“Well that’s real nice, Ragnar,” Ironsmith said, scratching his nose with a thoughtful look, “but, y’know, I got work to do an’ so forth. So unless you got a particular need for a garbage truck any more today, I should really get back to the depot.”
I nodded, but I still couldn’t take my eyes off of the spider on the wall. I pointed at it with my gun. “That mean anythin’ to you, Harl?”
He shook his head. “Nope. Not an orc symbol, at least not one I’ve ever seen. I could ask the boys?”
“I don’t think this is orcs.”
I could tell Ironsmith was itching to get outta there, but he was also curious, ’cause dwarves are just built that way. They love to take things apart, see what makes ’em work. “So what’s the story with this girl? What’s she got herself involved with?”
“Damned if I know. She’s a singer at that club, an’ we just kinda…got talkin’ I guess. Then she told me she was in some kinda trouble, gave me her card an’…yeah…” I trailed off. Thinking about it in the cold light of day, it didn’t actually seem like too smart an idea to have come running all the way across town. Especially now Lily’s apartment had been trashed and she was missing.
“An’ at what point did you pass out in all this? You stay for a couple drinks or what?”
“No,” I said with a frown, “I guess I felt woozy right after she left. After she…uh…kissed me…”
I gave Ironsmith a sidelong glance. “What you tryin’ to say?”
“Nothin’. Just, well, dames who ask for help, then kiss you, then get you mixed up in some business with poison. Well, Ragnar, I guess all I’m gettin’ at is that you have a real talent for gettin’ involved with people you probably shouldn’t oughta. Catch my drift?”
“Yeah, yeah.” I looked around at the mess of her bedroom. There wasn’t much to go on here either. I could comb the place for days, try to find some clue about who did this, but if the giant spider painted on the wall wasn’t enough to go on I was a pretty crummy private detective. “I guess we should get outta here.”
“Right.” Ironsmith picked his way through the wreckage and out into the main room. “What was this broad’s name anyway?”
“Human, I take it?”
“Yeah. Pretty as heck too. Black hair, black skin. Never seen nothin’ like it, leastwise not ’round here.”
“Hm. She not from New Atlas?”
“No. Svartheim, she said.”
Ironsmith drew up, then turned around slowly. “Svartheim?”
“An’ she said she was in some kinda trouble? Did she say it was anythin’ to do with…with that place?”
“Uh…well, yeah, I guess she did. She said they’d caught up with her or somethin’. Tell you the truth, my brain’s still a little mixed up. But yeah, far as I recall, she was on the run, or she made it sound that way.”
“We gotta get outta here,” Ironsmith said in a low voice.
“Svartheim’s bad news.”
“Why? It’s just a city like here…”
Ironsmith was already at the door and he turned the light off before I even got out into the hall. “Not like here.”
“What d’you mean? Hey, wait up, buddy.” Ironsmith was hurrying right for the stairs, but I was still pretty unsteady on my feet. I reached out for his arm.
“Svartheim ain’t like New Atlas, that’s all.”
“Why not? What do you know about the place? I ain’t so hot with geography. You been there?”
“No. No dwarf’s ever been there.”
That stopped me short. “Huh? I thought dwarves got everywhere. There ain’t a place in the world wain’t got one of your lodges. How the heck do they build anythin’ there if they ain’t got dwarves?”
“I ain’t know an’ I ain’t care,” Ironsmith said brusquely as he went down the stairs. He’d slowed down a little for my benefit now though. “Every dwarf knows that we ain’t welcome in Svartheim, that’s all. It’s a bad place.”
“I can’t think of a place worse than this…”
“You got no idea, Ragnar. No idea.” We were halfway down the stairs when we heard a sound through one of the grimy windows that made us both stop and hold our breaths. Sirens. Last thing you wanna hear when you’re fleeing the scene of a crime. “I probably shoulda asked this before,” Ironsmith said, “but you wouldn’t by any chance have been seen talkin’ to this Lily dame, would you?”
“By pretty much everyone in Castamir’s. An’ it was pretty busy.”
“Right. An’ you just talked to her in the club, right?”
“No. No, we went outside into an alley by ourselves.”
“An’ did anyone…”
“Two bartenders, a gnome takin’ out the garbage.”
We were both still staring outta the window. We could see the lights flashing down below in the street now, and hear the sounds of shouts. Sounded like there were a few cars and maybe a wagon down there. “An’ I guess she probably ain’t been seen since then.”
“An’ your only alibi is your were unconscious in a pile of trash all night?”
“That’s about the size of it,” I allowed.
“Well then.” Ironsmith sat down on the stairs and folded his arms. “Might as well just wait here then, huh?”
“Yep.” I sat down next to him.
“What made you decide to become a private investigator, Ragnar? Were they just not hirin’ down at the meat packin’ plant that day or somethin’?”
I shrugged helplessly as the cops came pounding up the stairs towards us.
I felt pretty comfortable in an interview room. I might’ve been a crummy private dick at times, but I had a way of filling up a small room that made it pretty tough for anyone to take control of a situation. The cops might’ve had guns, cuffs and a whole station full of their buddies, but you get in a room alone with a hulking Northman like me and things don’t seem quite so simple. I rapped my knuckles on the table and whistled tunelessly for a bit. The guard, a uniformed cop I didn’t recognise, watched me silently.
“You got any coffee?” I asked him.
“Not for you we ain’t.”
“Man, this used to be a nice place. Standards are slippin’ all over, I guess.”
The door opened and a detective in a shirt and tie came in. He was Cimmerian, like a lot of guys on the force, but I didn’t know him either. I’d heard the NAPD had hired a lot of new men recently in response to all the upheavals that had been going on. Well the dragon wasn’t coming back, and a fat lot of good the cops had been against that anyway. The detective sat down in the chair opposite me and slapped some files down on the table. “All right,” he said, “let’s get started here.”
“Would you believe me if I said I didn’t do it?”
“I’m askin’ the questions, Ulrichson.” So he knew me, at least. Course, he had my file, probably right there in the pile in front of me. I didn’t have too many priors, just some mischief as a kid. Enough to discount me from any government jobs, but nothing worse than most of the folks who’d grown up in this city. He started flicking through one of the files. I could make out a couple of photographs of Lily’s apartment. “What’s your relationship to Miss Araneae?”
“Who?” He held up Lily’s photo. It was a mugshot, so obviously she had some priors of her own, but I could see from the card she was holding up that the photo, probably the whole file, had come from Svartheim. Whatever Ironsmith said then, at least the two police departments had some kinda working relationship. That was something. “I ain’t got any kinda relationship with her,” I said, honestly, “I didn’t even know that was her last name until right this second.”
“We got a lot of witnesses say you were seen talkin’ to her last night.”
“That’s right, I was.”
“But you say you don’t know her?”
“No, I said we ain’t got a relationship. I met her for the first time last night.” I was starting to feel nauseous again. I couldn’t figure out if I just needed a drink or if it was whatever poison was still in my system. I could still see the shadows around the edge of my vision. Hel, they seemed to have gotten worse if anything, rising up from the floor and closing in from the walls on either side. It made everything look dark and dingy, and the interview room was already pretty dark and dingy even without that. I hadn’t just been trying to get the guard a little more tightly wound when I asked him for coffee – I really did need something to set my head straight. “Listen, pal,” I said, leaning over to the detective, “you’ve seen my file. You know I ain’t the kinda guy that gets involved in this kinda business. I might have a couple rough edges, but I’m straight as an arrow. I wouldn’t hurt no dame. Go talk to your commissioner. McKinley knows me.”
“The commissioner ain’t in today.”
“All right, well just look at my record, you can see I ain’t…”
“The last time Miss Araneae was seen was leavin’ Castamir’s through the back entrance in your company.”
“I got three witnesses that put you there. Then you get picked up hangin’ ’round outside her apartment after we get a report of a disturbance. Care to explain where you were last night?”
“Ah, see, now that’s the thing. I think someone drugged me, ’cause I got this headache an’ my balance is shot to Hel. Plus I got these weird dark patches that seem to be crawlin’ into my field of vision the whole time.”
He looked at me flatly. “So where were you?”
“Passed out. In that alley. In a pile of garbage.”
“I see. You got a drink problem, is that right?”
“I wouldn’t call it a problem, exactly.”
He wrote something down in one of the files, but shut it before I could see what it was. “So you don’t have any kinda alibi about where you were between midnight last night and eight this morning?”
“Like I said, I was unconscious…”
“What were you doing at Miss Araneae’s apartment?”
“It’s kinda complicated. See, she told me she was in trouble, an’ when I woke up I went over there ’cause, what with me bein’ drugged an’ all…look,” I laid my hands flat on the table, “we’re both reasonable folks here, right? What is it you think I did? Kidnapped her? ‘Cause you checked my pockets an’ she ain’t there. Why would I hang around the scene of my own crime? It don’t make no sense!”
He made another note on a file. I realised I didn’t even know his name. “You’re right that I looked at your record, Mr Ulrichson. I think I got you figured out.”
“Ain’t hard. I’m uncomplicated, or so they tell me.”
“Or you’re good at actin’ that way.”
“What makes you say that?”
He leant close to me. “Why is it you seem to get involved in everythin’ that goes on in this city? The attempted assassination of Mr Amandil, the dragon attack. For a dumb barbarian with no real connections, a crummy apartment downtown, a private detective business that ain’t exactly makin’ him rich, you seem to get involved in some pretty high level situations.”
“Just lucky, I guess,” I told him with a half smile that should ‘ve chilled him to the bone. He didn’t seem to notice.
“An’ no matter what happens, you always seem to come up smellin’ of roses.”
“You think I smell like roses?” I tugged at my soiled suit jacket. A night out in any alley in New Atlas will leave you stinking bad enough, never mind if you were using trash bags for a bed.
“You seem uncomplicated, all right, but someone once said it takes a smart man to play dumb. An’ you are a private dick.”
“Not a very good one, like you said.” I winced as my headache took a turn for the agonising. It was taking all my smarts, such as they were, to keep up with this guy. These new cops were a tougher breed than the old ones. I had a feeling this guy would do things by the book, which meant I’d be looking at a stay in the cells before this got straightened out. But, something he’d said before was niggling at my mind. He’d said they’d been called to investigate a disturbance. “Hold up, who called you to Lily’s apartment?”
“What’s it to you?”
“‘Cause I found one of her shoes there, an’ she was wearin’ ’em last night. But only one, so she must’ve kicked it off in some sorta struggle. That means the place must’ve got trashed hours before me an’ Ironsmith showed up. Why’d your boys show up just as we happened to be there?”
“I thought we established that I was askin’ the questions…” I could see I’d rattled him a little though.
“An’ I counted three cars an’ a wagon out there, an’ at least a dozen cops. What were you expectin’ to find? Someone calls in a disturbance in the middle of the night, you ain’t send an armed response unit. But for Ragnar Ulrichson, the man who faced down a dragon…”
“Look, the fact is you ain’t got no alibi. You talk to some broad, she goes missin’, then you show up at her apartment the next mornin’. That makes you a suspect.”
“No it ain’t: it makes me a witness. You know I ain’t kidnapped her. Where would I put her? You probably checked my place already, an’ my office.”
“You got connections.”
“No I ain’t, you said that yourself.”
“Your dwarf friend…”
I laughed. “Ironsmith? You probably let him go free already – his alibi’s watertight. He was probably workin’ all night, or in the lodge. I bet there’s a hundred dwarves an’ orcs can tell you exactly where he was the whole time. An’ he’s got no record at all, ’cause he’s a good dwarf boy an’ they keep their noses clean. You want the truth? The truth is, I was doin’ a job I wished I didn’t have to an’ I got talkin’ to Lily Ara…Aran…whatever her damn name is! I got talkin’ to her an’ she told me she was in trouble. She didn’t wanna talk about it in the club so she took me outside. She gave me her card, an’ then I got all dizzy an’ fell into some trash. Ironsmith dug me out an’ we went to her apartment to see if we could figure out who drugged me. You know the rest.”
“An’ you just spoke to her? That’s all that happened?”
I locked eyes with the detective. He wasn’t a hard man, just a loyal one. But to what, and who? He knew more than he was letting on, but he was trying to catch me out somehow. I wondered what was going on, and how deep this went. “That’s all,” I said calmly. “Can I go now?” I stood up, but lost my balance right away. Sitting down it hadn’t been so bad, but now all the wooziness flooded back into my head and the floor was spinning all over the place again. The shadows loomed in around me. I stumbled a couple steps, tried to right myself using the table, but wound up flipping the whole thing over and crashing down to the floor. The uniformed cop and the detective both rushed over to me. Everything was starting to go dark again, and I could just hear the detective say, “Get him to Officer Redcap’s lab, see if she can figure out what he drank…”
I didn’t have the strength to tell them that was the last place I wanted to be right now.
This wake up was better than the last one. I opened my eyes slowly and smiled at the face looking down at me. “Hey…” She drew back quickly, and everything came tumbling back into my head again. I winced and started to sit up. I was on a couch in Poppy’s cramped little lab. “When did you get this in here?”
“Just now. You wouldn’t fit on the table.” She nodded to the metal bench in the middle of the room.
“Oh right.” I looked at her. She was as pretty as she’d been the last time I saw her but, it might’ve been just my imagination, but she looked a little more tired, a little paler than before. Like times were tough. “How’ve you been?” I asked.
“Yeah. Well. No, actually. Kinda awful.”
“I ain’t surprised with what you had in your system.”
“Oh right. You managed to fix me up?”
She gave me a flat look. Damn but she could rip me apart with that look. You’d never know it to look at her – a slim little gnome girl, barely five feet tall, round rosy cheeks, a cute button nose, eyes like dewdrops… No. Couldn’t think like that. Not right now. “I gave you somethin’ that I think might help, but you need to see a real doctor.”
“What was it?”
“The drug? You ain’t know?”
“How would I?”
She took a seat on her little wheeled stool and scooted over to the desk. It was full of little cubby holes. She took out a glass tube and tossed it across to me. “See that?”
It was filled with blood. I held it up to the light. There was something cloudy and black floating in it. I shook it, but it didn’t settle. “What am I lookin’ at?”
“Crom almighty! What’s that…stuff?”
“Black Lotus. Heard of it?”
I cringed. “Yeah. Illegal, ain’t it?”
“That’s the thing with poisoners,” she said, giving me another one of those looks, “they tend not to give too much of a damn about breakin’ the law.”
“Sure. But Black Lotus? Where would someone get ahold of that?”
“Don’t ask me. I’m surprised you didn’t notice it happenin’ though. That’s a strong dose. You should’ve been able to smell it.”
“They musta slipped it into my drink. Dang…”
“So you were drinkin’?” She turned her stool around and fixed me with a long stare.
“Don’t start this,” I said, “you ain’t got no right to judge me.”
“I ain’t judgin’ you, Ragnar. I’m just worried about you. I care about you.”
“Well you got an odd way of showin’ it.”
“Fine. Be an asshole. But they didn’t slip nothin’ in your drink.”
“How’d you know?”
“Black Lotus is a respiratory agent. It’s soluble in water or alcohol an’ becomes non-toxic.”
She rolled her eyes. “You gotta breathe it in. Put it in liquid an’ it ain’t do shit.”
“Why didn’t you just say that?” I asked, a little snippily. I looked at the vial of my blood. It looked pretty nasty. “Breathe it in, you say? Could they have piped it into the club?”
“If anyone else got a dose that high, we’d know about it. I checked all the hospitals in the city – no cases of Black Lotus poisoning.”
“Maybe they couldn’t afford to go to the hospital.”
“If they got this much Black Lotus in them, they’d have been dug outta the garbage like you were.”
“I wasn’t in the garbage…”
“Either way. You’re the only one who got hit. So when did you breathe in a high dose of Black Lotus?”
“How the heck should I know? You say I’d have smelt it?”
“It’s got a real distinctive odour, yeah.”
She shrugged. “No idea. An’ I ain’t got any here you can smell. It’s illegal. Real illegal.”
I rubbed my head. “But I’m okay now?”
“Only for a day or so. That stuff gets in your blood, as you can see.” She pointed at the vial. “It’s runnin’ through every vein in your body. You’ll start to see some discolouration in your extremities pretty soon.”
“Fingers an’ toes, Ragnar. They’re gonna go black.”
“Yeah. An’ I’ve given you somethin’ to block the dizziness, nausea an’ the headaches, but that’s not gonna last long. When the symptoms come back, they’re gonna be a lot worse. Black Lotus…it kills slowly.” She swallowed, and I saw then how scared she was. She did care. We never stopped feeling how we felt about each other. It just…hadn’t worked out.
“So…eventually it’ll kill me.”
“Someone smaller, not so tough, they’d be dead already, I reckon.” She turned back to her desk. “I can give you some of the drug I used to fix you up today, but it’s got diminishing returns. You keep usin’ it, it’ll have less an’ less effect each time. There’s a war goin’ on inside you.” She crossed the room to hand me a bottle of some powder. As she passed it to me, our fingers brushed and I felt my heart skip a beat. “Dissolve it in water,” she whispered.
“You know a cheap doctor?”
She gave me a pained look. “Act smart for once in your life, Ragnar. Go home, rest, then find a doctor tomorrow. A good one. This is your life we’re talkin’ about. Don’t…don’t get involved in somethin’ crazy again…”
I knew she knew more about this situation than she was letting on. “Poppy, you know I don’t go lookin’ for these things.”
“Don’t you? You say you don’t wanna be a hero, but it seems every time New Atlas is in trouble, there you are, in the middle of it all.”
“I’m just…tryin’ to do the right thing.”
“So you’re gonna try to find this girl?”
I rubbed my jaw. I thought I oughta get ’round to having a shave sometime this week. “There’s nothin’ goin’ on.”
“I ain’t care if there is,” she said brusquely, “I just want you to be safe.”
“I’m a private detective.”
“So do some damn detectin’. Stay outta trouble!”
I stood up from the couch. I was a little stiff, but on the whole I felt better than I had in a while. I could still have used a drink though. “Detectin’, yeah, that’s a good plan.” I looked around. Her lab looked shabbier than it had last time I was here. But then, the whole city was like that at the moment. “Funny, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the station wound as tight as this.”
Poppy had turned back to her desk and now she looked over her shoulder at me. “Wound tight? What makes you say that?”
“I’unno. Everyone I’ve seen just seems kinda…y’know…tense.”
“Yeah, well, it’s tough out there on the streets.”
“I know. You’re talkin’ to the guy who just got himself poisoned. But it ain’t that.”
“Then what?” She had her eyes on some little glass dish she was working with, so either she wasn’t interested in what I had to say or was pretending not to be.
“You got a lotta new guys started here recently.” It wasn’t just the detective who’d interviewed me – the cops who’d picked me up where all strangers, and I knew most of the force, or thought I did. When they took me through the station, most of the faces I’d seen where new too. Humans, not a few Northmen with them, like me. But also not like me. They were cleaner cut somehow, but I could see the same ice in their eyes.
“I guess.” There was something there.
I did a circuit of her lab, which didn’t take long, just peering at shelves, pretending to be interested in all the jars of weird stuff she had. “Where’s McKinley today? Ain’t like him to take a day off…”
“Sick?” I turned to her. She was still concentrating on her work real hard. “Anythin’ bad? Should I send a card?”
“How should I know?”
“C’mon, what ain’t you tellin’ me, Poppy? All these new faces, the commissioner away from his post. What’s happenin’ to this place?”
She swivelled her stool around and I had to take a step back because her eyes looked terrified. “Not here. We can’t talk here.”
“Poppy?” I walked towards her.
She held up a hand. “No. Somewhere else. Meet me at the coffee house on 24th street after work.”
I knew the place – Willow’s mom worked there – so I just nodded. “Hold up,” I said, “does that mean I ain’t arrested?”
“Yeah, Ironsmith paid your bail.”
“He did? Then maybe that sonofabitch can get me a doctor too…” I was headed for the door already, but I stopped with my hand on the knob and turned back to her. “Listen, Poppy. About what happened…”
“Now ain’t the time, Ragnar,” she said shortly.
“All right then.”
I still didn’t feel exactly one hundred percent as I walked out the station. My hip hurt like always, but that probably had more to do with having slept in an alleyway last night. The weather hadn’t improved since I got hauled away by the cops and I couldn’t figure out if it was fog or rain that filled the air. I felt dirty and hot again, and I wanted to get back to my apartment and take a shower, except I figured I should swing by Ironsmith’s yard and thank him for posting my bail. I was just checking to see whether I had change for a cab, when I saw the first familiar face besides Poppy’s that I’d seen since I was at the station. It was a cop named Beregond, a Stonelander who’d helped me out before now. I nodded to him when he recognised me. “How’s it goin’, pal?” I asked.
He was just heading past the station, not wearing his uniform, and he looked as tired and drawn as Poppy had. “I’ve had better days,” he admitted.
“Yeah? Anythin’ I can help with?”
He looked around. “Not here,” he said quietly.
“How come everyone keeps sayin’ that?”
He took my arm and led me away from the station’s front entrance. We got twenty yards or so down the road and he jerked his head to one side and we stepped around the corner of a building so we were outta sight. “Boy, am I glad to see you,” Beregond told me.
“A friendly face, y’know? This place these days…”
“I noticed that too,” I said, “what’s goin’ on?”
“Just a lotta new blood. I dunno where they’re gettin’ all these new cops from.”
“Is that what you wanted to tell me?”
“No.” He looked around again, as if anyone would be listening in to two big guys, one a cop, having a conversation on a quiet side street. New Atlas may be a dirty city, but even the criminals had some sense. “You know about McKinley?”
“I heard he’s sick.”
“Yeah…sick…” He leant in even closer. “No one’s seen or heard from him in days.”
“That ain’t good.”
“You’re damn right it ain’t. Me an’ a few of the old guys, the ones who served under him, we took to stakin’ out his place, just in our free time, y’know?”
“You were that worried?”
He gave me a dark look, and again I was struck by how grey and run down he looked. When I last saw him, he was ready to volunteer to literally run into a dragon’s den with me, but now he looked like a shadow of his former self. “You ain’t understand how bad it’s got. These new guys, they real by the book.”
“Yeah, I got that impression.”
“Thing is, the book was written years ago! An’ it seems that almost everyone we haul in is a non-human. Good kids, y’know, ordinary kids, just makin’ the usual sorta mistakes. Drunk an’ disorderedly, petty theft. Time was, we’d haul ’em in if we caught ’em in the act, give ’em a night in the cells, scare ’em a little, then send ’em on their way. But these new detectives, they insist on filin’ charges, givin’ ’em the works. Some goblin went up in front of a judge last week for stealin’ fifteen bucks. Fifteen bucks! I heard he got four years.”
“Funny, the way I heard it, crime was gettin’ worse.”
“Sure. ‘Cause all they do is go after the ones they know they can catch an’ who won’t fight back. The big stuff, the gangs, the human protection rackets, they don’t even touch those. Corruption? They ain’t give a damn. But show ’em a gnome paintin’ graffiti on a wall? They throw the book at the poor guy.”
“So, in the end, nothin’ gets any better?”
“If anythin’ it gets worse,” Beregond sighed, “’cause all the cops spend their time huntin’ petty criminals.”
It made sense, all except one part of it. “McKinley ain’t a guy to let things slip on his watch. I know he’s real careful about who he brings onto his force.”
“Yeah, except McKinley didn’t get no say in any of these guys. The Mayor’s office, they say we need to increase numbers an’ tighten up on the rules at the same time. So a bunch of cops, good cops, who might not have the cleanest records around, suddenly got to turn in their badges. An’ then these new fellas show up on the doorstep…”
“But the new mayor only just got sworn in, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, but it’s a transition period, ain’t it? He’s been pullin’ strings for a while now.”
“Why’s McKinley standin’ for any of this?”
“He ain’t!” Beregond looked around. A few people walking down the street had turned when he raised his voice. “He ain’t,” he added in a lower voice, “an’ he was plannin’ to do somethin’ about it, but then, suddenly, he disappears.”
“Right. I told you we were stakin’ out his place, keepin’ an eye on him. Well, my partner just radioed me: the house is empty. No one’s been in or out for days. No lights on.”
“He could be on vacation?”
“Without tellin’ anyone?”
“Good point,” I admitted. “Why didn’t someone just knock on the door an’ talk to him?”
“‘Cause his address ain’t exactly common knowledge. We ain’t be able to just go walkin’ down the path to see how he is.”
That made sense. He was the commissioner of the NAPD after all. He didn’t need every criminal in the city knowing where he lived. “So is that where you’re headed?”
“Dang.” I stood there, thinking. Beregond was looking at me. He knew I was a good guy to have around in a tight spot. I knew what he wanted me to say. “All right,” I said, “where’s your car?”
McKinley’s place was a nice, big house up on the Eastside. It was pretty non-descript. Beregond’s car was unmarked, and we pulled up next to another car parked in front of the house. I recognised the guy sitting in the driver’s seat, a Cimmerian. He lifted a finger in greeting. After a few seconds, he got out the car and sauntered over to the sidewalk. We got out and joined him. “Good to see you, Ulrichson,” Beregond’s partner said. I thought his name was O’Neil, but we’d never been formally introduced.
“What’s the plan here, fellas?”
“Way I see it,” Beregond said, “we got nothin’ left to lose here. If somethin’s happened to the commissioner, whoever did it’s probably got eyes all over this place. So we just enter the house, see what we can find.”
“An’ if somethin’ ain’t happened to him?” O’Neil asked.
“We just look like three idiots,” I shrugged. “Worse stuff’s happened to me today.” I pointed to the house. “Let’s at least go ’round the back, all right? No need to attract any more attention than we have already.”
We were three big guys, a Northman, a Stonelander and a Cimmerian. We all moved like we knew what we were about, and I knew perfectly well that every curtain on that street was twitching. Still, going ’round the back made me feel a bit better about the whole thing. I didn’t want to have to shoulder down a front door in broad daylight. Not that the daylight today was that broad. I thought I could see the shadows creeping up in my peripheral vision again too. I’d need to take some of the stuff Poppy’d given me soon. Or better yet, find a doctor. I added it to the list of things I’d do once I’d stopped helpin’ out everyone who happened to ask me. There was a little yard outside, well-tended, and it wasn’t overlooked. Smart. McKinley could play with his kids out here in peace. If he even had kids. I didn’t even know if he was married. I supposed probably not. “Beregond was tellin’ me there’s only a few of you original cops left on the force. How many are there?”
“A couple hundred,” O’Neil said.
“That doesn’t sound so bad…”
“They’ve been shuffled ’round to different precincts though,” Beregond explained, “put on different shifts, partnered up with new guys.”
“I see. So how come you guys escaped that?”
“Lucky I guess,” O’Neil said.
We were at the back door now. It looked pretty solid. The cops took a step back, but before they could charge it, I leant forward and tried the handle. The door fell open slowly. “Well that was easy,” I grinned. Beregond and O’Neill took out their guns. I followed suit and together the three of us walked in. The lights were out and, for the second time in as many days, I walked into a home that had been torn apart. All the furniture was smashed or tipped over, pictures were ripped off the walls, and plaster dust was lying everywhere.
“Iluvutar preserve us,” Beregond breathed, “who did this?”
“I dunno,” I said, “but I got a pretty bad feelin’ about this.” The pattern of destruction was too familiar. We walked through the house – it was a nice place, or it would’ve been if it hadn’t been so comprehensively trashed. I nodded towards the stairs. “Bedroom that way?”
“I guess,” O’Neil said.
“I think that’s where we’ll find the only clue that matters.” I was right. The master bedroom was the same as the rest of the house – completely destroyed – but one wall had been stripped down to the plaster and there, in black paint, was the huge, threatening shape of a spider. There was no sign of McKinley.
“We gotta keep searchin’,” Beregond said.
“Don’t bother. He ain’t here.”
“Then where is he?”
“Damned if I know. But I have a feelin’ we’ll find a certain cabaret singer with him. Problem is…I got no idea why…”
“It make any sense to you?” I asked Ironsmith. The cops had dropped me off back at his yard, and now we were in his little office, really four walls with a desk and two chairs on one side of his warehouse, sharing a pot of thick, dark dwarf coffee.
Ironsmith shook his head. “Can’t think of any connection. But she said someone from Svartheim was after her?”
“Yeah. I figure it was some debt, an ex-lover, y’know the usual sorta thing. But why would the same people who’re after her kidnap the police commissioner?”
“You said there’s somethin’ going’ on down at the NAPD though, right? Someone’s puttin’ new guys in and gettin’ shot of the old ones who were loyal to McKinley?”
I took a sip of my coffee. I used to find the dwarf stuff way too strong, but it had begun to grow on me. It was nothing that wouldn’t be improved by a finger or two of whisky though. “That’s about the size of it.”
“There’s gotta be a connection there then. McKinley goes missin’, just as he starts plannin’ to take back his force? Can’t be no coincidence.”
“I agree. But why do it this way? Why wreck his house, why leave that callin’ card?” I had a sketch of the spider symbol on my notebook. Neither Beregond or O’Neil recognised it either. I tapped it with a finger. “This is some kinda message, but what? An’ from who?”
The business at McKinley’s had taken up most of the afternoon, and now it was getting on towards evening. I was supposed to meet Poppy in less than an hour. Ironsmith took my notebook off the desk and frowned at it. “I know all the orc gang signs, I got a workin’ knowledge of goblin clans, dryad collectives, troll tribes, gnoll packs. No one uses a spider, not as far as I know anyway. I ain’t know much about kobolds, mind.”
“Gnomes, maybe? You could ask Poppy.”
“I might just do that.” I’d told him we were meeting for coffee. He hadn’t really expressed much of an opinion, at least by human standards. But he’d tugged on his beard a little and furrowed his brows, so I knew he was thinking some of his deep, dwarf thoughts. Gnomes and dwarves, they didn’t get on, and it turns out that was all down to kobolds and dragons, but I didn’t think either species was quite ready to face up to all that yet. Right now we were still just getting used to all the new people in this city. “But somehow,” I went on, “I ain’t think this is kobolds. It ain’t fit their pattern. They’re half savage – they spent thousands of years underground. They wouldn’t know to target a police commissioner, or try to undermine his force from within. The dragons are the brains in kobold society, an’ they ain’t got one.”
“Let’s hope so anyway…”
“Dragons don’t break into houses an’ wreck up the place,” I assured him, “they just…y’know…explode it.”
“I know,” Ironsmith said darkly. A lot of dwarves had died in the dragon attack last year.
“So who does that leave? What do we know about Svartheim?”
“Someone must though.”
Ironsmith looked at the notebook doubtfully. “Only thing I can think is to ask around the lodge.”
“I thought you said dwarves didn’t go to Svartheim.”
“Right, but I have a funny feelin’ someone’ll have some snippet of information. Plus, if this symbol’s been seen anywhere else in the city, someone’s work crews’ll have seen it. Word gets around.”
“You goin’ tonight?”
“Right, then I’d appreciate you findin’ out anythin’ you can.”
“Add it to the list of favours I owe you,” I grinned as I swung on my coat. “Thanks for postin’ my bail too.”
“My bail. Poppy said you paid up.”
Ironsmith was looking at me like I was crazy. “I told you, buddy, times are tough. You gotta believe I’d have paid it if I could, but I ain’t got that kinda scratch right now. I’m havin’ to lay workers off every day.”
“Well if you didn’t pay it, who did? An’ why did Poppy say it was you?”
“Beats me, pal. Maybe you should ask her that tonight too?”
“Yeah, maybe I will.”
I had a lot to think about as I left Ironsmith’s yard. It was getting dark out, and there was a fog on the river. The yard was on the docks, where a lot of the digging works for the new underground trains were going on. I looked out across the water. Here, with a cold wind blowing in across from the mainland, the air wasn’t so bad. You’d almost think the city was clean. But it wasn’t. There was something rotten at the core, something reaching out and putting its dirty fingers in people’s business. One of those complicated people, I was sure. I just couldn’t see how the pieces fit together from where I was standing. Maybe Poppy would help me see things more clearly.
“You go see a doctor yet?” was the first thing she asked me as I sat down. I was a little late. Traffic had been bad.
“I’m fine for now. I took the stuff you gave me. Look, I had a busy afternoon.”
A dwarf waitress showed up to take our order, and we both sat back. We had a booth to one side of the coffee house. It was a pretty nice joint, but almost everyone there was a non-human. I didn’t see Willow’s mom anywhere. More and more, that’s how places like this seemed to work now. Even just a couple months ago, you might go to a dwarf restaurant or an orc bar, and you’d see a smattering of humans or other races around. Everyone stuck to their own species, mostly, but it was getting better. Now things seemed to be going backwards, and the non-humans were sticking together. Something was changing in New Atlas, and I didn’t like the feel of it. “I took a trip uptown. Funny enough, what happened might make this conversation kinda redundant.”
“Oh?” She gave me that look again.
“I bumped into Beregond.”
“An’ he told me about McKinley.” I kept my voice low. I remembered what Lily had told me about ears everywhere, and I didn’t feel like being poisoned a second time.
“He told you…” she looked around, the leant in real close. “He told you about McKinley? About him not showin’ up to work for days?”
“Right. An’ we went to his house…”
“His house? Are you godsdamned crazy?”
“Relax, I had two cops with me.”
“Which cops?” Her face had gone pale and her eyes were wide. I started to feel kinda uncomfortable.
“Beregond, like I said, an’ his partner. That O’Neil guy.”
“Oh this is bad,” Poppy murmured, “this is bad, bad, bad.”
“The whole reason I wanted to talk to you outside the station, you big dummy,” she hissed, “is ’cause there ain’t anyone there I feel I can trust right now. An’ that includes Beregond an’ O’Neil. ”
“But I thought they were McKinley’s guys?” I was getting real confused now.
“They were, but they’re dirty as heck. Bribes, corruption, all sorts of stuff. Like most of the cops in this city. They woulda got drummed out with the rest, but they were smart enough to cut a deal.”
“But we went to McKinley’s house…”
“An’ he was gone, an’ the whole place was wrecked. An’ the same spider was on the wall. An’…”
“Garl save me from well-meaning humans,” Poppy sighed. Our coffees arrived and we both fell silent as the waitress filled our mugs and exchanged a couple pleasantries. When she was gone, Poppy gave me the full weight of her stare again. “You know they probably read the report from that crime scene, right?”
“So I bet they set it up to look the same.”
“To throw you off the scent, of course! They don’t want a guy like you snoopin’ around, askin’ questions. Did Beregond not seem a little too eager to spill all his information?”
I thought about it. “Actually, I guess he kinda did.”
“Look…” for just a moment, it looked like she was about to reach across the table and take my hand, but she stopped herself and put her hands under the table. “Look, Ragnar, this business with the force. Whatever you heard was probably the truth. Someone’s guttin’ the force, puttin’ their own guys in key positions. I think the new mayor’s involved somehow as well, but I ain’t know how since he only just got sworn in.”
“Transition period,” I said, “he’s been pullin’ strings for a while. Or…so I heard…”
“Can you trust the source of that information?”
She had a point. “Well either way, someone’s pullin’ some damn strings somewhere.”
“Someone always is, Ragnar. But this is too big for some private dick. You know that. You never wanted to be a hero.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“So go home. Go see a doctor tomorrow. Use some savings. Pay the rent for your office late this month. Whatever. Just get better.”
“I’ll do that.”
“‘Cause whatever’s goin’ on, it’s got nothin’ to do with that singer.” The way she said that last word made me wanna say something, to tell her nothing was going on, but she stopped me as I opened my mouth. “Don’t. I ain’t wanna know. I ain’t care no more. It’s too hard.”
She stood up. “I gotta go home. My folks’ll be wonderin’ where I am.”
“You didn’t tell ’em you were meetin’ me?”
“No. You ain’t exactly popular ’round Jonastown these days.”
“Did they expect me to kill all the kobolds? This ain’t the First Age. We all gotta live in peace now.”
“Tell that to the humans who put the signs on their doors,” Poppy said. She walked away without a backward glance, leaving her coffee steaming on the table next to mine. I didn’t feel much like finishing mine neither, so waited a few minutes then threw a couple bills on the table and made my way out. I got as far as the door when someone called me from the counter. It was the owner, a gnarly old dryad, and I turned to him with a frown. “You’re Ragnar Ulrichson, right?”
“Yeah, who’s askin’?”
“I got a call for you here.” He pointed to the phone on the wall behind the counter.
Only one other person knew I was here, so I knew who it was. “Hi, Harl. What’s the story?”
“See, you can be smart when you want,” came Ironsmith’s voice from the receiver. “Listen, I got a lead on that spider symbol.”
I lowered my voice. “Someone knows somethin’ about Svartheim?”
“No, but someone’s seen it somewhere else. One of the dwarves from the lodge, he says one of the orcs workin’ for him saw a ship moored near a warehouse on 12th Avenue. Says it wasn’t showin’ no lights, actin’ real suspicious.”
“So where’d he see the spider?”
“Says there were some guys movin’ around, carryin’ stuff off the ship. Humans, he thought, but he says it was dark. Anyway, they all had tattoos.”
“How’d he see tattoos if it was that dark?”
“Don’t ask me – I’m only reportin’ back what I heard. He says they had a tattoo like a spider on their shoulders.”
“An’ is that it?”
“Okay, well, it’s somethin’ anyway.”
“Yeah, that’s what I figured. Let me know if you want me to check the place out. There ain’t no record of a ship moored there, so it’s all off the books. We can get the Port Authority involved if we have to.”
“Somehow, I ain’t think that’ll make much difference to anythin’.” I thanked Ironsmith for his help and hung up the phone. Giving the dryad owner a friendly smile, I walked out onto the street. A warehouse on 12th Avenue. That didn’t narrow it down, and I knew Ironsmith had kept his directions vague so’s I wouldn’t do anything stupid. But the way I saw it, time was against me. Maybe Beregond and O’Neil had played me for a fool, but the bottom line was that McKinley was still missing. And so was Lily. I didn’t buy Poppy’s theory that the two cops had set up the house to look like the same crime scene – I didn’t think they’d have had time, and there were easier ways to throw me off the scent. There had to be some kinda connection, and the answer was in that warehouse. Just like always, I didn’t have a choice.
12th Avenue was a long street, running alongside the docks. I spent a long while clambering my way through fences and over walls, looking for what I thought might be the right warehouse, my hip playing up the whole time. The fog off the river was thick as heck now, a murky white blanket sweeping in to cover everything. Every now and then a car or a truck would sweep along the road and its headlamps would turn everything around me bright yellow, but mostly I was alone. I was starting to feel kina dizzy again, despite Poppy’s temporary cure, but in the dark, misty night, I couldn’t see the lingering shadows that were plaguing me. Black Lotus. That was something I never thought I’d have to deal with. Well, tomorrow I’d take Poppy’s advice. I’d find a doctor, pay whatever it cost, and I’d get myself fixed. Then I’d be ready to use whatever I found out tonight to get to the bottom of all this.
Halfway up 12th Avenue, the long, low shape of a warehouse loomed outta the fog and, moored at the dock beside it was a ship, equally huge and dark. It looked like an old rotted hulk at first, but as I got closer I could see it was seaworthy. Not that I knew much about it – I might have spent my whole life on the island of Manahills, but I knew next to nothing about the ocean. Technically this was the North River, actually, here on the west side of the island, but it didn’t seem much different to me, speaking as a man who’d once taken an involuntary dip in the thing. I crept across the concrete space in front of the warehouse. The gate was falling off its hinges, and there was trash and old wooden pallets everywhere. No one had used this place for a while, at least legitimately. There was a door on one side of the dark building, and it was open. I ducked down and stepped inside. It was pitch dark, and the first thing I did was walk right into a hanging cobweb. I nearly choked on the thing, and had to pull it off my face and fling it to the ground in disgust. I’d never liked cobwebs. Problem was, they were everywhere. I tried to make something out in the huge, black space in front of me, but it wasn’t until a truck went by outside and light shone through the high windows that I got a good look at the lay of the land. It was just a warehouse, long disused, choked with cobwebs. There was a high gantry all around with a couple ladders at either end. Some rusted cranes and other equipment up in the rafters. I noticed all this in a second – I might not be the smartest private dick in the world, but I can get a good fix on a place pretty quick – but the main thing that held my attention was two chairs in the middle of the room, each of which had a person tied to them. I rushed over right away. My eyes were starting to adjust now, and I didn’t need any light to see who they were: one was McKinley, unconscious with his chin dropped to his chest, and the other was Lily. When I reached her, she opened her eyes. I could see them sparkling in the darkness. “Ragnar,” she croaked, “is that you?”
“Yeah. Hold on, I’m gonna untie you.”
“No, you gotta get outta here. You’re in trouble. Bad trouble.”
“We gonna get you untied, then you’re gonna help me untie McKinley here an’ we’re all gonna get outta this place as quickly as we can.”
“It’s too late,” she whispered.
“It ain’t ever too late, toots.” I finally managed to get her ropes untied, and I pulled her free. She collapsed into my arms, and I helped her up to her feet. “Can you stand? What did they do to you?”
“Ragnar, you don’t understand. You got no idea how much danger you’re in. You shoulda never come here.”
“I know, but I was never one for takin’ good advice.”
“No. You’re way too stupid for that.”
I turned to her, my brow creasing in confusion. Her stance had changed again. “Excuse me? I thought I was savin’ you…”
“Poor, stupid Northman. You never know when to quit, do you? Sorry for leadin’ you on such a merry little dance.”
“Wha…” The breath left my lungs as I felt the sharp pain of a knife enter my side. I stared at Lily. I could see the smile on her face. Her white, sharp teeth. I staggered back, feeling the hot, wet blood pour from the wound. “What is this?” I managed to get out.
“This, my dear Ragnar, is a coup.” The lights came on. All along the gantry, people were standing, watching me. They were dark skinned, like Lily, dressed in suits, fedoras, with guns. Gangsters. I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. A couple of them slid down the ladders, moving with a kinda catlike grace. Oh yeah, I’d seen that before. I tried to flee to the door, but more of them were behind me, clawing their way through the cobwebs. They didn’t seem to mind them at all. I saw, in the light, the thousands of tiny spiders moving ’round all over the floor. Lily smiled her blood-red smile at me again as she reached up and pulled off her black wig, revealing short, cropped, silvery-white hair, and pointed ears.
I sank down to my knees. “Drow,” I whispered.
“That’s right,” she said as she sauntered over to me. She cupped my chin in her hands as she nodded to one of the other dark elves. He walked over to McKinley and shot him three times in the chest. The force of it knocked his chair over, and I could see the blood pooling beneath him. “We’ve had all the fun we can out of Svartheim,” Lily told me, “so now we’ve come here.”
“You’re behind this,” I whispered, “guttin’ the NAPD. You’re…you’re takin’ over…”
“See, you’re smart.” She squeezed my cheeks, almost affectionately. “I thought you might make a nice pet, Ragnar, but I realised I couldn’t break a man like you. So I tried to poison you, but you were too damn tough for that. So we had to lead you here, like a loyal bloodhound and, in the end, it proved more fun, don’t you think? I’m just sorry you won’t be able to stick around for the show.”
She let go and walked away, leaving me to sink helplessly to the ground. “What show?” I asked. I don’t know how she heard my voice across the room, but she did, and turned smartly on her heel.
“The transformation of your precious city,” she said, her eyes almost glowing, “New Atlas is ours now.”
I closed my eyes, and let the darkness take over.