah.”
“Well, here’s the thing. I got one or two work behind the bar. They ain’t bad when it comes to cocktails. You know how they are with mixin’ up stuff an’ so on.”
“You mean alchemy?”
He waved a hand. “Whatever. Anyway, the other week, I start to notice some money goin’ missin’ from the register. So I keep an eye out, talk to my regular staff…”
“Humans, you mean?”
“Yeah. An’ I know they’re good kids. Some of ’em, I know their folks from the neighbourhood. I pride myself in not hirin’ no one I ain’t able to vouch for personally. I got a code, understand?”
“I understand.” And I did. I understood his code all too well. “So you think one of your gnomes is stealin’ from you, is that it?”
“You know what they’re like, Ulrichson.” He showed his yellowed teeth again. It was technically a smile, I guess. “Clever little fingers, busy little minds. You can’t trust ’em. Who knows what goes on in their heads?” He tapped a finger against his temple. “They ain’t think like us.”
“I guess not.” I had no mind whatsoever to take this guy’s job, but he took out a roll of bills from his pocket, and damned if my morals didn’t suddenly seem a whole lot less important than before.
“All I need you to do, is hang out at my club for a couple nights, keep an eye on the place, get the lay of the land, y’know? Talk to the gnomes. They’ll trust you. See if you can finger my culprit. Y’know, I ain’t wanna get the cops involved. I just need a name, an’ I’ll tell him we ain’t wanna retain his services no more. Simple.”
I knew it wouldn’t be so simple though. A club downtown’d have enough bouncers to deal with any trouble that might happen to spring up, and anyone caught stealing from the boss would have to answer to ’em too. If I gave him a name, I’d be puttin’ some gnome kid in hospital. “Why don’t you just fire ’em all?” I asked.
“‘Cause you know how they are. I get a bad name with non-humans, they’d never work for me again. An’ they might all be thievin’ little bastards, but they sure are cheap!” He stood up and laughed like we’d shared some big joke. I gave him a fixed smile.
“I got expenses,” my standard answer.
He tucked the roll of bills back in his pocket. So it was all for show. Figured. “Whatever you need, pal. Just come to the club tonight. Heck, I’m payin’ you to have a good time! That’s gotta be the best offer you’ve had this month!”
“I’ll think about it,” I told him. He winked at me and put his hat back on. After he left, I stood up and poked my head out the door. Willow game me a flat look. “Do I even got to ask?”
“You shouldn’t do it.”
“I know. But he had a lotta scratch.”
“This whole city stinks.”
She shook her head. “Not like that. Not yet. I wouldn’t go to his club even if they would let me through the dang door.”
“It’s money, Willow. I ain’t exactly in a position to turn it down. I gotta pay you, don’t I?”
“If you want me to keep workin’ here.”
“All right then. So I’ll go to Castamir’s tonight. How bad could it be?”
“If you’re gonna do that,” she told me, giving me a look up and down, “you’re gonna have to hope his expenses’ll stretch to a new suit. You can’t go like that.”
“Lookin’ like a bum.”
“I don’t…” But she was right. As dirty as it made me feel to take money of a lowlife creep like Castamir, I needed his dough, and to get it I had to clean myself up a little. Then maybe I could get things back on the right track, figure some things out. This could be a chance for a new start.
It was a weeknight, but Castamir’s was still pretty busy. The doorman – a human who looked like he had more than a little orc in him – let me right in. I’d been to a tailor that day, managed to get something off the rack that fit me, which didn’t happen too often, and I figured I looked pretty sharp. I’d been expecting a place about as shabby and nasty as its owner, but actually he hadn’t been kidding when he said it was exclusive. The main room was filled with round tables with lamps on them. There was a raised walkway around the outside, with a bar over on the left, and a stage up front. A jazz band was just finishing up. There were humans, couples mostly, at the tables. Well dressed, but not from uptown. Connected people, by the street’s standards, the better class of criminal and lowlife, you might say. This wasn’t a place you brought your sweetheart, but you could get a good drink, listen to some good music, feel like you were somebody. Cocktail waitresses – all human too – moved between the tables. I walked to the bar, keeping a token eye out for any gnome staff. My plan, such as it was, was to get to know them a little, see whether I could find one who wanted out anyway, give him some warning. No one had to get hurt. The only bartender I could see was human though, and I waved him over.
“Hey,” I said when he raised his eyebrows at me, “name’s Ulrichson.” It did the trick. Expenses, Castamir had said, which meant when I ordered whisky on the rocks, it didn’t come with no bill. I leant back on the bar and kept my eyes open. At least the waitresses were pretty. Another guy came up to the bar and ordered a martini. He was an older guy, with a face that looked like he’d seen bad times, but he looked pretty flush now. I figured he was a gambler on a winning streak. He took a seat next to me.
“Ain’t seen you in here before,” he said.
“A friend recommended it. Seems nice.”
“Oh yeah, it’s real nice. A lotta places you go now, people like you an’ me ain’t welcome. We’re like second class citizens.”
“But here. Well, it’s like the old days.”
“I guess so.”
The band finally got off the stage, and a guy came out and sat at the piano. He played a couple chords, got the crowd warmed up, and then the stage lights went down a little. “Plus,” my new buddy said, “they got Lily.”
“Who’s Lily?” Dumb question. The lights went up, just a little, and I saw her standing there on the stage, like something outta some strange, dark dream. I’d never seen a girl like her before. Her skin was as dark as ebony, and a mane of black hair spilled all across her shoulders and down her back. She had lips as red as blood, and a dress to match. And I’d never seen a dame wear a dress the way she was wearing that one. Then she started to sing, and my mouth fell open.
“Yep,” the other fella said, “that’s Lily.”
No one in that club made a sound as we watched her move slowly around the stage, swinging her hips, running her fingers across the microphone. Not a man sitting there, even if he was with a woman, wasn’t thinking about her lips, her eyes, her dark brown skin. I couldn’t take my gaze off of her. She sang some songs I knew, some songs I’d never heard before, but she made all of ’em sound like they were just for me. She went out into the crowd, sashaying between the tables, giving the men a good look at what she had to offer but somehow, it didn’t feel dirty. She just had a certain way.
My friend leaned over and, in a whisper, he said, “She’s from the Summer Islands, they say. New in town.”
“I can believe it.” I didn’t know much about that part of the world, but Lily fitted what I did know. Exotic, sensual, otherworldly. As she turned, she caught my eye, and when she gave me a smile, I thought my heart was gonna stop in my chest. It was like she looked into my damn soul. She was a dame and a half all right. I was starting to think maybe this job wouldn’t be so bad after all. Lily’s set ended, and she left the stage to a round of applause. I joined in.
“She’s some girl, huh?”
I nodded. “Sure is. Sure is…”
I couldn’t get her outta my head, but I had work to do, so I got another whisky, swearing to myself it’d be my last that night, and found a table in a dark corner. All I had to do was watch, scout the place out. It was the easiest gig I’d ever had, I figured. Things got a little rowdier later on. Another band came on stage and played something more lively. The place filled up. All the clientele were humans, all the same kinda folks as far as I could tell. A few years ago they’d have been propping up some dingy watering hole down by the docks, but they’d landed on their feet with all the changes that had swept over the city, and now they were the ones calling the shots. It was weird how at home I felt with these types. I was supposed to be on the other side: I was meant to be fighting against scum like this, but they’d come up the same way I had. They’d been street kids too, most likely, they’d just made a few different choices. And was I really any better, helping out a creep like Castamir? What made me so different from them? What had I done to help the cause of law and order in New Atlas recently, anyway? Time was, people were calling me dragonslayer, thinking I was some kinda hero. They wanted to raise me up as something bigger than I was, put their faith in a broken down gumshoe for some damn reason, but I’d wanted no part of it. I found a third option and talked my way out of a situation that should’ve been a simple matter of him or me. ‘Him’ being a dragon that could’ve burned me to a crisp in less than a heartbeat if he’d wanted to. I hadn’t much liked those odds.
I was getting to the end of my whisky, lost in my thoughts, when a shadow fell across the table. I looked up, expecting to see the guy from the bar, or maybe Castamir, but it wasn’t either of them. The blood red lips drew up in a smile, and Lily put her hand on the chair next to me. “Anyone sittin’ here, mister?”
I stared at her. She was even more beautiful up close. She had a wrap on that covered her shoulders, but it was more the way she moved than the skin she showed that made her so magnetic. I nodded dumbly and she sat down at my table. A waitress came up, and she ordered a screwdriver and another of whatever I was drinking. I didn’t know what to say to her. She was totally outside of my experience. “I liked your act,” was the best I could come up with.
“Thanks. I saw you watchin’.” Her accent was a little different, but not like I expected from a Summer Islander, and I told her so. “Is that where you heard I’m from?” she asked me.
“That’s what they say,” I shrugged. Our drinks arrived. No money changed hands, but whether that was ’cause of me or Lily, I didn’t ask.
“‘They’ say a lotta stuff,” she smiled, “but it ain’t all true.”
“So where are you from?”
I raised my eyebrows. “No kidding.” I didn’t know much about Svartheim. It was a city across the mountains, on the Lakes, and a cold, windy place by all accounts. And dangerous. Real dangerous. “Why’d you come here?”
“They don’t appreciate my talents back home.”
“I find that a little hard to believe.”
She gave me a look. Her eyes were real dark, real deep. I felt my heartbeat quicken. “Everyone says New Atlas is the place to make it. The greatest city in the world. I guess I got tired of bein’ small time.”
“This is a big place, an’ there’s a whole lotta people here.”
“Lots of money.”
“Lots of crime.”
“I’m used to that.” She smiled again, and showed her teeth. They were real white. I noticed her hand was creeping towards mine.
Well, I’m a man, don’t get me wrong. I’d never seen no dame like this, and never had one reaching across a table for me neither, but I was no fool, and I smelled a rat. This was too good to be true. “What is this?” I asked her in a low voice.
“What’s what?” She looked confused and, just for a second, I almost bought it.
“C’mon, toots. You hustle all the new guys like this?”
She laughed, and her whole demeanour changed. She dropped the sultry act, leant back, grinned, and her eyes suddenly looked sharper, more alive. “I dunno if I’d call it ‘hustlin”, honey…”
“You just tryin’ to get a couple drinks outta me then? A girl like you? You could walk into any bar in town an’ not pay for a thing all night.”
“It ain’t the drinks I’m interested in. It’s the conversation.”
“Yeah. You know what guys say to a girl like me?”
“They say ‘I like your act’, an’ ‘that’s one heckuva dress, toots’. An’ when I talk, they ain’t really listen.”
“I guess not.” I could see why. A guy sitting with a dame like this would only be thinking about one thing. Hel, I was only thinking about one thing, but there was something inside me, some guilt about how things had worked out – or not worked out – with Poppy Redcap, my gnome girl once upon a time, that made me hold back that part of me. I could never have been with a girl like this. It just wasn’t me.
“You’re different,” she said.
“I ain’t all that different.”
“No,” she shook her head firmly, “you don’t fit here.”
“Funny, I was kinda thinkin’ I fit her just fine.”
“No. You’re wrong for this place. Maybe for the whole city.”
“You got it all wrong, Lily – I’m New Atlas born an’ bred. Spent my whole life here.”
“Then how come you ain’t tryin’ to look down my dress? How come you ain’t tryin’ no lines on me?”
“I was never that good at lines.”
“An’ the dress?”
“I ain’t like to insult a lady.”
She gave another throaty laugh. “So you think I’m a lady? You’re a real piece of work, mister. An’ I ain’t even know your name yet…”
I thought about whether I should tell her. I was supposed to be here to spy on the staff, not make friends with them, and maybe I oughta think up some kinda alias, but I wasn’t smart enough for that. Crom only knows how I ended up becoming a private dick. I was built like a brick outhouse, had a face like a dwarf’s anvil, couldn’t move silently if my life depended on it – which it did now and then, come to think of it – and everyone I met seemed to be able to read me like a damn book. But here I was. “Ragnar Ulrichson,” I told her.
“Nice name. I always liked Northmen. You fellas are real…uncomplicated…”
“There many of us in Svartheim?”
“We get around.” Some folks might’ve been offended to be called uncomplicated, but I didn’t take it as an insult, and I didn’t think she meant it as one neither. There were a lot of complicated people in this city, and I was glad to be different. Complicated people had got me in a lot of trouble these past months.
“You want another drink?” Lily asked me.
I swirled the last of my whisky around the bottom of my glass. The ice had melted and now it was mostly water in there. I did want another drink. My taste buds prickled at the thought of it. I wanted to drink myself into oblivion, and I wanted to pour my heart out to this dark goddess. I wanted someone to listen to me again. Poppy and me, we hadn’t taken things too far, but I felt like I could open up to her, just be myself. Not that the tough guy thing was any kinda act, but it made me tired to hide the limp in my walk from the five-year-old bullet wound in my hip, to have to keep my guard up around all the swindlers and conmen in this dirty city. I had to keep an eye on all those godsdamned complicated people, the folks who were trying to make life harder for everyone else to line their own pockets, scumbags like Castimir, and all I wanted to do was keep two eyes on a nice gal, sleep in a warm bad, wake up without a headache for once in my life. We were gonna go on vacation to the country, me and Poppy, just for a few days…
“Hm?” I looked up at Lily. She was beautiful. Not the same kinda beautiful that Poppy was. She was a different class of dame. Not better. Never better. Just different. “Oh. Y’know, I probably oughta split.”
She looked a little hurt. “You got places to be?”
“Yeah.” I was starting to think that maybe Castamir’s money wasn’t good enough for this. Nice as it was to drink for free in a joint that was a damn sight nicer than I could usually afford, and watch Lily sing and, Hel, talk to her like this, which was more than a scarred old barbarian like me could ever hope for, the job was a filthy one. Non-humans had it bad enough in New Atlas right now without me setting myself against them for a few bucks in expenses. There had to be better jobs. Decent jobs. “It was nice talkin’, Lily. You keep outta trouble.”
She grabbed my arm. “I ain’t been totally honest with you, Ragnar…”
Why wasn’t I surprised? “Don’t tell me – you ain’t from Svartheim at all?”
“Can we talk somewhere more private?”
I had two parts of me fighting their own little war inside my brain. One part, the part of me that was a red-blooded Northman, was saying, hey, here’s a beautiful dame in trouble, an’ you could be just the hero she’s lookin’ for. And the other part, the private dick, the battle-scarred native of the toughest city in the world, said, ain’t no dame like this wants to take you off anywhere private to do anythin’ but rob you blind. “What’d you mean, ‘private’?”
“The street? If you think that’s private, you definitely ain’t been in New Atlas long, sugar.”
“You think I’m as dumb as I look?”
“Please.” And, Crom help me, there was something in her eyes there. Some fear she couldn’t talk about, at least not here. “You gotta trust me.”
I’d never’ve done it if I didn’t think I could handle myself. I was big and strong and, although I was older than I liked to think I was sometimes, I could still move quick on my feet when I needed to, limp or no. I was damn handy with my fists and, most important of all, I had a heavy revolver on my hip with a full chamber of bullets. If she took me out into an alley and a bunch of goons jumped me, they’d find first of all that I had hardly any cash on me and second of all that I’d give as good as I got. No one in this city could fight dirty like Ragnar Ulrichson.
Lily led me ’round the edge of the room, towards the bar. A few eyes followed us but somehow Lily had a way of not attracting attention when she didn’t want to. It was like she could switch it on and off like one of those fancy dwarf torches – sometimes she was that woman who sang and swayed on stage, who you couldn’t take your eyes off even if you tried real hard, and sometimes she was something else entirely. A girl who just wanted some good conversation and maybe, just maybe, a hero. We slipped through the door by the bar and through a back room where the bar staff who were on a break sat around on a couple of fold-up chairs, playing cards. They didn’t pay us no attention at all. That got my heckles up right there: was I just another mark being led outside to get everything I deserved for being so gullible? I tried to subtly ease my gun outta my belt, just in case. Lily opened a cheap-looking back door and we stepped out into the night. The door slammed shut behind us. It only opened one way. Just as I thought, we were in an alley. Ever since a particularly rough night five years ago, I’d felt uneasy whenever I’d been in an alleyway. You try watching the love of your life bleeding to death while an orc thug goes through your wallet and not develop an aversion to a certain kinda place. And as hard as I’d worked to kill the bit of my brain that remembered that night using as much alcohol as I could get my hands on, the bullet in my hip would never let me forget.
“Okay, we got some privacy,” I said to Lily, “so tell me what you wanna tell me.” I moved carefully, trying to scout out the area without being too obvious. There were too many shadows, too many places to hide. A pile of trash against one wall, a few old bits of wooden fencing leaning on the other side. I couldn’t see where the alley opened into the street either. I didn’t know which way I might have to run if it came to it.
“I know what you’re thinkin’,” she said.
“Yeah. You think this is a trap.”
“It ain’t a trap, Ragnar.”
“Funny,” I said with a thin smile, “’cause that’s exactly what someone settin’ a trap would say.”
“You ain’t as good at hidin’ your intentions as you think. I know you got a gun in your belt.”
“Now why would an ordinary fella like me be carryin’ a piece, toots?” I knew the game was up though.
“You think I ain’t know who you are? Even if your name wasn’t in the damn book, every criminal in this city knows about the Northman with the broken nose an’ the limp. You’re Ragnar Ulrichson. You were supposed to be a hero.”
“Ain’t no heroes in this city.”
“You coulda had everythin’, the way I hear it. Why didn’t you kill that dragon?”
I let out a short laugh. “If you’d seen that dragon, you wouldn’t be askin’ me that question…”
“Even so. Why not give yourself up for somethin’ better than what you have now? Is bein’ a private detective such a good life?”
“What do you want me to be? Mayor, like that new guy?”
“He’s a Northman, ain’t he?”
“So what? One thing I learned these last few months is that you can’t judge folks by where they come from an’ what they look like on the outside. When you start doin’ that, you start to think of people as things, like playin’ pieces you can move around the board however you like. Here’s black ones an’ here’s white ones, an’ you just make ’em fight your war an’ it don’t matter what they think or how they feel about it, they’re just black an’ white an’ they hate each other ’cause you say so. Humans an’ orcs, dwarves an’ gnomes, kobolds an’ everyone else, it seems. But people are more complicated than that.”
“You ain’t…” she said softly.
“No. Someone’s gotta see things clearly, so as to stop all the creeps that wanna run things their way no matter who it gets killed.”
“Sounds like a hero to me.”
I waved my hand and turned away from her. “Don’t get me twisted ’round like that. This is what I’m talkin’ about!”
“Ragnar, I need your help.”
“As a hero or a private dick?”
“As you. As someone who’s known for doin’ the right thing no matter what. That’s you, ain’t it?”
“So they tell me,” I said.
“I’m in trouble. Real bad trouble. I came here ’cause I’m runnin’ from somethin’.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “From what?”
“I can’t say.”
“They got ears everywhere. They’re here now, in New Atlas, an’ they got plans. Big plans.”
“What kinda plans? Gimme somethin’ here, Lily.”
“I can’t say no more. They followed me here from Svartheim. They’re bad people. Real bad.”
“What are they gonna do to you?”
She swallowed. It was dark, and she was just a darker shadow in the night, but I could see the terror in her eyes, and I felt it to my bones. She wasn’t lying. No one could fake that. “Kill me,” she whispered, “or worse. I never thought they’d find me here.”
“You didn’t exactly hide, Lily…”
“The people that’re after me wouldn’t ever come to a place like this. They…ain’t that kinda folks…”
“I see…” She was involved in something bad all right, and it involved somebody rich and powerful. I wondered who Lily really was, and who she was connected to back in Svartheim. From what I’d heard, the corruption in that city went all the way to the top. “So what makes you think I can help?”
“You got connections. You know this city.”
“If someone’s tryin’ to kill you, you can go to the cops.” The NAPD weren’t exactly my biggest fans, but I knew McKinley, their commissioner, and he was a decent man. We might not agree on methods, but we both believed in doing what was right when it came down to it.
“The cops can’t do nothin’.”
“An’ I can?”
“You faced down a dragon, didn’t you?”
“Look, you know you’re gonna try to help me if you can.” She walked towards me. For a second, I thought she was gonna try and put the walk on again, use her powers of seduction to control me and it damn well might have worked, but instead she came to me as an ordinary young woman in trouble. A frightened girl looking for a rock to hold onto in the storm. I was good at being that. Nothing more immovable than a determined Northman. She put her hand on my chest and leant up to kiss me. It was just a gentle brush of her ruby-red lips on mine, but for a second I was lost in her scent. I was a thousand miles away, somewhere hot and dark, sweat trickling down my back, my heart pounding in my chest, helpless, caught in something like a…
She stepped away. “Sorry,” she said shyly.
“That wasn’t exactly fair now, was it?” I replied breathily.
“I ain’t tryin’ to convince you that way, if that’s what you think. I wouldn’t be askin’ you for help if I didn’t think you were somethin’ special. There’s dozens of men back in that club that’d jump at the chance to protect me, some of ’em a lot bigger’n you, believe it or not, an’ I didn’t go to them, did I?”
“I guess not.”
She had a purse hanging from one shoulder and she reached into it and took out a card. “Come see me, soon. We can talk safely back at my apartment, but we can’t be seen walkin’ together in the open. You’re already in danger just by talkin’ to me.”
Suddenly, the door to the club opened and flooded the alley with light. Lily stepped away and we both tried to look casual. A gnome walked out carrying a bag filled with trash. He gave us a disinterested look and tramped out into the alley to dump the garbage. I wondered if he was the one stealing from Castamir, and then realised I didn’t really care. The nasty little man deserved it for certain. I looked at Lily again, and in the light of the open door I saw something I hadn’t noticed before – a tattoo on the back of her shoulder. She’d let her wrap slip down a little without noticing and, as she turned away, I could just about make it out on her dark skin. A tiny spider. Odd for a girl like this to have a mark like that somewhere so prominent. The gnome finished his business and left us to it without a backward glance. He shut the door and it was dark again.
“Come see me,” Lily said again, “I need you.”
“All right.” I put her card in my pocket.
She nodded and walked away, up the alley where I could now make out the sounds of traffic from the street now it was silent – or as silent as it ever got in New Atlas. I watched her go, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Then I put a hand to my chest, because I started to feel a little nauseous. Funny. I’d only had a couple of drinks. Maybe it was Willow’s mom’s coffee? I stepped back against the wall and supported myself with a hand, tried to breathe deep. My vision was starting to get a little blurry too. This wasn’t the coffee. I tried to take a step and the whole world spun around me. I nearly tripped over my own feet as I tried to right myself, then sank down to one knee. My head felt like it was stuffed full of cotton, but I tried to think back…
I’d had two drinks, or was it three? One at the bar for sure, and then was it one or two with Lily? The waitress had brought us one. Damn. I shouldn’t ever let a stranger prepare my drinks, not in my line of work. What was it Lily’d said? I was already in danger just talking to her? What if one of the people hunting her had seen us talking and slipped something into my whisky? She said they had eyes everywhere… I tried to get up to my feet, but the floor seemed to be turning around and around like a top and I stumbled into the wall. Damn, but my head felt like it was being flipped inside out. I thought I was gonna be sick any moment. I tried to blink away the black spots in front of my eyes, then my balance gave out altogether and I fell backwards into the garbage pile. Everything went dark.
I gotta admit, I’ve had some real bad mornings before now. Most times I can remember in the last five years, I’ve woken up feeling like I was being punished for something I did in some past life but this one just about took the damn cake. I opened my eyes and I was looking into a big, ugly, grey-green face with yellow tusks and beady red eyes staring at me. If I could’ve lashed out, I would’ve, but my arms felt like they were made of lead. Instead I settled for a kinda strangled cry of terror and pain. My new pal jumped back in surprise. He was wearing blue overalls, and he had some others with him. I tried to put it all together, and then everything snapped back into place by itself. “Orcs,” I said.
“You all right, mister?” the one who’d been hovering over me asked. He looked concerned, but also a bit amused, although it was hard to tell. I’d learned that not all orcs were savage killers, but that didn’t mean I spent a whole lotta time with them. These ones must’ve been pretty honest types though since they were wearing the uniforms of a municipal work crew. They were here to haul the garbage away, and they’d found me lying in it.
“Yeah,” I croaked, “I…” My eyes started to go funny again. It was like there were shadows creeping onto the edge of my vision from nowhere.
I guess I blacked out again, and the last thing I heard was one of the orcs saying, “You better call the boss, Roga…”
The next time I came to, it wasn’t so bad. I was already being helped to my feet, and I could hear a familiar voice. “This has gotta be the worst I’ve ever seen him. Crom almighty.”
I peered through squinted eyes. The darkness was still there on the edges, but at least I could keep my eyelids open now, more or less. “That you, Ironsmith?”
“Yeah, lucky for you. If one of the other companies had been workin’ this alley, they’d have called the cops or more likely just thrown you in the wagon with the rest of the trash.”
One of his orcs sat me down on an upturned box and I blinked some of the muzz out of my head. “Damn, Harl, you can be an asshole in the morning.”
Everything started to swim into focus again, and I could see my friend standing in front of me, surrounded by a few of his orc workers, arms folded and looking at me like I’d just asked to date his daughter. He was a typical, sturdy sort of dwarf, but he was more open-minded than most of his people, and very well connected. More to the point, he was a good buddy. At least most of the time. “How much did you drink to wind up lyin’ in an alley?”
“I only had a couple. I think I was drugged.”
“I’m serious! This ain’t like no hangover I’ve had before.” I shook my head, but I couldn’t get the creeping darkness to shift. “I think it’s still in my system too.”
Ironsmith’s demeanour changed. He knew I was as good as my word. If I said I’d been poisoned, he knew I wasn’t just making excuses. “All right, boys, give the man some room.” The orcs backed off and Ironsmith leant closer to me, peering into my eyes. “You look sick,” he said.
“I coulda told you that.” I put a hand to my head. “Dang, but I feel terrible.”
“Who did this?”
“I dunno. But I think I mighta gotten myself involved in somethin’ big again.”
“What’s new? You at least got any leads this time?”
I reached carefully into my pocket and found Lily’s card was still there. “Yeah, one.”
“Well we gotta get you to a doctor or somethin’.”
“Only if you’re payin’…”
Ironsmith got his shoulder under my arm and hauled me up to my feet. At first I felt unsteady again, but after taking a couple steps with his help I figured I could walk again. “I’d help you, Ragnar, you know that,” the dwarf said, “but times are tough. Since the Bank of Dwarrowdelf got destroyed, this city’s economy’s in freefall. Ain’t hardly no one lendin’ dwarves money right now, not with all the distrust.”
I thought back to Castamir and his ‘no riffraff’ policy. It was a dirty thing, this kinda prejudice, but I wasn’t the man to fix that. “Don’t worry about it,” I told Ironsmith, “I feel fine now.”
“You said it was still in your system.”
“An’ I’m sure it’ll work its way out in good time. Don’t worry about me.”
He didn’t look like he was taking my advice. “Maybe we should go see Poppy…”
I shook my head, which didn’t help nothing. “No. No way.”
“She’ll look at your blood, figure out what the poison is. An’ I bet her or her dad’ve got some potion or salve or somethin’ that’ll fix you right up.”
“Nuh uh.” Poppy worked for the NAPD as some sorta scientist. I didn’t rightly understand it all, but she had a lab full of strange vials and equipment and she could test blood or just a little bit of skin or spit and tell you all kinds of amazing things about the person they came from. Ironsmith was right about going to her, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I hadn’t seen her since we’d said goodbye one snowy Yuletide Eve in the Dale, and I didn’t plan to walk back into her life like this. “I’m fine, really,” I insisted. Then I took a step forward and nearly fell flat onto my face.
Ironsmith caught me and held me up again. “Look, if you won’t go to a doctor an’ you won’t go to Poppy, what are you gonna do?”
I fumbled the card out of my pocket. “This is my lead. Think your boys can drop me off near this address?”
“Sure thing. But you ain’t goin’ in alone.”
“‘Cause this is a third floor apartment, an’ there’s no way you can handle a staircase right now.”
The address was a dingy apartment block off 13th Street. It was another grey, murky day, and to me the shadows looked deeper and darker. No matter how many times I tried to blink it away, I couldn’t shake the darkness lingering in the corner of my eye. It was strange. I did start to feel better as we travelled across New Atlas, even though we were in a garbage truck and the smell didn’t exactly do my stomach no favours. One advantage of riding in a municipal vehicle was that the traffic got outta the way. It was still pretty early in the morning – not quite rush hour – and we got to 13th Street pretty quick. Roga, the big orc who’d woke me up before and the leader of the crew, helped me outta the cab. I could walk okay now, but not too fast, and Ironsmith kept close as we headed for the door to the building. “So just what the heck happened last night?” he asked me. “What were you doing in a dive like Castamir’s?”
“It’s actually kinda nice in there.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
I winced. “Right. Well, I was doin’ a job for him. Castamir, I mean.”
“Didn’t think he was the sorta guy you mixed with.”
“He ain’t. How do you know him anyhow?”
“Every non-human employer in the city knows about Castamir. He lends to all the down-an’-outs, all the folks the human banks won’t deal with. Then when they can’t pay him back, he sends in his toughs. You know the story.”
I did. “He’s got a couple gnomes workin’ for him though.”
“Yeah, an’ he pays ’em a lot less than they deserve. But they think they’re goin’ up in the world, workin’ for a human business. He’ll have a gnome serve drinks or take out the trash, but they can’t go in through the front entrance. He’s got a gnoll janitor too. He’s godsdamned vermin.”
“You don’t got to tell me twice. Anyway, that’s what I was doin’ there. Then…well…there was this broad…”
“Ahh,” Ironsmith said knowingly.
“Look, you’ll understand when you meet her.” We were at the door now and I pressed the bell for her apartment. Nothing happened. The speaker stayed silent. I tried again. “Damn dwarf technology,” I muttered, “ain’t worth the brass it’s made out of.”
“Hey, you’d all be livin’ in caves still if it wasn’t for us.”
I gave him a half smile and tried the bell again. Still nothing. I gave it half a minute, then pushed at the door experimentally. It wasn’t locked. Inside, the hallway was dark. “Still wanna come with me?”
“If I don’t, you’ll probably end up out cold in another pile of garbage.”
We crept in, Ironsmith close at my side. I walked okay now, but still felt kinda unsteady. I took a grip on the banister and walked up the stairs slowly. We went up the three flights and I was panting hard by the time we got to Lily’s door. Ironsmith took the lead. “Wait,” I said, “you ain’t know what we might be up against here.”
“So tell me.”
“I ain’t know what we might be up against here either.”
“Remind me again why I hang out with you, Ragnar.”
“Well it ain’t for the scenery.” The inside of the apartment block was dank and dirty. The wallpaper was peeling and the carpet had something growing in it. I composed myself and stepped up to the door. I went to knock, but as my hand touched it, it just fell right open. Inside it was dark. I licked my lips and, knowing it was a stupid thing to do, stepped inside. No one jumped out at me, which was pretty lucky all things considered. Ironsmith followed me in and, with that uncanny dwarf instinct for doing useful things, fumbled along the wall until he found a light switch. He turned it on, and yellow light filled the apartment. Or what was left of it.
“Some lead,” Ironsmith snorted.
“Huh.” The whole place had been ransacked. Furniture was smashed into pieces, the carpet was torn up and every drawer and cupboard was hanging open.
“Looks like your broad got robbed.”
“No, this wasn’t a robbery. Look.” I pointed to a drawer that was still overflowing with jewellery. It had been ripped out of the chest and just thrown on the floor. Nothing was stolen – the place had just been ripped apart. I walked carefully through the wreckage, trying to see any clues. It was such a mess, it could’ve been anything from a gang of humans to a troll just going wild. There was nothing to give anything away, no tools or weapons left behind, no obvious markings anywhere. It was a small apartment, mostly just one room that was both living room and kitchen, a small bathroom off to one side and an open door through to a darkened bedroom. I walked towards it.
I held up my hand and, with the other, drew out my pistol. It was a heavy, brutal six-shooter, the right size and weight for an uncouth brawler like me. My hand wavered a little. I didn’t rightly know whether I’d be able to shoot straight, but it was more for my peace of mind than anything. I trod lightly, trying hard not to disturb any of the mess and make a noise, though if anyone was waiting in there they knew we were there from the light if not our voices. I stepped through the doorway – the door itself was hanging off its hinges – with Ironsmith right on my heels. I didn’t know what I’d find in there, but I was ready for the worst. I reached to the side and turned on the lights.
“Well,” Ironsmith said.
The bedroom was wrecked too. The bed had been turned over, a closet had been smashed almost into kindling and, on the wall above the bed, the paper had been ripped off to reveal the bare plaster and there, in black paint, someone had daubed a huge symbol. Ironsmith stroked his beard. “That’s a…”
“A spider.” It was a dark, glowering thing, facing upwards, with a swollen abdomen and eight legs reaching around it. The paint had dripped down the wall all the way to the floor, where it pooled in the carpet. “They got her,” I said.
“If she was ever here. You sure this was her real address?”
I knelt down and picked up a shoe from the floor. It was one she’d been wearing last night. “I’m sure.”
“An’ who’d you think got her?”
I looked back at that menacing spider symbol. It seemed to take up half the room. I felt like it was staring at me, like a living thing. I’d seen it before too: on Lily’s shoulder. “I don’t know. But I’m sure as heck gonna find out.”