/ Language: English / Genre:sf_detective / Series: Markhat

Hold The Dark

Frank Tuttle


Frank Tuttle

Hold The Dark

Prologue

Rain fell like an ocean upended. A frigid ice-rimed polar ocean, full of ghostly white whales and blue-veined icebergs; I pulled my raincoat tight at my neck and put my chin down on my chest and offered up a pair of unkind words to the cold gushing sky.

Beyond my narrow trash-strewn alley, out on Regent Street, nothing moved. Or, more precisely, if it moved I couldn’t see it through the whipping sheets of rain. The lone pair of streetlamps had been extinguished by the storm an hour ago, and I’d been reduced to watching the three candlelit street-side windows of Innigot’s Alehouse to see if anyone walked in front of them.

No one had. The halfdead, the Curfew and the Watch combined can’t clear Rannit’s streets after dark, most nights. But let a spring storm blow in from the south and sprout a few tornados and suddenly everyone stays tucked in bed and indoors ’til sunrise.

“Nobody out here but ogres and Markhats,” I muttered.

Thunder grumbled distant reply. I pulled my hat down lower against the spray and the splash, jammed my hands deep in my pockets and pondered just going home. The man I was looking for could stroll past wearing a clown-suit and banging a drum, and I might see him, and I might not.

All you’re doing is getting wet, said a snide little voice in my head. Getting wet for nothing. Darla Tomas, she of the soft brown eyes and jet black hair and the quick easy smile, is laid out on a slab at the crematorium, dead or worse than dead. Martha Hoobin is still missing. And the best you can do, said the voice, is hide in this alley and drip with rain.

In my right-hand raincoat pocket, the huldra stirred, brushed my fingertips. I yanked my hand away, pulled it out of my pocket entirely when the huldra jerked as if to follow.

At that moment, a shape darted past the first of Innigot’s three windows. A single shadow, one hand holding down its hat, tall but hunkered down against the gale.

I froze. Sheets of rain twisted.

The shadow crossed in front of the second window. I started counting. Innigot’s door was between the second and third windows. If the silhouette passed before the third window, I’d merely seen a vampire or a lunatic or any other of a dozen unsavory types, heading for trouble out in the rain. But, if someone went into Innigot’s…

There, in the dark, a door-sized slice of weak yellow light appeared, widened, vanished.

“Got you,” I said. I watched the street for a moment longer. No one moved. No shadow crossed Innigot’s third window. No other shadows followed in his wake. My mystery man had taken the bait, braved the storm and made his entrance.

I stepped out of my hiding place against the alley wall. Rain beat down on me so hard the spray went in my mouth, and I tasted Rannit’s sky-sooty, bitter and foul. I spit it out, shut my mouth and started walking.

At the end of the alley, I stopped, reached into my right-hand raincoat pocket, and found the wax-sealed terrapin shell Mama called a huldra. It was warm in my hand, and it quivered, as if it were packed tight with angry hornets. Crumpled below it was Mama’s hex. I pulled the hex out, took it in both hands and ripped the paper in half.

The paper screamed a tiny scream as it tore.

Now Mama knew I’d found our tall thin man. I had promised Mama Hog I’d wait. I’d promised her I would tear the hex and watch Innigot’s and wait for the lads from the Narrows.

There’d be fifty or more of them, all armed, all ready to back me up when I faced down the man who’d killed Darla, taken Martha, taken who knew how many others. Fifty strong, silent Hoobins and Olafs and Benks and Rowheins. A vengeful, furious army, well fit for the night’s dark work.

I’d promised Mama I would wait. I’d promised Darla I would keep her safe.

Promises. Such fragile things.

I dropped Mama’s spent hex, let the whimpering scraps wash away spinning into a flooded rushing gutter.

I reached again into my pocket and closed my bare hand tight about the huldra and marched out into the empty street. The huldra shook, went hot in my hand. Mama had warned me never, ever to touch the thing with bare skin.

I gripped the huldra tighter, heard mad laughter in the sky.

“Martha Hoobin,” I said. “It’s time to come home.”

Chapter One

I hadn’t known Martha Hoobin’s name, the day I returned to Rannit after a long kidney-bruising stage ride from the south. No, that day had been sunny and bright, even if the last feeble ghost of winter still managed to breathe a hint of chill in the air.

But I wasn’t bothered. I’d found a mother’s son, found him alive and well and running a hotel in Weeson, halfway to the sea. He-and about six thousand others-had been left there when the War ended, with nothing but their boots and a cheerful admonition that Rannit was a two-hundred-and-fifty day walk north, and good luck.

The son had, wisely, looked for work instead. And he’d been lucky and found it, and he’d been smart and kept it. Now he was running the place.

He’d been sending letters home, too, he said, confused that a finder all the way from Rannit had sought him out. Hadn’t Mother received his letters?

Hadn’t Mother gotten the money he’d been sending, on the first day of each month?

I assured him that while Mother had not, someone certainly had.

You’d think that surviving the War would teach a man certain things-don’t volunteer, don’t go first, don’t put wads of cash in paper envelopes and ask a mob of strangers to take it cross-country-but you’d be wrong.

I shook my head, and counted out the coins on my desk. The kid had paid me, and then some, so I’d been able to let his mother keep her meager stack. And while I hadn’t enjoyed the long stage ride to Weeson and back, it was, surprisingly, good to be home.

Three-leg Cat rubbed against my calf and purred from under the desk. He was fat and midnight glossy. Mama Hog had spoiled him in my absence.

I opened a drawer, hid the money and leaned back in my chair and at that very moment someone came a-knocking at my door.

It wasn’t Mama Hog’s knock, which is always accompanied by a gruff yell of “Boy, you in there?” and a turn of the latch. No, this was a man’s slow knock-one-two-three-four-that came from three-quarters of the way up the door.

I swung my feet off my desk and rose. No rest for the wicked.

“Come on in,” I said, shooing Three-leg Cat into the room behind my office. “We’re open.”

My door opened and in came the Brothers Hoobin.

I nearly bolted.

The Hoobins, to a man, are large men. The least of the brothers, young Borod, stood a full head, and then some, over me, and I’m not a dwarf. Add to that their well-fed foundry-toned musculature, their silent, direct gazes, and by the time the fourth and largest Hoobin piled wordlessly into my tiny ten-by-ten office, I had decided someone had purchased, just for me, a first-class beating.

Then I smelled the bread. Saw it, too, wrapped in a clean white cloth and gripped tight in the calloused sooty fingers of the largest of the giants.

I relaxed. I know scores of people who might send me a thrashing, but none who’d bake bread just to celebrate the event.

I nodded at the largest, who sidled between his siblings-I’d decided they were brothers from the shape of their wide-set blue eyes and the identical widow’s peaks in their short-cropped ink-black hair-coughed nervously, and spoke.

“I hight Ethel,” he said, his voice a bass profundo that sounded more Troll than human. He pronounced his name et-hell. “These be my brothers. Lowrel. Disel. Borod.”

As he spoke the names, each brother nodded, once and quickly.

Then he was silent.

“I am Markhat. I’m a finder by trade. I assume that’s why you’ve come to see me.”

Lowrel poked Ethel in the side, and the bigger man placed the bread carefully down on my desk.

“Missus Hog said you could help us.” He rummaged in his pocket, withdrew a black cloth bag that bulged with coin. “Missus Hog said to tell you our need is great.”

I sighed. Mama Hog would say that all right.

“Then let’s talk.” I motioned toward the single chair that sat before my desk. “Sit, if you will. Ask your brothers to make themselves comfortable too. Sorry there aren’t seats for you all.”

Ethel sat. His brothers lined themselves up against my walls and crossed their hands in front of their waists. I could almost see their mama teaching them their manners.

I sat and met Ethel’s sky-blue gaze. His eyes looked out of a face that, despite a thorough rag-wash, still bore signs of coal soot and a dozen tiny round burns. His enormous hands were calloused, his fingernails stained black with burnt coal at the ends and the edges. Even his clothes, I realized, showed evidence of tiny burns, all over. That and the ox-size muscles-a foundry, I decided. He works down on Iron Row, hammering out boiler plates, pulley-wheels and bridge-bolts ten hours a day, two jerks an hour.

The loaf of bread between us gave off heat and a heavenly scent, but I pushed it gently aside.

“Tell me about it,” I said. “Start at the beginning.”

Ethel nodded, and began to speak.

It was good bread. No, it was excellent bread, better than I’d tasted in years. Just like Mom used to bake, I told Ethel, and I meant every word.

The Hoobins were gone, and Three-leg Cat and I were left to nibble at crumbs and ponder their tale.

I’d placed the Hoobins not long after Ethel began to speak. They were New People, dubbed so by the Regent, just after the War. Shining, bold examples of the prosperous times to come, the first of an endless wave of farmers, shepherds and trappers come to the cities to find wealth and a new way of life.

Truth is, of course, that during the War the Regency flooded the farmlands south of Rannit to build a reservoir. These New People, then, had come home from fighting Trolls to find their homes beneath a lake, and their families huddled in miserable shanty-towns downwind of the stockyards.

The War had very nearly resumed, sans Trolls.

The Regent, panicked, had given the New People a half dozen streets right in the heart of Rannit. From Newkeep to Drestle and all the way over to the Old Marches, became the property of the flooded veterans.

I’d not come home yet. I hear the New People took one look at the tumbledown wrecks the Regent had cleared for them and threatened to take up their arms against the High House.

Threatened, that is. In the end they’d put down their swords and set about making a life for themselves, and I hadn’t heard much about them since.

But now I’d met the brothers Hoobin. I knew a few things. I knew the Hoobins owned an entire building, halfway down Newkeep, on the north side. I knew their father was dead, their mother was elf-struck and bedridden, and that Ethel was in charge.

And I knew about their sister. Martha-pronounced Mart-ha-had left for work a week ago that day, and never returned home.

Three-leg Cat leapt from my desk to my lap and began to knead his claws against my leg. He purred, and I scratched his ugly head.

I’d run through the usual questions. Martha had no gentlemen friend, hadn’t given any gentlemen friend the boot recently, hadn’t ever expressed the slightest interest in leaving the house on Newkeep. She was entirely devoted to her mother and family, preferring to cook and clean and change Mama Hoobin’s bed over all lesser forms of amusement.

The interview produced only a single nasty shock, and it’s probably a good thing I was addled and sore from the stagecoach ride. I was a few words behind Ethel, so when he told me where Martha worked I failed to lift my right eyebrow and produce a sly grin.

“She sews at the Velvet,” said Ethel. “Sews, she does. For good wage.”

The Velvet is, of course, south-side Rannit’s premier house of negotiable affection. Fancy place. Columns at the door. Ogres on the stoop. Doesn’t allow the likes of me inside unless it’s to collect the trash-bins.

“She sews,” I repeated, keeping a careful eye on the massive, suddenly clenched fists of the brothers Hoobin.

“She sews,” repeated Ethel. “Martha a master seamstress. One day she open her own shop, sew for ladies of distinction.” He waited for me to say anything less than complimentary.

Mama Markhat didn’t raise any fools. I let the moment pass. Maybe Martha really was a seamstress.

I hear the Velvet is full of seamstresses.

“She is the daughter of our mother, of our father,” said Ethel, as if that would explain the unimpeachable purity of Martha’s soul. “She sews. She does not leave home, without word, without warning. Martha does not do this thing.”

I might have asked a smaller man about the diameter and luminous intensity of his sister’s halo. But I considered the restrained rural nature of the Hoobin sense of humor and merely nodded.

“Martha did not go, of her own will and wish,” intoned Ethel. His brothers nodded in solemn unison. “She is not that person.”

You get that a lot, as a finder. The people you’re asked to find, according to those who’ve lost them, would never ever have just run away. Why would they? They love us here at home.

And yet, half the time, that’s just what I find.

I didn’t tell the Hoobins that. I took a handful of coin as a retainer against expenses. I sent them home with an assurance I would start a search, and nothing more.

I shooed Three-leg out of my lap, stood and stretched. The week-long stagecoach ride was taking its toll. I needed to walk, there was still plenty of daylight before Curfew and the coins hidden in my desk meant I had a client who deserved a bit of attention.

“Time to go downtown,” I said to Three-leg, who merely arched his back and gave me a hurt look. “Got to earn my pay. I am my father’s daughter, after all.”

Three-leg turned his gaze upon my door and glided airily away.

Chapter Two

Halfway to the Velvet, ten blocks from home, I realized I should have taken a cab.

My legs ached. My feet burned in my boots. The small of my back was shot with stabbing pains each time I took a step.

A week in a stage does that to you.

I darted across the street to find some shade, dodging the ever-present ogres and their manure carts, all headed for the foundries and the tanneries along the river. Out in the country, I’d managed to forget what Rannit’s sooty air smelled like these days. But huffing and puffing my way uptown, I was reminded with each step.

There were crowds on every sidewalk, carriages and wagons on every street. I even saw a blue-suited Watchman upright, awake and peering from a stoop with an expression that mimicked concerned vigilance. I nearly walked up to him to convince myself it wasn’t a wax mannequin erected in my absence by that scheming Regent.

Of course, I was a long way from home. While heading ten blocks north from my place doesn’t actually qualify you to claim you’re in the good part of town, the nature of the streets does change once you pass the cutlery shops that line Argen.

People meet your gaze head-on, like they’ve got nothing to hide. Shabby men don’t leap out of doorways, waving so-called whammy papers in your face and demanding a pair of jerks to remove the awful scribbled curse. You’re not likely to be followed, should you take a short-cut down the wrong narrow alley, and even less likely to be picked up by the dead wagon the next morning, as the Watch filled their wide beds with luckless Curfew-breakers bound for the hungry crematoriums that line the Brown River.

No, you’ll see none of that. But you will see unbroken glass in the shop-front windows, and smiling bankers doffing tall black stovepipe hats to the hoop-skirted ladies. And if you’re accosted at all, it’s likely to be by a soft-spoken haberdasher who’ll step calmly from his door as you pass and offer to fit you for a new jacket. “I have one perfect for sir,” I was told. “Roomy at the shoulders, tight at the waist. Won’t you have a look?”

I would not, and he merely nodded and withdrew.

Now that’s civilization.

I set my jaw and counted streets, urging my aching feet onward. I crossed Sellidge and Vanth and Remorse and Bathways.

I dodged a pair of hairless, gauze-wrapped Reformist street preachers on Fingel and hit Broadway. Broadway is lined with blood-oaks older than Rannit. All the oaks bear axe-scars on their trunks, where it is said that mobs of desperate townsfolk tried and failed to fell the behemoths for firewood during the harsh winter and ill-timed coal miner’s strike of sixty-nine.

I eased my pace and counted monstrous trees. I passed beneath sixteen scarred blood-oaks before reaching the intersection of Broadway and Hent. And there, at the corner, loomed the Velvet-three slate-roofed, glass-windowed, brass-worked, brick-walled stories of steamy adolescent fantasies come absolutely positively true.

The big oak front doors faced south, toward me. The Velvet was set back from the street a stone's throw, surrounded by lush meadow-grass, bubbling fountains and knee-high beds of fireflowers. A flight of wide, shallow marble stairs led from the cobblestone walkway to the brass-worked oaken doors. A single bored ogre leaned against the door, his arms folded across his chest, his eyes ahead and unblinking.

You seldom see ogres dressed in anything more than a sarong and sandals. The Velvet's doorman, though, wore a long-cut red tail-coat, black dress pants, black boots and white silk shirt with ruffles at the sleeves. All specially made and generously cut, of course, to accommodate his bulging ogre muscles and furry ogre frame.

I emerged from the shade of the last blood-oak and marched toward the Velvet. The ogre's wet brown gaze picked me up as I darted across Hent, and he watched me every step of the way after.

I eased onto the cobblestone walk, took a deep breath. The air smelled of fireflowers and a faint gentle perfume, and it was cooler there than even in the blood-oak’s shade.

I ambled through the flower-beds, halted at the foot of the stair. The ogre hadn’t moved.

I nodded and lowered my gaze briefly in greeting. Which may have been a mistake. I doubted that the Velvet’s clients were terribly concerned with matters of ogreish etiquette. But it never hurts to make friends.

He didn’t blink, or return my eye-dip.

I shrugged. “May I enter?”

He let my words hang for a moment. Then, with a great show of elaborate grace, he doffed his three-cornered, feathered hat, stepped out of my path, and motioned me to the doors with a grand, easy sweep of his clawed four-fingered hand.

“Enner, ’ordship,” he growled, grinning around his tusks. “Enner.”

The doors opened as I hit the top step, and then I was inside, leaving sarcastic ogres and the clatter and rumble of downtown Rannit behind.

The doors shut. You know the Velvet doors are shut because all the street noise stops. You take a breath and the scent of the beds of fireflowers is gone, but something sweeter and more subtle rides the air.

My jaw dropped. I’d been inside the High House, right after the War, but the Velvet put the Regent’s digs to shame.

I was alone for perhaps ten heartbeats. I breathed the sweet air, gawked at the gleaming marble tiles, the dark rich walnut paneled walls and the general glowing opulence of the place.

The gold-plated coat-hooks by the door were probably worth more than my entire building, fifteen blocks away.

One of the three tall white doors on the far side of the foyer opened, and a woman entered. It was then I realized the Velvet kept a sorcerer in its hire.

He or she knew the business. The woman that approached was absolutely the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen, human, Elvish or otherwise.

She glided to stand before me. She was blonde and tall and had eyes the color of the high noon sky in the country.

“How may we serve you, sir?”

I mopped sweat off my brow, and I had to clear my throat twice before words would come.

“You could turn down the charm a few notches. I’m not here as a client. I’m a finder, looking for one of your associates. Her name is Martha Hoobin. I’m told she was a seamstress here.”

The room tilted and I jerked, as though the floor had dropped an inch or two.

When I looked back up, she was still there, still beautiful, but I wasn’t mentally counting my life savings and wondering if all of it would buy me an hour.

“Hooga,” she called out, not to me. “Wait here.”

The twin to the ogre at the door came thump-thumping from behind an alcove concealed by thick red drapes. He moved to stand at my side.

The woman turned and retreated, gliding through her door without a glance or word of farewell.

My heart broke. I took a deep breath, mopped more sweat away and turned toward the well-dressed ogre.

“Greetings, Hooga,” I said, dipping my gaze. “I am Markhat. How do you stand that mojo, all the time?”

Hooga didn’t reply, but he did dip his gaze and grin.

Maybe I’d made a friend after all.

The doors at the far end of the room opened again, and another woman stepped out.

The blonde lady had floated in, all promise and lace and gauze. This new arrival was a brunette, clad in a high-necked brown shirt and comfortable-looking black pants. She was tall and thin, and she was not smiling.

The mojo lingered, though, and it did its best to turn my thoughts from purity, which meant it was reduced to the arcane equivalent of whispering things like “see how she wears that pencil seductively behind her right ear” and “those pants are rather tight, in a loose sort of way, are they not?”

She crossed the foyer, her sensible black shoes tap-tapping a quick cadence on the marble floor. She got within a pace of me, halted, smiled and stuck out her hand-not flat, palm down for milord to kiss, but held out to shake.

“Hello,” she said, in a good strong voice. “I’m Darla. I keep the books here. Wendy tells me you’re asking questions about Martha Hoobin.”

I took her hand and shook it.

“I am. My name is Markhat. I’m a finder. Martha’s brothers hired me.”

“They waited long enough.” She freed my hand. “Shall we talk in my office?”

I nodded, and she looked at Hooga and dipped her gaze. “Thank you, Hooga,” she said. “I don’t think Mister Markhat will need a beating today. I’ll call out if he changes his mind.”

Hooga snuffled a chuckle and shuffled off to his post. Darla turned her big brown gaze back to me and motioned toward the leftmost door.

“If you’ll come this way.”

“Gladly,” I replied. My mouth was still nearly too dry to talk. She smiled at me and set off, leading the way.

The white door opened after she tapped out a complicated knock and mouthed a long harsh word. No one was on the other side.

The door shut itself behind us, and I heard it click as the spell locked it down.

“You’ve got more spells here than the High House,” I said. Our steps fell quiet on thick red carpet. We walked not quite shoulder to shoulder in a long and narrow hall.

“They cost a fortune, but so does trouble,” she replied, as we ambled along. The hall was high-ceilinged, lit only by lamps set every ten paces or so along the wall. Doors showed here and there, and moving light at bottoms of some, but absolutely not a sound. “You’re not exactly being held in thrall though. Most men couldn’t resist Wendy and the conjure at once.”

She wasn’t looking at me, so I mopped sweat and wiped my hand on my pant leg.

“I was in the Army for eight years. I’ve had more hexes cast on me than the Court Stone. They don’t stick very well anymore.”

Darla laughed. “I’ll have to tell Wendy. She was nearly in tears when she found me. No one has ever noticed the conjure. She thinks she’s losing her touch.”

I shook my head. “Not at all,” I said. “Tell her that my priestly vows forbade me to view her in other than a pure and sisterly light.”

She halted at a door, turned, put her hand on the plain brass knob. “Do come in, Father. Don’t mind the clutter.”

She went, and I followed.

Darla’s office was small-about, in fact, the size of mine. She had a battered oak desk that showed scorch marks on one side, a rolling leather-backed chair that squeaked when she moved it, a cracked crystal flower vase for holding pencils and a dented brass spittoon set to the right of the desk for a wastebasket. A magelamp hung from the ceiling on a plain steel chain, the walls were lined with bookshelves and the bookshelves were lined with ledgers. Each ledger bore a neat handwritten label-a string of nonsense numbers and a date, written out in a neat, precise hand that I knew immediately was Darla’s.

Her desk was covered with ledger sheets and a pile of ragged-edged store receipts and one of those newfangled adding dinguses that the Army introduced a few years back-colored beads on wires in a square wood frame.

A second chair faced Darla’s desk. Like the one in my office, it lacked wheels, and was probably intended to provide a seat without making its occupant so comfortable that they overstayed their welcome.

Other than a new black coat on a hook on the back of her door, that was it.

Darla smiled, moved behind her desk, sat and motioned for me to do the same. “I’ll help however I can. Ask away.”

I sat. “You know Martha Hoobin.” I knew she did. She’d even pronounced her name correctly-Mart-ha, not Martha-out in the foyer.

“She’s our best seamstress,” replied Darla.

“Seamstress,” I said, with no particular emphasis. Darla laughed. The magelamp’s warm gold light flashed in her eyes.

“Martha had a gift for sewing, and an eye for clothes. The outfit Wendy was wearing-that was one of Martha’s. An early one, in fact. She’s improved since then.”

“How long has she been with the Velvet?”

“Six years. We were friends,” she added. “I’ll miss her.”

I nodded. “So you don’t think she’s coming back?”

“Would you be here, if she were just away on holiday? Would she have left her brothers without a word if she ever meant to return?”

“I don’t know her, but from what I’ve heard, probably not.”

Darla shrugged, and the twinkle went out of her eyes. “She left without collecting her pay. Do you find that unusual?”

“I do.” I meant it. The Hoobins hadn’t mentioned that. And while I have seen people walk away from money, I’ve only seen them do it when they’re terrified. Finding that terror. That’s the tricky part.

I leaned back in my chair and sighed. “You’re her friend. So tell me. Who is she? Who is Martha Hoobin?”

Darla leaned forward. She took the pencil from behind her ear and began to doodle on a scrap of green ledger-paper, and I doubt she even realized she was doing it.

“Martha.” She frowned as she scribbled. “Martha, well, Martha is a Hoobin.”

I laughed.

“You’ve met her brothers?”

“All ten tons of them,” I replied. “Stalwart lads, each one. You could cut the air of their rural stability with a knife.”

Darla nodded. “That’s a big part of Martha. Work hard, never complain, be polite-”

“Whoa,” I said, gently. “I got all that from the brothers. What I want to know from you are the things they didn’t know, or wouldn’t tell.”

“The deep dark secrets all us girls share you mean?”

“The very ones.”

Darla frowned. “Damn.”

“Oh no. Surely you don’t mean there aren’t any.”

She shrugged. “Martha was a saint.” She noticed the pencil for the first time, and put it down on the desk, neatly aligned beside the ledger. “She didn’t drink. She didn’t carouse. She sewed, she fed birds in the Park at lunch, she loved violin music and all the girls liked her.” Darla spread her hands. “Hooga and Hooga brought her ogre hash every Armistice Day,” she said. “You know anybody ogres actually like?”

I didn’t. I nodded no.

“She ate it, Markhat. If it tasted like it smelled, it was awful. But Hooga and Hooga were standing there watching, and she thanked them and tore off a chunk and ate it right there. Ate Gods know what just so she wouldn’t hurt an ogre’s feelings.” She sighed. “That’s Martha Hoobin. Good to the bone. Now where does a person like that run away to?”

“I don’t know. Yet. And it’s entirely possible she didn’t leave of her own volition.”

“True. But Martha wasn’t stupid. You wouldn’t catch her roaming the streets after Curfew, or counting her pay out on the street. Don’t think she was some kind of wide-eyed New People bumpkin, finder. She hadn’t been in Rannit long, but she knew the lay of the land.”

I leaned forward. The mojo still whispered suggestively in my ears, and I caught myself breathing in her faint, subtle perfume and admiring the way her face moved when she spoke.

“Let’s talk about men. Did Martha have any I should know about?”

Darla laughed, showed her teeth. “Aside from the Hoogas, no, she had none. The Hoobins are Balptists. Ever heard of that?”

“Balptists? Nope. I assume it’s a faith?”

“It is. The New People brought it with them. Balptists marry Balptists, or not at all. Martha was opting for ‘not at all’.”

I lifted an eyebrow, kept my mouth shut.

“It wasn’t men Martha had a problem with,” said Darla. “Just husbands. I think a lifetime of picking up after her brothers left the thought of doing the same for a husband less than appealing.”

“I gather Martha pretty much ran the Hoobin household.”

“She cooked, she cleaned, she handled the money,” replied Darla. “And I suspect she handled it well. Have you ever been inside the Hoobin house?”

“Not yet.”

“You’ll be surprised. They’ve done well. The Regent may have done them a favor, flooding their farms.”

“That’s the kind of favor the Regent is best at.”

“You’re a cynic,” she replied. “I like that.” She picked up her pencil and twirled it around. “Tell you what. I’ve already asked around, but no one knew anything about Martha. But I’ll ask again. And I’ll see if I can round up any of her things that might still be in the sewing room.”

“That would be helpful. I’ll come back around in a day or so.”

“Don’t bother. The Hoogas will be told not to let you back in.” She lifted a hand before I could speak. “I don’t run the place, finder. The management won’t admit pesky finders who set Wendy to crying and leave without spending a fortune. You’re a waste of good conjure, you are. Don’t know rare beauty when you see it.” She smiled when she said it, leaned forward and batted those big brown eyes. The lingering charm gave me one last good flush, and a fresh layer of sweat. Darla leaned back in her chair and laughed again.

“Surely I can wait outside until you head home some night?” I asked, with as much dignity as I could muster. “Or will the Hoogas have orders to smite me on the street?”

“That depends on your manners and your deportment,” she replied. “Keep that in mind. Anyway, I might just come and see you. You have an office, I assume?”

“I do.” I made a note to carry a clean handkerchief, when next I called on Darla. I sweated more in the Velvet than I had on all-day marches. “Down on Cambrit. It isn’t the best part of town. If you come, come early. You can wait at Mama Hog’s if I’m out.”

“Cambrit’s not so bad,” she said. “And I’ve heard of Mistress Hog.” She gave me a sly sideways look. “She your lady love?”

Blame it on the mojo, but a mercifully fleeting image of Mama Hog wrapped in a gauzy nightgown ran hobnailed through my mind.

I stood. “Miss Darla,” I said. Mama Hog waved gauzy veils at me from the dimmest corners of my mind. “They don’t make a charm that strong.”

She stood too. “I’m sorry,” she said, offering her hand, to shake. “About the mojo. I just couldn’t resist.”

I took her hand. It was warm and dry and her fingers slipped easily through mine, like we’d held hands a thousand times before.

She spoke a nonsense word, and I felt the last of the mojo slip off my shoulders and well and truly fall away.

“Now you’ve got nothing to blame but the innate depravity of your soul. Still think I’m pretty?”

I gobbled something complimentary and let go her hand. We stepped out into the hall, hadn’t gone three steps before Wendy popped out of a door and pretended she didn’t know we were there.

Wendy had an extensive wardrobe, though it didn’t appear to take up much room. She turned, spoke, batted her eyes and was about to join us when Darla grabbed my hand again and gave her a glare. “Ease off, sister,” she said. “This one is mine. Aren’t you, honey-chunks?”

Wendy giggled. I left, and the Hoogas even dipped their gazes in farewell.

And-God help me-that was Darla.

Chapter Three

I left the Velvet a scant hour before Curfew. In my neighborhood, Curfew doesn’t mean much. Mama Hog’s customers still come and go. The streets are still thick with layabouts, wobbling drunks and assorted ne’er-do-wells. Even the street minstrels don’t pack up before the Watch starts bellowing and waving truncheons in their faces.

Here, though, blocks from Cambrit, people were already closing up shop and heading home. The street was choked with rattling carriages and cursing drivers. I had to plow through passers-by with a shoulder and a glare.

I’d gotten one last thing from Darla, on my way out. She’d been with Martha, that last time she had set out for home. Darla said they’d walked together as far as Waylon Street and there, Darla had taken a cab north towards home, while Martha continued on foot south and west.

I’d lifted an eyebrow at that. Darla had explained that the New People neighborhood really began at Darton. Once Martha reached that, she was perfectly safe.

I’d reserved comment on the thought of any part of Rannit being perfectly safe. But it did make a sort of sense-four blocks through a moderately good part of Rannit, then another seven home, surrounded by smiling Balptist faces who doubtlessly were all paragons of simple country virtue, or terrified of the brothers Hoobin, or both. It didn’t sound dangerous put like that.

So I walked that way too. I set a brisk pace, fast enough so I wasn’t mowed down, slow enough to take in the sights.

Four blocks. Four blocks of haberdashers and jewelers and shoemakers and sweetshops. I counted four Watchmen in the first two blocks alone. Their tall, blunt blue hats and ambling gait made them easy to find, even in a milling crowd.

I nodded to a smiling banker and pondered Martha’s fate. She wasn’t yanked kicking and screaming into an alley-too many people, of exactly the sort who wouldn’t just turn away and pretend they’d seen nothing. No, someone would shout, and another, and soon there’d be Watch whistles and running feet and swinging Watch-sticks and that would be the end of any would-be alley-grabber.

So I walked. Had a rough time crossing the street at Mayben, had to wait with a mob for a white-gloved traffic-master and his whistle.

Had Martha, perhaps, done this every day?

I turned, met the eyes of the six or seven people nearest me. “I’m looking for a woman,” I said, loud enough that they could hear. A few people guffawed, or exchanged “Oh, no, another nut” looks, but I ignored them. “She used to walk home this way, every day. Short lady, blonde hair, thirty years, spoke with a New People accent. Anybody know her?”

Shrugs and nods, all meaning no.

The traffic-master blew his whistle, halted traffic and waved the mob of pedestrians forward.

I stayed behind, repeated my question again, three more times.

No one had anything but shrugs and suspicious glares. I’d even tugged at the traffic-master’s sleeve. Put my question to him. “Hell no,” he said, in a voice nearly as loud as his whistle, “and shove off.”

I shoved. I found a wall and leaned against it. The sun was getting low. Curfew was coming, and I was a long way from home.

So I gritted my teeth, set my jaw and decided it was time for drastic action.

I found the nearest blunt Watchman’s hat, dove into the crowd and steered toward it.

I was hoping that maybe, just maybe, Martha’s strange rapport with repellant, hostile creatures ran the range from ogres all the way down to the Watch.

Turns out, it had.

The second Watchman I spoke to remembered Martha. They’d rarely spoken, he said, but she’d always smiled at him as she passed.

He was a young man, my second Watchman. A vet, only two years on the Watch, which may explain why he was still human. And though neither the Hoobins nor Darla had stressed the point, I surmised Martha was unlikely to go unnoticed by any young human male.

“Pretty, is she?”

I swear the man blushed. “Yessir. Nice too. Didn’t ever seem like she was in a hurry either.”

I’d nodded, hoping he’d go on, hoping he’d idly mention seeing Martha forced at sword point into a nearby shop or carried bodily into a carriage emblazoned with the name and address of the owner.

He didn’t. Yes, he’d seen her pass, most days. No, he couldn’t recall the exact day he’d last seen her. No, she’d never been in the company of anyone else, neither had she ever seemed nervous nor upset or even mildly perturbed.

He’d then surprised me by offering to ask his fellows the same questions. His name was Rupert, and I could find him again at the same street corner tomorrow.

After that, I hoofed it west. The tall red brick buildings swept the cobblestone street with shadow, and the sky took on that brief blaze of crimson that heralds sunset. By the time I reached the plain, well-scrubbed buildings of the New People night had fallen and the Curfew bell had rung.

And that last lingering bell toll cleared the streets, at least in this part of town.

I shoved my hands in my pockets, walked on and whistled. My shoes made loud clop-cloppings on the pavement. A chilly wind sprang up and walked with me, sending paper scraps rustling behind me, setting neatly trimmed boxleaf shrubs tossing and making dry whispers in the dark.

All in all, I was wishing I’d taken a cab. Not that I was afraid a passing halfdead might take a fancy to my upturned coat collar and decide I might do as a snack. But I wasn’t getting much out of this jaunt through the Hoobins’ neighborhood, my feet were tired and now I’d missed supper at Eddie’s.

There were lights in most windows, and the scents of a thousand hearty suppers mingled with the shy wind. I’d expected the New People neighborhoods to be poor but well scrubbed. Instead, I had to look hard to see any signs of poverty. The doors were all square and plumb and light didn’t show at the edges. The windows sported new glass and frilly curtains and outside each one hung wood shutters painted to match all the rest. The stoops were all swept, and though I did see a child’s carved horse left out on one I never saw a drunk or a weed-head or even a smashed wine bottle.

But the street was empty. That bothered me. If it was deserted or nearly so that evening Martha walked it, she could have been snatched. It would have to have been done quickly, it would have to have been done quietly, but there were ways to do both, and men who would do them.

Why? I looked about me, at the warm homey glows from all those ranks of windows. Why Martha Hoobin?

Curtains jerked as they were hastily drawn back. So. The street might be quiet, but that didn’t mean no one was watching.

I squinted into the shadows, found a house number, tried to figure where I was in relation to the Hoobin place.

It wasn’t far. My feet sent up a fresh pair of aches to let me know what they thought about that judgment, but I waved at my audience and moved on.

Maybe, thought a small petty corner of my mind, maybe they’ll have supper done by now.

I found the Hoobin place, banged on the door, waited while windows flared with sudden lights, dogs began to bark and I heard the sound of tramping feet behind the door.

A panel opened in the door, and a pair of suspicious blue eyes regarded me from a cautious distance.

The eyes went wide.

“The finder!” shouted a Hoobin. Young Borod, I decided. “Ethel, it’s the finder!”

Latches clicked, and bolts clacked, and I counted the release of four different locks before young Borod flung the massive door open and hauled me indoors with a frantic beefy handshake.

His face was aglow, but that didn’t last long.

“You did not find our Martha, no?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Not yet.”

Ethel came clambering down the stairs to the right of the door. He was wiping his mouth with a napkin. The other brothers were fast behind him.

“Finder,” said Borod. “It is after Curfew. What is the matter?”

I blinked in the light. My shoes scraped on clean white tiles.

“Nothing,” I replied, trying not ogle. Tiles on the floor, walls of smooth new plaster, doors framed out in oak and cherry. “I’ve been out asking around, came up with a few more questions for you and your brothers.”

“After Curfew?”

I shrugged. Let them think I was Markhat the fearless finder, heedless of the halfdead. That was better than telling them I lost track of time and, by the way, I could use a bite of supper.

“Finders can’t keep banker’s hours. Forgive me for interrupting your meal.”

“You will join us of course,” said Ethel. “We talk and eat, no?”

I nodded, and there was maybe just a ghost of a grin on his wide burn-marked face.

“Yes,” I said, and Ethel turned and led the way.

“Martha did all the cooking,” said Ethel. I suppose he was apologizing for the rudeness of the fare. He need not have, and I told him so.

Roast beef, hot and plentiful, and steaming butter-filled sweet potatoes too. The Hoobins ate with the gusto one normally doesn’t see outside barnyards at feeding time. I noted that “leftovers” were a concept unknown to our brave New People as every morsel of every dish quickly vanished.

Borod pushed back his empty plate and belched, and Disel caught him an open-handed slap on the back of his head. Ethel returned the blow to Lowrel with about double the force, and then everyone laughed, punched each other in the shoulder and stood.

“We talk in great room,” said Ethel. He nodded at Borod, who sighed and set about clearing the table.

And to the great room we went.

We went down a hall filled with doors, two on each side, and then down the stairs, and then through a set of tall double-doors that creaked and screeched as they opened. Disel and Lowrel darted about lighting lamps, and Ethel motioned me toward a chair.

“Nice room.” I meant it. They’d apparently gutted the bottom two floors of the building, just to make this one room. The walls were stone and plaster, rough-hewn beams spanned the far-off ceiling, and a monstrous soapstone fireplace and hearth covered most of one wall.

I sat. The Hoobins took their places. Three chairs were empty-one for hapless Borod, who had garnered kitchen duty, a dainty one that must have been Mama Hoobin’s before she’d had her stroke and a well-upholstered cherry-framed Regency style recliner that I knew instantly was Martha’s.

Ethel’s chair wasn’t central to the fireplace. Martha’s was. And beside her chair sat a small Regency claptrap table, its polished round top covered with a neat assortment of sewing goods, a pair of expensive gold-rimmed reading glasses and a thick leather-bound black book with gilt-edged pages.

Ethel saw me look and nodded.

“Martha’s,” he said. The other Hoobins nodded. “Now tell us, finder. What have you come to say?”

“I’ve been to the Velvet. I spoke to a woman named Darla.”

“We know this woman Darla,” said Ethel. His tone was neutral, merely matter-of-fact, but it hid a hint of disdain. I gathered Ethel didn’t approve of Darla’s un-Balptist sense of humor.

“I’ve also talked to some Watchmen,” I said. Disel snorted, went quiet at a glance from Ethel. “The Watchman remembers seeing Martha, now and again. He doesn’t recall anything unusual, on that last day.”

Ethel nodded.

“I’ve got a feeling that’s all we’re going to get out of the Watch or the Velvet or the people on the street,” I said, gently. “That’s all we’ll get, because that’s all they know.”

Ethel looked confused, but he kept his mouth shut.

“I need to look in other directions,” I said. “And I need to start by looking here. In Martha’s room. At her things.”

Lowrel and Disel, in perfect unison, sat bolt upright and half-rose from the enormous chairs. Ethel stilled them both with a slight lifting on his right hand.

“Missus Hog told us you could see through shadows that left others blind,” he said, staring at me. “She said we were to do as you ask, even if it goes against our ways.”

Lowrel and Disel sat, turned their glares on the toes of their boots.

“What you ask-to touch her things, to see what only a husband must see-is it necessary, finder? Do you must?”

“I must. There might be something there-or something missing-that could tell us what happened.” I spread my hands, imploring. “Martha’s been gone seven days. You don’t know where she’ll be, this night. I don’t know either. But if we all agree that she isn’t where she is by choice, we must also agree that she is probably in danger.” I rose. I’d saved my best for last. “Didn’t Mrs. Hog tell you I could be trusted?”

Ethel was still a moment. Then he nodded, once, his gaze never leaving mine.

“Up the stair. Third floor. Last door on left.”

“Is it locked?”

“This be home,” said Ethel. “What manner of people lock their doors at home?”

I didn’t answer. I just got up, found the stairs and ascended before one or all of the brothers changed their minds.

But the stairs remained empty behind me. I found the third floor, counted doors and put my hand on the polished brass knob that led to Martha’s room.

I put my hand on it, but didn’t turn it right away. I listened to the sounds of the house-the creaking of wood beams, a soft hooting of wind somewhere up in the attic, a gentle snoring that came from the bedridden Mother Hoobin’s room. All the sounds were muffled and faraway, lost in the big solid confines of the house. They were gentle sounds, homey sounds, the sort of easy familiar sounds that lull you right to sleep.

I turned the knob, pushed and let light from the hall lamps spill in before me.

It was just as I imagined. Neat and orderly. Hand-sewn and bright and comfortable. There was a four-poster bed with veils hung across the posts and a big iron-banded cedar chest at its foot. There was a polished oak dresser that hadn’t come from any flooded farmstead, a big round mirror hung on the plaster wall above it. There was a nightstand on the far side of the bed, a flower-box beyond the window and a door that led to a bathroom on the far wall. There were lamps, and a handful of long matches in a silver vase. I lit both lamps and looked about.

The wood floors were covered with two big red rugs, the weave and dye so fine I found myself unconsciously tip-toeing over them.

A pair of fuzzy slippers waited by the bed. A second pair of gold-rimmed reading glasses sat atop a book on the nightstand. A long-hemmed, plush, red bathrobe hung on a hook by the bathroom door.

And there was the closet. I made for it first.

If it was empty, I had some bad news for the Hoobins. But I doubted I’d find it empty-anyone who packed their clothes would certainly take their reading glasses and a book or two as well.

The closet was full. I mean packed tight-clothes upon clothes upon clothes. I pulled a handful of dresses out at random and spread them on the bed.

Darla had been right. Martha had a gift. She’d taken silk and cotton and wool and made works of art.

I poked around in the closet, counted ten pairs of shoes, fifty-six dresses, nineteen pairs of pants and a plethora of hats and scarves and undergarments I left untouched lest the Hoobins hang me from a ceiling beam or mount my head above the mantel. Also in the corner was a good leather clothes bag. It was new and empty and if it had ever been used I couldn’t spot it.

I finished poking in the corners and turned from the closet to the dresser. I spent a few moments rifling through the drawers, starting at the bottom and working toward the top like a good burglar. Stockings and unmentionables and bolts of silk and linen were all I found.

Atop the dresser lay neat ranks of moderately expensive make-up, the various and sundry tools of application, and a plain glass jar full to the brim with clothes-pins, bent needles and bits of this and that.

Satisfied that the dresser contained no threatening letters from deranged suitors or the torn halves of still-legible stagecoach tickets, I opened the cedar chest at the foot of the bed. There were more clothes, more bolts of new fabric, a stack of old books and a tiny cedar jewelry box in which a single gold ring lay. Atop it all was a ragged stuffed bear, more tatters than fur, wrapped in a clean white towel with a tiny pillow tucked under its head.

I closed the chest and entered the bathroom. Aside from a fancy flushing toilet and hot running water in the sink, I found nothing there worth mentioning except the half-used bottle of bath suds that smelled of Darla’s hair.

I closed the bathroom door behind me, heard footfalls on the stair, counted, divided and decided that all the Hoobins were about to pop in and see what I was up to.

I sighed, regarded my glum expression in Martha’s big round dressing mirror, and saw a tiny glimmer of silver from deep within the junk jar at the edge of her dresser.

I went that way. I’d marveled at the way Martha’s make-up, combs and whatnots were lined up in neat ranks on the dresser-top. You see that a lot, with poor folks who come into money-they tend to treat every possession, no matter how humble, like a treasure. Martha was certainly that way. The junk jar was only there for things she didn’t want to throw away yet, but had no particular affection for.

So what was that gleaming silver at the bottom?

I was dumping it out just as Ethel popped his head in the door.

“Have you found aught amiss?” he said.

I froze. There it is, said a voice only I could hear. Finally.

“Oh, I have indeed.” I picked my “aught amiss” up, shook a pair of sewing needles out of the bristles. “Have you ever seen this before? Any of you?”

I held it up, and they crowded around, tip-toeing on Martha’s fine red rugs just as I had.

I’d found a comb. A silver-handled comb, worked in the shape of a swan, finely cast, laden with detail, heavy in my hand like the small fortune it surely cost.

The brothers Hoobin shook their honest heads.

“No, never.”

“Not I.”

“Nor I.”

“No,” said Ethel. He scowled at the comb as if he could make it confess to a litany of sins merely by glaring it toward righteousness. “No, I have not seen this thing.”

I nodded toward the dresser. “But you have seen that one. The comb there.”

I pointed. They all nodded yes. “It was our mother’s, and her mother’s before,” said Ethel. “From where did this comb come?”

I squinted. There were no hairs in the bristles.

You use a comb once-even once-and there will be hairs.

I felt like dancing. Instead, I shrugged. “I found it there. Stuffed in that jar, with a lot of other junk.”

“But it is not junk,” said Ethel. “Is silver, no?”

“Silver, all right. Well worked.” I turned the comb. Let it glisten in the light. “But Martha put it in that jar. She never once used it.”

Ethel held out his hand. I let him take the comb.

He closed his eyes, gripped it tight. The other Hoobins closed their eyes and began to mumble what I took to be lilting Balptist prayers.

I shut up and watched. Ethel’s face went red, his jaw quivered and I could see his teeth grind together through the skin of his cheeks. I counted to fifty and decided Hoobins didn’t breathe like mere city folk when his ears flushed and he opened his eyes and sucked in a lungful of air.

He flung the comb down, atop Martha’s bed.

“I could see nothing,” he said, more to his brothers than to me. “Nothing to help, or find.”

I frowned. “What were you looking for?” I said.

“For Martha,” he said. “Sight runs in our family. But mostly to the women. And Momma is stricken, Martha is gone and it is for you to find her.” He took up the comb, holding it gingerly, as though it were hot, or unclean. “Take this, finder. Take whatever you will. Take and find.” His gaze turned down, and he sagged. “This much I saw, brothers. Martha lives. But only at the sufferance of those who know neither mercy nor shame.” He looked up at me again, sky blue eyes wet and pleading. “Find her. Any price. We will pay.”

I took the comb and looked about at Martha’s things, at the sad rabbit-furred slippers waiting by her bed, at the bathrobe patient on its hook.

“I’ll find her,” I said. “And you’ll pay what we agreed, no more.”

Ethel nodded. His eyes were welling up, and I got out of there, preferring the tender mercies of halfdead or the Night Watch to the spectacle of all the Hoobins weeping around Martha’s empty red chair.

Chapter Four

I kept to the middle of the street, all the way out of the New People neighborhoods. I even whistled an old Army marching song and put a jaunt in my step, jut to let the scores of New People peeping down at me know how much vampires and silly Curfew laws meant to the fearless finder Markhat.

Once out of sight, of course, I shut my fool mouth and slunk all the way home, darting from doorway to doorway, giving dark alleyways wide berth, hiding twice from passing Watchmen and once from a band of mean-eyed drunks.

By the time I reached Cambrit, I was winded and weary, but none the wiser. I toyed with the comb in my pocket, but saw no further than Ethel had. Had Martha bought the comb for herself? It seemed unlikely-why spend so much on a bauble, if she’d planned to toss it out when the junk jar filled up?

Which meant, perhaps, it was a gift. And, if so, then it wasn’t the gift that Martha despised. No, it must be the gift giver. Why else would she hide such a thing away?

I trundled on. There wasn’t any traffic on Cambrit, though I could hear drunken shouts and the sound of hammering nearby. I passed Momma Hog’s, but no light showed in her window or under her door, so I trudged on. I doubted that her cards could tell me anything I didn’t already know, or the Hoobins wouldn’t have needed me at all.

I reached my door, fumbled with the key, managed to get inside before being taken by halfdead or fined by the Watch. Three-leg Cat sat atop my desk, preening his wicked right foreleg and generally making it plain he hadn’t been waiting for me, no not at all, but as long as I was taking up space I might as well fix him a snack before he went out carousing.

I lit a lamp, went past my office and lit another lamp in my room. I keep a tin of jerky back there. I hate the stuff-it reminds me of the Army-but Cat likes it well enough.

“Here you go,” I said, tossing him a piece. “Now beat it, you Curfew-breaking scofflaw.”

He scooted. I pulled off my shoes, undressed and called it a night.

I didn’t sleep immediately, though. Something Ethel said bothered me. “She lives at the sufferance of those who know neither mercy nor shame.”

Neither mercy nor shame. Hell, that’s half of Rannit. On a good day. And maybe Ethel was merely putting too much stock in a talent he admitted only Hoobin women could truly use.

But maybe not, whispered the night. You can’t lie in the dark and be rational. No, late in the night, the goblins come out. “What if,” they chant. “What if Ethel did get a glimpse of something, out there in the shadows?”

Neither mercy nor shame, came the words.

I thought about all Martha’s things, lined up like little soldiers, waiting for her return. I thought about a tattered stuffed bear, a pillow put carefully under its sad little head. I wondered where Martha was, who kept her there, why they knew neither mercy nor shame.

Some nights sleep is a long time coming.

Morning came, all rattling wagon-wheels and yelling drovers and sunlight and bustle. I grumbled and stumbled and cut myself shaving.

I’d barely shambled out to the office when Mama Hog’s short shadow fell over my door. She knocked, once, and then tried the latch.

“You in there, boy?” she shouted.

I made it to the door, unlocked it, stepped aside when Mama came trundling past.

“Where was you last night? I waited for an hour after Curfew.”

Mama carried a basket. I smelled biscuits and ham and hot coffee, and came to my senses before I made any smart remarks about the Regent’s three daughters and a room at the Velvet.

“I was working,” I said, motioning Mama to my client’s chair. “Your friends, the Hoobins, found me.”

Mama sat, plopped her basket down, began to unload it.

“Figured you was.” She paused long enough to look up at me and grin. “Ain’t them Hoobins a humorous lot?”

“That Ethel keeps me in stitches,” I said, grabbing a biscuit. “Now why don’t you tell me what you know.”

There was a biscuit halfway to Mama’s gap-toothed mouth. She looked at me, shook her head and put her biscuit down.

“I don’t know nothing,” she said, and she sounded ashamed. “Can’t tell you a thing. Don’t know what done happened to that poor little girl.”

I nearly choked. “What?” I spat. “Not a single cryptic hint? No veiled allusions to fate or destiny?” I wiped my chin. “Mama, do you need a doctor or a new deck of cards?”

Mama shook her head, sank a little lower in my chair.

“Hey. I was joking.”

“I know you was.” She peered back up at me, her tiny black eyes pinpricks behind that mane of wild grey hair. “But the truth is, boy, that I can’t see nothing. Don’t know nothing. I don’t even know if Martha Hoobin is alive or dead. I ain’t never been so blind about anything, boy. Not ever in my whole long life.”

“You’re serious.”

“Aye,” she replied. She took in a breath, made herself sit up, brushed her hair back away from her face. “Damned if I ain’t.”

“If you can’t see Martha what makes you think I can?”

“Maybe I ain’t lookin’ with the right pair of eyes. Maybe you and your findin’ can go where me and my Sight can’t.”

I sighed, took a bite, chewed.

“That isn’t much of a chance,” I said, after a while.

“I reckon it’s the only one that Hoobin girl has got.” She joined me at breakfast. “You find anything yet?”

“Just this,” I said, between bites. I pulled the silver comb out of my desk and set it down between us. “Found it in a junk jar on Martha’s dresser. The brothers never saw it before. I think somebody gave it to her, and I think she had reason to dislike him.”

Mama wiped her lips on her hands and then wiped her hands on a napkin. She reached out and picked up the comb.

“That’s what you think.”

I nodded. “Makes sense. It’s an expensive gift. But what’s the old saying? Gold from a pig’s ass will still smell of manure?”

Mama didn’t laugh. She took the comb in both hands, closed her eyes tight and started shaking and mumbling, right there at my desk.

“Mama, look, don’t you need a cauldron and a virgin bat for that?”

“Shut up, boy,” she said, and I did, since her words seemed to come out a fraction of a second before her lips moved.

My office got cold. I watched frost spread across the glass in my door and then Mama yelped and threw the comb away.

I caught it. It was cold, like a chunk of ice, but the feeling quickly passed.

“Mama, what is it?”

Mama opened her eyes.

“Damn.”

I groaned. “All that for nothing?”

Mama snorted. “That ain’t right. Even if it just sat in a shop window. Even if you’re the only person who ever took hold of it. Even if it was fresh out of the silversmith’s forge-boy, I ought to have seen something.”

I set it down.

Mama eyed the comb like it was a snake, coiled up in her biscuits and eyeing her back. “Take it away.”

“But why-”

“Take it away!”

I scooped it up, dropped it in a drawer, closed the drawer.

“It’s gone. Now tell me-why the hysterics?”

“I done told you. I ought to have seen something. Felt the touch of someone’s hand. Felt the touch of your fool hand, boy, but I didn’t see nothing.”

She was rattled. I’d never seen Mama rattled. I sat back and pondered for a moment.

“All right. Tell me this, Mama, what could make an object feel like it was brand new? What could take away any history of contact with the people who’ve owned it?”

Mama shook her head. “I couldn’t. Don’t know nobody what could.” She lowered her voice. “That’s black magic, boy. Dire hex. Them what messes with the way things be-well, I don’t even know no names.”

I leaned forward, made Mama look me in the eye. “We’ve been friends for a long time, Mama. I like you. I respect you, and even if I don’t always show it I believe you when you tell me things, sometimes.” I took in a breath. “But isn’t it possible that maybe, just this once, you just can’t see what might be there?”

Mama puffed up, but only for a second. Then she deflated. “I reckon that might be so. Maybe I’m gettin’ old and blind.”

“Never. But even the sharpest eyes can’t see every blade of grass.”

“That a Troll sayin’?”

“It is,” I lied. Mama held Trolls in high regard, and their rustic proverbs even higher. “Trolls also say that a single misstep does not doom a march.”

Mama stood. “You’re a liar, boy. But I reckon you’ve earned them biscuits, all the same.” She cocked her shaggy head, caught up her basket. “What you reckon on doin’ next?”

I shrugged. “More of the same. Go back uptown. Talk to a watchman named Rupert. Ask strangers on the street.” I nodded toward the drawer that held the comb. “Might drop in on a few silversmiths along the way, see if anybody can tell me anything about that.”

Mama grunted. “I know some New People, other than Hoobins. I’ll be seein’ ’em, too. I’ll be askin’.” She hesitated. “You reckon that poor girl is still alive?”

I swallowed, sighed, stood. Eighth day gone, I thought. Eighth day. “Sure she is.”

Mama left, shaking her head.

Chapter Five

I scooped up a handful of Hoobin coin and set out. The air was cool and my feet felt better. I decided to walk again, telling myself that the walk would give me more time to think, but knowing all the time that I was just delaying the inevitable failure of finding anyone who’d seen Martha that last day she left the Velvet.

Traffic was brisk. I’d waited until the dead wagons were packed and gone, waited until the plumes of smoke from the crematoriums that lined the river soared fat and black and rolling. People didn’t look at the smoke, I noticed. And when they did look up, they pretend they didn’t see it.

I set a leisurely pace. Watchman Rupert probably wouldn’t take his shift until after noon, so I killed time by harassing jewelers about Martha’s comb. There are four jewelers between Cambrit and the Velvet, all much nearer the Velvet than my place. All confirmed that the comb was solid silver, of good if not excellent workmanship. As a less than artful piece, it bore no maker’s mark, and yes, they’d all seen similar combs before-swans were very popular with the ladies, a few years back-but no, they couldn’t tell me any particular shop or jeweler who specialized in such things.

Two had offered to buy the comb, on the spot, which led me to believe the workmanship was a bit closer to artful than any of them admitted.

Finally, none of the jewelers I spoke to had ever sold such a piece. Oh, they were quite certain. Most emphatically no.

And, at about that time, each discovered an urgent bit of dusting that needed their immediate and full attention.

“So much for that,” I said, after being shooed out of the last shop with an insistence that bordered on the rude. I wrapped the comb in its handkerchief and set out on the street again.

I was back on Sellidge, back among the bankers and the hoop skirts and the well-scrubbed smiling faces. I was glad I’d stopped off at the bathhouse at the end of my street, glad my old Army dress jacket was easily mistaken for a spring day coat, glad my black parade dress shoes still took a shine with reasonable success.

And after half a block north, I was glad I’d walked-because otherwise I might never have spotted the man I immediately dubbed Mister Nervous Hat.

He’d been there when I crossed the street at Argen. I’d seen him-that’s all, merely seen him-waiting with the mob the traffic master had stopped just after my mob had crossed. He’d been adjusting his hat then, pushing it back with his right hand.

He’d been behind me again at Vanth, crossing with me this time, holding his hat down as a vagrant breeze blew from the south, a hint of soot in its wake.

And there he was again, half a block south of me, standing in front of a coat maker’s shop and inspecting his reflection in the glass.

He reached up, made a minuscule adjustment to his hat and began to saunter toward me, not a care in the world.

I grinned and turned and set out north.

I knew a few things about Mister Nervous Hat. First, he hadn’t followed anyone before, or he would know better than to stop when your mark stops, and go when your mark goes. He would know better than to interrupt the flow of foot traffic around him by pausing to stare into storefront mirrors, and he would know better than to repeat the same action-the hat touching, in his case-more than once while the mark is turned your way.

And I knew he was alone. Another mistake-you want to tail a man in the open and on the move, you need at least three tails. And they should be able to hand off to one another, to pass the mark and turn away from the mark and have the good sense to keep moving while the other guy takes over for a while.

But not Mister Nervous Hat. He was just a kid, really, ten years my junior, if the quick glance I’d gotten was correct. Well-dressed, clean-shaved, hair the color of cut hay.

I picked up my pace, eyed the streets ahead, timing it so that I could cross the street before him. I made it, stayed in the middle of the mob, found the place I was looking for and ducked quickly inside, confident that Nervous Hat hadn’t seen me.

“Good morning, sir,” said the same haberdasher who’d offered to fit me for a jacket the evening before. He smiled and crossed the well-worn plank floor of his shop. “Has sir changed his mind?”

“I have indeed,” I said, patting my pocket just to set the coins a tinkling. He’d already seen my army jacket, and I wasn’t going to fool him into thinking I was a banker’s assistant even in the shop’s dim light. “Time to update my wardrobe. I think I’ll even have a hat or two.”

The shopkeeper smiled, eyed me critically and moved toward a rack.

“Excellent,” he said, a twinkle in his eye. “I have just what sir needs.”

And he did. I walked out with a light grey spring jacket, one of the new ones that reach a hand’s width below the knees and turn rain like a duck. A new black narrow-brimmed crease-brow hat adorned sir’s well-combed head, a new white shirt showed the lean, toned lines of sir’s muscular torso, and sir’s threadbare trousers rested at the bottom of a plain brown shopping bag happily provided by Rogers of Rogers and Rogers, Gentlemen Clothiers.

My army jacket lay folded atop the pants. Atop it was a second new hat-grey, this one, in last year’s style, but still quite dashing nonetheless.

I stepped, blinking, back out into the street and set out. I was too busy looking for Nervous Hat to worry about how I would explain to Ethel Hoobin that I’d needed to buy a new hat and coat to find his sister. I’d decided I wouldn’t try at all at about the time I spotted my Nervous Hat a stone’s throw ahead of me, standing on tiptoe and doing little hops so he could see over the crowd stopped at an intersection.

He was looking north. I grinned and pulled my hat down and sauntered toward him. The traffic master waved him across, and I had to trot to keep up, but I made it.

I stayed a steady forty feet back from him for four blocks. He darted and hopped and gave every indication of being in frantic pursuit. Even passers-by lifted their eyebrows and occasionally turned to watch his antics.

Nervous Hat looked right at me a half-dozen times. But he wasn’t looking for me, which was another mistake. He was looking for my old army jacket and my old tan pants and the hatless shape of my head from a distance. So when he saw my new jacket and the rakish angle of my fine new hat he looked right through me and went back to his hopping darting frantic act.

I pondered this. If he was in some way associated with my interest in Martha Hoobin, who might his employers be? Or, if he was acting alone, who was he?

He was young, about Martha’s age. Well if not elegantly dressed. Possessed of an aura of bungling good-natured innocence.

I wondered if he’d ever given Martha a swan-shaped silver comb, of good if not artful workmanship.

We entered the shade of the towering blood-oaks a block from the Velvet. Nervous Hat actually peeked around from behind one of the trees while he rested, and a little boy who’d been watching him from the other side jumped up at him and said, “boo”.

I nearly laughed out loud. Nervous Hat brushed the kid aside and stamped off toward the Velvet, like he knew that’s where I had been headed. That bothered me. If I’d doubted Nervous Hat and Martha Hoobin were connected somehow, I didn’t doubt it anymore.

We left the shade, and he eyed the Velvet stoop and finally settled down at a vacant table at a sidewalk cafe named, cleverly enough, The Sidewalk Cafe. I switched hats, waited a bit, got a table myself, had a snack while he drank coffee and stared at the Velvet.

I toyed with the idea of sending over a sandwich or sauntering over and joining him, just to see how he’d handle it. Finally, I decided that he wasn’t moving for at least an hour, at which time his waiter would toss him back onto the sidewalk when the lunch crowd arrived.

So I paid, left a nice tip and folded my bag into a parcel under my arm and went off in search of Rupert. I passed a few feet from Nervous Hat, barely restrained myself from wishing him a good morning, got a good look at his hands. But he wasn’t wearing a signet ring, didn’t have his house or initials embroidered on the lapel of his jacket, wasn’t doodling his dastardly plans down on his napkin, so I passed by wordlessly and crossed the street well away from the Velvet.

Rupert wasn’t on duty yet, when I reached the intersection at Mayben and Oldloop. I spied another jeweler, wasted a good ten minutes convincing the man I wasn’t a tax assessor for the Regent, learned nothing. I repeated this process twice more before the Big Bell clanged out noon from the Square, and Rupert appeared on his corner.

I hurried over, and he actually smiled when he saw me.

“Good afternoon, finder.”

“To you too,” I replied. He stepped a bit to the side, out of foot traffic, and I did the same. “Did you have a chance to ask around about Martha Hoobin?”

“I did.” His grin fell. “Sorry. Some of the men might have seen her, from time to time. No one knew her. No one saw anything suspicious.” He paused to let a cooing nanny and a bawling pram roll past. “But I don’t think you’re the only one who’s asked about her.”

I pricked up my ears. “Really.”

He nodded. “I’ve not been asked by anyone else, but one of the Night Watch guys says he was. He didn’t get the guy’s name, or why he was asking,” he added. “He figured it was a boyfriend, and he didn’t like the looks of him so he told him to shove off.”

I frowned. “What was it about his looks your friend didn’t like?”

Rupert snorted. “Looked rich,” he said. He eyed my jacket. “Sort of like you do, today.”

I laughed. Then an idea struck me.

“Thanks. You’ve been a big help. But I wonder-could you help me one more time?”

He shrugged, suddenly suspicious.

“Relax. It’s nothing. I was just wondering if you’d walk half a block with me, and look at a man at the Sidewalk Cafe, and tell me if you’ve seen him hanging around the Velvet before.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

“Sure. It’s on my beat. Go now?”

I smiled. “Now is good.” Rupert turned and we strolled toward the Velvet.

People melted out of his way, even the ones that smiled or nodded in greeting. The traffic master at Maylot stopped traffic and waved us through. Even ogres slowed their manure-carts at the sight of a blunt-topped blue Watchman’s cap.

We rounded the last corner.

“There,” I said, pointing with my chin. “The last table, by the flower pot.”

Rupert squinted. “Him?” he said, incredulous. “Ronnie Sacks?”

I nearly fell over. I’d just been hoping Rupert had seen him on the street before. “You know him?”

“We grew up on the same street. He dated my cousin Rebecca. Fell off her roof trying to sneak in one night. We called him Ronnie the Donney.”

Donney is an epithet, named after a war-time general who mixed his flag-signals and opened the gates of Imprege to a Troll infantry assault.

My heart began to sing.

“You know what Ronnie does for pay, these days?”

Rupert’s brow furrowed. “He went to work for House Avalante last year. Something about guarding payroll transfers.”

I had a name and a House. I must have been beaming. I nearly patted Rupert on his blue-capped head.

“He got something to do with this Miss Hoobin’s going missing? He’s an idiot, but I never figured him for much else.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know a thing about him. But he’s taken a recent strong interest in me.”

Rupert sighed. “I can have him picked up, if you think he’s hurting women. Just say the word.”

I was tempted. But as far as I knew, he’d done nothing but bungle a morning of following finders.

“Not today.” Another inspiration struck, and I rummaged in my new jacket pocket for the comb.

“Ever see something like this?”

He shook his head no. “Sorry.”

I wrapped it again, put it away. “No matter.” Across the street from us, young Ronnie was being told he was taking up one table too many and it was time to move on and let paying lunch customers enjoy their view of the Velvet.

He left in a huff, took up a post half a block away, never even walked around to see if the Velvet had a back way.

Rupert got restless. I thanked him and walked with him a bit, letting him talk about this and that just in case he revealed anything else about Cousin Ronnie or silver combs.

He didn’t. But I was smiling all the same. I’d found Nervous Hat, and he had a name, and I knew it, and now, just maybe, I’d have something to show for spending Ethel’s hard-earned cash on hats and jackets.

The day wore on. I watched Darla leave, pulled down my hat when she looked my way. Hooga dipped his hat to her, and she darted smiling out into the street in a swirl of long purple skirts.

Ronnie Sacks paid her no attention whatsoever. I revised my estimate of his taste and intelligence down a few notches. Then I turned in triumph, hailed a cab and gave the driver directions. He took in the cut of my jacket and the turn of my hat and didn’t blink an eye when I mentioned House Avalante.

I had the cabbie leave me a block from the House itself. I stepped down onto the sidewalk, tipped him and watched him go.

Then I was alone. All alone on the Hill and the sun was falling fast. The tall old oaks that shaded the lawns at noon were now engulfing the whole neighborhood in shadow. I’d spotted a marble bench on a corner, across from the tall iron gates that marked the entrance to House Avalante, and I made my way toward it.

The lawns smelled of fireflowers and fresh-cut grass. Here and there gardeners worked, clipping and trimming and mowing. They kept their gazes on the ground and if they saw me they never let me know it.

I consoled myself with reminders that not all the rich houses about me were peopled with halfdead. And even those that were, I knew, were not about to venture forth, daylight or dark, and pursue the neighbors or the help with fork and knife in hand. Vampires might lay snoozing mere feet away, I knew, but these were rich snob vampires, and such behavior is considered gauche.

No, places like Cambrit-where the rich and the powerful are likely to break their fast-curfew breakers are plenty, and under the terms of the law, fair game.

I found the bench, sat, admired the lazy way the grass tossed and blew in the wind. Two lawns away, a trio of children laughed and screeched and ran, tossing a ball back and forth while a white poodle wearing a long red ribbon darted yapping among them.

The coward sun sank. A maid appeared, herded the children inside. The gardeners stopped now and then to squint up at the sky.

About the time they began to gather their tools, a cab-a clean black glass-windowed cab, from the good part of town-rattled up to the curb, and my own Mister Nervous Hat climbed out, coins in his hand for the driver.

He saw me. I grinned, stood and yelled for the cabbie to hold for another fare.

Nervous Hat gulped and dropped a pair of jerks.

I stepped over, bent, scooped them up.

“Here you are, Ronnie,” I said, handing them to him. “How are things with all the Sacks, these days?”

The driver, who by now knew something was up, snatched the coins away and scowled.

“I ain’t got time for this,” he growled, producing a wrought-iron truncheon from beneath his seat and banging it down hard beside him. “I’m leavin’. You want a ride, get in.”

I doffed my hat to Ronnie in a grand gesture of farewell. “Do tell your masters I said hello,” I said, as I opened the cab’s door. “They’ll be pleased to know you kept me company today.”

Ronnie Sacks stepped back, face going crimson, gobbling back a useless denial.

I replaced my hat and closed the door.

As the cab pulled away, I saw movement in the windows of House Avalante. A door opened, and a tall figure clad in black emerged to stand in the deep shadows of the wide front porch.

Ronnie watched me go. He knew they’d seen, knew they’d watched me waiting on the bench all afternoon. He didn’t look happy. I guessed he’d have some explaining to do, to those who perhaps lacked both mercy and shame.

I grinned and hummed and admired my face in the glass all the way home.

Chapter Six

The weeds and cracked bricks of Cambrit were quite a letdown after the quiet lanes and stately manors of the Hill. I arrived home well before Curfew, impressed my driver with a tip, and heard Darla’s laughter from behind Mama’s door before I reached my own.

I paused, smiled and adjusted my hat before knocking.

“Who’s there?” shouted Mama.

“The Regent sends his greetings, Madam Hog,” I intoned, in my best Lord of the Realm baritone. “Would you perhaps grant us an audience?”

Mama opened her door.

Darla stood beside Mama. Her eyes went wide. I doffed my new hat, made a bow that made my back pop.

“My lady.”

Darla stepped outside, extended her hand. I took it. Her eyes twinkled in the dying sun.

“Damn, boy,” said Mama, trundling out beside Darla. “What happened? You rob a haberdasher?”

I sighed. Darla laughed again. The spell was broken, and my feet began to ache.

“Not exactly.” Darla let go of my hand. “I’m glad you came to see me. But it’s late. You’ll never get home before Curfew.”

“Maybe I won’t go home at all,” she replied. She stepped so close I could smell bubble bath in her hair. “Maybe I’ll stay.” She let a pause linger. “With Mother Hog, of course.”

Mama snorted. “Don’t do that to him no more. Look at them ears. He’s about to blow a seam.”

Darla winked. “Hooga has the night off. He’s bringing his wagon around to collect me shortly. I’ll wrap myself up in a blanket and even the Watch will think I’m Hooga’s wife or his daughter.” She slipped her arm through mine, turned us toward my office, said goodbye to Mama Hog.

I walked.

“Come now, Markhat,” she said, as we neared my door. “You’ve kept me waiting all day. The least you can do is offer me a chair and some company.”

I fumbled for my key. The wind rustled her skirts, and she reached into my bag and pulled out last year’s grey hat.

“This one suits you better.” I turned the key as she took my new hat from my head, replaced it with the grey one, and eyed me critically. “The black makes you look like an undertaker.” She put the black hat on her own head, adopted a somber expression. “See?”

Mama Hog laughed and slammed her door. I opened mine, ushered Darla in, winced when the slanting light streaming past cast the breadcrumbs on my desk into sudden high relief.

Darla swept past, still wearing my black hat. She spun once, taking in my office, swirling her skirt up nearly to her knees.

I closed the door. “I see I need to fire another butler. Looks like Earles left me a mess.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Darla. “It’s not so bad.” She hung my black hat carefully up on my leaning coat rack, and then nodded toward the door at the back of my office. “Is that where you sleep?”

I put down my bag, hung up my coat and put the grey hat next to the black. “When I sleep, that’s where I sleep.”

“I see.” She gave me a grin. “Time for the tour later.” Then she looked down and past me, toward the floor next to the door I’d just closed. “What’s that?”

I turned. An envelope lay on the floor, after having been pushed beneath it from the street. I hadn’t seen it when we’d entered.

I stooped and picked it up. The envelope was brilliant white, more like cloth than paper, and it bore my name and address in a tall plain hand.

Darla glided to stand beside me. She touched the paper gently, made an oohing sound.

“My, what fancy friends you have, Mister Markhat. Aren’t you going to open it?”

She was so close we touched, at hips and shoulders, and again I smelled her hair. Which is probably why I opened the envelope without first letting Mama wave her bones over it to see if the paper was hexed.

It wasn’t. Inside was a single page of fine white paper, folded twice. I could see words on it, not hex signs, so I unfolded it.

Darla stepped suddenly away. “It isn’t polite to read someone else’s mail.” She pulled back my client’s chair and sat. “I’ll wait here until you’re done.”

The paper bore names. A dozen of them, in the same hand as the address, in a neat straight line down the page. The only one I recognized-the last-was Martha Hoobin.

Below the names were the words:

Talk at midnight. Your office. If you choose not to open the door I will of course not come in.

And below that were two characters I took to be initials-E.P.

Darla watched me read. I must have frowned.

“Bad news?”

I crossed to my side of the desk. Before I sat, I handed her the paper. “Probably. Do you know any of these names? Aside from Martha’s?”

She read, shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. They’re all women’s names, though, aren’t they?”

She handed me the letter, and I looked it over again. There was a Kit Ersen and a Banda Rup. Either of those could have been a man’s name or a woman’s. But all the rest were obviously female, all Usulas and Berets and Allies.

Twelve names. Twelve women, probably, with Martha Hoobin at the end of the list.

“Do you know E.P.?” asked Darla.

I shook my head. “Not at the moment,” I replied. “But I guess I will, come midnight.”

The humor went out of Darla’s eyes. “There’s only one kind of person who makes appointments after Curfew. They’re fond of expensive stationery too.”

I folded the list. “Not necessarily. Anyway, trouble usually just shows up. It doesn’t make appointments.”

She shivered. She put her hands in her lap and she tried to hide it, but she shivered.

“I’ve dealt with the Houses before. They don’t bite Markhats. We taste of strong bright sun and good clean living.”

She didn’t laugh. “They scare me,” she said, softly. “They ought to scare you too. Walking around after Curfew-are you trying to get killed?”

I leaned back. “You heard about last night.”

A bit of fire crept back into her voice. “Oh, I heard. Some of the cleaning girls are New People. You’re all they’ve talked about. The bold finder Markhat, whistling down the street. By tomorrow they’ll have you lighting your cigars with flaming vampire corpses and kicking down Troll strongholds with the heels of your dressing slippers.”

I frowned. “Dressing slippers don’t have heels, do they?”

Darla came forward, caught my hand across the desk, pulled it toward her. “Listen to me. I like you. I’d like to spend a year or two getting to know you. I’d like to teach you how to read and trim your hair and knit you a pair of earmuffs for Yule. But I won’t get to do any of that if you make midnight strolls down Arbuckle Avenue part of your exercise regimen.”

I bit back a short reply. There was something in her voice, something making it shake, something tingeing it with fear.

Inspiration dawned.

“You’ve been talking to Mama. She pulled out her cards and turned down the lamps and convinced you she could see my untimely demise unless I mend my wicked ways.” She’d do that, too, I thought. Just her little way of getting things said that she knew I’d not bear coming from her.

Darla gripped my hand harder. “She was reading her cards when I came in. And she wouldn’t tell me what she saw. But I know people, Markhat. She saw something. And whatever it was scared her.” She realized how tight she held me, let loose, leaned back. “We both know what Mama is, most of the time.” She lifted her chin in defiance. “But you sit there and you tell me it’s all fake, all the time. Tell me it’s all put-on. Tell me, and I’ll forget all about it.”

“It’s all fake, all put-on, all the time.”

“Liar.” She found a smile. Not a big one, not a strong one. But maybe she knew she’d pushed too hard. “Just promise me one thing. Will you do that?”

“Ask, and we’ll see.”

“Just be careful. More than usual. Especially after dark. Can you do that, Markhat? Just for a while?”

I sighed. “I promise. And speaking of Curfew breaking-it’s getting pretty dark out there right now, and I’m not the one ten blocks from home.”

“What have I to fear, when the valiant finder Markhat is at my side?” She batted her eyes at me, gave me a sly grin. “You will keep an eye on me, won’t you?”

“I promise. You’re safe with me.”

“You mean it?”

“I do.” I must have looked suddenly puzzled. She’d lost her grin, lost the playful twinkle in her eyes. I realized something had happened, but couldn’t place it from the words we’d spoken.

She took a deep breath. “I asked around today,” she said, looking away. “About Martha.”

“And what did you hear?”

“Nothing,” she replied. “I asked the girls if they’d seen her with anyone. Asked if she’d gotten any messages, or sent any runners, or gotten any flowers on All Heart’s Day. She hadn’t, she didn’t, and she hadn’t.” Darla sighed. “I guess that isn’t much help.”

“It tells me where not to look. That’s something. Especially coming from people I couldn’t ask.”

She bit her lip. “There’s something else.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t really want to tell you.”

“Which means you certainly should tell me.”

She sighed again, brought up her hands, put them on the desk. Her knuckles were white. She took a breath and looked away.

“The day Martha disappeared, she had a bag. In the bag was eleven hundred crowns.”

I whistled. “Paper or coin?”

“Paper,” said Darla. She looked up at me. “It’s not what you’re thinking,” she added, quickly. “Martha didn’t steal the money. I gave it to her. It was mine. We’d been planning to open a dressmaker’s shop. The eleven hundred was my share.”

I fought the urge to rise. I wanted to reach out and take her hand, but I didn’t. I’ll always regret that.

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

She shook her head, finally looked back at me. “Eleven hundred crowns? I was sure you’d quit looking. Sure you’d figure Martha just took the money and bought a stage ticket.”

“Do you think that’s what she did?”

I waited. Eleven hundred crowns-gods, you could buy your own stagecoach line for that, and have enough left over for a small house or two.

“Maybe I did, at first. Maybe I was angry. Maybe I was so shocked I couldn’t think straight. But I decided something, finder, after you came to see me. I decided Martha was my friend. Martha was no thief and I ought to be ashamed of myself for thinking such a thing.”

I opened my mouth to tell her she shouldn’t be ashamed, but she spoke again first.

“I know eleven hundred crowns is a lot of money. It was everything I had. But if you’re about to tell me that you think Martha ran away with it, then you’re not the man I think you are.”

“I wasn’t going to say that. I was going to say that if Martha Hoobin wanted eleven hundred crowns she could have gotten twice that by raiding Ethel’s sock-drawer.” I recalled the ragged stuffed bear, tucked away in a chest with a pillow under its head. “Whatever this is about, it isn’t about your money. I’m not going to stop looking for Martha.”

“Good,” she said. She sighed, with relief this time, and for the first time she looked tired. “So we’re still friends?”

“We are. I don’t blame you for not telling me, first thing. You didn’t know me then, hadn’t had a chance to succumb to my mannish and worldly charms.”

She laughed. I rummaged in my pocket, brought out the silver comb. “This turned up last night,” I said. “Ever seen it before?”

She took it, eyed it critically. “Never. It’s a bit gaudy. Where did you find it?”

“Martha’s dresser,” I replied. “In a junk jar. Her brothers hadn’t seen it before.”

“It doesn’t look like anything Martha would buy.” She handed it back to me and frowned. “Where did she get it?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think she bought it herself. But no one knows who gave it to her, or when.”

Darla bit her lower lip. “The Park. It had to be the Park.”

I pricked up my ears. “Why the Park?”

She smiled an impish smile. “If you wanted to meet a girl, where would you go?”

I shrugged. “I just stand still and young ladies flock to me in doe-eyed droves. Why don’t you tell me how lesser men find hearts to break.”

“The Park.” She rolled her eyes, exasperated. “Strolls through the flower gardens? Benches beneath the whispering oaks? Lazy afternoons watching the sun?”

I frowned. “And?”

“It’s a good thing you met me when you did. Let me spell it out for you. Martha lived with four scowling behemoths in a Balptist neighborhood. She worked with women in a house guarded by the Hoogas. She went three places-work, home and the Park.”

I shook my head. “Interesting. Maybe I’ll hire you as an assistant. Mama can read her cards and you’ll do all the thinking and I’ll be able to sleep in, emerging only occasionally to collect fees and issue directives to the Watch.”

“Don’t you dare ignore me. I’m right. If Martha Hoobin met someone who gave her a tacky silver comb, she met him in the Park. Did I mention she stopped feeding the birds about two weeks ago?”

“You didn’t.”

“Well she did. Maybe she stopped going because she didn’t want to see her comb-gifting gentleman friend anymore.”

“I’ve heard crazier things,” I said. It did make a sort of sense.

Ice-pawed rats ran up and down my spine. Eleven names looked up at me from the paper on my desk.

That’s the thing about the Park. It’s handy for just about everywhere-and just about everyone.

Darla saw it on my face.

“I knew it,” she said. There was no triumph in her tone. “The Park. It had to be the Park.”

“Might have been.”

I stared at the list.

Twelve women. All gone, I imagined. Just like Martha.

Down on the Square, way past the dark, empty Park, the Brass Bell clanged out nine times, then paused, then rang once more. Curfew had fallen and the dark.

Darla shivered.

“I’ve got to go,” she said, rising. “You’ll be having company soon.”

A wagon rumbled up, stopped at my door. I rose too, beat Darla to the door, opened it enough to see that it was Hooga, his breath steaming in the chill.

“She’ll be right out,” I said. “And I thank you, for seeing her safe.”

Hooga snorted. His horses-two shaggy mad-eyed Percherons-stamped at the cobbles and sent up sparks with their hooves and chewed at their iron bits.

Darla came up beside me, took my arm. “You promised you’d be careful.” I put my hand on hers.

“I did,” I said. “I keep my promises.”

“You’d better. After all, you promised to watch over me too. I think I like that, Markhat. You watching over me.”

“I think I like that too.”

It had been a long time. Before the War. Before I’d gone away, and come back someone else. There were things I’d forgotten, things I never thought I’d remember.

But when she leaned closer, so did I, and we kissed. She was warm and her hair smelled of flowers and we held each other until Hooga grunted. She darted away and was gone.

I leaned on my doorframe and watched them go. Hooga flung a thick brown ogre blanket over her. She waved once and vanished beneath it.

She’d pressed something in my hand, just before she’d gone. It was a scrap of paper, and it bore her address.

“I’ll be seeing you,” she’d written, below it. “Bring the wine.”

I lit a pair of lamps and waited for midnight.

Darla had been right, of course. My caller, the mysterious E.P., would be of one of the halfdead Houses, if not halfdead himself. He’d all but announced this with the note.

I wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of playing host to vampires after dark, much less inviting them in. But I’d had ample time to summon the Watch, show them the letter, even invite a half-dozen of them along for our midnight meeting. And while the Watch might wink at most crimes, a violation of Curfew law that said vampires couldn’t enter dayfolk dwellings uninvited would bring the city across the river and into the Heights as a torch-bearing mob. I doubted that mayhem was E.P.’s intention.

I thought about Ronnie Sacks and House Avalante. I’d decided that E.P. would probably be wearing Avalante’s crossed swords as the Big Bell clanged out midnight and someone knocked softly at my door.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“E.P.,” said a voice. He was speaking softly, loud enough for me to hear, but not so loud as to be forceful. He pronounced his words carefully, like a schoolmarm was listening. “Evis Prestley. I believe you are expecting me.”

I rose. “It isn’t locked.” Not much use locking doors against vampires who could haul them right out of their frames with two fingers. “Come on in.”

He did.

He was halfdead.

I fought to keep my smile. He glided inside, closed the door gently behind him, took a single step away from it, and then came to parade rest, his gloved hands clasped behind him at the small of his back.

I nodded toward the client’s chair. “Won’t you have a seat?” My voice didn’t shake. Much.

He nodded, moved and sat. He hadn’t spoken, and I gathered he was refraining from speaking largely to avoid showing me a jawful of fangs.

As I understand matters, that gesture passes for rare high regard among the halfdead. I made myself take a breath, and I sat as well.

We just looked at each other, engulfed in an awkward silence. I took him in as quickly as I could. He was short, a full head shorter than myself, and thinner. Neat short black hair combed up and back from a widow’s peak. Skin the color of new dough. Small thin nose, as white as a fresh-peeled potato. Eyes that had been blue while he lived and were still blue but obscured by a white glaze that made them look like dirty marbles.

He wore rich man’s black-black pants, black shirt, black vest, knee-length black coat, all tailor-made and custom cut. A pin shone on his lapel-the crossed swords, in silver, of House Avalante. His collar was high, black gloves covered his hands-he’d taken pains, I gathered, to conceal as much of his dead pale skin as possible.

“Evis Prestley,” I said. “You sent the list of names.”

“I did,” he replied. His mouth, when he opened it, was white, and his teeth were wet and sharp. “And in doing so I fear I caused you insult. Mr. Sacks was told to deliver it to your office and return to the House. He was not instructed to follow you. The House offers its apologies, as does Mr. Sacks.”

“Accepted. And by the way-if Ronnie is the best tail you’ve got, you’d better get out of the business.”

He smiled with his mouth firmly closed. “We at Avalante value initiative. Mr. Sacks was attempting to impress us. A pity he didn’t choose a venue more suited to his talents.”

I nodded. I was breathing a little easier. If he was going to bite, I figure he’d have done so by now. Maybe it was his voice, too-nothing weak about it, but I kept expecting him to start lecturing me in the finer points of antebellum architectural history.

I noticed him squinting, decided I could show off my manners too.

“I can turn down the lamps, if you want. I didn’t think of it earlier.”

Evis shook his head no, reached into his jacket and pulled a pair of dark-lensed spectacles out of his breast pocket. “No need.” He brought the glasses up to his nose, peeped over them with his dead man’s eyes. “If you don’t mind?”

“Not at all,” I said. He put his glasses on. I was glad his eyes were covered, and he probably knew it.

“I didn’t come here to talk about the bumbling antics of Mr. Sacks. We share a common goal, Mr. Markhat. We’re both looking for Martha Hoobin.”

I frowned. “I thought as much. Mind telling me why House Avalante cares what happened to the Velvet’s star seamstress?”

He sighed. “All I can tell you, Mr. Markhat, is that the House wants to see Martha Hoobin returned to her family, safe and sound and soon.”

I nodded. “Ah, yes. The renowned altruism of the Great Houses. What’s next, Mr. Prestley? Going to ask to buy my office so House Avalante can build an orphanage on this very spot?”

He laughed. I hadn’t expected that.

“Good one.” He tilted his head down, looked at me over the tops of his shaded spectacles. “What would you say if I told you that the House is motivated purely by self-interest-but that even in that light, we want to see Martha Hoobin returned to her home?”

“I’d say I might believe that. But I’m still curious, Mr. Prestley. What does a seamstress from the wrong side of the Brown have to do with your House?”

“Nothing at all,” he said. “Directly. But indirectly-before I say more, Mr. Markhat, I’ll need to hire you. And as part of that arrangement, I’ll need to bind you to secrecy.”

“I have a client. Ethel Hoobin.”

“Take a new client. House Avalante has deeper pockets.”

I pushed back my chair. “That won’t do. It’s time for you to go.”

“Wait a moment. Are you telling me you’re refusing my offer?”

“I’m telling you that. Now beat it.”

He didn’t rise. “You’re as stubborn as I’d heard,” he said. “I don’t suppose a fat bag of coin would change your mind.”

“I’m about to lose my temper,” I said.

He smiled, remembered who he was with, covered his mouth with his hand, like I’d do if I yawned before a lady.

“Sit back down. Please.”

“I asked you to leave.”

“And I shall,” he replied. “You may throw me out or hear me out. Which will it be?”

I pondered that, shrugged and sat. He looked on, bemused behind his glasses.

“My superiors have a somewhat simplistic view of mankind. They believe all men can be bought. They sent me here with twenty thousand crowns and instructions to enlist your services in our search for Martha Hoobin.” He leaned forward, elbows on my desk. “I know something of you, finder. I told them that you couldn’t be bought. They laughed. I shall be quite pleased to tell them they were wrong.”

“Twenty thousand crowns?”

“Twenty thousand,” he repeated. “All yours, if you would agree to accept it as a retainer with the agreement that we would obtain your services, and your secrecy, as a finder in the search for Martha Hoobin.”

“I’m going to ask this again, Mr. Prestley. Answer, or get out. What does House Avalante want with Martha Hoobin?”

Evis was silent. I felt his eyes upon me, felt a shiver go down my spine.

“We want nothing with Martha Hoobin. What we want are the people behind her disappearance.”

“And who are they?”

He shook his head. “If we knew that, Mr. Markhat, I assure you that members of the House gardening staff would be dumping their dismembered corpses in the River about now.”

“You think I know?”

He shrugged. “Not yet. That’s the problem, Mr. Markhat. We’re running out of time, you and I. If one of us hasn’t found Martha Hoobin in the next four days, stop looking. She’ll be dead. Just like all the others.”

I looked down at the list. “They’re dead.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“By whose hand?”

He shook his head. “I do not know.”

“Why four days? What happens then?”

The muscles around his jaw began to move beneath his cold pale skin. “I cannot say,” he said.

“What can you say?”

“I can tell you about the other names. Prostitutes, all. From houses less prestigious than the Velvet. One has vanished each month, for the last eleven months.”

“How-”

“I cannot say,” he said. “No one looked, when they vanished. They had no family. Few had close friends.”

“Then how do you know so much?”

“The House has many interests,” he said. “We’ve been following this one for some time. With, I fear, little success.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“We both want the same thing.” He sounded tired. “If anything I tell you helps you find Martha Hoobin, you’re welcome to it. Maybe you’ll remember that we did try to help.”

I wrestled with the concept of helpful vampires for a moment. Then I pulled open a drawer, found Martha’s silver comb, held it up.

“Ever seen this before?”

He lowered his shaded glasses, inspected the comb and handed it back to me. Then he reached back inside his coat-and withdrew an identical silver swan-comb.

He put it down on my desk, beside the one I’d found. They were twins, down to the carving of the feathers and the color of the bristles.

“I have three more. All found among the belongings of…” He pulled the list around, pointed to three names. “Her, and her, and her.”

“Notice anything strange about yours?”

He frowned. “No. Why?”

I hesitated. But he’d told me things, and I decided if I wanted him to keep talking I might have to open up myself.

“A friend of mine tried to do her witch-touch act to it. Dropped it like a hot brick. Said she couldn’t feel that it had ever belonged to anyone. She said that wasn’t right, that she thought someone had put some kind of black mojo on it.”

“We tried the same thing,” said the halfdead. “No one saw anything of significance through any of these-but they didn’t notice a lack of sight either.” He nudged my comb with a forefinger. “Odd. When did your friend try witch sight on it?”

“Yesterday.”

He nodded.

“Ours were not nearly so fresh,” he said. “Hmm. Perhaps if the spell were cast to fade away…”

“My friend said that was more than just street mojo. She said it was black hex. Sorcery.”

“That would be significant, if true,” said Evis. He looked up suddenly at me. “I don’t suppose you’d allow me to take this away for further study?”

“I don’t suppose you’d give me a receipt?”

He beamed. “Gladly.” And I swear he reached back into that coat, pulled out a small leather-bound notebook and a gold writing pen.

“Tell me something,” I said, as he scribbled away. “Were you maybe a lawyer, before?”

He looked up, lifted an eyebrow. “Before I died and became a blood-thirsty halfdead fiend?”

“I wasn’t going to say ‘fiend’.”

He laughed. “I was a lawyer, yes. Before the War. Nevertheless, I wound up in the infantry. I took a Troll arrow at Potter’s Hill.”

I sat upright. “Potter’s Hill? Summer of seventy-four? I was there.”

The halfdead finished writing, signed the page with a flourish, tore the paper out of the book and slid it across the desk toward me. “There was a halfdead in our regiment. We’d spoken, become friends, of a sort. He saw I was dying, asked me if I wanted to-to take a chance.” He shrugged. “I do not recall my reply. But I woke up dead two nights later. Funny old thing, life.”

I took the receipt. It was all there, neat and legal, one silver comb, on temporary loan for sorcerous inspection, blah blah blah.

Potter’s Hill. Hell, he’d died right under my nose.

“All right,” I said, tapping his comb. “One veteran to another. Mind if I keep this one to show around?”

“With my compliments.” He slipped his notebook back in his pocket, and his golden pen. “One more thing, Mr. Markhat.”

“And what is that?”

“We are aware of you and your efforts. Others may be aware of these things too. Persons not as well disposed toward you as I and my House.”

“I get that a lot,” I said. “Don’t worry. I’ll put two strings on my screen-door tonight.”

He shook his head.

“You need not waste time at the Velvet. We’ve done that already. Martha’s abductors were never on the grounds, nor were they in association with anyone employed there.” He raised a gloved hand when I started to speak. “Please, Mr. Markhat, accept this as truth. It cost us-dearly-and I am convinced it is accurate.”

“So forget the Velvet,” I said. “That doesn’t leave me with much. Because the only other thing in her life was her home, and her brothers-and you can accept this as truth-they had nothing to do with this. Nothing at all.”

He nodded. “We reached the same surmise.”

I shook my head. “I still don’t understand any of this.” I sensed our conversation was nearly over. “But thanks, all the same.”

He made a little dip with his head. “And thank you.” He rose, stopped, looked up at me like he’d just thought of something. “I have an idea.”

“Do tell.”

“I am forbidden to divulge the details of certain delicate matters to you. I am bound, by honor and oath, to obey this stricture.”

“I wouldn’t dream of asking you to do otherwise.”

He grinned, put his hand quickly over his lips. “Still. I have several errands to run this evening, finder. I am hardly to be blamed if you follow me and perhaps draw your own conclusions as to the nature of my actions.”

I rose too. “Forgive me, but trotting along behind you strikes me as a good way to wind up on the dead wagon in the morning. What if one of your friends mistook me for a common thief or a light snack?” I shook my head. “No, thanks.”

“That is a problem. But happily, I have a coach. My driver is discrete. If you have a dark coat, you could come along, and I assure you no one would be the wiser.”

“What about your oath?”

He shrugged. “The House, as I said, values initiative. If I’m asked if I was followed, I can honestly say I was not. And if they ask if I invited you to ride along with me, well, I should have to confess, but I doubt that I’ll be asked that particular question.”

I lifted an eyebrow.

“Miss Hoobin has, at best, four days. My efforts to locate her have proved fruitless, as have yours. You lack the time to learn what I have learned. I lack your ability to move about unnoticed, and move about in the daylight. I give you my word you will not be harmed. I give you my word you will be returned here safely well before sunrise.”

He took off his glasses, looked me eye-to-eye. “I am halfdead, Mr. Markhat. That may well deny me a place among the saints, but does it truly guarantee me a throne beside the devil?”

I looked him in the eye. No saint ever had such a face, or such a stare.

“I’ll get my coat. And call me Markhat. Mister is for old folks.”

Evis smiled a pointy smile behind his hand. “Call me Evis. Shall we go?”

We went, the devil and I, out into the night.

Curfew, quoth the Regent, is Rannit’s greatest achievement since the War.

That statement is usually followed by a lot of prattle about peaceful co-existence with our halfdead brethren and statistics twisted to prove that the only groups preyed upon by said brethren are burglars and street gangs. Honest folk, we are assured, folk tired from a day’s honest work, folk at home and in their beds, these folk have nothing to fear from the halfdead.

I sat alone across from Evis. Beside him, on either side, sat two more halfdead, both taller and wider than he. They too wore gloves, and black, high-collared shirts that nearly covered their skin. They smelled of strong fire-flower cologne and new leather boots. Their hats were worn low, their faces were turned down and their chests never rose, never fell.

The driver, surprisingly, was human, as was the man seated beside him. Occasionally they’d exchange a muffled laugh or curse as the carriage lurched over a pothole. Hearing their voices was comforting to me, the sole human passenger in a carriage full of halfdead.

I watched the dark streets roll by through the glass over Evis’s shoulder. Streetlamps guttered and sparked. There was still light in a few windows, and more than once I saw it extinguished as we passed.

We left Cambrit, followed Stewart to the crossing of the Edge Street sewer canal, then veered off down an alley and turned south.

Evis peeped over my shoulder, watched the streets roll by through the window at my back. He’d put his glasses away, and his dead eyes shone now and then in the passing light of streetlamps.

“Do you miss it?” he asked, looking out at the dark. “You cannot appreciate it, under the Curfew.”

The carriage rolled on. I caught sight of a drunk, who saw the halfdead carriage, worked out who it bore and dived clumsily into the sewer canal.

“Miss what? The night?”

Evis nodded.

“It looks so different now. So…bright. There are shadows, to be sure, but light too. Silver light.” He shrugged. “I merely wondered if you ever missed just walking down a street, beneath a half-full moon.”

The turgid water closed over the drunk. If he ever surfaced, I never saw it.

“Oh, not much.” I felt it best not to advertise my recent spate of Curfew-breaking, lest his silent friends prick up their ears. “How about the sun? You ever miss that?”

A streetlamp splashed faint light into the carriage, and I looked away from those eyes before I could stop myself.

“Hardly at all.”

The driver pulled back his reins and spoke, and the carriage slowed, pulled to a halt.

“First stop,” said Evis. His companions stirred, exiting the carriage with all the sound and fuss of a dropped silk handkerchief. “Wait here with the driver, won’t you? My friends and I will see that the site is safe. We’ll call for you, when that is established.”

I shrugged. “Sure. Bon appetite.”

He smiled, moved and was gone.

I slid over, peeped out the window. The halfdead were gone. Evis had left the carriage door open, so I climbed slowly out.

We were parked at the corner of Gentry and Low. The stench of the canal, a block behind us, rode the night, thick and choking. Weathered brick buildings, two and three stories tall, formed a canyon that blotted out most of the sky.

Rannit is packed with once thriving commercial districts that, for one reason or another, fell into decay. The streets zigzagging off Gentry are some of the oldest. What were once breweries and foundries are now warehouses, hulks and shells, home to rodents and pigeons and failing businesses making a doomed last stand against oblivion. No lights shone in the broken windows, no smoke rose from chimneys, no shapes moved behind the doors. Before the Truce and the Curfew, you’d also have found squatters lounging in the alleys and making their beds in the empty stoops. Now, though, the buildings are empty and still.

“Cheerful, ain’t it?” asked the driver, in a whisper, from his perch atop the carriage.

He held a glossy black crossbow, as did his grinning human companion. Crossbows are illegal inside the city limits. I eschewed to point this out.

“Rent’s cheap, though,” I whispered back.

“Shut up,” hissed the driver’s friend. “Boss said keep it quiet.”

“You boys know what the Boss is up to?” I asked.

They both chuckled. “Yeah, right,” said the driver’s friend, so faint I could barely hear. “We’re in on all the House policy meetings.”

I shrugged, expecting as much.

“They ain’t so bad,” said the driver. “Best job I ever had.”

They fell silent, after that. After a few moments, the driver’s friend jerked and started, fumbled in his jacket pocket, pulled out something that looked like a pocket watch, fiddled with it briefly.

“The boss says you can go and have a look,” said the driver, to me. “That way. You’ll be met.” He hooked a thumb in the direction the halfdead had vanished.

I sauntered off as if it were noon, and I was going for lunch at Eddie’s.

I’d gone maybe twenty feet when one of Evis’s halfdead companions glided out of the shadows and fell into step with me. “This way,” he said, in a voice that sent literal shivers down my spine. “It is not far.”

I followed his lead. His face was cloaked in shadow, and I was heartily glad of it.

Faint light flared ahead, outlining a door and the gaps between the planks of a boarded-up window. “There,” said my pale guide, halting. “I shall keep watch here.”

I thanked him and went.

The door was open. Someone had simply grasped the knob and pushed until door and frame tore free from the wall. I stepped past it, into a small room lit by a guttering candle standing in the middle of the floor.

The room stank of rot and rat. I shut my mouth and looked around-bare cracked plaster walls, a single window and the wood floor curling and warped and stained from the leaks that had ravaged the ceiling.

A single door was set in the far side. It, too, had been forced open, struck with such force that most of the doorframe was hanging splintered beside the wall.

Evis stepped through the opening. “There is more. We are too late-but there is more to see.”

He donned his dark glasses, nodded at the candle, turned and vanished back through the broken door.

I picked up the candle and followed.

The door wound down a long dark hall. Walls, floors and ceiling all bore water damage, but the warped pine wood floor had been repaired in two places. Recently, too, the nail-heads shone of new-beaten iron in the light, which meant they hadn’t had time to rust.

The hall abruptly ended. I stepped down, nearly stumbled, onto a cobble-brick floor, and my candlelight lost sight of any ceiling, and all the walls. It did illuminate the backs of four black-clad halfdead, who stood in a small circle a dozen steps away.

Evis and his dark glasses turned to face me.

“They are friends. They do not see you.”

“Wonderful.” My mouth was so dry I spoke in a ragged whisper. My new friends didn’t turn, didn’t leap, so I licked my lips and took a step toward them. “What is it we’re seeing?”

I wasn’t seeing a thing, aside from vampires and a flickering ring of shadows and floor-bricks.

“Blood was spilled here. Spilled in such quantity that it rushed onto the floor.” He indicated the area, which the halfdead surrounded. They pulled back a few steps, and Evis motioned me forward. I took my guttering candle and went.

All I saw were bricks, just like all the others-black and smooth and rounded over with age and wear. Half the old buildings in Rannit were built over even older roads, just like this one. The builders merely scraped the dirt off the cobbles and called it a floor.

I knelt down, put my nose near the cold baked clay. If there was any blood there, it was too old and too faint for human eyes and a stub of a candle to see.

“I’ll take your word for it,” I said, rising.

“Do,” said Evis. “You see no trace because soon after the blood was spilled, the floor was cleaned. I suspect they used a mop and tanner’s bleach. My associates and I can still smell the traces though. Some must have run between the cobbles.”

“Rannit’s got more blood-stains than pot holes,” I said. “What makes this one special? What does it have to do with Martha Hoobin?”

Evis sighed.

Then he frowned.

“Mavis. Torno, Glee, come here.”

Three new vampires appeared and glided near, their ghost-white faces turned down, their dirty marble eyes turned away from my light.

“What the-”

Evis raised a hand and the halfdead stopped still, faces down, beside me. I shut up.

A moment passed. I strained my ears, since my eyes were proving useless. I heard nothing at first-then, faintly, I made out scratching, like a mouse in a wall, chewing away. I held my breath but couldn’t locate the source.

Evis put his dark glasses away. “Dear God,” he said, in a whisper. “Dear God.”

A fourth vampire appeared at my right elbow. Evis nodded at it.

“Go now, Mr. Markhat. Sara will take you to safety.”

I opened my mouth. The scratching grew louder. Was it coming from the floor?

“Sara!”

Sara reached out, put both cold hands on my waist and hefted me a foot off the floor.

She’d taken a single gliding step toward the door when the brick floor at our feet exploded and a long bubbling scream broke the silence.

A scream and a smell. A stench, really, louder in its way than any noise-rotting flesh, warm and wet, thrust suddenly up out of the earth.

A brick struck Sara in the side of her head, and she faltered, tripped and went down, and me with her.

I heard Evis shout something and felt whips of motion around me and in that instant before my dropped candle flicked out I caught sight of the thing that we’d raised. It leaped toward me, a thing of loose and rotted flesh, slapping Evis casually aside when he grasped its right arm. There was no face upon that head, which was itself only a dark, swollen mass that sent sprays of thick black fluid flying with every movement. It had no eyes, no ears, no lower jaw-but it saw me, somehow, and it raced toward me, arms outstretched, ruined belly burst open and trailing shriveled entrails as it came.

The candle went dark. I scrambled up, and I ran. Behind me, I heard a thud and a gurgle as Sara rose and grappled with the dead thing. Evis shouted again and a pair of crossbows threw, thunk-whee, thunk-whee.

I charged across the cobbles. I couldn’t see the door. I couldn’t see the wall. I couldn’t see the thing behind me, but I could hear it, hear Evis and his halfdead as they grappled, leaped and struck.

The ruined thing screamed again, so close I smelled its foul exhalation, felt cold spittle on my back.

I slammed face-first into a wall that might have needed new plaster and new paint but hadn’t suffered much loss in the way of structural integrity. The room spun. Blood spewed out of my nose.

It shrieked at the scent, maybe a dozen steps behind. I put the wall on my left and charged, arms groping for a door, any door.

More crossbows threw. A bolt buried itself in the wall a hand’s breadth from my head. I ducked and kept moving-had I turned the wrong way? Was the door behind me now?

Something hissed. Something cold and wet laid itself on the back of my neck. I bellowed for Evis, lashed out with a back kick that sank into something soft. The smell hit me anew. I whirled and kicked again and it screamed, wet and triumphant, nearly in my bloodied face.

I couldn’t see. I couldn’t see at all, but I felt the air rush past me, heard the pair of grunts and thuds as a pair of vampires dived into the creature and pinned it to the wall. A thick, foul spray of fluid caught me square in the face when the halfdead hit, and I retched and stumbled away, pawing and spitting.

A cold hand gripped my shoulder. “This way,” said Evis, shoving me forward. “Go. Find the carriage. Tell Bertram and Floyd to wait with you.”

Behind me, I heard shrieks and blows-short wet shrieks punctuated with fast, hard blows. I assumed they had the dead thing pinned and when Evis let go, I moved.

I wasn’t followed. The gurgling shrieks behind me grew fainter and shorter. I heard the faint sound of steel slicing the air and, suddenly, all was silent.

I found the ruined door, cut my hand on the splintered doorframe, darted through it and was down the hall at a run. My footfalls were loud in the dark, and all the way out to the street my mind played tricks on me, hearing the sounds of pursuit behind me, hearing a faint growl that crept from a bloated, gurgling throat.

But I made it. I stumbled whole into the street, mopped blood from my nose, tried to pick out my rights and my lefts from the shadows and the warehouse fronts. That way, I decided. Right. Right for Evis’s carriage. Left to just skirt the whole mess and head for the country and raise a crop of sheep or do whatever it is they do out there.

I’d taken a single step that way when hands-gentle hands-fell on my shoulder. “That way,” said a voice, and I was turned around, and a clean white linen handkerchief was placed in my hand. “The carriage awaits.”

I mopped blood and blinked.

The street was full of halfdead.

Ten or more glided past, quiet as ghosts. My giver of handkerchiefs joined them, gliding toward the warehouse like a black-clad puff of wind.

I shuddered, but I held the cloth tight to my nose and marched toward the carriage. More halfdead popped out of the shadows. Each and all ignored me, though I tottered and stank and dripped their favorite beverage liberally out onto the street.

There’s a metaphor there, somewhere. Something about bleeding profusely at a vampire parade. One day I’ll finish it and tell Mama it’s a Troll saying. But that night I just clamped the cloth to my nose and headed for Evis’s carriage.

I found it easily enough, though the coachmen had lit their lanterns. They were both on the street, and both bore crossbows and nervous frowns.

They backed up and wrinkled their noses at my approach.

“We’ll never get the smell out,” said one to the other.

“Just be glad you aren’t wearing it,” I said. The driver, bless him, produced a clean handkerchief and stepped close enough to hand it to me.

“The boss said you found a bad one,” he said, quietly.

I mopped and nodded, not asking how the Boss had communicated this to the driver. I figured House Avalante could afford the finest sorcerous long-talkers.

The driver’s friend opened the door. “Best get in. We’ll be leaving soon, and in a hurry.” He squinted at me in the lantern light. “It didn’t scratch you, did it?”

Hell. Had it?

I shook off my old Army jacket, kicked it into the gutter when I saw the thick black stain all down the back. I rolled up my sleeves, checked my arms and waist and legs.

All the fresh blood was from my nose or my right hand. All the other-well, it wasn’t mine.

“No,” I said. My voice shook, and I was getting weak at the knees, so I climbed into Evis’s fine carriage, leaving black stains as I went.

Bertram and Floyd-I never learned which was which-watched me go, then turned their frowns and their crossbows back out toward the night.

I sat and I panted and even with the door and window open I gagged at my smell. My heart still rushed, and memories of the thing’s bloated, eyeless face, I knew, would haunt my dreams for years.

“The boss said you found a bad one.”

That’s what the driver had said. A bad one. The flip side of Evis and his well-groomed friends. Halfdead in the raw-a hungry corpse, rotted and foul, still driven to a grim parody of life by a hunger that drove it from the grave.

I shuddered, couldn’t stop, did what I’d done when that happened during the war-shut my eyes, clasped my hands and counted my breaths. One, two, three, four. Over and over, until it was past.

I’d only gotten through it twice when I heard the driver mutter a curse and the carriage rocked as his friend scrambled up onto his seat. The ponies shuffled their hooves when he caught up the reins.

Evis and a pair of halfdead were just entering the yellow ring of lantern light. Evis’s clothes were torn and stained and ragged. His hat was gone, and his jacket hung in tatters. His pale skin, like that of his companions, was stained and spotted with the dark black blood of the thing from under the floor.

Evis and another halfdead supported a third between them. I squinted, recognized the limp, injured vampire as Sara, the one who’d tried to take me outside.

It was only in that light, with her jacket gone, that I realized Sara had once been a woman. She’d been halfdead so long it was hard to tell, since they all wear their hair short, and she’d perhaps been tall and thin before she changed. Now her head lolled, and her arms twitched spasmodically, and though she moved her feet she did little more than shuffle them across the cobbles while Evis and the other halfdead hauled her toward the carriage. Evis and his upright companion looked grim. Sara, too, was slathered in old black blood-but a wound in her chest, right over her heart, oozed and glistened with blood of her own.

I pushed myself back out of the way. Evis said something to the driver, and suddenly Sara and the other vampire scrambled inside.

Evis popped his head in the door.

“Bertram will take you home, Mr. Markhat,” he said. “You and I must speak tomorrow, the sooner the better.” He lifted his hand, cutting off my reply. “There is no time. You must not be seen here, and I must stay. Go. We talk tomorrow.”

He shut the door, and the carriage rolled on.

An awkward silence fell. Sara shifted and mumbled and pawed the air with her hands, as if caught in a deep and troubled sleep. Her companion held her close and tried to hold her hands and stroke her face and keep her from leaping out of her seat. He didn’t have enough hands, and even vampire-quick was nearly not quick enough, but he managed, somehow.

She cried out, high and airy, and he began to speak to her, soothing and soft. And only then did it dawn on me-Sara and her companion were married.

Had to be. Mister and Missus Halfdead. Death had done them, but they had yet to part. I’d missed the mannerisms before because I never imagined such pale cold creatures would bother with wives or sires.

She cried out again, flailed the air with her hands. Three of the fingers on her right hand were broken, bent back double, touching the back of her palm.

“Will she heal?”

Sara’s husband-had to be-turned his eyes briefly upon me.

He spoke. His accent wasn’t Rannish, and it was so thick it took me a moment to work out his words.

“What do you care?”

Sara’s broken fingers began to move, drawing themselves slowly back into their normal places. I could hear, faint over the rattle and clack of the carriage, the faint scraping and popping of small bones.

“She saved my life. She fought for me.” I shrugged. “So did you. It matters.”

He held her good hand while the broken fingers twitched and jerked.

“She will recover,” he said, when it was done. Sara sagged like a rag doll, and her husband looked back toward her. “We fought for the House. Not for you.”

“Then I thank the House,” I said.

Sara expelled a final whimper, doubled her hands over the wound in her breast and nestled close to her mate.

Light from a rare lit streetlamp washed through the open windows of the carriage. I saw a wetness in the male vampire’s yellow eyes, and I looked quickly away.

After a while, Sara began to mumble again. She shared her husband’s accent, and she wasn’t speaking Kingdom, but the older tongue of the Church. I know maybe a dozen words of Church, so I wasn’t keeping up too well. But I didn’t need a priest-book to know halfdead Sara was mumbling ragged prayers.

“Mercy, mercy, spare me, mercy.” Over and over again. And while she prayed, her fingers moved, reflexively rubbing a prayer coin that wasn’t there, wouldn’t ever be there again.

Mercy, mercy. I wondered what old Father Molo would say, on hearing vampire prayers. I could almost see his red mask shaking, hear the fury and outrage in his tremulous old voice. Blasphemy, he’d shout. Blasphemy, and damnation quick to follow.

Still, Sara prayed. She’d grappled fully with the thing we’d disturbed. She touched its flesh, perhaps tasted its blood. Was that the mercy for which she prayed? Was that the fate from which she begged to be spared?

Life ends in death-perhaps half-life ends with the thing from the floor.

So she prayed. I lowered my head and closed my eyes. For the first time since before the War, I mouthed Sara’s name and prayed for her too, all the long way back to Cambrit.

I shucked my clothes right there in the street. I managed to salvage my socks and my shoes, but everything else went into a trash bin-even my old Army dress pants, which had withstood assaults of time and moths and weather and war, but wasn’t ever going to recover from a couple quarts of old dead blood and smeared-on bits of rot.

Naked at my door. If the neighbors were watching I’d never hear the end of it. But I wasn’t done yet. Inside, I gathered my just filled washing urn, a cake of Mama’s flesh-eating lye soap and a rag destined to keep my britches company in the bin.

Then, still nude, I stepped back outside and lathered up Mama’s soap and took the longest, most disgusting bath of my long and sordid life.

I got lye soap in one eye and provided high amusement for a pair of passing ogres. I’ll probably go bald any day now from the caustic soap, but when I was done I was shivering and shaking and absolutely squeaky clean.

Only then did I dress. Only then did I lock the door, open a warm bottle of Bottit’s and sit down to see if I’d shake.

I didn’t. I didn’t sleep, not until nearly sunrise, but I didn’t have the shakes again.

I even did some thinking. Came to some conclusions. Conclusions about Evis and Houses and why Avalante wanted Martha Hoobin home and safe and sound before anyone but finder Markhat discovered a mad, rotted halfdead napping in a shallow grave downtown.

Three-leg Cat poked his head in the office but refused to come near me. I finally dozed off, still at my desk, to the sound of half a dozen dogs outside snarling and tearing at my blood-fouled clothes.

Chapter Seven

Bang! Bang! Bang!

I jumped, spilled warm beer and felt my head begin to throb.

Mama’s voice rang out. She tried the latch, cussed and shoved hard at the door.

I threw the bottle in the trash bucket and managed to get out of my chair and to the door before Mama broke it down.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I said, fumbling with the latch. The daylight through my bubbled-glass door-pane was faint and yellow, more blush of dawn than actual morning.

I yanked the door open. “Damn, Mama, it’s barely daylight-”

She pushed her way in beside me. The look on her face-it’s never a good look, mind you-was worried and grim and if I didn’t know her better I’d say it was frantic.

“Boy,” she said, huffing and puffing. “Boy, where you been?”

I shut the door.

“Right here sleeping. Why? Where’s the fire?”

She fell heavily into my client’s chair, her hands tight around the neck of that big burlap sack she sometimes carries. Once she let a little snake crawl out of it and get loose on my desk. I’d told her to leave it at her place from then on.

“You ain’t been here all night.” She opened the bag and started rummaging around inside it as she spoke, and I got that lifted-hair-on-the-back-of-my-neck feeling I’d always gotten when the Army sorcerer corps had aimed new hexes at us troops.

“Whoa,” I said, harder and louder than I meant to. “You got mojo in that sack, Mama, you’d damn well better leave it there. I took hexes in the Army because I had to, and you’ve slipped a few on me because I didn’t see them coming. But hear this, Mama Hog. No hexes. Not today. Got it?”

She clamped her jaw and met my stare. I could see her hands moving, see the beginning of a word form on her lips.

Then she sagged and let out her breath.

“Wouldn’t do no good anyhow.” She pulled her hands out of the bag and tied it shut with a scrap of twine. “Wouldn’t do no good.”

When she looked back up at me, she had tears in her eyes.

“Mama, I didn’t mean-”

“Ain’t you, boy. Ain’t nothin’ you said. Ain’t nothin’ you done.”

My head pounded. I took a deep breath and ran fingers through my hair, which was wild and stiff and probably bleached white from Mama’s soap.

“What is it, then? What’s got you so upset?”

“I seen something. Last night. I seen something bad.”

“I thought your cards were clueless where Martha was concerned.”

“Wasn’t about Martha.” She wiped her eyes and leaned close. “Was about you.”

“Tell me.”

She shook her head. “No, I can’t tell. Can’t tell ’cause I still can’t see real clear.” She shuffled in her seat, and I knew I’d caught her in a lie.

“Tell me what you can.”

“Cards. Glass. Smoke. Bones. All come up death, boy. I called your name and a whippoorwill answered. I burned your hair and saw the ashes scatter. I caught blood on a silver needle and saw it turn toward your door.” She shivered, and her eyes looked tired. “Ain’t never seen all them things. Not the same night. And then, when I saw them dogs tearin’ at your clothes-well, I thought you was dead for sure.”

“I’m not surprised. I came pretty close, just after midnight. Maybe that’s what you saw.”

She shook her head. “I reckon not. Something still ain’t right about all this, boy. I oughtn’t to be seeing some things I see, and ought to see things I don’t. We got a sayin’ in Pot Lockney-it’s them things under the water what makes the river wild. Somethin’s messing up my sight on this. You reckon you know what it might be?”

I shook my head. I had suspicions, but they weren’t for anyone but Evis to hear.

“I don’t know, Mama, but I will tell you this. The Houses are mixed up in this, somehow.”

She snorted. “Figured that.”

“Maybe not that way. At least not all of them.” I gave her just enough of the night’s festivities to steer the Watch and the Hoobins toward Avalante, should I have a fatal boating accident in the next few days.

None of that helped her state of agitation. “Running around after Curfew with vampires?” she shouted. “Boy, have you hit your fool head?”

I had to agree, at least partly. But I’d lived. Thanks partly to Evis, who was probably pacing anxiously in a well-appointed crypt across the river.

“Look, Mama, I’ve got to go. But there’s something you can do. For me. Maybe for Martha.”

She gave me a sideways look, nodded.

“I’ll need a hex. A paper hex. Something I can tear. Something you’ll know I’ve torn, just as soon as I’ve torn it. From twenty, thirty blocks away. Can you do that?”

She frowned. “I reckon.”

“Good. And I’ll need you to talk to Ethel. I need you to tell him we may need men to get Martha. Men who’ll break Curfew. Men who’ll fight. Men who’ll keep their mouths shut.”

“How many?”

“All you can get.” I was hoping for fifty.

Mama nodded. “You think you know where Martha Hoobin is?”

“Not yet. But when I find out, we won’t have much time. She’s got maybe four days left. That’s all.” A thought struck me, and I held up my hand to silence Mama’s unspoken question. “Humor me, Mama. What’s special about the night four days from now?”

She frowned. “Special what?”

“I mean is it some old rite of spring or solstice or something. Is there going to be an eclipse? Will the skies turn blood red and rain frogs-that kind of thing?”

“Nothing special about it at all. It’s Thursday. There’s a new moon. Might rain.”

“That’s it,” I said, aloud. “New moon. No moon. Darkest night of the month.”

Vampire picnic day.

Mama saw, and the same thought occurred to her.

“Damn, boy,” she piped. “I done told you I seen death! Death on your name. Death on your blood. Don’t none of that mean nothin’ to you?”

I rose. “It does. But look again. You see me telling Ethel Hoobin I quit? You see me leaving Martha Hoobin at the mercy of those who have her? You see me just walking away?”

She gathered her bag. She rose, and she was crying when she hit the door.

I sat. “Whippoorwills,” I said, to my empty chair. “There aren’t any whippoorwills in Rannit. Haven’t been in years.”

None sang. Ogres huffed and doors began to open and slam outside and old Mr. Bull’s broom started its daily scritch-scritch on his pitiful small stoop. Rannit came to life, sans portents and whippoorwills, vampires and doomsayers.

I listened for a while and then got up, combed my hair and headed across town to speak with Evis about corpses, new moons and ensorcelled silver combs.

I hadn’t even hailed a cab when a sleek black carriage pulled up to the curb before me. The driver tipped his tall black hat, all fresh-scrubbed smiles and shiny black boots with silver buckles and a just-picked yellow daisy in his topcoat buttonhole.

“Good morning, sir,” he said, to me. “I believe you have an appointment with the House this morning.”

I agreed I most likely did. I opened the door and clambered inside. A short time later we were across the River and through the tall iron gates of House Avalante.

I’d have been impressed, were I not so engrossed in my new aches and pains. My right eye still stung from Mama’s soap, and my hips were sore where Sara had snatched me up. So all I can recall is a maze of oak-paneled corridors and gold-plated lamp holders and mirrors set in silver frames. That, and the hush, and the constant strong smell of fireflowers.

I was ushered through half a dozen lavish sitting rooms, each done in fussy pre-War Kingdom style, lace and claw-footed tables and tiny swooping dragons, each biting the tail of the last, carved along the door-frames. I was greeted by half a dozen human household staff, each one more polished and reserved than the last. By the time I was finally shown the anteroom outside Evis’s office, I’d guessed I’d met all the most trusted and highly placed of House Avalante’s daytime staff. Each one called me Mister Jones, and each knew they spoke a lie.

I sat. A butler dusted a forty-candle candelabra and eyed me. I yawned at him. I’d worn my good coat and my new hat and he still lifted his eyebrows and bit back admonitions to keep my feet off the furniture.

Yet another butler appeared, and at last I was presented to Evis. He was seated behind a massive ironwood desk, in a dimly lit forty-by-forty office with red-gold Gantish carpet covering the floor. Three of the walls were lined with cherry bookcases crammed with leather-bound books. The other wall held a glass case filled with curios and old swords and glittering spinning things I took to be sorcerous knick-knacks but couldn’t see well enough to identify. There were, of course, no windows. In fact, by my count of stairs, we were three stories underground.

“Good morning, Mister Markhat,” said Evis. He signed a paper, blew the ink to dry it, and rose. “I trust you slept well?”

I crossed to the empty chair at his desk. “Well enough. How’s Sara?”

Evis motioned for me to sit, then seated himself as well.

“She is recovering.” The room was dark. There was a small candle burning in each corner, but I still couldn’t read Evis’s expression. “I shall tell her you inquired.”

I nodded. Evis reached into a pocket, found his dark glasses, put them on before whispering a word.

Light flared, bright and white, from a pair of glass globes hung on silver chains from the ceiling.

“For your comfort. By the way. Sara’s husband Victor wishes to extend to you his apologies. He fears his manner was brusque, in the carriage.”

I shrugged. “He didn’t tear my head off and eat it. I thought we got along famously.”

Evis grinned. “Nevertheless. We were all disturbed to distraction by what we discovered last night.”

“Oh, we most certainly were. That was…let’s see…” I unfolded and consulted my list, picked out the tenth name. “Milly Balount, wasn’t it? Or maybe Allie Sands?”

Evis nodded. “Allie Sands, we believe. Examination of the body revealed a tattoo, which matched one Miss Sands was said to possess.”

“Allie Sands. She was number nine. Snatched just before the new moon three months ago.”

“Indeed.” Somewhere, a clock ticked and tocked. Evis sighed. “How much do you know about halfdead physiology, Mister Markhat?”

“Very little,” I replied. “I’m not sure anyone does.”

Evis nodded, not in agreement but acknowledgment.

“Miss Sands was bitten many times. We estimate that some eleven halfdead fed on her.”

I stared. Halfdead usually hunt alone, that much I knew.

“Multiple bites result in the unfortunate condition you saw last night. To do such a thing is anathema, even to the oldest and most depraved of my kin. But it is not the first such attack we have discovered. I believe this is significant.”

“I’ll tell you what I think. You stop me when I’m wrong.”

“I shall.”

I took a breath. “Someone-maybe one of the Houses, maybe not-decided that snacking on Curfew-breakers wasn’t good enough anymore. This person or persons has other tastes. Tastes that include young women, consumed without the fuss and bother of plying them with flowers or sneaking through their windows.”

“We do neither,” said Evis. “But do go on.”

“So, once a month, our hungry friend arranges to have a dinner party. Catered, if you will. Someone lures the main course into a carriage with a bauble, or a bribe. Did Miss Sands have a silver comb among her possessions perhaps?”

“She did not. Though her somewhat avaricious business associates rifled her belongings before our agent arrived,” he said. “It is entirely possible such a comb was among her things.”

I shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. She was chosen-like the rest-because she was young and pretty and she was a prostitute and no one would look hard when she turned up missing.” I made myself stare at those round black lenses. “How do you like my story so far?”

“It lacks certain elements.” He didn’t smile. “But, sadly, the theme is generally correct.”

“I’ll bet. So, once a month, and always in a different place, this industrious halfdead and several of his closest friends gather. They gather, and they wait. And at the appointed time-”

“At the appointed time,” said Evis, interrupting, “a young woman is brought out. She is abused, slain and left in the state you observed last night. And that, Mister Markhat-that, we will not bear.”

“Because if word got out, the Curfew laws wouldn’t keep mobs from burning the Hill to ash. Even the Regent couldn’t stop it. I doubt he’d even try.”

“That is a reason,” said Evis. “But it is not the sole reason.” He took off his glasses, squinted in the light, but looked me square in the eye and I looked him square back.

“How old do you think I am, Mister Markhat?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Forty, maybe. Give or take.”

“Correct. And how long will I live, in this state?”

I shrugged again. “A hundred years or more. Until the bloodlust drives you mad.”

He shook his head. “That may be so, among the other Houses. But I expect to live for another three centuries. Perhaps four, even-and at the end, I shall be old and feeble, but I shall be neither mad, nor more of a monster than you see here.”

I lifted an eyebrow. “That’s not the way it works. If it did, why all the old mad vampires?”

“Because they insist on sustaining themselves with the blood of their own species. Because they succumb to the hunger that drives them to slay their own. Because the hunger takes over, bit by bit, until nothing is left of the person but the physical shell and an awful, irresistible thirst.”

“And you?”

“We at Avalante resist. Oh, we must have blood. Bovine blood, porcine blood, any blood, save that of men. And because we resist, we will be spared the madness.”

“And that works?”

Evis nodded. “During the War, the House had dealings with a group of monks, high in the mountains of Chinlong.”

“They make that powder that keeps wounds from going septic. Sin-see, or something like that.”

“Cincee,” said Evis. “A most effective substance.” He reached down, donned his dark glasses again. “But did you know these monks are halfdead?”

I sat back. I hadn’t.

“I have walked among them. I have spoken with a man four hundred years old. He laughed and he walked with a stick, but he was of his right mind. I will be that man, Mister Markhat. And I shall not be alone.”

“You drink no blood.”

“We drink no human blood.”

“Do the other Houses know?”

“They do not. They would see it as a sign of weakness. They would attack, and we would waste valuable resources defending ourselves. Better to wait. Better to bide our time. Because, Mister Markhat, time is what we have.”

“Unless Martha Hoobin crawls out of the ground a month from now and kills everyone in a nursery school.”

“Just so,” said Evis. He sighed. “I will not deny your logic. But is it not possible, Mister Markhat, that I find the fate of these young women as awful as do you?”

I thought of Sara praying, and Victor crying.

“Maybe you do. Sorry. I fear I was brusque.”

Evis laughed. “Forgiven.” He rose, strolled to a wine rack, and motioned at the bottles and then at me.

“No thanks.” I rose too. It seemed like a time for pacing, since we were all old friends now.

“So how do we find Martha, before the new moon?”

Evis sighed. “I had hoped the warehouse would provide us with a name. It did not. It has been vacant for six years. A man named Amralot bought it and keeps it empty because he owns the facility next door and he doesn’t want the competition. We are assured he knew nothing of what took place there, or of Allie Sands.”

I frowned, walked over to the nearest row of books, realized the titles weren’t in Kingdom, and moved on.

“I had a thought, last night,” I said. “It may be offensive. Depends on how you feel about the Church.”

Evis laughed. “How I feel about the Church is irrelevant, considering how the Church feels about me.”

“They’re still trying to find mention of a hotter part of Hell just so they’ll have somewhere to wish you. And that’s on Mercy Day.”

Evis nodded. “Go on.”

I halted. “Doesn’t this once-a-month new-moon midnight feast business strike you as a ritual? I’m wondering, Mr. Prestley. Are there any former priests in the ranks? Not necessarily in Avalante-but elsewhere maybe?”

“Bravo, Mr. Markhat. Are you still determined to refuse my House’s offer?”

I was taken aback, despite myself. “Angels and devils. You mean I’m right?”

Evis nodded. “I fear so. It was your comb that provided the clue.”

“My comb.”

Evis crossed to his desk, rummaged in a drawer, produced the comb. “It was indeed devoid of any traces of handling. Utterly. Completely.”

“Impossibly,” I added.

Evis beamed, behind his shaded glasses. “My word exactly.”

“So someone hexed it.”

Evis smiled, and forgot to lift his hand. “Not just anyone, Mr. Markhat. Our inquiries are sure on this point. This comb was recently subjected to a ritual cleansing, a cleansing so thorough it is, in essence, a new object. A cleansing so powerful it lingers for some thirty days. A cleansing unique in its utter eradication of all the marks of handling, or ownership.”

I nodded. Something was coming back to me-something about excommunication, about the property of the despised.

Evis saw it and nodded. “Indeed. As…what we are, we have some intimate knowledge of the Church and its rituals of cleansing. When the condemned is cast out, the Church seizes his property. In our case, the property is considered unclean. And so, rather than pollute its coffers, the Church permits an arcane ritual to take place. The Rite of Cleansing.”

“Must be more to this Rite than a few mumbles of Church-words and a wave of the censer,” I said.

“Indeed,” said Evis. “It is a powerful act of magic, performed in utter secrecy, by one of the few walks of sorcerers the Church will permit on sacred ground.” He put the comb down. “This comb was subjected to this ritual. I believe the others were too.”

“How many of these Cleansing sorcerers are around? There can’t be many.”

Evis stepped closer. “There are only seven in all of the Church.” One is away in Galt, and has been for two years. One is old and feeble and hasn’t risen from his bed in nearly as long. The rest-well, I have the names of all the rest.”

“Five names. Only five.”

“Three are an hour’s walk from here.”

“You think one of them did more than hex the combs?”

“Perhaps so, perhaps not,” said Evis. “But even if they were not party to the fates of Miss Sand and the others-even so, they sold or allowed to be sold Church property, property that had been seized and Cleansed. That, or they are performing their art for clients other than priests. Either way, Mr. Markhat, they know the ones we wish to know. They have seen them. They have dealt with them. They may well collect the young women, as well.”

“You don’t know that.”

Evis sighed. “No, I do not. But we are out of time, Mr. Markhat. Miss Hoobin is next, unless we prevail.”

“So why not drag all five of our Church wand-wavers in here and start pulling off toes until one of them talks?”

“That was my initial strategy,” said Evis. His expression was deadly serious. “The House, though, refused to entertain any such notion. A call to arms by the Church-well, you see our dilemma. We cannot approach any of these men directly.”

I sat. “All right.” I’d been kicking a notion around since dozing off last night. I’d crafted my plan around hunting a halfdead former priest, and maybe I’d been wrong about that. But since I’d been right that the Church was involved, my notion hadn’t suffered. If anything, I had fewer calls to make.

I took a deep breath. Evis was right. Miss Hoobin was facing her last few hours above the bricks, unless Evis and I found her. “I have an idea. But it needs something to work.”

Evis whirled his chair around and plopped down into it. “What is this thing?”

“A name. A special name. We need to scare our comb-hexing friends, and Markhat won’t work, and Avalante might not. I need cold-sweating, pants-soiling, pale-faced terror, and I need it right now.”

Evis frowned. “Castor Sims?”

Sims was a Senator, noted for his fondness of the gallows.

“Scarier.”

“Violin Otal.”

“He’s dead.”

“He was indeed,” said Evis, flashing a toothy grin. “But he won’t be for long, much to the dismay of the persons who killed him.”

I shook my head. “Forget Senators and generals and remember what’s at stake here. Let’s keep the fires in the cook stoves, shall we? Give me a name. Someone who owes the House. All they’ve got to do is look grim and nod yes when asked if they’ve hired a finder named Markhat. That’s it. Now give me a name, Evis. Give me a name or I can’t make this work.”

Evis lipped his lips.

“Encorla Hisvin. That is as high as the House may reach.”

I grinned. Hisvin the Black. The Corpsemaster. I understand the Trolls had added him to their pantheon of devils, during the War. Parts of the Serge out West were still burning, where he’d swept his spells across the rocky hills. Better still were the tales told of his exploits after the War, as he cleared the parlors and drawing rooms of the Regent’s many critics in a variety of colorful and lingering ways.

“High enough.” I gulped back a spurt of misgivings over having a creature like Hisvin know my name. But I’d started this. Now I had to finish it.

“Now then. Here’s what I need you to do.”

Chapter Eight

And so, after lo these many years, a prodigal, if not entirely repentant Markhat returned to the bosom of Father Church.

Evis’s black carriage rattled jauntily along. It was mine for a time, and Halbert the driver called me “sir” and meant it. With my new black hat and Halbert opening all my doors, I was having a difficult time feeling contrite or the least bit in need of tearful confession.

I had just enough on my mind, though, to keep me from singing. Evis had answered most of my questions, but one thing still nagged at me, all the way to my first stop at Wherthmore Cathedral.

Why, pray tell, had we disturbed poor Allie Sands at all? Say everything I’d surmised about a new-moon vampire blood-feast was true. Say a renegade Church sorcerer was involved. Say one of the major Houses was footing all the bills and minding all the cloaks while the slaughter commenced. Say it was all true.

Why in Heaven’s name would you leave a moldering halfdead-infected corpse behind, buried in a grave so shallow it could claw its way free at the first hint of an easy meal?

Why not just dump the blood-drained body in an alley as the lads scurry home to floss their teeth before sunrise? The dead wagons will roll and the ovens will burn, as the saying goes, rain or shine. What’s one more well chewed corpse?

Had to be the number of bites, I decided. But I doubted that the Watch did anything but shove the bodies into the ovens, after they’d made a thorough forensic examination of the victim’s pockets or purses. Still, the blood-culters had to be cautious, I decided. It would only take one sharp-eyed Watchman and one Hill doctor to realize what was happening.

I watched poor folk scamper out of my way through my clean glass windowpane and mulled that over. The thing we’d raised had been rotted-but thinking back, I decided it hadn’t had any hands.

Had she been left out of sloppiness? Maybe. Taking Martha Hoobin merely because she worked at the Velvet wasn’t smart. Could be the ceremony had run late and the principals had left and the mop up crew had just decided to pull up a few old street cobbles and leave the body there, rather than risk hauling it outside in the dawn.

Or maybe Evis and his pale, well-groomed agents had been noticed, and Allie Sands was someone’s way of saying hello.

I hoped not. But I didn’t need Momma’s cards to see the likelihood of such a thing.

We passed the Velvet, and I waved to Hooga, who didn’t see me. I found myself hoping Darla would be out on the street, but she wasn’t, and we passed.

Wherthmore is Rannit’s largest, oldest church. It was built so long ago the Brown River has since changed course. The two knee-high granite walkways that extend from the steps, it is said, once led right down to the jetties and the wharves. Now, it takes half an hour just to get from the Brown River to Cambrit, and another half to get to Wherthmore.

The cathedral itself soars up five stories-impressive when it was built, but merely average now. It’s made of pink granite, festooned with scowling demons and topped off with triumphant if pigeon-spotted angels, right hands upraised, wings outspread as they descend from the heavens to alight on the Church and bestow blessings on the faithful.

Soot-black thick soot from the crematoriums, soot no rain will ever wash away-has left all twelve of the big oval stained glass windows so black you couldn’t make out the scenes laid within them.

Find in that what metaphor you will.

Halbert stopped the carriage, set the brake and tied the ponies. Then he opened the door, made a little bow and winked.

Half a dozen red masks watched the show.

“I won’t be long,” I said, stepping out.

Halbert just nodded, and marched away, and I stepped into the cold shadow of an angel’s stone wings and made for the steps of Wherthmore.

Two priests, two halls, two rooms. That’s all it had taken to get me from the front doors to the office of one Enris Foon, First Hand of the Holy Arm of Merciful Inquisition. That, and the name of Hisvin, which I’d spoken often and loudly.

I sat in a straight-backed chair and wondered if there was a Second Hand, or perhaps a Right Foot, until a priest so low he lacked a title or a mask wordlessly ushered me in to see Enris Foon himself.

His office was nothing special. Church title or not, it wouldn’t be fit as a closet at House Avalante. My own spacious accommodations rivaled it for cleanliness, for instance.

Enris was seated at a rickety pine desk. He held a mask on a stick before his face, and from the churning of his neck muscles and the smacking behind the mask, I gathered I’d interrupted his lunch.

“Are you of the flock, my son?” he said, after a particularly spirited round of chewing and swallowing.

“I’m my own flock. And I’m here on business. You can put the mask away.”

He lowered the scowling red mask.

He was maybe seventy and thin and bald and he didn’t get much sun. He had close-set brown eyes and a hawk nose. What hair he did have was all in his eyebrows and his ears. Both could have used a cut, or at least a comb.

“All right.” Give him credit-he said it without rancor. “What can the Church do for you today?”

“I’m looking for something.” I pulled a sheaf of papers out of my coat’s breast pocket. Evis had supplied the whole thing, from the silk paper folder to the gold-leaf tie to the readily visible skull-and-spider seal of Encorla Hisvin himself.

Father Foon saw, but he didn’t bat an eye.

“Ten years ago, a barge called the Embalo sank up around Gant. On that barge was a big crate. In this big crate was a smaller crate. In this smaller crate was a chest-a chest a foot long and half that high and half that wide.” I shaped a box in the air with my hands. “It was lead, and it was sealed. The gentleman who lost it wants it back.”

“I see,” said his Handedness, looking genuinely perplexed. “And you think I know of this item?”

“Probably not. But I think you might know about this.”

I’d reached again into my pocket as I spoke, so I pulled out the silver comb and thumped it down on his desk.

And I watched him. I watched those eyes for any flicker of recognition. I watched that face for any hint of fear.

All I saw was a man wondering how best to get rid of me without pissing off the rich folks who’d employed me.

Which didn’t really mean much. I’ve met people who can lie with utter conviction, people who simply don’t live in their faces. He might have buried Allie Sands himself. Remorse just isn’t found in some hearts.

“And this is?” he said.

“This is a silver comb. One of two-dozen silver combs, of Lot 49, bound for Rannit via Gant. They were in the big crate that housed the smaller crate that housed the sealed lead box. They’ve started showing up in Rannit. My employer has deduced that since the combs have made their way up from the bottom of the Brown, that perhaps his box has too.”

The Hand frowned. “I still fail to see why you’ve brought this to me. The Arm cleanses items polluted by willful apostates. We do not deal in submarine treasure hunts.”

“This comb has been Cleansed. Which means that somehow it wound up, at least temporarily, in the hands of the Church. Which means the Church knows who owned it, what their name is and probably where they are right now.”

“Impossible,” he said. A hint of annoyance crept into his voice, and his face took on a trace of blush. “That object has never been Cleansed.”

It was my turn to frown. “My sources say it has.”

“And who, sir, are your sources?”

He had seen the seal, but I guess he hadn’t recognized it, and his panicked underlings hadn’t told him I’d dropped Hisvin’s name. My, my, there’d be some hellfire and brimstone discipline handed out, after I was gone.

“Encorla Hisvin. Perhaps you’ve heard the name?”

He paled. The man paled, and he gulped down air. I smiled a big wide smile.

“You have heard the name. How nice. Now then, why do you say this object has never been Cleansed?”

He put his hand down on his mask-stick, but he didn’t dare raise it.

“I am trained in the art of the Cleansing, sir, and I tell you that, had it been Cleansed, I would see plain the mark of the Church upon it, and I do not.”

Evis hadn’t mentioned any of this.

“Is this mark a physical mark?”

“It is not. It is a lingering holy affluence, visible only to one trained in my Art. And it is not there.”

“How long does this holiness linger?” I asked, watching him and letting him know I was doing so. “A month? Three months? How long?”

“For all eternity.”

I couldn’t resist a snort. “Let’s pretend I’m about to report back to my employer. Let’s pretend he wants to know how long this mystical invisible holy mark will last. Specifically.”

The Hand shook his head. “It is a permanent part of the object cleansed. As long as the item remains, so will the mark. As a reminder of the fate of those who tempt the wrath of the Church.”

I nodded. “I’ll be sure to mention that.” He blanched further. “So what you’re telling me is this.” I picked up the comb, held it in his face. “You’re saying that this was never Cleansed. You saying that since it was never Cleansed, that my employer can’t match it against a list of seized items. And since he can’t do that, he can’t use the names on that list to go a hunting for his little lead box. Is that what you’re telling me, Hand of the Holy?”

I made sure I raised my voice. Not just for the Hand’s benefit, but for those I heard tip-toeing about just outside his door. Word would spread, it would. Fast and furious.

“That’s what I’m telling you,” he said, after a deep breath. “It is the truth.”

Then he rallied. “Is that all you came to show me?”

“It is.” I put the comb back in my pocket, arranged my papers, put them away as well. “And if that’s all you’ve got to say, I’ll wish you a good day.”

I rose, and he rose, and a faint pitter-patter of feet hurrying away sounded from beyond the door. When the Hand made no move to show me out, I turned and got my hat off the rack and opened the door myself.

“One thing I forgot to mention. My employer isn’t out for blood. Not yet. In fact, if he gets his box back, he’ll be more inclined to pay those who assisted than to chase down those who hindered.”

“I cannot assist. Nor have I hindered. How dare you stand on holy ground and threaten a Hand of the Holy.”

“I haven’t threatened anyone.” I put on my hat and stepped through the door. “I’m just looking for combs, and a small lead box. Thank you for your time, Father Foon. Good day.”

I left. He was staring at the door when I closed it behind me.

Scurrying footsteps and closing doors preceded me all the way to the street. I stepped out into the light, squinted up at the faraway sun and let it chase a chill away.

“Shall we go?” said Halbert, from the curb. He knew the plan for the day, knew we’d be heading to four more Church mainholds, and a few other places besides.

I tipped my hat and climbed aboard.

Chapter Nine

Four more church mainholds.

My visit to Clathis might as well have been a replay of Wherthmore, aside from the pawing and fawning I was subjected to after only a single mention of Encorla Hisvin’s name. I was led from office to office and treated to denial after denial by every mask in the structure. I gather Hisvin had made some offhand comment critical of Clathis some years ago and the reverberations of terror had yet to die down.

Enrolt proved a much more resilient bastion of faith. I was actually made to wait, cooling my newly shoed heels while I was peeped at, discussed and finally ushered into a dusty alcove. I watched mice play beneath the tattered crimson curtains until I tired of waiting and marched myself right past a startled pair of white-masked priests and into the biggest office I could find.

I slammed the heavy door behind me.

That woke him up, at last.

“Encorla Hisvin isn’t pleased,” I said, by way of greeting and introductions. “When Encorla starts asking for names, shall I give him yours?”

The priest-who by the size of the mask he groped for may have been The Priest-gobbled and blanched.

I pulled back his company chair, spun it around and sat.

“My name is Markhat,” I said, holding up my hand for silence. “I work for Encorla Hisvin. I’ve been here for an hour getting the run-around about this.”

I held out the silver comb.

“How dare you-”

“I don’t dare, Father, but Hisvin does. Want to call the Corpsemaster on his manners?”

The name sunk in. All the way in.

The priest reached out, took the comb.

I laid out the whole spiel, crates and lead boxes and sunken barges and all.

And got not a hint of guilt for my troubles.

What I did get was the usual parade of denials and badly concealed indignation. And another denial that the comb had been Cleansed, though Father Gillop was less than impressed by Father Foon’s estimate of a Cleansing’s longevity.

“It might last ten years, perhaps fifteen. But no more.”

Which did nothing to help me at all. Convinced I’d sowed as much terror as I could at Enrolt, I bade the red-faced Father Gillop a heartfelt farewell and ambled happily outside.

Halbert was there, brushing his ponies. But before he saw me, the street began to clear, Watchmen’s whistles rose above the din of street noise and I heard the first of the screams.

I turned.

Charging down the street was a monstrous black carriage.

No horses. Just a carriage.

People dived and ran. Dogs barked, but dared not nip at the wheels. Along both sides of the street, horses reared, cabmen cursed and grabbed and dodged.

Crows wheeled and swung above the carriage. Something like a cloud rode above it, around it.

Though there were no horses, a driver perched atop the thing. His grin was too white and too wide. As it drew nearer I understood the source of the screams, because the driver was a corpse, had been for too many days of sun. As I watched, a crow darted down, alighted on his shoulder, and tore away a scrap of grey flesh from the side of his skull.

I heard, but did not see, Halbert leap aboard my cab and take his beloved ponies away.

I knew. Encorla’s black horseless carriage, driven by the remains of whoever had displeased him last, was the stuff of legend. So while all those around me fled, I stood rooted, while everyone from street whores to supposedly blind Oltish jugglers jabbed priests in the gut and dashed nimbly around them into the dubious safety of the church.

The carriage neared, rattling and rushing. The cloud that enveloped it buzzed, and by the time the smell hit I knew the cloud was a seething mass of blue-belly flies.

It rolled to a stop before me. The dead driver turned his rotted face toward me, clacked his lipless teeth in a silent caricature of speech and bade me enter his carriage with a gesture from a skeletal hand.

The door opened. A blinding mass of blue-belly flies poured out.

“Do join me, goodman Markhat,” said a woman’s voice. I could see nothing within the shadows of the cab. The voice was bubbly and thick.

The stench was overwhelming.

“I must insist,” she said. “Do not darken my mood by refusing.”

I took a deep breath, squeezed my eyes shut-whether out of terror or against the flies I still do not know-and clambered into Hisvin’s black carriage.

Wet laughter greeted me.

“You may open your eyes, goodman,” said the voice. “I picked my prettiest helper, just for you.”

I steeled myself and opened my eyes.

The flies were gone, every one, and most of the stench, else I simply couldn’t have breathed.

Not locked in a cab with a corpse.

And corpse she was. She’d been beautiful, once. She’d had red long hair, big green eyes and the kind of body the Velvet would charge double for.

But all that was gone. Her face was bloated and dark, her green eyes filmy and leaking, her lips a parody, her tongue a swollen black worm that wiggled sluggishly over teeth going dry and yellow.

She laid a blue-black hand on my shoulder. The nails were peeling away.

It is estimated that Encorla Hisvin personally slaughtered eighty thousand or so Trolls during the last three months of the War. Hisvin was a rarity among sorcerers, in that rather than just swooping in and pointing spells at the enemy, Encorla had camped with and moved with the troops.

We’d called him the Corpsemaster. No one ever saw Hisvin himself. Just a small black tent that always drew flies. Hisvin wore dead bodies when he was out and about. The War had provided plenty of those, so many that he was reputed to change them out every morning during the height of the fighting. Rumors flew as to why, but speculating on the motives of sorcerers is like combing ogres-it serves no good purpose, and is likely to end in tragedy if the ogre notices.

One thing was certain. The Corpsemaster’s wrath was a thing to be feared. Hell, the mere attention of the Corpsemaster was something to be feared, and I’d conjured him up with nothing less than his name.

“Don’t you like her, finder?” said Encorla. “Why, men were always in pursuit of her. She was the daughter of a Duke, renowned the Kingdom over for her beauty, and her wit.”

The corpse leaned forward, and her voice dropped to a slurred but conspiratorial whisper. Black blood leaked from her nostrils as she leaned.

“It was her wit, frankly, that resulted in her present state,” said Encorla, through the corpse. “Oh, she was amusing, at first-but her wit quickly fell flat, and soon I fear she failed to amuse. Failed horribly, some might say.” The dead woman sighed a long wet sigh. “But happily, she may yet be of service, for some brief time.”

The carriage thumped, tilted and beneath it a scream sounded and was cut short. The dead woman giggled.

“I was flattered by your assertion that my name alone would flush these miscreants from hiding, goodman,” she said. I could hear fluids bubbling deep in her chest, see a thick dark liquid beginning to push past her lips. “Naturally, I decided I simply had to meet such an imaginative fellow. My name, as you have guessed, is Encorla Hisvin-how do you do?”

And then she grinned and held out her hand for me to kiss.

“An honor to meet you.” I let the hand hang there, forced myself to meet those moist dead eyes. “You saved my unit twice, out in the Serge.”

Hisvin giggled, and the hand fell away.

“Well done,” said the corpse. “You should know I’d have gutted you had you dared to kiss my toy.”

I swallowed, nodded.

The corpse hissed as something inside it burst, and the smell of it filled the cab and I fought back the urge to retch.

“I’ve been so bored since the Truce,” it said, winking and dabbing at the black fluid gathering at the corners of her mouth. “Why, I was just ambling about my rooms when word came from Avalante of some small amusement concerning blood-cults, kidnappings and a bold finder with a plan to end it all.”

The carriage charged around a corner, throwing the corpse against me. She was cold, and even her hair smelled strongly of death.

“I’m just trying to bring a woman home.” My skin crawled where she’d touched it. “What happens after that is no concern of mine.”

“Oh, you needn’t worry about what happens after,” said Encorla through the corpse’s decaying throat. “I’ll be seeing to that.”

I just nodded, falling back on the old Army maxim that the less said around officers, the better.

“I thought it might increase your potency if you were seen entering and then leaving my carriage,” said Encorla, with another big dead smile. “I’ll let you out in front of Wherthmore. Will that suit you, goodman?”

Another nod. I even forgot about the smell long enough to briefly ponder how Father Foon would react to the news that Encorla Hisvin’s famous horseless carriage was pulling to a halt at his door.

The dead woman clapped her hands together in something like girlish glee.

“Oh, isn’t this such fun?” she gurgled. “Deception, secret meetings, all this skulking about!”

“It’s a riot,” I managed. Old stories of Encorla’s infamous snits were clamoring inside my head, each one more horrific than the last, each one vying for my immediate and total attention.

“I thank You for Your assistance,” I said, making the capital letters in my words as plain as I could.

The dead woman waved away my thanks. “Do not thank me. Amuse me. Scatter these miscreants. Save your imperiled damsel. I shall watch, of course.” She trailed a shriveled finger across my chin. “If an opportunity presents itself, I might even join you, on your noble quest.”

I gobbled something like thanks, refusing to pull away from that awful cold digit.

The Corpsemaster laughed, spewing black gobs of spittle on the carriage’s red velvet seats. Then she let me turn away.

Screams followed us, and the sounds of panicked horses. Just before the dead cabman brought the carriage to a screeching, bone-jolting halt, the cab suddenly filled with flies, and the stench, renewed, rose up and engulfed me.

“Be about our business, finder,” said the dead thing beside me. “Use my name whenever and however you please, but use it well, you hear?”

The door swung open. Flies buzzed, scattering into the suddenly empty street.

I gagged, stumbled out and swatted.

The dead thing tittered. “Oh, and goodman-if you would like the company of this woman, just say so. I can send her around. Any night.”

I reached out, caught the door and slammed it closed.

The dead thing laughed, loud enough to echo. Crows flapped and cawed.

I threw up in the gutter, and turned so I didn’t have to watch the dead driver wave goodbye.

I sat in a shade and waited for the shakes to pass.

People gave me wide berth. The ones who’d seen me leave the black carriage pointed and whispered. That wouldn’t hurt my plan, so I sat there and pretended to watch a pair of mockingbirds have it out with a scraggly tailed squirrel.

Encorla Hisvin. Not a name I ever wanted to hear again. Certainly not a person with whom I wanted any association. Like everyone else, I’d heard that Hisvin’s friends tended to die just as horribly and just as frequently as his enemies.

I waited an hour. I could still smell the stink, still imagine blue-bellies crawling at the nape of my neck and buzzing close to my mouth. I was about to get up and find Halbert and make my last stop at my last church mainhold when a hand fell on shoulder.

I whirled. My right hand was instantly in my coat pocket, grasping my old Army knife.

Darla saw, and stepped back-hands held up and open.

“I’m sorry, Markhat. I spoke, but you didn’t hear me.”

I let out my breath.

“Sorry,” I gruffed. “I picked a loud bench.”

Darla shook her head. Her eyes were locked on mine, not playfully. “I heard…the black carriage.”

I just nodded.

“I don’t know what that…person would have to do with Martha.” She spoke carefully, pausing in her words to let pedestrians pass, pitching her voice so only I could hear. “Are you all right?”

I stepped around the bench. Darla’s hands were warm, warm and soft. She hugged me, wordlessly, and she smelled of soap and a fruity perfume and thank the Nine High Heavens nothing else.

“We just had drinks,” I said. We started walking. I went with the flow of traffic. Soon Darla’s hand slipped into mine. “Turns out Hisvin is just a lonely old soul who loves cats and longs to be loved.”

Darla kicked my shin. “Not everybody has a sense of humor,” she hissed.

I saw the dead woman’s bloated face again, heard that wet, slurred laugh.

“No, no, I suppose they don’t.”

“So what now, Markhat?”

We passed a jeweler’s shop as she spoke. I saw us, briefly, reflected in the glass. She was tall and pretty. I was merely tall. Tall and worried. My clothes were rumpled. My hair needed some attention.

“I visit one more church mainhold. Ellsback. Spread a little fear. Shake a few cages. See what darts out.”

Darla rolled her eyes.

“You ignored my question. So I’ll ask it again. What now, Markhat?”

I shook my head. “I just shared a cab with a pair of week-old corpses, Miss Tomas. I’m a little past cryptic. Way past obtuse. Somewhat too bedraggled to engage in subtlety.”

Darla sighed. We paused to cross the street, and I looked up for the first time to see where we were.

“Men are such lumps sometimes. But as excuses go, that was unique. So I’ll let it pass, for now, as long as you take me to someplace nice, buy me an expensive meal and do it right now.”

I frowned. Traffic rattled past.

“Darla, I can’t now. I’ve got to find Halbert, got to head to Ellsback.”

Darla grabbed my elbow and planted herself in front of me.

“You’ll do no such thing.” Her eyes were bright, and she wasn’t smiling. “Markhat, you’re pale. Your eyes are wild. I don’t know what happened, today, but you look like you’ve not just seen a ghost but had your face rubbed in its sheets. You couldn’t intimidate a stable boy right now and you know it, so there’s no use arguing. Anyway, we’re here, and I’m hungry. I don’t like white wine. And leave room for dessert.”

A uniformed doorman opened a big oak door, and Darla swept inside. I gawked for a second.

“They serve a good steak here, pal,” said the doorman, beckoning me inside. “But they serve it indoors.”

Something did smell good. Darla stood inside, hands on her hips, smiling.

“I won’t break you,” she said, as I joined her. “I’ve still got money of my own, you know.”

“No you don’t.” A waiter led us to a table, and knew Darla by name. I wondered just where the Hell I was.

“This is called the Hearth,” said Darla. The waiter pulled back her chair, and she sat, and I managed at last to do the same. “I take it you don’t eat out much.”

“All the time. Eddie makes a good sandwich.”

“You need to vary your diet.” Something about the way she said it made the room get hot.

Waiters came, glasses were brought, orders were taken. The room was lit by candles and reflections of candles. Darla’s hair took on a soft reddish hue, and I noticed she was left-handed.

I don’t know what we talked about. I do know it wasn’t about Houses or black carriages. Darla had wine, I had a damned good beer and the doorman was right, the steaks were good.

I didn’t think business again until a pair of Evis’s grey-clad day staff came sidling into the Hearth and took up stations by the door. Darla saw too. She folded her napkin and sat up straight.

“Time to go back to work, isn’t it?” she asked.

“I’m afraid so. Don’t want the Hoobins to get the idea I’m entertaining comely young women on their time.”

“Oh, so now I’m comely and young, am I?”

I found myself smiling. “You are. The Velvet is keeping at least one of its lamps under a basket.”

Darla grinned a sly little grin. “Maybe I wasn’t always a bookkeeper, Markhat.” She leaned forward, took my hand. “Maybe I know more than you think about what goes on, behind those doors.”

And with that, she rose and sailed forth, brushing past the bemused Avalantes with an airy wave.

I counted out coins and followed.

Darla was gone, when I stepped squinting out into the street. Halbert was there, cab and all, looking hangdog. I clapped him on the back and told him he’d done the right thing and then he clattered off for one more church and one more round of priest baiting.

Chapter Ten

“Will that be all today, sir?” asked Halbert.

“It will.”

Halbert nodded and snapped his reigns. I leaned back into my comfy seat and let out a long and ragged sigh.

I’d tracked them down, one and all, and a more distasteful two day’s work I’d seldom seen. It’s not that I don’t like priests-nay nay, it’s that they don’t like me. I’d nearly had to break down the doors at Ellsback. Word about the pesky finder and his mysterious combs had gotten around as fast as Encorla’s fancy black carriage. Priests had fled the mainhold like ants from an overturned nest, the first afternoon I’d gone around. I’d been forced to resort to an early-morning visit and a half-day wait to finally catch a single black mask come skulking down an unlit hall.

And the black mask of Ellsback, in perfect unison with all his peers, sang a song of innocence and ignorance.

Evis and I had refined our plan somewhat, after reconvening at House Avalante for blood and sandwiches. Evis had clad a dozen or so of his day-walking staff in new grey coats and new grey hats and ordered them to hang around the various churches, following priests who entered or left as vagrant whims took them.

“An abundance of Markhats,” Evis had said, with a toothy grin. Then he’d surprised me by quoting scripture. “Guilt flees while innocence rests,” he said. “Let us see if priests fall prey to the same follies as lesser sinners.”

I’d just shrugged. Let the guilty wonder how the clever finder Markhat gets about so quickly. Even better, let them wonder how many grey-clad men Hisvin has working on the combs.

Halbert bellowed suddenly at a cabman, and I looked out long enough to see the Velvet’s red-flagged roof peek up above the rest.

I smiled, waved though I knew she could not see. The temptation to knock on the carriage roof and tell Halbert to stop at the Velvet was strong, but I resisted. No need for Evis to know more than he had to. Time enough for wooing when work was done.

I’d told Darla just that, more than once, in those three days. We’d managed to have lunch again, once. She’d chided me for failing to shower her with wine and roses. I’d responded with observations that spinster bookkeepers ought to be appreciative of good Pinford ham sandwiches and ice-chilled bottles of Bottits.

She’d laughed and tossed a pickle at me. And then we’d kissed, and kissed again, until the waiter at the Sidewalk Cafe had issued a discreet cough so he could refill our glasses.

We’d held hands, like school kids, and we’d walked in circles around the Velvet, waving at Hooga as we passed. He’d looked the other way when I picked a fireflower for Darla. She kissed me again, and showed me a hidden alcove where the Velvet’s gardeners hid to take naps.

About that, I will say no more.

I grinned at the memory and eased further back into the well-cushioned seats of Evis’s carriage.

At that moment, we rattled past the Velvet. I pushed the window-curtain open wide just to see if Darla was out on the street, or at the Sidewalk Cafe.

She was nowhere in sight. Sharp-eyed Hooga, still on his stoop, dipped his eyes as I passed. I thought of ogre-hash and Martha Hoobin and felt a small pang of guilt.

I let the curtain fall and sighed. Three days, done and gone. Three days of stalking and talking, but if I’d managed to terrify any Hands of the Holy, I’d also failed to see any evidence of such terror. My final four Cleansing priests had shown the same measure of disinterest before they’d heard Hisvin’s name, and similar levels of apprehension afterwards. All had denied ever seeing or Cleansing the combs. All had denied the combs bore the invisible but unmistakable mark of a Cleansing.

That lack of the elusive holy mark was proving worrisome. Evis had seemed so certain about the Cleansing-but what if Evis’s wand waver was simply wrong?

I scowled at passers-by, in fine old rich coot style, and mulled that over. If the combs had no link to the Church, then Martha Hoobin was dead, plain and simple.

I shoved the thought aside. “Can’t be wrong,” I muttered. Evis could afford the best wand-waving money could buy. If he said the combs had received a Church-style Cleansing, then they had done just that.

Priest or acolyte, sorcerer or sweeping man-someone wearing the black robes of the Church had arranged for a box or two of middling good trinkets to be wiped clean of their provenance, just so someone like Mama couldn’t fix their back-street Sight upon a comb and start mumbling things about cassocks and red masks.

Maybe an apprentice did a quick and dirty version of the Cleansing, omitting the much-vaunted holy affluence. Or maybe one of the Hands I’d just spoken to did so, in the unlikely prospect that someone like me came calling.

Evis and I were betting that the combs themselves were a casual acquisition. They’d been seized at an excommunication, bought at an estate sale or picked up for a few gold jerks in the shadows down at the docks. In any case, we were betting that our man knew little, if anything, about the combs and their history.

But he’d be wondering now, if we were right. Wondering and pacing and ruing the day he bought the awful things. Oh, he’d check my story, starting with my association with Encorla Hisvin. That confirmed, if he bothered, he’d learn that Gantish cargo barges sink all the bloody time, and that half of them are named “Embalo”, which is Gantish for “unsinkable”, and that tracing the mere existence of such a vessel might take weeks, if indeed it could be done at all.

I leaned back. Like all the best lies, mine was a careful blend of half-truth and outright misdirection. It would hold, for a short time.

Time enough for panic to take root and bloom. Time enough to let the name Encorla Hisvin rise up and crash down and squeeze them like a vise.

Evis and I were betting fear would be sufficient to scare the truth out of our mark, priest or not. After all, that was the best course, when piloting past a creature like Encorla Hisvin. He didn’t want the combs, specifically. Since all he wanted to know was where they came from, why not tell him?

Tell him where, and when, and by whom. Better to tell him, than to have him find out, because he might then discover other things-things about the warehouse on Gentry, for instance. Things about dead prostitutes, shallow graves and new moons. Things even Hisvin the Corpsemaster might not choose to ignore.

That was my master plan. Because it didn’t matter to us where the combs came from. All that mattered was who had them.

I pulled off my hat, smoothed down my hair and spent a moment hoping my own life never hung by such a thin and twisted thread.

By the time Halbert pulled the carriage to a gentle halt at my curb, Darla was gone. She’d left me a sandwich and a big red Crump Valley apple, and Mama was shoving them both at me before I was halfway to my door.

“Boy,” she said, eyeing Halbert, who doffed his hat to her as if she were a queen before setting the ponies to a trot. “Miss Tomas left you this. Where you been? She waited half the day.”

“Miss Tomas?” I asked, fumbling with my lock.

“Miss Darla, then.” She followed me inside, put the sandwich and the apple down carefully on my desk. “Though you ought to call her Miss Tomas all polite-like. Manners wouldn’t hurt you none.”

I sidled around Mama, pulled off my shoes, hung up my hat and my coat.

“Look, Mama, it’s been a long day. I’m tired. Say what you want to say and get it over with. It’s bad manners to overstay one’s welcome.”

Mama pulled back a chair and sat. I didn’t like the way she was eyeing me. I could tell she was deciding what and how much of a thing to tell me, and what parts to leave out.

I picked up the sandwich. Mama cleared her throat.

“Ethel Hoobin says he’ll have the men you need, when you need them. I got a hex brewin’ next door. You tear it anywhere in town, and I’ll know it.”

I swallowed. “Good. What else?”

She glared. “I still don’t feel right about this, boy. I tell you, something ain’t right.”

“I won’t argue that.”

She sighed. “Miss Darla had news for you.”

“I’m waiting.”

“Said she found a man in the Park that remembered seeing Martha Hoobin.”

I put down Darla’s sandwich. It was good, better than anything Eddie ever made. But the way Mama refused to meet my eyes was putting me off my food.

“And?”

“Said the man remembered seein’ Martha with a man.” She looked up at me. “Tall, thin man. Don’t know no name. But he was there, with Martha. More than once.”

The Park. I’d been there. I’d asked. No one had seen.

But I’m not Darla, don’t have, won’t ever have, those big brown eyes.

“Who-” I began.

“She told me to tell you to talk to a man named Young Varney. Said she told him you’d be around askin’.” Mama shook her head. “Boy, I tell you plain I feel death, just outside your door, right this minute.”

“Mine?”

“Who else’s?” she spat back. “Ain’t there no other way you can do this?”

“No. No other way. Not now. And anyway, Mama, you said yourself your Sight is fuzzy these days. I still think you’re just putting your head too close to the hex-pot you’ve got brewing next door.”

“Maybe.” She sighed. “Anyways, I reckon it won’t do no good to ask you if you’ll take something I’ll give you, when you go out.”

“If I take it, will you go on home?”

“I’ll go,” she replied.

What the hell, I thought. When you’re mixing and mingling with vampires after dark, a clove of garlic discreetly tucked away in one’s breast pocket might not be a bad idea.

“Here,” she said, rising. She put her hand out on my desk, closed but palm-up, and opened it.

She held a tiny silver image of the Angel Malan, wings outspread, hands upraised and clasped to a fine-wrought silver chain.

“Miss Darla wanted you to have it. I ain’t gonna lie to you. I hexed it, and I hexed it hard.” She looked up at me, and I don’t know what she saw, but her pinprick eyes welled up with tears. “And I reckon it won’t do you a damned bit of good, you pig-headed young fool.”

She dropped the necklace, turned and raced stomp-stomping away.

I watched her go, open-mouthed, as my door banged shut and hers banged in swift reply.

“Thank you, Miss Darla.” I picked up the Angel Malan, let him swing before my eyes. “Guardian of soldiers, defender of the weary.” I remembered a line of Church, in old Father Molo’s voice. “He walks before you, in the dark,” he’d mumbled. Malan hadn’t been his patron. “Clears the way, makes wide the path.”

I slipped the necklace in my pocket, finished my sandwich and hurried to the Park.

I went by Darla’s, but she wasn’t home. So I told the cabbie to head for the Park, and he obliged, though with far less aplomb than Halbert.

Long shadows fell across us as we rode. I tried not to mull over Mama’s ramblings, but I found myself handling my Malan unconsciously and chided myself for it. Death comes to us all. Mama’s right about that. But I didn’t for a minute believe she knew the place, or the hour.

Still, I was taking precautions. My army knife was tucked in a belt-sheath under my jacket. My old Army-issue flash-papers were in the breast pocket. And as I was heading to talk to a man who sold birdseed to ladies of leisure, I felt I was adequately armed.

The Park was beginning to empty out. Couples streamed past, hand in hand. Some were flanked by hooting, scrambling children, their knees soiled green from a hard afternoon of tearing up the Regent’s turf. I dodged and wove and finally made out the stooped figure of a thin, white-haired man pushing a rickety two-wheeled cart, just cresting the next hill.

I huffed and puffed and caught up with him halfway down on the other side.

“Ho there,” I said. “Hold up.”

He turned and scowled and let go of his cart.

He was sixty or better, with a thick head of long white hair, skin the approximate color and texture of an oft-used saddle, and bright clean false teeth made for a much bigger mouth.

“Bit late for bird-seed.” His false teeth clattered and clicked when he spoke.

“I’m not wanting any,” I replied, and without missing a beat he turned, hefted his cart and was on his way.

“Two bags,” I shouted. “Two bags then.”

He stopped again. I caught up to him, saw him stifle the ghost of a snow-white grin.

I held out a pair of copper jerks.

“You the finder?”

“I’m the finder.”

He squinted at me, laughed, opened the top of his cart and pulled out two fist-sized paper bags stuffed full of broken corn swept from the loading ramp of one of the mills that line the Brown.

“Way she talked, I thought you was a good-lookin’ man. Reckon your lady-love needs spectacles?”

I took the bags. “Ha ha. I take it you are Mr. Varney?”

“I am.” He mopped his bald brow and put his elbows on his cart. “Your lady said you wanted to talk about that pretty little New People seamstress.”

“You knew her?”

“Naw, can’t say I did.” He paused long enough to nod at a lady who passed. “She bought some feed, ’bout once a week. Kept to herself mostly. Except when that thin fella started nosing around.”

I made myself breathe, made myself nod agreeably. The last thing I needed to do was scare the old man with the intensity of my stare.

“Been about a month, I reckon. He first started coming round, hauntin’ that bench, right over there,” he said, pointing to a stone bench set center in a white gravel circle not thirty feet away. “Cheap young crow. Bought a bag, never fed no birds ’til he saw her a comin’. He’d sit right there, all sour and glares, ’til she topped the hill. Oh, then he changed, right enough. Then he was all smiles and how-do-you-do’s.” Young Varney spat. “Crow-nosed prick.”

“You didn’t like him much,” I said, when he went silent. “Did she?”

He laughed. “Oh, she weren’t stupid. She’d speak to him, kind enough, at first. But it didn’t take long, ’til she’d figured Mister Fancy Pants out. Then she took to doing her readin’ on the other side of the Park, she did.” He shook his head. “Course, that didn’t stop Mister Fancy Pants.”

“He followed her?

Young Varney nodded. “He was a persistent fella, give him that. She even hid behind them oaks one day. But he always found her, no matter what. ’Til she just stopped comin’.”

I nodded. “He did too, didn’t he? Stopped coming.”

He scratched his head. “Yeah, I ain’t seen him since.”

I took a deep breath. “This is important. Did my lady friend tell you why I’m here?”

“She said that nice lady was gone, and that you think that fancy young man is the one what took her.”

“Someone took her,” I replied. “And yes, I think it was him.”

He shook his head. “Well, mister, I wish I could tell you more about him. I don’t know his name. He was tall, thin and dark-headed. Can’t recall much else.”

“Was he young?”

Young Varney squinted, back across time, I suppose. “Younger than you. Twenty and five? These old eyes-hell, I wasn’t paying much attention to him, no how.”

“I understand.” Another pair of ladies passed, and Young Varney’s eyes moved with them, and I decided on a different tack. “Tell me about the young lady then. What can you recall about her?”

“Oh, she was a daisy. Soft-spoken, smiled all the time.” He cackled. “She had a accent. Drawled her words. Couldn’t understand her, at first. Kind of pretty, after I got the hang of it. And them clothes! Angel Bolo, she wore some duds. Ain’t none of these ladies dressed as fine as that young un’. No, sir.” He smiled. “I reckon you think I’m a sad old fool.”

I laughed. “Put the right dress in front of a man, and we’re all sad old fools. Go on.”

He mopped his head again and pondered. “Well, she always had a book with her. A book or a sewin’ case-that’s how I knowed she was a seamstress. Sometimes she’d read. Sometimes she’d sew.” His face darkened. “Until that there man showed up.”

“What then?”

“Well, she quit sewin’ then. Sometimes she’d read to him, out of her book. I couldn’t make no sense out of it. Reckon he could though. Lord, how they’d argue some days!”

“Argue? About what?”

“Oh, angels and heavens and whatnot,” said Young Varney. I decided then and there that not one, but two, men had been trailing around Miss Hoobin those days in the Park. “She’d be all patient and kind, and he’d get all red-faced and start waving them great long arms.” The old man lifted an eyebrow in disdain. “I knew then he didn’t have no sense. I don’t care what she read in that there book-any man with sense would just be smilin’ and noddin’, and that’s a damned bare fact.”

I felt cold. Angels and heaven and whatnot. Martha Hoobin had been reading Balptist verse to the same man who’d put Allie Sands under the cobbles.

“She’s in trouble, ain’t she?”

I didn’t think he’d seen.

“She is. Think hard. I’ve got to find this man, Mr. Varney. I’ve got to find him soon.”

He fell silent. “When your lady came around, I tried to remember. Tried to think of something. I couldn’t. He was just a tall man. He wasn’t wearin’ no church robes, wasn’t wearing one of them big rings them bastards-” he spat toward the Hill “-wear. He wasn’t talkin’ funny or giving out foreign money. He was just a man.” He looked down at the ground. “But I been thinkin’, and I reckon there’s one thing I didn’t remember then that I do recall now. Don’t know if it means anything.”

I wanted to shake him by the shoulders, but I didn’t. “Tell me,” I said, with my best warming smile. “Her name is Martha. She’s a nice lady.”

He nodded. “It ain’t nothin’ he done, you understand,” he said, his eyes wandering briefly to follow a pert young nanny as she strolled past with a gaggle of shrieking tots in tow. “But it’s something I reckon he didn’t do. He’d meet up with your Miss Martha pretty near every sunny day, but he weren’t never here on Wrack Days. Not a one.”

I must have frowned.

“Damn, boy, you ain’t a Church man, are you?” laughed Young Varney. “Wrack Days. Wrack Days. Every other Tuesday. Them Wherthmore bastards have a extra sermon in the morning and can’t cast a shadow the rest of the day.” He cackled. “Don’t nobody pay no mind to Wrack Days no more but them Wherthmore masks.”

Masks. Priests or acolytes. Anybody up in the ranks enough to rate a title, even if it’s not much more than “Hey, you.”

My blood went cold. Acolytes might just have access to the rituals and artifacts of the Cleansings.

“You’re sure about this?”

“He weren’t wearin’ no robe,” said Varney. “Weren’t carrying no mask. But I reckon he a Church man, all the same. “

“And you think he’s Wherthmore.”

Varney shrugged. “I don’t think nothin’. Don’t go there myself. Stuck-up bastards. But they still hold them Wrack Days, and I don’t reckon nobody else does.” He shrugged. “Hell, it might be happenstance. I said it might not mean nothin’.”

I let out my breath and found a smile. “It’s a good guess,” I said, digging in my pocket for another pair of coins. “I owe you this. You’ve told me more in the last few minutes than any half a dozen people over the last two days.”

“I ain’t askin’ to be paid,” he said, stiffening.

“I know that. I thank you. My lady friend thanks you. And I hope one day soon the young lady with the book and the sewing kit can come up here and thank you herself, but until then, take this. Never let it be said the finder Markhat takes up a working man’s time without offering something in return.”

“Well, reckon that’s all right.” He took the coins, made them jingle in his pocket. Then he grinned up at me. “You keep them bags of feed, you hear? Your lady said she’s gonna bring you up here, after you’ve done found that seamstress. Said she’s gonna sit you down on that there bench and teach you robins from red-birds and trick you into marryin’ her.”

I laughed. “She’d say that. Thanks for your time.”

He picked up his cart. A tall blonde lady was passing by on the gravel walk at the bottom of the hill, and Young Varney set off after her with a single short “fare thee well”.

I turned and went back the way I’d come.

I had a sudden, overwhelming urge to join my brothers at Wherthmore in early evening worship.

I sat on a pew, hat off, head down and watched the faithful come and go.

Evis’s men-I’d spotted one on the street, another haunting the so-called Sin Room that lay, dark and hot, two doors down from the sanctuary proper-had scattered at my approach, leaving only the one true Markhat keeping vigil at the altar.

The Big Bell pealed out two hours as I sat. Three red-masked priests had approached me, and three red-masked priests had retreated in confusion when I told them I was waiting for a personal visit from the Angel Malan himself. After that, they were content to leave me alone, though they did keep a careful watch on me from behind various pillars and through sundry folds of curtains.

By then, I was feeling a bit sheepish myself. I hadn’t come to Wherthmore with any clear idea of what to do. I had, I suppose, been hoping that a tall, beak-nosed man in fancy black pants would show up, silver comb in one hand, bag of bird-feed in the other.

But he didn’t. A few of the faithful shambled up to the prayer-box, knelt and dropped coins before ambling away. Priests came and went and peeped. Just after each time the Big Bell rang, someone behind the curtains struck a gong and read a verse of Church. Young Varney wasn’t there to translate, though, so most of it marched righteously past me.

I sighed. Night was falling soon. Which meant Evis could be out and about, but unless he’d developed startling new evidence in the last few hours, he and his pale friends had no better idea where to go than I.

I almost broke down and prayed. What good a prayer, though, when you only know half a dozen words?

I was about to stand. About to stand, walk out and buy a bottle of wine and take it to Darla.

At that very moment, a shadow fell over me, and I turned to meet the scowl of Father Foon.

“Must you continue to defile this holy place?” he said, so soft I could barely hear.

I glanced about, watched every other red mask and black robe in the building fade like noon-struck ghosts.

“I came seeking guidance.” I stood. “When did you add that to your secret list of sins?”

He took a step back. I hadn’t lowered my voice. I wasn’t going to.

“How dare you-”

“Heard that before. Wasn’t impressed then. Not impressed now.” I stepped out of the pew. “You’re big on prayer. Fine. Let’s pray together, shall we? Oh Mighty Hosts,” I intoned, in a near shout that rang throughout the empty chamber. “Take from me the wrath of Encorla Hisvin, who has been known to cook his victims from the neck down so quickly they didn’t know they were dead until they smelled the roasted meat. Spare me the pain of being skinned and boiled alive because I lied about a box of silver combs-”

“Silence!” he shouted. “Silence, or I swear I shall cast your name to the devils!”

“I’m not one of your flock. I neither covet your heavens nor fear your hells. Cast away. See if I care.”

“Blasphemy!”

“Stuff it. I’ve heard that all my life. Heard it from mean-spirited old goats who would drop a dozen souls to catch a single copper. Heard it and heard it and heard it. Well, I’m not listening anymore, Father or Hand or whatever your title is. I’m not listening, and my boss isn’t listening. You can yell blasphemy at him all day, if you want. See how much sweat it raises.”

And then I saw it. Not just anger, but maybe, just maybe, the smallest hint of fear.

I saw it, and I pounced.

“Here’s the deal. I’ll be at a place on Regent, at midnight tomorrow night. A place that breaks Curfew. Ask around, for the name.”

“I will do no such thing.”

“I’ll be there at midnight,” I repeated. “I’ll have one beer. Maybe two. And if someone hasn’t come in and sat down and told me all about the damned combs, I’m leaving. Leaving, and going to see Mister Hisvin, and he can take matters from there. If it means dragging you and every red mask and every apprentice and every floor-sweeper in all five churches down to see him, I guess that’s what he’ll do. So this is the last time it’ll be me asking, Father. The last time I can offer a promise that Hisvin won’t lift a finger against the man who has the combs.”

“Get out.”

“I’ll do that.” I looked up at the soot-encrusted stained glass windows, at the angels within them struggling and failing to shine through the growing dark. “No reason to stay. Not in a place like this.”

He opened his mouth again, but I was on the move, so he shut it and stepped aside. “Midnight,” I said. “Or else.”

“I shall pray for you, my son,” he growled.

I stopped, turned on my heel.

“If you ever call me that again,” I said, soft this time, “I’ll lay you out, flat and cold, mask and robe and all. You hear me?”

I didn’t wait. I put my back to him, marched out and slammed the doors as I went.

People got out of the way outside. Even the cabbie I hailed made with quick “yessirs” and “nosirs” and stayed out of my way.

I leaned back against the hard plank seat and gulped in air. Where the Hell had that come from?

I’d cussed in a Church. I’d threatened a priest-a body of priests-in public.

I mopped sweat and looked at the sun and realized I’d never make a winery and Darla’s and get back to my office in time to wait in case anyone dropped by with a full confession. So I headed for home, the Angel Malan cold in my pocket, the word blasphemy ringing in my ears.

Blasphemy. Maybe so, I decided.

It is, after all, the single word of Church that everyone knows.

I sat and brooded. Mama Hog came and Curfew came and Mama Hog went. I listened for traffic on the street, and when it came I slipped my knife halfway out of its sheath and made sure my jacket wouldn’t get in the way.

A carriage pulled to the curb, and I heard Halbert’s low voice say something, and Evis answered, and the carriage pulled away.

I relaxed, crossed to the door, met him.

“Good evening,” I said. “Come on in.”

He smiled at me.

“Why, Mister Markhat, one would think you’re glad to see me.”

I stepped back. It’s been a bad day when vampires drop by and you’re pleased with the distraction.

“I’ve been consorting with priests. It’s good to speak to persons who aren’t likely to consign me to Hell, for a change.”

“I’ve heard about your conversation with the good Father Foon,” said Evis. He motioned to my chair. “May I sit?”

“Please do.” I found my chair, and Evis pulled out his dark glasses. “So you know I dropped by Wherthmore.”

“One of my men remained,” he said. I lifted an eyebrow. I hadn’t seen him. Perhaps Ronnie Sacks wasn’t the cream of the Avalante crop after all. “He conveyed your exchange to me. Most interesting. May I inquire as to the source of this sudden interest in Wherthmore?”

I took in a breath. I trusted Evis, to a point. I realized that I even liked him, fussy black receipt books and fangs and all. But I was not going to mention Darla’s name. Not to him, not to anyone.

“I met a man in the Park.” I sketched out Young Varney’s tale, omitting his name and occupation and Darla’s discovery of his keen eye for well-dressed young ladies. “So I figured I’d go to Wherthmore, see what I could shake up.” I shrugged. Let them think my outburst was part of some carefully planned stratagem. I didn’t know how else to explain it anyway.

“Fascinating,” said Evis. He forgot where he was, bared his lips and rested a long black fingernail on the middle of his chin. “Brilliant, even. If the comb-cleanser is indeed of Wherthmore, he will hear. He will know.”

“If he’s there.”

Evis shrugged. “I think it likely he is. The staff at Wherthmore is larger than the other four churches combined. Too, the artifacts necessary for the Cleansing are currently housed at Wherthmore, and have been for the last two years.”

I frowned. “I hadn’t known that. Wish I had.”

“We found this out only today,” he replied. He looked up at me and remembered to close his mouth. “Statistically, your outburst was well chosen. The number of staff and proximity to the required artifacts suggest Wherthmore is indeed the base for the Cleansing of the combs. Especially since, if you say, the Cleansing itself is incomplete-even an apprentice based at Wherthmore would find it much easier to slip in and use the artifacts than anyone based at another Church.” He cocked his head. “Still, Mr. Markhat. Abusing priests in that manner-why, you’re likely to find yourself right beside me, in the Pit, one day.”

I sighed. “Maybe. But I am more concerned right now that our rogue priest is making plans to pay us a visit.”

Evis shook his head. “No, I doubt that the man you have described and the Cleanser are the same man. Indeed, my men have spent the better part of two days observing the staff of the various Arms of Inquisition, and I can tell you that priests and apprentices alike tend to be balding, corpulent men of an age far removed from our man in the Park.”

I shook my head. “You’re sure of that?”

“The artifacts I mentioned are potent ones indeed. Hair loss is common among the Hands. Our amorous Park fancier has hair.”

I frowned. Evis bit back a smile.

“Do not despair,” he said. “This Thin Man, as you call him, undoubtedly takes his orders from a priest, or from halfdead, or both. If we assume it is the Thin Man’s job to choose and entice the women, then he is the man we most want to meet, is he not?”

“How do you know he’s the low man in the outfit?”

“He does the out and about tasks. He is most exposed to scrutiny. And whether he knows it or not, he is the man his superiors will sacrifice, should attention be drawn to their activities.” Evis shrugged. “Call it a guess, if you will. But even though we may have brought terror to the priest and the halfdead, it is this Thin Man who will be sent to meet you. Because he is expendable. And, I suspect, because he is a fool.”

I leaned back. I wasn’t comforted. “How many persons do you figure are involved in this group?”

Evis shrugged. “Logistics suggest ten to twenty. Mostly halfdead.”

“Is that all?”

Evis laughed. “I certainly hope so. Because, once we find them out, it shall fall to Avalante to kill them. Priest and halfdead and all.”

“The Church won’t appreciate that.”

“They’d appreciate being implicated in a vampire blood-cult even less,” said Evis. He shrugged, sighed and regarded me with a woeful expression. “I wish we had more time. I fear we rely far too heavily on surmise and assumption.”

“It’s hare-brained, at best. But I haven’t got anything better. Have you?”

He hadn’t. So we made our plans. He said he’d have people out of sight, but nearby. I agreed they’d need to be well out of sight-halfdead might accompany our friend, as well, and it wouldn’t do to frighten off any nervous callers.

And then, for the second time that night, I sinned. Not blasphemy again-twice a night is a bit much, even for devils such as I-but deception.

I didn’t mention Mama’s hex. I didn’t mention Ethel’s army. I didn’t mention my plan to go and get Martha Hoobin as soon as we knew the meeting place, with half the New People neighborhood in tow. I didn’t mention any of that despite the fact that I trusted Evis, or found his fanged schoolmarm manner disarming. But I couldn’t let myself forget that someone with a bigger desk than his might decide the whole matter was best solved by slaughtering the renegade vampires and then dispatching Martha Hoobin, sole survivor and living witness to a blood-cult whose very existence could topple all the dark Houses, one by one.

Evis nodded, jotted notes and listened carefully to everything I said. And when he left, for the first time, he held out his hand, and I shook it.

“We shall keep a man on the street,” he said, as he left. “In case you have rude visitors.”

“Thanks.” I meant it. The name Encorla Hisvin would keep all but fools from bringing me mischief, but the world is filled with fools. A vampire on the stoop has stopping power few bulldogs can match. “Tell him to knock if he feels like playing cards. And ask him not to bite the neighbors-they deserve it, the ingrates, but half of them owe me money.”

Evis laughed, and he was gone.

Chapter Eleven

That night, I sat up, keeping halfdead hours while I waited for visitors. I whetted my Army knife until the blade was sharper than the Dark Angel’s scythe, and I knew all the while if a pair of angry vampires marched through my door a dozen sharp knives wouldn’t do me a damned bit of good.

I toyed with the idea of begging a crossbow and a brace of silver-tipped halfdead bolts from Evis. I pondered the wisdom of relying so heavily on his counsel and cooperation.

But mostly, I whetted my knife and poked huge gaping holes in our plot to snare Martha Hoobin’s tall, thin abductor.

Poking the holes wasn’t difficult. What if the man who showed up really didn’t know where Martha was? What if she were already dead, already buried in a shallow grave, half-awake, perhaps, gnawed by a terrible hunger that would soon drive her toward the light?

What if Martha really had just left town, a small fortune in paper crowns tucked close to her breast?

I put the knife down. Three-leg Cat drifted in, licked his good front paw and drifted out again just as the Big Bell pealed eleven times.

Hours past my bedtime, and I wasn’t even yawning. Maybe I’ve been listening to Mama too much, I thought, because I began to jump and start at every pop of the walls, every creak and groan of the ceiling. Vampires on the roof. Halfdead ’neath the floor.

Blood upon a needle, turning toward my door.

I stood and paced, knife in hand, and turned my thoughts to finer things, Darla Tomas chief among them.

Had it really been a day, since we’d kissed goodbye?

Had I really been too busy to go to her house, even once?

I vowed I’d remedy that, come tomorrow. I vowed I’d see her, halfdead plots or no. Bring the wine, she’d said.

“I certainly will,” I spoke aloud. “Something with a fancy label. Something with a cork.”

Only then did I realize what I felt hadn’t all been whorehouse mojo, that day I met Darla at the Velvet. No, it was an older magic, a magic that needed no cauldrons, no muttered words.

I paced, I pondered and I planned. Yes, come tomorrow, Darla and I-we’d make mojo all our own, and let the wide wicked world be damned.

Even so, my room got cold. Cold and colder and then colder still. I quickened my pace. I blew into my cupped hands. I cursed Rannit’s fickle springs.

The Big Bell clanged out midnight.

Hex-paws scampered sudden up and down my spine. My breath steamed out, hanging in a fog in the still, frigid air.

A whippoorwill cried out. And another.

I stopped my pacing, stood still. Because in that dead cold air, between the notes of the whippoorwill’s cry, I smelled, strong and warm, the scent of Darla’s hair.

“Oh God, no.” I said it aloud. I said it, and I gripped my knife tight. I’d taken one single useless step toward my door when something was hurled hard against it.

Hurled hard. Then it fell and was still.

I charged. I cursed and struck the door and fumbled with the bolt. Finally, I flung it open.

Horror fell inside, head lolling, blood spilling.

I may have screamed, even then. For an instant, I saw Allie Sands again, expected the ruined form before me to rise jerkily to its feet, moving like a badly played puppet, dark fluids leaking and spewing with each small exertion.

But this blood was red. Red and still warm.

Blood covered her nude body, covered skin and wounds alike, left a long smear oozing down my door.

She had no hands. No hands. Her wrists were gnawed stumps. Her lower jaw was gone, too, grasped, pulled and torn away. Gone like her eyes, like her hair and her ears-bitten or torn but bloody and gone. She had no face.

And just like Allie Sands, her abdomen hung open-open and empty, save the broken ends of splintered white ribs.

But I knew. Knew her name. The tiny butterfly tattoo, one she’d shown me in a fit of giggles just two days ago, was there bright and sad beneath the blood at the small of her back.

I tried to deny it. Tried to tell myself lots of woman have tattoos. Tried to tell myself she had no face, had no way to be identified. But all the while, I knew. Knew it was Darla. Knew it as I knelt down, as I reached out to take her hand, cried out when my fingers closed on the warm stump of her arm.

I did scream, then. I screamed, and I caught her up. Mama said I was just standing there screaming when she heard and she came and she saw.

I don’t recall anything else, until Mama pulled the sheets from my bed and took Darla from me and wrapped her in them and laid her out at the foot of my bed.

All the while, the whippoorwills sang.

I will speak no more of that night, save to say that I awoke to dim daylight, and the sound of Mama’s brush scrubbing dark blood off my door.

I rose. I rose, I bathed and I dressed. Mama watched me go to the bathhouse, watched me return, never spoke a word.

Tomorrow had come. I sat at my desk and recalled my promise from the night before. A bottle of wine, and the wide wicked world be damned.

And so, I reflected, it was. Damned.

And more to come.

The Watch came, with their black wagon, and Mama saw Darla off. The number of bite wounds covering her left no question to her fate. Darla would rise, unless the crematorium’s flames consumed her first. Rise not like Evis, but like Allie Sands-a ruined, shrieking thing gone mad with pain and hunger. Those who slew her had surely known that.

I listened to the dead wagon rattle off, heard the driver cackle and shout. As the sound of him faded away I closed my eyes, clenched my fists and began to count my breaths.

Evis sent men, and Mama sent them away. More came, and she flailed at them with her ragged broom and screeched and cussed and they fled.

Ethel Hoobin came and was admitted. I spoke to him. Mama says I was calm and coherent. That I had assured him my trap was set to spring upon Martha’s abductors, and he was to gather his troops and wait for Mama’s call.

Ethel may have known about Darla, or maybe not, but he asked his questions and nodded once at my reply. He got up and left without another word.

Finally, Mama came inside, propped her broom by my door and threw my bolt.

She sat. I felt her eyes upon me, though I did not open my own.

“Boy,” she said, at last. “Boy, I’m so sorry.”

I clenched my jaw.

“She’d have been good for you. And you’d have been good to her. I seen that much. Didn’t see no further.”

Mama’s voice broke. She bit back a sob, and I opened my eyes.

“We’ll never know that.”

“I saw death a comin’. I swear I never saw it comin’ for her.” She brought up a hand, to mop at her eyes. “Boy, I’m so damned sorry.”

We sat for a long time. Somebody came and pounded on the door. I looked up and saw the black hat Darla had playfully donned just yesterday. I let the man outside knock and shout.

Mama mumbled something under her breath and the pounding stopped. She mumbled something else and the shadow on my glass turned and fell away.

“I reckon,” she said, after a long ragged breath. “I reckon you’ll be a goin’ after them what did this thing.”

I nodded a “yes”.

Mama squeezed her lips together so they wouldn’t quiver. “I reckon you got to,” she said, after a while. “I don’t reckon it matters none that I still see Death’s shadow, a hangin’ at your door?”

I nodded “no”.

Mama stood. I didn’t look up, didn’t see the tears, couldn’t watch another heart break that day.

“I reckon I can’t argue against that. I reckon them bastards got to die.”

I listened to the street. Yes, I thought. They’ve got to die. Again. And this time, they’re going to stay dead forever.

“Promise me one thing, boy. Promise me you won’t go nowhere, won’t do nothin’, till I get back.” She drew in a ragged breath. “I ain’t got no right to ask. Not after what I done. What I didn’t do.” I could hear her grind her teeth. “And I can’t make that up. But there’s one thing I can do. It ain’t right. It ain’t smart. And I reckon it might get us both kilt. But it might get some of them heartless bastards gutted, so I reckon it’s worth the price.”

I said nothing. I barely heard.

“Boy, you got to wait. Just this once. Please.”

I neither moved nor spoke. Everywhere I looked, there was blood-tiny flecks and drips, drying to the color of old rust.

Mama sobbed, stood, turned and left, and I was alone with all my newborn ghosts.

Chapter Twelve

Evis himself came, soon after. In the daylight, no less.

He was swathed in yards of black-black that covered his black-gloved hands and his booted feet and his black-veiled face. He came and he knocked and he spoke, and I found myself at the door, throwing the bolt, more out of shock than any act of conscious will.

He bowed. “I came to extend my deepest sympathies. May I enter?”

I stepped aside. He straightened and darted in out of the sun.

I made my way back to my side of my desk and sat. I did not speak. After a moment, Evis sat too.

He pulled the cowl back, and the veil, and regarded me through his dark glasses. Even so covered, he grimaced in the dim light of my office.

“I confess we were unaware of any close associations. Aside from Mrs. Hog. And we considered her to be at little risk.”

I’d considered none of these things, and it stung.

“We’d just met,” I said. “At the Velvet. She was Martha’s friend. She’d been asking around, about Martha. Maybe she asked once too often.”

And while I had the name Encorla Hisvin to protect me, she had nothing. Nothing but me, and I’d failed her.

“I am partly to blame, as well,” said Evis, reading my mind. “We applied pressure, as I directed. Pressure to a group of none too stable persons already inured to pointless violence. And now another innocent is dead.”

“Your man outside. I never saw him.”

Evis sighed. “He saw nothing. Nothing, until a body struck your door and fell. He remained hidden, hoping the bearer or bearers would reveal himself. He or they did not.”

“How could he have seen nothing? She didn’t walk to my door. Someone carried her.”

“Sorcery. A powerful charm of concealment. Or perhaps one that acts to distract onlookers. We have not been able to determine the specific nature of the charm.”

“You check on your man’s whereabouts the last few new moons? Maybe he didn’t see because he was holding their coats.”

“I will forgive this insult. You are overwrought. Understandably so.”

“You didn’t answer my question.” My Army knife found its way into my right hand.

“The man in question was Victor. He was at my side, the last four new moons, raiding suspected meeting places. He has taken no human blood for nearly forty years. Were he to partake now, the effects would be impossible to conceal.” Evis raised his hand. “Please. Your ardor is excusable, to a point. But it was not I who has done this thing.”

I put the knife down.

“They didn’t just kill her.” The words came hard and each stuck in my throat.

“I know. What was done to her was monstrous. Worse than death. Had you not done what was necessary-”

I heard the dead wagon rattle away again, in the shadows of my soul.

“-she would have risen. In that state, you could not have helped her, or spared her the pain.”

I thought of the crematoriums. Thought of new black smoke and fine grey ash, boiling out of the tall brick smokestacks.

“She is free now,” said Evis, as if he knew my thoughts. “The pain is gone. They may not touch her, ever again.”

Nor I, I thought. Nor I.

“And now we must end this. They have identified you as their tormentor. They dared not slay you, for fear of the wrath of Hisvin. But this they have dared. Despite the risk. It demonstrates recklessness, a disregard for even their own safety.” He shook his head. “There is no more dangerous creature than one which fails to realize its own mortality.”

“The Thin Man.” I’d not really been listening. “Think he’ll still show?”

“I believe so. Consider. He and his other human compatriots would have never ordered, nor authorized, an attack on Miss Tomas. I doubt that they even know. Indeed, I hope that they do not.”

“How do you figure that?”

“Because such actions are certain to lead toward exposure,” said Evis, speaking slowly, as though explaining steam engines to a slow-witted child. “And exposure will damn the day folk more swiftly and finally than any of the halfdead. Think about it, Mr. Markhat. The halfdead have their Houses-where, though, will the day folk turn, should any of this come out?”

I nodded. It did make sense. Day folk plot. Halfdead bite and rend. Biting and rending gets noticed. And should I or someone like me announce to the world that a handful of priests and a few dozen halfdead had conspired to slaughter the daughters of the honest working poor, the flames wouldn’t die down for years.

“Dissent in the ranks.”

“Indeed. In fact, were we to simply step back, to take no further action at all, I suspect that the entire organization would simply collapse-messily-in a week. Two at the most.” He shrugged. “But for Miss Hoobin, I might suggest just such a thing.”

I leaned back. There was still a smear of Darla’s blood on the edge of my desk.

“We aren’t going to forget Martha Hoobin.” Or Darla Tomas, though I did not speak the words aloud.

Evis nodded, regarding me through his dark lenses. He’d heard the words I hadn’t spoken. And I in turn heard him bite back an admonition against a blinding passion for vengeance.

I stared him down. I used to wonder, down in the tunnels, where the fear went. Never figured it out. One minute you’re terrified. One minute you’re not, though death is there, waiting silent in the dark.

The fear just goes away. And so it had, again, something cold, unblinking and unfeeling taking its place.

“Very well,” said Evis. “Then we have plans to make, do we not?”

We did, and we did. When he left, a good hour later, it was all settled, and we would be taking Martha Hoobin home before sunrise.

Evis would have a small army at his side-an army he kept out of sight. He would be watching me watch Innigot’s Alehouse, known far and wide as the place to go after Curfew for a quiet beer or an even quieter conversation. And if the Thin Man showed, Evis would come in a certain small span of time later, and we’d all sit and talk about combs and new moons and Martha Hoobin.

That was the plan, at least as far as Evis knew. Mine involved an army of my own, an army of Hoobins and other fine examples of New People citizenry. I didn’t think Evis would approve, so I didn’t bring it up.

And if we didn’t find the Thin Man, didn’t learn Martha Hoobin’s whereabouts-well, perhaps I’d just share what I’d learned with the Hoobins. Perhaps I’d just suggest we took a stroll across the Brown, and started lighting fires until we found someone who was willing to talk.

I was sure Evis wouldn’t like that.

Gone with fear was caring. Let them burn, said the cold hollow voice deep within. Let them all burn.

Evis stood. “My deepest sympathies. And my vow. You shall stand face-to-face against those who injured her. I shall see to that.”

I stood too.

“I’ll see them dead. All of them.”

He beheld me, something like sorrow on his face.

“Yes,” he said. “I believe you shall do just that.”

And then he was gone, out my door and into his carriage and away.

I sat, watched and waited for dark.

Sometime after Evis left, Hooga and Hooga showed up at my door. They stationed themselves on either side of it and stooped wordlessly into that “I’m waiting to pounce” stance you see all over Rannit. So quiet were they that I didn’t know they were there until Mama came shambling back and I heard them hooting back and forth.

“They heard about Miss Darla,” said Mama, after telling me they were there. “They don’t know nothin’, ’cept that Martha is gone and Miss Darla is dead. They said they decided somebody needs killin’, and they figure stayin’ close to you is the best way to catch up to ’em.”

She sat. I stood and stretched. Mama brushed back her hair and let out a long exhausted yawn.

It was only then I noticed how small she looked and how tired. Her eyes were red and puffy and her wild grey mane was tangled and matted. Her wrinkled old fingers shook as they gripped her tattered sack tightly closed.

She let out a breath and thumped her sack down hard atop my desk.

“Shut up,” she said, before I could speak. “I brung you something.”

I shrugged. I didn’t care, didn’t care to know, didn’t need any backstreet mojo.

“This ain’t what you think. I told you once I didn’t know the names of them what casts black mojo. I knows a name now.” She shuddered. “I knows it, and they knows mine.”

Mama gulped air and set her jaw. “There’s things that oughtn’t to be. Things that ain’t got no business comin’ out of what-ever dark hole they was born at the bottom of. Wicked old things that ain’t got no place in this world.”

“Do tell.”

Mama’s eyes narrowed, and when she parted her lips a hiss escaped.

“I do tell just that.” She shook the bag. “This is one of them wicked things. I reckon I ought to burn it. I reckon I ought to let you go out there tonight and get kilt. But I reckon I ain’t as good a person as I thought. Cause I want them bastards dead. I want you alive. And if that’s gonna happen, boy, it’s gonna happen because of this.”

She let go the mouth of the bag, turned it up, cast a rag-wrapped bundle the size of my clenched fist onto my desk.

“The one what give it to me called it a huldra. Reckon it’s a foreign word.”

She looked away, threw her bag down onto the floor.

“Take it,” she said, through gritted teeth. “Take it, and tell it your name, and Angels help us both.”

“I don’t need it.”

She glared up at me.

“Damn you, boy, you do! You need anything you can get. What you gonna do, you walk into a room and find twenty of them sharp-toothed bastards? What you gonna do?”

She reached out, caught the bundle a slap with the back of her hand, sent it sliding toward me.

“I know you’re hurtin’, boy. I see that dead look in your eyes. I know all you can think about is findin’ them what hurt Miss Darla. But you got to think about after you find ’em. Cause it ain’t gonna matter how mad you are, or what they done, or how much they deserve to die. They’ll laugh. They’ll take hold of you and they’ll tear your damned fool head off. Is that what you want, boy? Is that how you’ll avenge her? By bleedin’ at their feet while they decide who eats first?”

She pointed at the bundle. “You take it. You take it up and tell it your name. It knows why you need it. It knows what to do.” She drew in a breath. “I don’t rightly know if you’ll ever be rid of it, after. But I reckon we can figure that out tomorrow. If’n we get a tomorrow.”

I took up the bundle, began to unroll the rags, realized they were Orthodox grave-clothes stained with thick dark fluids still moist to the touch.

Mama turned her face away, fished in her pockets, came up with what looked like a tiny dried owl.

Inside the rags, deep within the turning, was a tortoise shell. A worn, scratched, fist-sized tortoise shell, the openings sealed with new black wax.

“Don’t touch it,” said Mama, still not looking, as I unwound the final turning. “Don’t you never ever touch it with your bare hands.”

I shrugged, opened a drawer, found a clean handkerchief. I took the shell up with the cloth, turning it this way and that.

It was heavy. Too heavy for its size, unless it were filled with lead. It was also too cold, not quite like a chunk of snow, but nearly so.

“You got to tell it your name,” said Mama. She gripped her dead owl close to her chin.

“What the Hell.” I knew she wouldn’t leave until I’d done so.

I raised the thing, spoke my name-my secret birthing name-to it.

It shook in my hand, but only briefly.

Mama began to cry. “Forgive us both,” she said. Though if she prayed, I knew not to who. “We done what we had to do.”

Tears ran suddenly down her face. She rushed around my desk and gave me a single fierce hug. Then she was bawling and out the door, leaving her bag and her dead owl and a fresh-brewed hex-paper charm-the one I’d asked for-behind.

I didn’t follow. I left the cloth-wrapped shell on my desk. I gathered my things, found my coat and put Mama’s charm in the pocket. I took my black hat off the hook where Darla had hung it, and I put it on.

A storm blew up, an hour after dark. Cold winds blew, and cold rains fell. It felt like spring had given up, and handed the streets back over to winter.

I listened for the count of bells amid the thunder. Found that I’d idly taken the huldra up within my hand. Still cold, even through the cloth, I found it comforting to hold, and the vague patterns on the shell drew my eye.

I thought of Darla, thought of Martha, thought of the rain-swept streets. But mostly, I thought about fires. Fires and blades and shouts, rising in the night.

The huldra stirred in my hand. I started and heard, faint behind the blow and beat of the storm, the Big Bell clang out Curfew.

I rose, donned my coat, slipped the huldra in a pocket. I put out a handful of jerky for Three-leg Cat, thought about it for a minute and upended the tin on the floor beside my desk.

And then I turned and sought out the alley on Regent Street, the one that gave me a clear view of Innigot’s Alehouse. And I waited in the storm, and I watched through the rain. I saw the Thin Man come, saw him open Innigot’s door and dart inside.

I tore Mama’s charm. I pushed aside the huldra’s cloth and took it in my bare hand, and something dark and hungry blossomed in the depths of my soul.

“Martha Hoobin,” I said. “It’s time to come home.”

I crossed the street, and opened Innigot’s door.

Chapter Thirteen

Innigot himself turned to face me. I knew the man, and he knew me, just another occasional Curfew-breaker out for a brew.

That’s what he thought, at first. But the longer he looked, the more troubled his grizzled old face became.

I grinned. He blanched and toddled off toward the back. I swept my gaze across the taproom, in search of my Thin Man.

As was any curfew-breaking alehouse, Innigot’s was dark. There were three candles guttering along the bar, flickering just bright enough to show drunks the way to more beer without making it obvious the place was open in flagrant defiance of the Curfew. Half a dozen hunched forms nursed beers at four tables. All watched me, without turning their faces toward me.

Save one. I blinked, the huldra shook and then the candle-lit room was as bright as noon. I saw him plain, though he sat in the back, in a corner barely touched by the light.

I smiled. As one, the other five men in the room rose, wove and heeled-and-toed it for the door. They left hats. They left coats. They left it all, and I let them go.

The Thin Man saw. He watched me come for him, tried to meet my eyes, tried to convince himself he wasn’t afraid, that something hadn’t gone horribly wrong. I could see though, see the fear rising through him, as easily as I saw the silver buckles on his fancy shoes, or the swan-shaped silver clasp that held his cloak closed at his throat.

The huldra stirred again in my hand. And as I walked, it showed me things.

You know those skull-face carvings at the right-hand gatepost of Orthodox cemeteries? Looks like a skull-until you see the skull is merely folds in the robe of the Angel Aaran, and part of his outstretched hands.

That’s what it was like, as I walked. I saw stains on the warped planks of Innigot’s floor, and an instant later I saw that they were old blood, blood spilled while three men had held a fourth down and cut him. Blood spilled while Innigot had stood calmly ten feet away, wiping down his dirty glasses with a filthy rag.

I heard shouts in the wind, cries for mercy-sounds that had been there all along, for anyone who knew how to listen.

And so when I looked down upon the Thin Man, I saw his fear, plain as a bucket of sun. He looked up at me with cold brown eyes and a face that betrayed neither guilt nor shame. But he saw something in me, something in my eyes, something that chilled him to the bone.

I laughed. “Well, well.” I stopped, pulled a chair around, sat beside him at his wobbly table. “Come to talk about combs, have we?”

He nodded, licked his lips and swallowed. “I brought all the rest. I have the other seven, right here.”

He reached beneath his chair, reached for a paper bag. I didn’t follow his hand with my eyes, didn’t need to see. I knew the bag was full of silver combs, just as he’d said. Each was a sibling to Martha’s.

I snatched his hand back, put it down flat on the table, withdrew my own hand.

“I don’t want them.”

“I’ll tell you where they came from.”

The huldra showed me words near his lips.

“You got them from a young man named Tenny Hanks. He stole them from his father, who runs an import shop on Vanth. Tenny was a weedhead. You gave him ten crowns, and he smoked that right up and killed himself the next day trying to rob an ogre.” I smiled in triumph. “Isn’t that right?”

He opened his mouth, shut it, tried to decide if he could knock me down and make for the door.

I let him see my eyes. He began to shake.

“I never wanted the combs. All that was a lie. Just like you feared. No, it’s the girls I want to talk about. You know the girls. The special ones. The ones you fed to your vampire friends.”

He choked back a shout, tried to bolt. I shoved him back, surprised at how easily he gave way to my touch.

“I know it all,” I said. He tried to look away, but I held his gaze, let the huldra show me more. “I know about the priest. I know about the halfdead. I know you help them, because they let you watch.” I pulled him closer, laughed when he wriggled and whimpered. “You made a mistake, taking Martha Hoobin. She was no whore, and you knew it. What would your halfdead friends say, if they knew you meant to feed them a rich man’s sister?”

He gobbled and clawed. I tightened my grip.

“They’d have your head, they would. Poor stubborn Miss Hoobin. She preferred her Balptist verse to the mouthings of your Church, and you decided you’d make her pay. What better way to educate her in the mercies of your Church than to feed her to a room of halfdead, you miserable little swine. Isn’t that right?”

“I’ll tell you,” he said, gasping around my grasp. I had him by the throat, one-handed. He grappled and clawed but couldn’t dislodge my grip. “I’ll tell you where they are. Tell you where the halfdead are.”

I laughed. The sound of it was strange, more thunder than voice.

“Oh, you shall indeed. Do you think that will save you?”

“You want to know, don’t you?”

I laughed again.

“I know already.” The huldra whispered again, telling me what was ready to leap from the Thin Man’s panicked lips.

“Below another old warehouse. On Santos. Three blocks from here. They’ve gathered there, already. The party begins in an hour. Have I missed anything?”

He coughed and wheezed, began to turn purple. “You…swore. You…swore…you wouldn’t…harm.”

“Did I now?”

I let go. He fell limp down on the table, threw up, lifted his face, sputtering and spewing.

I saw, without turning, the door open behind me. I saw Ethel Hoobin march inside, and his brothers, and then dozens more. All bore weapons. Ethel and his brothers bore short lengths of chain, each bearing a fresh-sharpened hook at the end.

“Mustn’t break a promise,” I whispered to him. “I shall do you no harm.” I backed away. Let him see the New People, let him read the murder written plain on their hard wet faces.

“Pity that these gentlemen are parties to no such oath. Have you ever heard the phrase ‘pound of flesh’? It’s a quaint country saying. Comes from those chains, and those hooks. I’m sure you can imagine the rest. And if not, well, you’ll see, soon enough.”

I turned from him. Ethel Hoobin met my gaze, though many would not.

“Has he my Martha?”

“He has. He took her.”

Behind me, the Thin Man let out a ruckus. Men rushed forward and blows sounded. He yelped and went quiet.

“Do you know where?”

I told Ethel where. I told him to finish his business. I would wait outside, and we would go and get Martha.

He nodded, and the way parted. As the Thin Man began to sob and beg, I left Innigot’s.

It was still raining outside. The huldra showed me a hidden thing, and I brushed the rain away and set out for Santos Street, through a night made as bright as day.

The huldra whispered. I listened. I knew I would have no need of Evis and his friends, or Ethel and his. The blood I meant to spill lay ahead, and I could not be troubled to wait.

So I walked. Each step took me farther, each breath made me stronger, each whisper of the huldra left me taller, let me see more than I’d seen an instant before. I heard music in the storm, heard voices in the wind, saw wonders and terrors in each flicker of far-off lightning.

Soon, I realized I was no longer looking at walls and doors, but looking down on rooftops and rain-swept streets. I towered above it all, my every step that of a giant, my footfalls the very thunder. I laughed, and the skies split with a terrible bright light. I saw hidden forms twist and dance in the shadows.

Below and behind me, shapes scurried, darting from here to there. Some were dark and swift and seemed at times to fly, while some were slow and steady-Evis, I recalled, as if from an old and distant memory. Avalante. Evis and his soldiers, and the New People keeping carefully apart from each other, antlike in my wake.

I realized I could reach down and crush them, stamp them out like insects. The huldra knew, would show me how. Strange memories rose and fell, of doing just such a thing many times before. Other images followed-faces in the dark, a tower on a hill, fire raining from a wounded crimson sky.

“No,” I said, my voice booming. “It is true I spoke my name. Even so, I shall have no other.”

I wasn’t sure why I said those words. But the huldra knew. It turned me back toward the warehouse on Santos, and soon I could see down upon it, even see the cold dark figures huddled unknowing within.

The huldra knew my wishes. I shrank, until I faced a door. I let loose my hold upon the rain, let it beat down over me, let it sting my face and my mouth with its acrid taste of bitter ashes.

I put forth my hand. Knock twice fast, twice slow, twice fast again, whispered the huldra.

I obeyed. In a moment, I heard the creak of a bar being lifted, and when I tried the door again it opened.

I stepped inside, let the rain and the dark and the huldra blur my form into a simulacra of the Thin Man’s.

I stood in a dark foyer. Wood floor. Wood walls. Ten by ten, maybe, with a single second door set in the wall facing the one through which I’d entered. No candles burned, but I saw.

Saw a halfdead before me. He wore no House insignia, but the huldra told me a name. Mercross, oldest and worst of all the dark Houses.

I didn’t care. Because I saw something else, there in the dark. Faint, but unmistakable, and utterly and forever unforgivable.

He bore the mark of blood, rich and red about his hands, about his mouth. He’d washed, but I could see. Darla’s blood, perhaps. My Darla’s blood.

I made a sound, something between a shout and a growl.

An instant of confusion, when he saw I wasn’t the same man he’d admitted. Another instant to raise his pale hands toward me, to open his mouth, to leap.

An instant too long. That which had blossomed in my soul, back in the alley on Regent Street, took root, fed by rage and fury, fed by the blood lingering on his lips.

I caught him up. Caught him and stilled his cries and let him flop like a fresh-caught trout in my hands. I let him see my eyes. Let him see his fate, mirrored within.

“You die for what you did. You die for her.”

I pulled him apart. Easily. I pulled, twisted and tore and did not stop until he was a twitching red ruin. I smeared what was left upon the walls.

When I was done, I took hold of the far door and pulled it from its hinges.

“Come and be judged,” I said, and my voice rang out like an Angel’s. “Come and face the hand of wrath!”

Shapes flew. Harsh voices cried out.

I squeezed myself through the tiny door, and my Darla had her vengeance at last.

Some time later, I became aware.

Aware of voices, furtive footfalls and the glare of torches and lanterns.

The sounds rang hollow, in a large and empty room. I blinked, and the dark fled, and I saw.

It had been a warehouse. Tall bare walls, high flat ceiling, warped plank floor. Windows all boarded, doors all barred, though attempts had been made to pull down the bars from within.

Few such attempts had succeeded.

Carnage lay about me. Blood-thin and black-covered nearly every surface. The odd arm or leg completed the grim decor.

I coughed, tasted blood and wiped my face.

My hand came away red.

I scrambled to my feet. Torchlight flowed through a broken door, and a man stepped through, saw me, shouted and stepped quickly back.

The man darted back through, half a dozen of his fellows and a pair of halfdead on his heels. The halfdead trained crossbows upon me, would have fired had not another pale form appeared and shouted them down.

I spat, and the spittle was red. My head spun, and my vision was alternately clear or shadowed. My ears rang, and when I moved I felt as if my limbs were the wrong size, the wrong shape.

A voice called out, half familiar.

“Finder?”

I knew a finder, once, it seemed. What had been his name?

“Mister Markhat?”

I took a breath, nodded.

“Are you injured?”

Evis stepped forward, waved his men to follow. The New People came as well.

The crossbow-bolts shone strange, in the flickers between light and dark.

I tried to speak, failed. Tried to recall how I’d come to be in the midst of such horror-

— and it all came flooding back to me, and my hand closed around the huldra, and my eyes were suddenly accustomed to the dark once again.

Evis and his men came ahead, their eyes darting to and fro, from limb to bloodstain and back to me.

“I see you found the nest,” said Evis, carefully.

“I found those I sought. They shall trouble us no more.”

Evis nodded, halted. “No, it seems they shall not.” He turned, spoke to his fellows, and one went darting off.

“Miss Hoobin,” he said. “Have you perhaps seen her?”

“I did not yet seek her out.” I cast my new senses down, turned them to the floor, and what might lie beneath.

“She awaits us below. She is not alone. I shall tend to them, as well.”

“No,” said Evis, and I turned sharp upon him. “Please. Let us. Would you deny the brothers Hoobin their due, now that you have had yours?”

“I will do as I wish.” My voice took on hints of thunder. “None shall deter me.”

“None will seek to deter you,” said Evis. “But might we beg of you this boon?”

Ethel and his brothers came rushing inside, along with a gang of twenty or so winded New People. Many bore cuts and bruises. I gathered the only fighting hadn’t been within the bloody walls I faced.

I laughed. “Come. I shall watch then. It will amuse me.”

I caught hold of the trap door recently cut into the floor. Caught hold of it from where I stood, and blasted it from its hidden frame, all without moving.

Evis nodded, snapped instructions to his men and motioned for Ethel and his to follow.

They swarmed off, into the deeper dark. I followed, my pace leisurely, no longer troubled by the blood that ran down my face.

It was nearly over by the time I descended the makeshift stair. Two halfdead and a trio of humans. The halfdead fell first, shot by Evis’s faintly glowing crossbow bolts-I could see plain the spell caught in the bolts, a simple thing of light and heat-and a fusillade of blows from a furious New People mob.

Evis gathered the humans in a corner. Ethel stepped forward, blade raised, and asked them where his sister was.

I knew. I made my way easily through the dark, came to a heavy door, opened it.

A raving, bloodied halfdead flew shrieking to meet me. I caught it, too, and would have crushed it, save it began to cry, a woman’s high sobs.

I brought it out, into the sudden ring of light cast by Ethel’s torch.

Ethel bellowed, would have hacked the captive priests apart had I not silenced him with a shout.

“This is not your sister.”

“Ameel Cant,” said Evis, elbowing his way through the crowd. He eyed her critically, pointed toward a small room behind the one I’d just opened. “If you please?”

I cast her into it and slammed the door. She beat and flailed upon it, her cries long and high and anguished.

A bar leaned by the door. I picked it up, dropped it in the holds, crossed the room, flung open the next door and stepped inside.

And there she was.

Martha Hoobin, backed into the furthest corner of the tiny stinking room, glaring up at me with those sky-blue Hoobin eyes.

“You’ll nare lay a hand on me, ye cat-eyed devil.” She’d torn a post from the bed that was the room’s sole piece of furniture and scraped one end sharp. She held the point steady and level with my gut.

Even there, in the dark, through eyes no longer entirely my own, I could see a bit of Ethel in the set of Martha’s jaw, in the way she held her eyes boring straight into mine. There were other similarities-the long narrow shape of the nose, the coal-black hair, the cheekbones that caught the faint light of approaching torches behind-but while Martha was obviously a Hoobin, she’d inherited none of her brothers’ massive big-boned frames. She was tiny-perhaps half Ethel’s height, maybe half a hand taller than Mama-almost Elfishly so, in the seeming fragility of her limbs, in the long fingers, in the nearly luminous blue of her eyes.

I didn’t need the huldra to show me any semblance of fragility was mere illusion. She gripped her makeshift spear tight. Her breathing was steady. I could see her measuring the distance between me and the door and wondering if she could dart through it after making a stab at my ribs.

She even had the money. Darla’s fortune, eleven hundred crowns in paper, still stuffed down the front of her ripped, soiled blouse. I knew they tried to take the money, tried to take her clothes-tried, and failed.

“I tell ye I’ll gut ye, ye blood-drinkin’ get of a troll,” she said.

“Pleased to meet you too,” I said. And then Ethel Hoobin sidled past me.

“Martha!”

“Ethel?”

The rest of the Hoobins stormed in, and they all began to shout. A ragged cheer went up from the New People gathered outside.

Ethel turned toward me, tears in his eyes.

“You have done what you said,” he said. “You have saved our sister.”

He saw the huldra. I know he did. Mama said later my eyes were glowing, red as coals and flickering like wind-blown embers. But Ethel Hoobin put out his hand, in a fist, and touched me on the chest, right above my heart.

“Thank you.”

Martha looked up at me, nodded and looked away.

But even as Ethel led her out of the room, led her past me, Martha Hoobin kept her eyes on my hands, and her pitiful bed-post spear aimed square at my gut.

The New People swept out, reached the stair, swept up it. Evis and his crew remained, though I noted they had doubled or tripled in number since I had gone into Martha’s room.

A new voice rang out. “Boy!” it said, and I turned to see Mama clambering down the stair, the Hoogas bloodied and stiff haired on her heels. Mama carried an enormous meat-cleaver, hairs and bits of bone still clinging to the blade. The Hoogas bore traditional Ogre clubs-five-foot timbers, the striking ends festooned with nail-spikes and broken glass and the broken ends of bones. Both bore the signs of enthusiastic, recent use.

“Boy!” shouted Mama, dropping to the floor with a ragged puff of breath. “Boy, I told you not to touch that thing!”

I turned away. Evis saw, left the captive human priests and joined me outside the door at which dead Ameel Cant still beat.

“It is done,” said Evis, when he was near enough to speak. “Martha Hoobin is going home.”

The priests cried out, and were quickly and permanently silenced. Evis shook his head. “It is done,” he said, again.

“You’ll let them go?” I said, nodding at the retreating New People. “What makes you think they will not rise up against you tomorrow?”

Evis shrugged. “We fought at their side. We rescued their sister. They gave their word.”

“And you think that’s enough.”

“It shall have to be.”

Mama came stomping up, wild-eyed and wheezing. She wiped her cleaver on the side of her bag and dropped it inside.

“Boy,” she said, to me. “You ain’t dead.”

I looked down upon her, saw, for perhaps the first time, how old and small and weary she looked. “No,” I said. I was beginning to see things, in the dark, again. I heard the faint rustles of the huldra’s patient whisper.

Evis motioned toward his men, pointed toward the door that held Ameel Cant. Half a dozen halfdead trotted over, each bearing a crossbow and a twinkling silver bolt.

“Oh, no,” I said. “That will never do.”

Evis frowned. “She is mad. You have seen this before.”

“I said no.” I reached, and a trickle of power answered, and I smiled. “I saw her. She has hands. She has her eyes. She may have been dead, but she cries. That is my price. You are not a monster, you say? Then take her. Feed her. Care for her. Restore to her the life that was taken, by those who share your hunger.”

Evis lifted an eyebrow.

“And if I do not?”

I leaned down, so that my face was even with Evis’s. “Then I shall lead the day folk against your Houses. I shall speak the words that bring them out. I shall speak the words that will light the torches. I shall speak the words that will bring them down upon you, and I shall join them, and the fires shall burn and will still be burning when winter comes again.” I felt myself swelling, heard the huldra whisper. “Shall I begin?”

Evis looked sideways, made the slightest of nods at Mama.

She shouted something, threw a bundle of hair and twigs she’d had hidden in the palm of her hand, closed her eyes and spat.

I laughed. I saw the bundle coming, brushed it aside as easily as one waves away a gnat. “Oh, no,” I said. “That’s not the way. But let me show you a spell I know.”

I lifted my hand. The huldra showed me a hidden thing. I laughed at the thought of it, and I would have cast it forth, but for a subtle twisting in the dark, and a chill, and then the sound, faint, of a voice.

Darla’s voice.

I shrank. Memories came tiptoeing back, sneaking past the huldra’s dark fancies. Flames and fires, shouts and screams, and the smell of Darla’s hair.

She is dead, said the huldra. Dead, gone, take your vengeance.

Make.

Them.

Pay.

Mama cussed, drew her booted foot back, kicked me.

Hard, and then again, right below my right knee.

“Don’t you listen, boy,” she croaked, her face turned to mine. “I know what it’s sayin’. I know what it wants. But you listen to me now, boy. It might be strong, but it ain’t smart. You are.”

I saw flames, saw Darla, lolling and bloody and dead in my arms.

Mama hissed. No words, just a hiss, and then she reached up and slapped me.

“It knows your name, boy. But don’t you forget-it ain’t even got a name. It ain’t got nothing ’cept what you give it.”

The huldra shrieked in rage. I held it tight, letting it make me tall again, tall and strong and knowing.

Evis grabbed Mama, yanked her back. I lifted the huldra, made a sound that might have been the beginning of a long, secret word, and it was then that I saw something light and familiar amid the gathering shadows.

Darla. My Darla. Faint and ghostly and wavering, a candleflame in a whirlwind. But it was her, and she spoke. Somehow, above the thunder and din of the huldra’s cries for vengeance, I heard her speak.

“I am not dead.”

And then she was gone.

I froze, the unspoken word burning on my lips, the huldra raging and shaking in my hand, a maelstrom of strange, strong magics poised to leap from my fingers.

I am not dead.

I knew she was. I’d held her. I’d felt her body grow cold. I’d washed her blood from my skin.

But-

The huldra howled.

I took the huldra, forced it to fall silent, strained and strove and bent it briefly to my will. I cast out my sight, soared above Rannit and the rain and the clouds, looked down upon the city from a great and impossible height.

And then I spoke a Word wrenched from the heart of the huldra.

Magics spun, darting to and fro amid the clouds, gathering, flocking, wheeling and turning and diving, finally piercing the rain and the dark to soar over Rannit’s sooty rooftops and black, flooded streets like a flock of playful shadows. Here and there they converged, sped away, circled. Here and there they exploded, diverging into a thousand paths, only to come together again in a single fluid rush of shadow upon shadow.

And then, impossibly, they all came together, coalesced and settled, eagerly awaiting my call.

Darla.

“She lives,” I said, with some difficulty. I lowered the huldra, which burned in my hand, and met Mama’s bleary eyes. “Darla lives.”

Evis kept his face carefully blank. “Of course she does,” he said, agreeably. Disbelief was plain on his pale dead face. “Let it go, finder. Let Mama take it.”

I shook my head no.

Mama began to weep.

“You think me mad.” Normal words were hard to form. “But she lives. I have seen her.”

“Then you don’t need that thing no more,” said Mama. She opened her bag, held it out to me, under the huldra. “Let me have it, boy. Before it’s too late.”

Again I shook my head. “I have need of it yet. Darla waits for me.”

“Damn, boy, it’s lying! Can’t you see that? It wants you to use it! The longer you hold it the less of you is left!”

The huldra raged, still urging me to mayhem, still showing me images of Darla dying under a writhing mass of halfdead.

“No.” The huldra struggled in my grasp, trying to pull away. “She needs me. I can save her.”

Evis laid his hand on Mama’s shoulder, made some small sign to his men. “Permit us to accompany you.”

I didn’t need the huldra to see the pity in his eyes.

I shrugged. My shadows beckoned. The huldra buzzed and howled, but I squeezed, pushed its protests aside.

“Follow, if you can,” I said. “The way leads into the dark.”

I ascended, not bothering with the stairs, leaving a good portion of the floor above in sudden splintered ruin.

I took a single step, and then another. I only barely felt timbers fall around me as I shouldered them aside, and then I was back above the rooftops, back inside the dark.

My shadows waved to me, from across most of Rannit. Thunder and lightning played close about them, so close I grew suspicious. I coaxed another word from the huldra, spoke it, saw more shadows wheeling in the night-shadows similar to mine, but clothed in the will of another.

I smiled. The huldra hushed. Grudgingly, it offered another word, showed me a way to hide my approach, to silence the echoes of my words. I made myself invisible. Invisible and as silent as the passing of time.

I felt a questioning, a probing, a subtle touch emerge from deep within the night. I sidled away from it, watched it pass, chuckled at how easily I evaded being found. Memories came rolling back to me-memories of other walks in the dark, of other battles of shadow on shadow, of the way magics sprang so easily from my lips.

There was more too. I saw strange rooms, felt the heat of strange fires, heard screams, heard a women beg for mercy. There was also laughter, and I recognized it as my own.

I saw the Serge, saw flames sweep across it, boiling over dune and rock, leaping from sage bush to stunted dessert tree. Trolls fled, bounding, catching fire and screaming, too slow, too slow…

And music. Music played on instruments I couldn’t name, formed of notes that sang of magic. I saw a flower, plucked it, made it wither in my hand…

The huldra let slip the smallest hint of triumph.

I pictured Darla. I remembered her laugh, her perfume, the way her skirt hugged her legs as she walked.

I took what I needed from the huldra, pushed the music and the screams aside, struggled for a moment to remember my secret name. The huldra flashed hot in my hand.

“Show me what I need, and only what I need,” I said.

It seemed to me that the huldra laughed, harsh and dry, with the sound of old papers rustling.

But it obeyed.

I saw a row of three houses, set deep into the Hill. The windows were tall and wide and dark. The doors were barred, and bound with iron like garrison gates. The two outside houses leaned against the middle, as though exhausted, or asleep.

I tried, but could not pass my sight beyond them.

Words came, not mine, not the huldra’s.

“Mark this place well,” they said. “Some call it Oddling. Few pass therein.”

I questioned the huldra. It was silent, unhearing.

I sought Darla.

Shadows flew. The scene changed. I saw another warehouse, on the other side of the Brown. This one slanted down toward the river. Water ran from the back wall and across the floor and out the front. The roof showed light in half a dozen places.

And there, beneath it, lay Darla.

I shouted. Thunder broke. I charged toward her, a sudden flurry of shingles and loose timbers in my wake. She was alive, bound and struggling but alive, unless the huldra showed me a lie-

I slowed, demanded the truth from it. It grudgingly and with some confusion confirmed what I saw. Darla had not been killed. The body I had held had been made to appear as if it were hers. By whom, the huldra could not or would not say.

I went to her. I diminished as I walked. The huldra grew cooler, its words fainter, and I realized that as my hurt and rage lessened, so did the power of the thing I held.

I found myself across the Brown, alone, my boots sinking into mud and cowshit, the rain beating on me like it meant to not only kill me but wash away my corpse as well. I squinted into the night, made out a few lanterns swinging on the wind, what might have been light from a few windows, what might have been a fire burning under a shed roof a stone’s throw away.

Before me was a leaning warehouse, probably used to store hides or hooves or who knows what for the tanners upstream. And in there, somewhere, was Darla, alive and whole.

But surely not alone.

I had a wax-sealed tortoise-shell bent on devouring my soul. I reached for my army knife, but it was gone, lost somewhere in the rain. A smart man would have waited for Evis, would have gone for help.

There was no light in the warehouse. It was just a blur in the beating rain. I waited until lightning showed me the way to a door, and then I made for it, leaving my right boot behind, gripped fast by the greedy sucking mud.

I listened at the door.

The place was quiet, aide from the beat and roar of the rain and rolls of angry thunder echoing within. I hoped the din of the storm had concealed my squelching one-booted march, then dismissed the thought entirely-what good was stealth to a man about to face vampires or sorcerers or hairy old Troll gods with nothing but a single faint hope and a boot full of rain?

I shrugged.

I knocked.

Sometimes simplicity is the best approach.

“I know you have Darla Tomas,” I said, in a shout. “Maybe you know what I have. Maybe you know what just happened to the boys downtown. If it’s true that bad news travels fast, then this news should have been here for hours, because it’s about as bad as news can get-”

The door opened.

Helpful lightning flared.

Father Foon himself glared at me from inside. Behind him, lanterns were hastily uncovered.

At his back were maybe two dozen men in red and black Church armor. Their swords were bloody, and some of their old-fashioned breastplates sported big dents. I could see at least two pairs of armored feet laying toes-up and still on the wet floor.

Father Foon stopped gritting his teeth long enough to speak.

“You,” he said.

“Me,” I agreed. I pushed my way past him, smiled at the ranks of assorted gleaming blades that turned swiftly my way. “Where is she?”’

“Where is who?”

The huldra stirred, and I felt a tingling creep up my spine.

“The brunette. Tall thin lady. I imagine by now she’s used bad language, and has probably made numerous suggestions as to what you can do with your mask and your swords.”

Father Foon began to gobble out a denial, but the huldra whispered to me, and I parted the ranks of soldiers with a single quiet Word and brought my Darla, kicking and trying to scream around the gag in her mouth, up through the floor in a burst of warped, wet planks.

“Hello, darling,” I said, as I drew her to my side. “Have these persons been less than polite to you?”

Father Foon was pale. Pale as he watched Darla float and glide, pale as he saw the huldra in my hand, paler still as I let him see the light beginning to burn in my eyes.

“I threatened you with damnation earlier.” His voice was suddenly quiet. “I did not expect to see it take you so soon.”

I laughed and made the gag fall away from Darla’s mouth, made the ropes at her wrists loosen and drop. She touched me, wrapping her arms around my waist, but then she drew them back, as if stung.

“You did indeed,” I said. “Not so very long before you went forth intent on committing murder.”

“This was not murder. We exterminated a nest of vampires.”

“You exterminated the wrong nest.” I met Darla’s gaze, and she frowned. “The main party was downtown. Practically in the shadow of your steeple. How long have you known, Father? Was it just not worth getting your hands dirty until Hisvin got involved?”

“We knew nothing until yesterday.”

“Nothing? Nothing at all? Why, Father, isn’t lying one of the sins you and your masked ilk are always babbling on about?”

“Believe what you will,” snapped the Father. “We would not have borne such an abomination to continue, had we known of it. They used the sacraments of the Church, they will pay, rest assured they will pay.”

I smiled. “Oh, they have paid. Priests and halfdead alike. By my hand, Father. By my hand.”

Father Foon rocked on his feet, exchanged looks with a soldier, swallowed.

“And what of her?” I asked, motioning to Darla, who stood close but refused to touch me. “Why was she not released from her bonds, after her captors were slain? Seems an odd way to rescue someone, leaving them tied and gagged. Unless, of course, you decided the best way to ensure her blessed and eternal silence was with a few swift blows from a churchman’s sword?”

Father Foon blustered. The huldra whispered, showing me things, and I chuckled at the image of all his soldiers boiling in their armor.

Darla caught my arm.

“Markhat,” she said. “Look at me.”

She pulled me close, wincing, as though my touch caused her pain. Later she would tell me it had, that my skin burned and moved under her hands, that as long as she touched me she heard strange echoes and snatches of odd words and long, lingering screams.

“You fool,” she said, and she reached up and stroked my cheek. “Oh, you fool, what have you done?”

“What I had to do.” My throat grew tight. “Had to make them pay.”

“Pay?”

“You were dead,” I said. “They killed you. Hurt you. I had to make them hurt.”

Darla regarded me with confusion for a long moment. Father Foon looked on, uncertain, and I could see him weigh the worth of having his soldiers strike us down where we stood.

I heard a shout, from outside. A shout and a flash of dim light.

Then there were torches. Torches, and voices, and Evis, and his men, all his men, quiet halfdead and panting, soaked humans alike.

“I am not dead,” said Darla. She spoke slowly and carefully. “They did not hurt me.” Evis moved to stand at her side, and then I heard Mama wheezing and slogging through the mud, heard her cry out Darla’s name.

“They took me. Held me here. But I am alive, Markhat. Whatever that thing is in your hand, whatever you thought you had to have-you don’t need it anymore. I’m alive. You’re alive. It’s over. We can go home now.”

I knew what she was saying. I understood it. But I also knew she had died, I remembered that too, remembered that her blood still flecked my desk, remembered telling the huldra my name, my secret birth name, that no one save my dead mother ever knew.

“Boy,” said Mama. She had my missing boot, wrested from the mud, and I remember thinking what an odd thing it was for her to have. She was bawling, hair slicked with rain, tiny Hog eyes sparkling and red in Evis’s torchlight. “Boy, listen to her, she ain’t dead, never was.”

The huldra spoke again. It showed me again my grief, my anger, my need to take the world by the throat and throttle it until every last bit of life fled it, my need to raise up a wall of flames and burn all that I hated to powder and ash.

Two worlds. Darla dead, Darla alive. One was a lie. But I could see both, feel both, experience both-and the huldra, it knew my name.

I looked, and I saw Mama and my boot, Evis and his men, and Father Foon backed into a corner. But there was no Darla.

There never was, whispered the huldra.

She is dead.

Make them pay.

I felt myself begin to change again, felt myself begin to rise into the night, to join the shadows in that high cold place where words flocked and fled.

Darla stood on tip-toe, I am told, and took my face in her hands and despite the pain of my lips on hers, she kissed me.

She kissed me, and there was no lie in it. And in an instant all the dark magics and the rage and the lust for vengeance cowered, overshadowed by a much older magic that smelled of perfume and was warm and yielding in my arms.

I do remember crushing the huldra. I do remember hearing it scream.

And then both worlds broke apart, truth and lies swept apart in a loud and rushing flood, and I tumbled along with both as the darkness closed swiftly over my head.

Chapter Fourteen

And now, it is summer.

Flowers bloom out of cracks in the sidewalks. Mama’s window box is a wild green shower of straggly looking herbs. It rains all the damned time, the days are hot and my back has been aching ever since that night I walked with the huldra.

I sat at my desk, nursing another cup of Mama’s foul black tea. I would pour the stuff out, back in the alley, but I must admit it does help with the dreams. If I skip a day of Mama’s tea, I walk Rannit in my dreams all that night. I walk with my head just below the clouds and a dry rustling voice whispering nonsense words singsong in the back of my mind.

Maybe the tea does other things too. For the longest time, Three-leg Cat arched his back and hissed when I came in the room. Now he’ll sit on my desk, purr and let me scratch his battle-scarred head, just like the old days.

A loaf of bread steamed on my desk, another gift from the grateful Hoobins. Bread and a pair of clean white long-sleeved shirts with fancy pearl buttons up the front and the button-down collar that Martha herself created. Elegance, as Martha named the dress-shop, was doing well. The pair of shirts she’d given me would cost fifty half-crowns, at any haberdasher’s on Bathways.

Martha had even smiled at me, for the very first time, when they’d dropped the bundles off earlier that day. Smiled, and said hello, and hadn’t rushed out of the room like I’d sprouted bright yellow fangs and big black bat wings.

Maybe it’s true, about Hoobin women and the Sight. And, if so, maybe she could see that the huldra was leaking slowly out of my soul.

I try not to think about the huldra, these days. I try not to entertain my suspicion that Mama didn’t get it from some nameless backstreet mojo man. I try not to ponder her mission that day we thought Darla had died, try not to weigh the likelihood that the name she had sworn never to share was that of Encorla Hisvin.

It made sense. Maybe I was still seeing things, in that strange sideways fashion the huldra showed me, that rainy night of the new moon. Because I could see how Encorla might find it amusing to toss such a powerful object in the midst of what must have been, from his perspective, such a petty squabble.

No, I decided, that wasn’t the only way I knew. I thought back to that night, back to the strange memories that had risen up like windblown dust before me. While I’d walked, I’d somehow become Encorla, or something equally monstrous. Or, more likely, he or it had nearly consumed me.

Had I not broken the huldra-had I embraced the dark-I believe it would have been Encorla Hisvin who would have walked out of that warehouse that night. He and he alone-Markhat just another whirlwind memory, just another anguished cry troubling Hisvin’s dark dreams.

I shuddered, yanked my thoughts back to the present and nibbled at the warm bread and sipped the bitter tea.

Mama would be back soon, with a fresh batch of the foul stuff. I knew she’d linger, hovering over me, fussing and griping and bossing, but watching with those piercing Hog eyes all the while.

Watching to see if the darkness had truly left me. Watching to see if I’d been tainted beyond the reach of tea and herbs and whatever simple magics she was slipping past my door.

Evis stops by too, doing much the same thing, though he brings middling good beer and sets Mama to fretting because we sit up and smoke expensive cigars and watch the dark get thicker. Mama thinks he’s a bad influence. Like we’ll set out at any minute to steal apples off market-stands and taunt passing ogres by dropping our pants and shouting out rude words.

I laughed out loud at the thought of it. Evis has no evil in his soul, save the same tired old evils all men bear. He’d met the huldra’s gaze dead on and not flinched. He even tells a good joke, when none of the lads are around.

Evis did, on occasion, keep me informed as to the progress of Miss Cant, the sobbing halfdead we’d rescued from the warehouse. The Avalante physicians, and I was still trying to become accustomed to the idea of halfdead doctors, were actually doing her good. She was talking again. She could speak a few words, and she no longer tore off the clothes in which they dressed her. Some days she seemed to remember who she’d been.

We’d made a toast, to that.

Remembrance, for the good and the bad.

Darla doesn’t like to talk about the men who had snatched her from her home, or the halfdead who had toyed with her. She does know they had been instructed to kill her, not hold her. The halfdead, never ones for unquestioning obedience of authority, had decided instead to keep her alive and on the warehouse menu when another of the captives died the day of the new moon.

I had no proof, would never have proof, but I was sure I already knew who had given the order to kidnap Darla and slaughter her.

I was sure of the who, but still unsure of the why. To drive me to take the huldra, which conveniently turned up in Mama’s possession right after Darla appeared to be dead? To make damned sure I drove headlong into that nest of halfdead, no matter the consequences?

Because it spiced up an otherwise dreary Thursday?

I never put a name to the corpse hurled at my door.

She might have been a poor soul who had died at the hands of her halfdead captors and thus indirectly saved Darla. She might have been a maid or a streetwalker, caught out after Curfew once too often. Or she might have been an acquaintance of Hisvin, who had, like so many others, eventually failed to amuse. That tattoo on her back, though, had convinced me the dead body was Darla-to me that smacked more of a creature known as the Corpsemaster than of a gaggle of blood-mad halfdead. Such attention to fine detail seemed a bit beyond their ken.

There had been no survivors among the priests or the halfdead. And the one other person who might have the answers is not the kind of person you ask them of.

Mama banged on my door and barged through, more hot tea emitting steam from the pot in her rag-shielded hands.

“Brung you some more.”

“Thanks. I was just wishing I had something to dip Three-Leg in, his fleas are back.”

Mama thunked the pot down and scowled. “You need to be drinkin’ all this. Today. My sageroot came in and this is full of it.”

I grimaced. “Sageroot? Isn’t that poisonous?”

“Nah, not if’n it’s dried before it’s boiled.” Mama sniffed. “Best drink it hot too.”

I sighed. “You really think this is helping, Mama?”

“I reckon it is,” she said. She sat heavily in my client’s chair. “Cat don’t run from you. Miss Darla don’t see them things in your eyes. Mostly, though, you’re nearly as big a smart-ass as you was before that night.”

I nodded.

“I see that Halfdead friend of yours was around last night.”

“We had a couple of beers.”

Mama frowned. “He ever say how that poor woman is?”

I told Mama what I knew about Miss Cant. She seemed pleased, though not pleased enough to credit Evis with even faint praise.

Someone called Mama’s name from the street, and Mama bade me goodbye with a final stern admonition to drink the pot dry.

I drained the cup, started to pour a new one, heard Mama’s door shut and thought the better of it. The tea needed to cool anyway, and the sun was bright outside, and I decided a walk in the light would do me good-especially if it happened to lead to Darla’s fresh painted door.

Chapter Fifteen

The sun was bright. I squinted and tried not to look too hard at the shadows the bright sun cast. When I did glance their way, I saw movement in them, hints of form and substance that made no sense at all in the light, but were poetry and magic when considered in the dark.

I wished I had gulped down that last cup of Mama’s tea but I settled for whistling instead. Rannit bustled all around me, stinking, cursing, working and drinking all at once all around me.

Ogres passed, and each and every one dipped their gaze at me, as they had since that night. Darla said I’d attained some odd standing in the ogre community by saving the Hoogas the night we rescued Martha. I still don’t recall doing any such thing, but a town full of well-intentioned ogres is not a situation I wish to question.

I was halfway to Darla’s when I heard the first screams.

Screams and then shouts of warning and then a sudden rush of pedestrians towards doors and the slamming thereof. Within seconds the street was cleared, and I knew without seeing what was responsible for that.

A moment passed, and then the black carriage rolled into view, cloud of flies buzzing, the stench of it reaching and quickly engulfing me.

A much fresher corpse sat atop the rig, cracking a whip at empty air before he brought the conveyance to a halt at my feet.

The cloud of fat bluebottle flies still buzzed and worked. The stench of ripe decay so close to the conveyance was overpowering. I fought off a round of retching, clamped my jaw shut and pulled myself up and inside.

The same red-haired dead woman lolled there, swollen and limp. Her features were melting, like black wax, and when she spoke, it was a barely intelligible gobbling.

“Bravo, goodman,” it said. Flies rushed in and out of its mouth. “I congratulate you on your victory.”

I nodded. I’d dreaded this moment, knowing it was coming, knowing I’d have to decide how much to reveal of what I had seen, that night I walked. “Do you?” I said. “Seems to me that you might have been more pleased had things gone the other way. Too many people lived. Except your pet in the turtle shell.”

The dead woman burbled and spat. Maggots fell from her mouth and writhed in her lap. It took me a moment to work out her exhalations as laughter.

“Whatever are you talking about? And in such tones! Why, I’ve half a mind to take offense.”

I grunted. The smell was palpable, and there were dark, thick stains, busy with flies, all over the upholstery.

“Not that I don’t appreciate good theatre,” I said, surprising myself. “But the smell and the flies detract from the conversation.”

Instantly, the buzzing flies and the stench of a decaying human body vanished.

I took a breath and forced myself to meet the dead woman’s milk-white eyes. Things moved in the corners. She grinned with teeth going crooked in soft black gums.

“You could have wiped out the whole nest without any of this. You could have just spoken a few words, waved your hand about. Poof, no more half-dead blood cult. No more dead women.”

The corpse nodded amiably.

“True,” she burbled. “Though your appraisal of the situation is as yet incomplete. There were other players, other allegiances, other actors involved. My direct participation would very probably have resulted in the loss of far more lives. Innocent lives, I believe you would call them, although in my experience innocence is neither common nor particularly precious.” The dead woman waved a black hand in dismissal. “Too, it would have been so tedious.”

“Can’t have that,” I said. A bloated eyebrow raised.

“Would it matter, if I told you that another sorcerer of my stature was involved? Would it matter if you were to learn that the intention was to plunge Rannit into chaos and bloodshed, on a scale that would quickly dwarf the very worst years of the War? Would it matter if I told you that the huldra wasn’t mine, that your mistrust of me is misplaced as well as dangerously impertinent?”

“Are you telling me any of that?

“Perhaps yes, perhaps no. As you can imagine, the situation is rather too delicate for open discussion, even now.”

I let a moment pass. Then I shrugged to hide a deep breath. “You ought to do something about Oddling,” I said. “The walls are going to collapse any day now, leaning like that.”

Silence. Just a beat, but for that beat, the flies didn’t buzz and the carriage didn’t clatter and the world might as well have been shut behind a thick, tight door.

I wondered if Hisvin would speak or merely strike me down.

“You are a man of surprising resources, goodman Markhat,” said the corpse, without a hint of bubbling or slurring. “I congratulate you. Few have proven so amusing, or dared so much in my presence. I assume you have mentioned Oddling to your friends at Avalante?

“Perhaps yes. Perhaps no. It’s one of those delicate situations you mentioned. For both of us.”

I hadn’t said a word concerning my vision of Oddling to Evis really. But I hid my thoughts, forced a smile. Knowing the resting place of a thing like Hisvin was a secret whole Houses would fight to the death for.

The dead woman laughed, the sound of it wet and choking.

“I like you, goodman,” it said. “No one else dares speak so plain to me. I find it refreshing.”

She put her dead hand on my knee and squeezed.

“This time.”

I managed a nod.

“So we’re done. There won’t be any more new-moon vampire picnics. My clients got their sister back. I got my fee.”

“We are done. Peace and tranquility are restored. Good has triumphed, and evil has been, I am told, dismembered and then burned.”

The carriage clattered on.

“I trust Miss Tomas is recovered from her adventures?” asked the corpse.

“Stop the cab,” I said. “Stop it right now.”

“Of course,” said the corpse. The dead cab man cracked his whip at horses that weren’t there. At once, the carriage began to slow.

“I owe you. I owe you twice, from the War. But if you ever mention Darla’s name again I’ll make a little trip up to Oddling. I’ll come and I’ll break down your door, and I’ll gut you dead. You hear me? Dead. No coming back.”

The dead woman laughed. Her lips trailed black ropes of thick fluid and her withered black tongue writhed and worked.

“Oh well spoken,” she said. “I expected no less.”

I opened the door, and I was out.

The carriage glided away, flies and stench and screams in its wake.

I marched the opposite way, all the way to Darla’s door. She was there and safe, baking a pie, a spot of flour on the end of her nose. She took me in without a single questioning word.

We are “walking out”, as Mama calls it. Mama is always pestering me to buy Darla fireflowers on Sweetheart Days or take her shopping at lunch. Any day now I expect Mama will start pointing out houses in the neighborhood that would be just perfect for a nice young couple starting out.

I sighed, put my feet on my desk, laced my fingers behind my head. One thing at a time Mama. I won’t be walking any aisles until I can stop walking Rannit at night with my head halfway to the clouds and murder and flames in my heart.

Things the huldra had showed me come back to me sometimes. I’ll look at the light streaming through the clouds, and I’ll briefly see a way to hurl lightning. A candle will flicker, just so, and I’ll see tiny, scurrying manikins, darting away from the wavering light, but each at my beck and call if I could just remember those long, strange words.

Three-leg Cat leaped suddenly into my lap, and I spilled hot tea. Three-leg scampered away hissing, and I rose cussing. Then Mama’s shadow fell over my door.

“Boy,” she said, turning my latch. “You in there?”

I mopped tea, took a deep breath, thought about Mama’s question. Am I? Was I? Will I be?

Another shadow joined Mama’s. This one was tall and slender.

“Are you alone in there, Markhat?” asked Darla, and I could hear the impish grin she wore in her tone, though I could see only shadows through my cheap and bubbled glass.

“Time will tell,” I said. I drained the cup of its last sip of dark bitter tea. “Come on in, ladies,” I added, sitting up straight and hiding Mama’s cup in a drawer. The fancy chocolate cake Martha had dropped off earlier sat untouched on my desk. “I’ve baked us all a cake.”

Mama flung my door open, grinning, and all but dragged Darla inside.

Darla eyed Martha’s cake as though it might conceal Trolls or haunts.

“You did not,” she announced, “bake that cake.”

“I beg to differ, Miss Tomas,” I replied. “I have baked thousands of cakes in my day. In fact, I’m scraping the finder’s eye off my door and painting a baker’s rolling pin on it tomorrow.”

Darla laughed. Then she glided around my desk and dropped into my lap.

“Cakes and shirts,” she said. “Do I have reason to be jealous, Markhat?”

“Not at all,” I replied. I lifted an eyebrow, as if pondering. “Unless, of course, it’s an unusually good cake.”

We kissed.

We kissed again.

“Well I reckon I’ll be heading on,” gruffed Mama. She dropped a brown-wrapped parcel on my desk-more bitter tea leaves, no doubt-and waddled out my door.

“Alone at last,” said Darla. Her eyes twinkled. “And I know just what to-”

Knock, knock, knock. Not Mama’s knock, either.

Darla sighed and stood.

“I’ll wait for a while at Mama’s-” she began.

I pulled her back down. She giggled and kicked.

“Come back tomorrow,” I yelled, at the door. “I’m busy right now.”

“But-”

“I said come back tomorrow,” I yelled, putting some bellow into it. “No buts. No more knocking. Come. Back. Tomorrow.”

Silence.

Darla touched the Angel Malan I wore around my neck, the one she’d left for me, all those nights ago. I caught her searching my eyes, just for an instant, looking to see what might still be in there with me. I didn’t ask what she saw. I doubted the answer would please either of us.

Darla took my hand.

“It’s losing its grip, a little every day,” she said. How do women do that?

I just nodded. I wasn’t so sure. She didn’t see the things I dreamed of.

“Mama says you’ve already been through the worst.”

“Mama’s tea has been the most frightening part of the whole ordeal. I’m terrified she’s just feeding me her laundry water.”

Darla tweaked my nose.

“She spends hours brewing that…tea, Markhat, I was there when a package came all the way from that place she calls home-Pot Lock, something like that?”

“Pot Lockney. I hear they eat vampires whole there, dressed and snarling.”

Darla giggled. “Well, Mama is going to a lot of trouble and you, Mister Markhat, could be a little more appreciative.”

“Oh, I’m very appreciative of all my womenfolk. Why, I bought a middling expensive bottle of wine just for you this very day.”

Darla beamed. “I’m flattered. Does it have a cork, or do we twist something off the top?”

I sat Darla on the edge of my desk. She swung her long legs back and forth at the knees and watched expectantly as I rose, went to my bunkroom, and came back with a blood-red bottle of ten-year-old wine in my hand.

“Cork and a label,” I said. I offered Darla a pair of glasses-real glasses, not mugs, and clean.

She smiled.

I pulled corks and filled glasses. We resumed our preferred seating arrangement of my chair and my lap. I held my glass beneath my nose and made a show of sloshing it around in the glass and sniffing it.

“You have before you a slightly warm Rethmarch Red,” I said. “Bottled at the height of the summer in ninety-one, from grapes grown on the slopes of the famed Rethmarch Vineyard itself. I believe Madame will find it at once hearty and ethereal. Or is it fruity and redolent of oak? I can never keep my fancy wines straight.”

“You talk too much, Mister Markhat,” said Darla, making herself comfortable in my lap with an intriguing series of wiggles and twists. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were in love with the sound of your own voice.”

“It’s a good voice. At once throaty and redolent of tenor.”

She interrupted me with a kiss.

And if anything-anyone-ever lays the huldra left inside me to rest, I think it shall be Darla.