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

The Cadaver Client

Frank Tuttle


Frank Tuttle

The Cadaver Client

Chapter One

“Happy birthday, you mangy fleabag, you.”

I scratched his battle-scarred head. He rewarded me with the merest flick of his long, black tail.

I sat in my chair, my shiny new boots propped on my battered old desk, and watched Three-leg Cat lick the stump of his missing paw.

That’s how I celebrated the tenth birthday of my business. It had been ten years ago today that I’d scraped together enough coin to pay the rent on the office on Cambrit Street and hire a man to paint a finder’s eye on the bubbled glass pane set in the weather-beaten door. Three-leg, then a mangy injured kitten, had been the first living soul to pass through my open door.

For the last ten years I’d done what every finder does-I’d found things. Sons or daughters or fathers or trouble. If you’ve lost something, or someone, you can seek out my painted finder’s eye, and I’ll pull my feet off my desk, and for the right handful of coin I’ll see if I can find it for you.

I’d done very well, right after the War, finding fathers and sons left abandoned by the Regency when the Truce was declared. These days, I didn’t look for missing soldiers nearly as often as I looked for straying wives or errant husbands.

I reflected on that as Three-leg Cat washed his scar. For awhile the soldiers I’d found often brought their families joy, but the news I brought my clients lately was anything but joyous.

Three-leg Cat looked up, as though he’d heard my thoughts, and gave me a scathing look of feline contempt.

“Buy your own breakfast then,” I muttered.

Three-leg Cat leaped down from my desk, and it was then I heard Mama’s voice close by my door.

I groaned. I’d inherited Mama Hog along with the office. Her card and potion shop was two doors down from mine. She’d taken me on as a project the very first day, and ten years later she was still trying to browbeat me into the Mama Hog version of respectability.

I hoped she’d pass on by, but as usual, luck was showing no love to Markhats near and far. Mama banged on my door, then tried the latch.

“You in there, boy?”

I swung my legs down to the floor. “I’m closed, Mama. No, I’m retiring. Going to sell off my business and buy a barge.”

Mama guffawed and swung my door open, and it was then I saw Mama Hog wasn’t alone.

I gaped.

Mama Hog is old. She claims to be a hundred and twenty, and though I doubt that, I’d buy even odds she is on the bad side of eighty. Mama carefully cultivates every cliched Witch Woman affectation ever spoken-a wild tangle of grey hair, fingernails that could scare a grizzly bear, and a mole that sometimes changes cheeks from day to day. That’s Mama, and I gather the look is good for business, even in downtown Rannit.

But if Mama was two-dozen cliches stitched together with wrinkles and cackles, her companion was something straight out of myth.

She was a head higher than Mama, which put her just a bit below my shoulders. If she had hair at all, I couldn’t see it, not beneath that trail-beaten black bowler hat. She wore a faded poncho that might have been striped in orange and black zigzags half a century ago, and six or seven layers of castoff rags under that, all clashing, all tattered and trailing threads or bits of cloth.

Her face, though-there were eyes, tiny and black, recessed so far beneath wrinkled grey brows I wondered how the woman saw. Her nose was a wart-encrusted proboscis that sprouted its own crop of fine, white hairs from within, and her chin protruded far enough forward to nearly meet the tip of her nose.

She had hands the color and texture of old leather, and black fingernails four times longer than Mama’s and sharpened to points besides.

She held a gnarled walking stick in her right hand and a handful of dark rags in her left. She was muttering, and though her black eyes were turned up toward mine, I didn’t think she was talking to me. She confirmed this by raising the rags to her lips and whispering to them, then shaking her head as if they’d replied.

“Boy, this here is Granny Knot,” said Mama. “I brung her here myself so I could make inter-ductions. Granny Knot, this is that finder what I told ye about. His name is Markhat. Markhat, this be Granny Knot.”

Mama caught my sleeve and hissed at me. “Don’t you dare make no mock of her, boy.”

“Pleased to meet you, Granny Knot.”

Granny whispered into her handful of rags, then held it to her ear, listened and cackled.

“Granny here needs to be hirin’ herself a finder,” said Mama. “I told her you was the best, boy. And I told her you’d deal fair with her. Don’t make a liar out of me.”

I groaned.

“Mama,” I began. “I just took on a big case, I was just headed out the door-”

“I pays,” said Granny Knot. Her black eyes sparkled, back in the shadows. “I pays good. Got old coin. Three hundred crowns. Pays you fifty.”

I almost snorted. Three hundred crowns, especially in pre-War old coin, was a small fortune. I didn’t figure Granny Knot of the handful of rags had ever seen three crowns stuck together, much less three hundred.

“Granny here is a spook doctor,” said Mama. “Best in Rannit.”

“Nice meeting you, Granny.” I rose. Spook doctors claim to converse with spirits. For a price, of course. Always for a price. “Nice hat.”

And that’s when Granny cackled again and pulled a canvas sack from somewhere beneath her rags and let it fall onto my desk with a tinkle and a thump.

“Three. Hundred. Crowns.”

And then Granny cackled again and went back to her whispered conversation with her pet rags.

Mama grinned at me, her two front teeth shining in triumph.

“I’ll leave you two alone to talk business,” she said. She made a small courtly bow to Granny, who plopped down in my client’s chair while a pair of grey moths escaped her wardrobe and began to dart around my office.

Mama stomped out. Granny beamed at me, and the coins in the sack shifted with that magical sound of gold on gold.

“You’ve hired yourself a finder, looks like.” I said. “So, tell me what it is you’ve lost.”

Three-leg Cat was back on my desk, working now on his left front paw. He’d glanced at the bag of Old Kingdom coins on my desk, and then ignored it once he determined it contained neither bacon nor mice.

I took the bag in my hands and hefted it. Three hundred crowns. Hell, had I made three hundred crowns in the last ten years? I doubted it. Maybe I had, before you deducted my beer and sandwich tab at Eddie’s. A man has to eat.

I shook my head, shoved the bag in the big drawer of my new desk and locked it up tight. Not that a mere lock would deter thieves. I hoped Granny had the sense to keep her mouth shut where the subject of bags of money was concerned.

I gathered Granny did though. She’d been full of surprises, after Mama left. Beginning with her first words to me.

“I trust you’ll keep all our dealings confidential, Goodman.”

That was the first thing Granny had said, once we were alone. In perfect Kingdom, not a syllable slurred, not an inflection out of place. And none of it aimed at her handful of rags, which lay in her lap.

I’d managed to nod an affirmative. She’d laughed at my surprise.

“Yes, I am both literate and quite sane,” she said. “Though my own clients expect a rather more colorful figure. It’s a pity, really. I do get so tired of mumbling and cackling, and these bloody rags itch all summer.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Granny laughed too, and doing so took twenty years off her face.

“You should be on the stage, Miss.” I poked the bag of coin. “Is this a prop too?”

“Call me Granny. No, the coin is quite genuine. As is my talent, and my wish to hire you.”

I let the genuine spook doctor comment pass. I hadn’t been ready to believe in her spirits any more than I was ready to believe her handful of rags was whispering to her earlier.

But I do believe in Old Kingdom crowns. Oh, yes. That’s something we finders can all have faith in.

“You do not believe me.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to. But no matter. Believe or disbelieve, I wish to hire you. On behalf of a client of mine.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“A spirit. Does that concern you, Mr. Markhat?”

“Not as long as I get paid, Granny.”

She smiled. “Wonderful.” A moth flew between us, and she giggled, high and girlish. Coming from her ancient countenance, the effect was oddly disturbing.

“Ten years ago, a man came home from the War.”

“Good for him. Huzzahs all around.”

She ignored me. “This man made his way to his wife’s door. He’d fought in so many battles. He’d nearly died a dozen times. Yet, when he stood there, his hand raised to knock, he heard something inside. A baby was crying. His baby.”

I nodded.

Granny shook her head. “He didn’t knock, Mr. Markhat. He stood there, knowing his wife was inside, knowing she was raising their child by herself, wondering each and every day if her husband was dead or alive or near or far. She lived her life around that door. And the man knew that. But even so, he didn’t knock. In fact, after a while, he turned and walked away, and he never went back.”

“Sad story. Which brings us to what?”

“This man died, Mr. Markhat. He died six months ago. He died without ever seeing his wife or his child again. By his own choice, yes. A choice he still doesn’t understand. He has regrets, Mr. Markhat. Deep regrets. He cannot rest.”

Realization began to dawn on me.

“So this bag…”

“Yes,” said Granny. “He spent ten years amassing this. Perhaps not honestly. He spent the rest of his life trying to atone for that one moment at the door, Goodman Markhat. But he died before he could see it given to his wife-and now I intend to help him see that done.”

“By hiring me? To do what?”

“Find the wife he abandoned, Mr. Markhat. Find her, or her child, or both. And give them his fortune.”

I frowned. “I thought ghosts had all kinds of mystical powers. Why can’t he just float around and find her himself?”

“How, Mr. Markhat? He can no longer ask questions. He can no longer even hear or see many of the living. Rannit itself is never quite the same twice, for him. He could wander the streets, certainly-but she might well be dead and gone before he chanced upon her.”

“So, what he’s really afraid of is meeting the Missus in the next world without sending her a hefty bribe in this one?”

Granny laughed. “Mama said you were given to somewhat plain speech. I rather enjoy it, Goodman. It’s quite refreshing. Even at my age.”

I took a deep breath and tried to decide what to say next. The bag of gold on my desk suggested a hasty yes, but that little voice in the shadows of my mind still had objections.

“How did you come by this money? I didn’t think spooks kept their pockets in the Blessed Hereafter.”

“He kept it buried in an old butter churn buried beneath a public privy.”

I nodded. It was nice to know I wasn’t the only working person who found himself in some unsavory locales from time to time.

“And he showed you where to find it.”

Granny’s black pinprick eyes had bored right into me. “He did. You could of course simply take the money and claim you delivered it, if you doubt me so thoroughly,” she noted. “If my talent is a sham, I’ll have no way of knowing whether you found the missing wife or not.”

“I’m not in the habit of cheating my clients, Granny.”

“Nor am I, Mr. Markhat.”

I guess we stared at each other for a good four breaths. To this day, I don’t know who blinked first.

I do remember getting out my good pen and my prized pad of rough-edged paper, so I could take names and dates and particulars.

Even a dead client deserves nothing but my utmost attention.

An hour later, I had names. And dates. And an address, which promised to be less than helpful because that whole neighborhood had burned to the ground and been rebuilt twice since the end of the War.

Granny Knot was gone. She had lapsed back into her put-on old hag stoop and deranged bout of muttering before she even opened my door. She had left with a wink, the handful of rags held close to her ear.

I’d listened to her shuffle and mutter down the street and away, and I’d wondered if Mama was putting on a similar act, one she dropped when I wasn’t around.

Three-leg Cat batted at one of Granny’s stray rag-moths. I read the names and dates I’d written down, let them sink in. I’m terrible with names, and nothing is more awkward for a finder than forgetting who you’re trying to find while you’re out asking questions.

Marris Sellway, the abandoned wife. Doris Sellway, the name of the child. Marris would be forty years old now. The child, nineteen. They’d lived in the top of a tall, narrow walk-up at Number Six Cawling Street.

Cawling Street didn’t exist anymore. That much I knew. And nothing else.

Just like the old days. I was given a name and coin, and I was expected to sally forth and not return until I’d found a breathing body or a lonely grave. Of course, in those days, I’d been looking for soldiers. And soldiers all belonged to units, and the units been paid, and all that left records behind which were easy for a former soldier with the gift of literacy to uncover. I suspected there would be no written records of the former Mrs. Marris Sellway left behind anywhere.

But neighbors know, and remember, and odds are many of them hadn’t moved far from Cawling Street even after the second fire.

“Time to get to work,” I said to Three-leg Cat.

Instead of ignoring me, he backed growling into the corner, every matted hair on his scarred three-legged body standing up, his back arched, his yellowed fangs bared and issuing a loud, ferocious hiss.

I swung around, expecting to find another cat or a Troll or a brace of wayward pumas lurking close at my back-but there was nothing, save my own awkward shadow.

Three-leg Cat arched up more and his growl rose. I got up and opened my front door before the daft creature attacked me.

He vanished in a blur of mismatched feet and freshly shed hairs.

I looked back. I saw nothing but my shadow, my desk and a single moth flapping blindly below the ceiling.

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” I said aloud. “Just so you know.”

And then I locked my door and followed Three-leg Cat into the daylight.

Cawling Street, before the fires, was maybe an hour’s walk from my place. Or twenty minutes in a cab, if one was so inclined.

One was, and thus I was across the town and in the middle of the tall, new brick buildings that rose like square-caved canyons on each side of Regency Avenue, formerly Cawling Street.

Regency is a nice place. They planted rows of poplars on each side of the street, and one day long after I’m a ghost myself, they’ll maybe peek above the rooftops. For now, though, the trees are dwarfed by the buildings, and they only get a good swallow of sunlight at noon.

The sidewalks were wide and straight. The street itself was cobbled and sported far fewer potholes than any street between there and my place. The people I met were brisk and purposeful, and some of them even felt like smiling.

I remembered the original neighborhood as I walked. Cawling had been just a few more sunken roofs and broken windowpanes from being an outright slum. The street had been so thoroughly mined for cobblestones it was more mud than pavement. The ramshackle wood-frame buildings had leaned and huddled like so many drowsy drunks.

I came upon a roofing crew as I walked. While the roofers themselves scrambled around hammering and shouting out of sight far above, a band of ogres was positioned on the scaffolding below. The ogres, rather than hauling the bundles of shingles up ladders, simply hurled them from one to another as easily as you or I could have tossed a bag of feathers.

A mob of kids danced and hooted as the ogres tossed. The ogres were hamming it up, throwing their loads underhanded, overhanded, eyes closed, from behind. The kids rewarded particularly impressive displays by throwing the ogres fat, red apples, and the ogres thanked them by pelting them with the soggy cores.

All in all, I wasn’t sure the fires had been such a bad thing after all.

Four out of every five of the new buildings around me were residential. Some housed bakeries or bathhouses or pubs or smoke shops or eateries. I didn’t figure I’d get any help from those-no, what I was looking for was an elderly woman with a broom, or an old-timer idling on a bench in the poplar-dappled shade.

I was having no luck finding either, until a door opened right at my left elbow and out popped a well-dressed, elderly gent with a child in hand on each side.

“Bugger,” announced the man.

“Bugger,” cried both children, with the inerrant instincts of the very young concerning curse words. “Bugger bugger bugger!”

The man’s face went crimson, and he nodded apologetically to me.

“Me and my mouth,” he said. “Daughter’s gonna choke me for sure.”

I laughed and stopped walking. Both kids danced and continued to employ their new word for my benefit.

“Obviously not the first time they’ve heard it,” I said. “And it certainly won’t be the last. If that’s the worst thing they encounter today, I’d say you’ve done a fine job of babysitting.”

“Isobell sure as…sure as the world won’t see it that way,” said the man.

I shrugged. “Name's Markhat,” I said, before he could get away. “Say, you don’t happen to remember this place when it was called Cawling, do you?”

The man grinned. “I knowed it! I knowed I knew you from somewhere. You’re Emma Bowling’s boy, ain’t you?”

I shook my head. “Sorry, not me,” I said. “Do you remember a Marris Sellway?”

“Sellways?”

“Sellway. Marris. Had a daughter, Doris? Lived upstairs in old Number Six?”

He pondered that, while both kids yelled and jumped and jerked in his hands.

“I don’t recollect no Sellways,” he said, squinting back through the years. “I lived two streets over, near to the old ironworks. On Ester. Febin is my name. Now, there might have been a Sellways up Northend way…”

Behind me, a cab rolled up, and the children started shrieking their prized new word at the top of their lungs. A woman in the cab began to shout back. The old man blanched, and I bade him farewell and beat a hasty retreat.

That’s finding, nine times out of ten. And you never run into the right person first, either. If I was more knowledgeable about Angels and their duties, I might know who to blame that on, but I hadn’t been under the shadow of a Church dome since the War.

So I walked. I ambled. I whistled. I idled. I bantered with bakers, gabbed with garbage men, hobnobbed with haberdashers, gossiped with maids. I learned quite a lot about Regency Avenue, and what a lovely, wonderful, peaceful place it was, but damned near nothing about bad old pre-War Cawling Street.

At lunch, I found a place that made a better ham sandwich than Eddie’s, even if it was twice the price. The barman there, a scowling old grump who’d probably been in a bad mood for longer than most of his patrons had been alive, had lived on Cawling before the fires, but aside from cussing about having his lot stolen by the City, he had nothing else at all to say.

I kept walking, kept talking. By midday I’d covered maybe half of the north side of the street. By the time the shadows were beginning to get long and the buildings on the south side blotted out the sun, I was nearly to the end of the south side, with nothing but sore feet and an afternoon of useless anecdotes to show for my efforts.

I shrugged. My client was, if Granny Knot was to be believed, as dead as the Regent’s sense of philanthropy. I didn’t figure another day or two would make much difference to a dead man.

A stray wind set the skinny poplar trees to swaying, and in the shade a chill rode up my spine. I saw a patch of lingering sun across the street and made for it, just as the doors to one of the three fancy coffeehouses I’d found opened and a small crowd of a half-dozen men piled out.

You stay in my business long, you develop a sense for trouble. And even if you don’t, when six stalwart strangers pull up their sleeves and crack their manly knuckles in near unison while the tallest and widest of them fixes you in a glare and says, “Hey, you,” you know you’ve just landed in the proverbial wrong place at the unfortunate wrong time.

I stopped and raised my hands.

“Whoa there, gentlemen,” I said. “My name is Markhat. I’m a finder. Licensed.”

They weren’t having any. They rushed me, covering the dozen steps between us at a run.

There are a couple of things you can do when you find yourself unarmed and outnumbered six to one. You can stand your ground and put up your fists and laugh in their bullying faces, or you can follow me in a spirited retreat and hope your pursuers just enjoyed a very heavy meal and are wearing high-heel shoes three sizes too small.

They hadn’t, and they weren’t, and I was never much of a sprinter.

I went down, tackled and flailing, right in front of a dressmaker’s shop window. I caught a brief glimpse of a lady’s upraised hand and look of horror, and then numerous beefy fists fell hard about me and the last thing I recall is hoping I didn’t spoil her day out shopping.

“Boy.”

I tried to cover my ears and roll over.

“Boy.”

Someone dashed water in face, and I came to, sputtering and mopping my face.

It did open my eyes though. At least my right eye. My left one was swollen nearly shut, and that taste in my mouth was blood.

“See what you done to him? I ought to hex the lot of you!”

I groaned and tried to remember things. That was Mama’s voice, but how had she gotten mixed up in this?

My right eye cleared enough to let me see.

I was seated in an office. Mama stood beside me, shaking a tiny stuffed owl at a burly, red-faced man seated behind a massive, oak desk. The man looked worried. The two men flanking him, who stood at perfect Army attention, looked worried as well.

Mama snarled and gave them all one last good shake of her owl before turning back to me.

“You hear me, boy? You back at your senses yet?”

I tried to nod an affirmative, but that just made the room spin.

“All they done was rough him up some, Missus Hog,” said the big man behind the desk. He wrung his hands while he spoke, and his knuckles were white. “They didn’t break no bones.”

Big man he might be, but his tone and demeanor toward Mama was anything but tough.

“Yeah, they were gentle as lambs,” I managed. I looked the big man straight in the eye and spat old blood on his fancy Kempish rug. “I just hope nobody got bruised when they ganged up on me.”

I swear the big man blanched.

“Mister Markhat,” he said. He rose and came around the desk and put his hands behind his back. “They thought you was nosing around, maybe looking for a place to rob. They didn’t know who you were.”

“Hell they didn’t.” I spit again, out of pure spite. “I told them who I was. Told them that I was a finder. Right before they dived in swinging.”

Mama puffed up, and I thought the man-who was a good head taller than even I am-was going to break out in tears.

“Mama,” I said as I worked my jaw and probed the top of my head for fractures, “tell me what’s going on.”

Mama snarled. I swear she snarled, and her general lack of teeth did nothing to reduce the ferocity of it.

“This here big pile of stupid set his bully-boys on ye.” Mama’s Hog eyes were cold and merciless. “Once they’d done beat you half to death, one of ’em found that finder’s card you carries. They brung it to Mister Smart Britches here, and he knowed of a finder named Markhat what was a friend o’ mine, so he fetched me here to see if’n you was you.”

My hand went to my back right hip pocket. It was empty.

“Now, we got all your possessions right here, Mr. Markhat,” said Big Pile of Stupid. “Nothing missing. Money, city-issued finder’s card, pad and pen. All safe and sound.”

I grunted. My head was spinning again. But I was glad they hadn’t thrown that finder’s license in the gutter-damned thing costs me half a crown a year, and like everything else issued by the City they don’t hand out free replacements.

“So why the special greeting?” I asked. There was a knot on my head the size of an egg. “What did I do to rate all this?”

Mama gruffed and started to say something, but the big man dove in instead.

“My name is Owenstall,” he said. He almost extended a hand for me to shake, thought better of it and stomped back behind his desk and sat. “Regency is my neighborhood. My men and I keep it safe and orderly.”

“Depends on who you ask.”

I took a deep breath and tried to clear my head. Some things were starting to make sense. A lot of neighborhoods had taken to patrolling themselves during the war, and had continued the practice after and until the present. Given the general effectiveness of the Watch, I couldn’t blame them.

“So, you keep the streets clear of thugs and ruffians by giving them badges and having them pound on passing finders.”

“They were never told to beat down-to act with violence toward anyone,” said Owenstall. “That’s against policy. I assure you, Mr. Markhat, the man responsible for instigating this will be fired.”

“Gonna be worse than fired, I learn his name,” muttered Mama.

“You know this upright defender of law and order, Mama?” I asked.

Mama snorted. “Knowed him since he was knee-high. Knowed him when he was stealin’ apples off’n barges. Knowed him when he was gettin’ beat half to death onced a week by the Leaf Street gang. Knowed him when he had him that there problem with the ladies-”

All six and a half feet of Owenstall shot to his feet and turned the color of fresh-cut beef.

I managed to start talking first. “I get the picture. Look. I’m here asking questions on behalf of a client. That’s it. If I’d known you boys were so picky about who soils your sidewalks, I’d have asked permission first.”

Owenstall nodded the whole time I spoke. I wondered briefly just what else Mama knew about him, and resolved to ask later in case the dent in my skull proved permanent.

“The boys got out of line. But Mr. Markhat, see, we try to keep this a nice neighborhood. We’ve kept out the gangs and the whammy-men and the lay-abouts. People can walk the streets, kids can play on their stoops, nobody has to worry about nothing as long as we keep the wrong people out.”

I raised an eyebrow. Since it was the one over my swollen eye I hoped it made my point.

Owenstall raised his hands in surrender.

“Didn’t mean you. Meant people actin’ suspicious-like. That’s what they thought, and I’m telling you to your face they were wrong and I am sorry.”

He’d turned and looked right at Mama when he said the words “I am sorry.” I just grunted. It was obvious who he was really apologizing to.

“Looks like I’ll live.” I leaned forward and scooped my belongings off the desk and put them back in my pockets. “Now, since we are all best friends, I’m going to ask you the same questions I asked everybody else.”

Mama snuffled and crossed her stubby arms over her chest, but she turned down the furious glare a few notches and Owenstall visibly relaxed.

I laid out my standard spiel-I was looking for Marris Sellway who had a daughter named Doris Sellway who had lived in Number Six on Cawling before the fires. I hinted that an inheritance was involved.

And once again I got blank stares and mumbled “Nos” in response. No to knowing the name Sellway, to knowing a Marris with a Doris, no, no and no.

I made my address known and resolved to stand. I did it, without wobbling too much, and I decided it was time to head home.

Owenstall rose with me, and this time he stuck out his hand.

“I truly am sorry, Mr. Markhat.”

For the first time, he sounded sincere. I forced a grin and shook his hand.

Mama gave everyone a last shake of her dried owl and stomped out the door ahead of me.

The street was engulfed in shade. People gave Mama and I wide berth. Between Mama’s furious scowl and the blood on my good, white shirt, I guess we were very much out of place on scenic, peaceful Regency Avenue.

I didn’t make it far before I had to plop down on a bench and rest. Mama joined me, her dried owl clutched in her hand in case, I suppose, anyone passing by needed to be warned off.

“You can get into the biggest messes, boy.”

I rubbed my temple. My jaw was too sore to point out who’d dropped this mess square in my lap.

“I reckon you’re of a mind that Granny Knot is a put-on, ain’t you, boy?”

“No, Mama, I figure anybody named Granny Knot can naturally talk to spooks. Why do you ask?”

Mama guffawed. “Most of them what claims they can talk to ghosts is crazy. Granny Knot ain’t crazy. You hearin’ me, boy?”

“I’m hearing you, Mama. Not saying I believe you, but I’m hearing you.”

“Good. Now, boy, I don’t hold with talking to dead ’uns myself. They had their time, had their chances. They ought not to pester the living, in my way of thinking.”

A cab rattled past, and I lifted my hand to hail it, but the cabby gave us a hard eye and snapped his reins and urged his ponies on to less bloody fares. Mama shook her owl at him and whispered a long string of words I couldn’t understand.

“I reckon Granny knows more about such things than me. Still, boy, I wants you to be extra careful with this.”

I laughed out loud, which hurt, so I finished with a groan and my face in my hands.

“Granny may know them dead folks, but I knows the livin’ ones,” said Mama. “And I knows trouble when I sees it too. This here is trouble, and a lot worse trouble than that knot on your fool head.”

“But you brought her to my door anyway. Thanks, Mama.”

Mama shrugged. “She just said she needed her a finder what she could trust with money. I knowed she could trust you. Also knowed you needed some money-or have you and that mangy tom-cat got rich without me knowin’ it?”

“Not rich. Just bruised.” I took a deep breath and stood, since it was becoming obvious cabbies in this part of town were picky about their fares.

Mama rose as well.

I started walking. “You sure put the fear in big and ugly back there, Mama.”

Mama guffawed. “That young ’un’s been scairt of me for years. I likes it that way.” She huffed and puffed as we crossed the street. “He ain’t a bad man, deep down. I reckon them goons of his are going to have some fast talkin’ to do. So, what’s next, boy? You gonna just go door to door askin’ about that woman?”

“If that’s what it takes.”

Mama grunted. “Well, you got the mouth for it.” Mama eyed me critically, then waved her owl at an approaching cabby.

He didn’t even slow until Mama stepped out in the street, directly in his path, and screeched something at his ponies.

They came to dead halt, whinnying nervously, and Mama cut the cabbie’s curses off with a glare.

“Get in, boy,” said Mama. “We’s ridin’ home on Granny Knot’s coin. Reckon she owes you that much expense.”

I wasn’t going to argue. I flipped the scowling cabby a coin and clambered aboard the cab, after holding the door for Mama.

Chapter Two

I was back at my desk holding one of Mama’s infamous herb poultices over my swollen eye when the Big Bell rang out Curfew.

Three-leg Cat waited until the last peal died away before he sauntered to my door and demanded to be let out. I watched him dart into the deserted street, heedless of the Curfew or the threat of the thirsty halfdead that were free to roam the streets once the Bell sounded.

I doubted even the thirstiest vampire would look twice at Three-leg though.

I shuffled back to my chair and resumed my convalescence. The poultice smelled like Mama had stuffed something long dead with something even worse and then boiled the lot in cow piss. But it was taking the swelling down, and the first whiff of it had cured my headache.

The street outside was quiet. Rare, even for Cambrit Street, where the Curfew was more a suggestion than a command, and the Watch didn’t even bother to feign concern for anyone dumb enough to dare the halfdead. Aside from the barking of dogs and the far-off rattle of the first dead wagons, Rannit seemed to fall silent, all at once.

The lamp on the shelf beside me began to flicker. I gave it a one-eyed glare, because my office is too small to be hosting its own evening breezes.

And yet the flame danced to and fro, dancing like a drunkard.

A chill ran mouse-foot down my spine.

I groaned.

“So Granny laid some back-alley hex on my lamp,” I said aloud. “And I’m supposed to watch and get all goose bumped because I’m being visited by the spirits of the dead.”

The flame kept right on flickering.

“Client or not, dead or not, it’s after hours, and I’m sitting here with a lump on my head and blisters on my heels. I’ve got nothing to report. So beat it. And next time knock first.”

I closed my eyes and leaned way back and held the stinking poultice tight against my face. When I opened my eye again, the lamp flame was steady and bright.

“Nice one, Granny,” I mumbled.

I’ve got a bed in the room behind my office. I sought it out soon after, and when I slept, I dreamed I was being chased by hobnailed children all screaming “bugger!” at the tops of their vicious little lungs.

As ten-year celebrations go, it needed lots of work.

Morning came. I wasn’t impressed. But both eyes were open and aside from a split upper lip and a truly nasty purple bruise around my left eye, I was in better shape than I expected.

A trip to the bathhouse down the street and another stop at Eddie’s for his skillet-fried eggs and burned bacon did wonders for my temperament, if not my appearance. I believe I was even whistling when I rounded the corner a block from home and came face to face with the same well-dressed thug who’d given me the black eye on Regency.

Today, we matched. His left eye was even worse than mine in that it was still swollen shut, and from the way his nose looked, I figured it was not just bruised but broken.

He saw me and stopped and raised his empty hands, just as I’d done.

“I ain’t here to cause no trouble,” he said. “Mr. Owenstall sent me. Said he found out something about that woman you might want to know.”

I nodded. I was too full of bacon and eggs to do anything except sit anyway.

“Fine. Why don’t we go on to my office and talk about it? Unless you’d rather kick me in the back again. That we can do right here.”

He shook his head. “Look, Markhat. We was wrong for jumping you like that. Believe me, we know that now.” He fingered his broken nose. “Maybe this can help make up for it.”

I shrugged. “Maybe it will,” I said. I started walking, and he fell into step beside me. “So, what’s your name?”

“Bolton.” He stuck out his hand awkwardly. I didn’t see any reason not to shake it. At least my nose wasn’t broken.

So we shook on it, just in time for Mama Hog to stick her head out her door and grunt and withdraw.

“I ain’t never seen the boss scared of nobody,” said Bolton, after Mama shut her door. “Even during the War. Seen him knock a Troll down and jump on it bare-fisted. But he’s scared of that woman, and that’s a fact.”

“Mama’s meaner than any Troll. So, you served with your boss?”

We were at my door. I unlocked it and motioned Bolton inside.

“Most of us did,” replied Bolton. I assumed he meant his fellow pugilists from yesterday. “We were all in the Fifth, out Hinge way.”

I grunted. That meant they were supply wagon guards and potato peelers.

“I heard you was a dog handler, out West.”

I just nodded. Some guys can’t wait to go on and on about the War. I’d rather forget every miserable minute of it.

“Have a seat. You said your boss found something out about Marris Sellway.”

Bolton sat.

“No Sellways on Regency. Never have been. We asked some of the old folks, the ones who lived on Cawling before it burned. Nobody ever heard of a Sellway, woman or man.”

I waited for more and frowned when I realized nothing else was forthcoming.

“You walked all the way from Regency for that?”

“It ain’t what they said, Mr. Markhat. It’s the way they said it. The old ones, I mean. They went all shifty-eyed and stooped when they heard the name. I know they remembered it. But not a soul would admit it. Now, if this Sellway woman lived on Cawling before the fires, that puts her back a good ten years. That’s a long time to be scared of something.”

I nodded. “Could be they were just scared of you.”

Bolton shook his head. “It ain’t like that, Mr. Markhat. The Boss don’t hold with them ways. We make sure the old ones got firewood in the winter. We make sure somebody talks to ’em every day or so. Hell, we take ’em to doctors if they need it, haul their groceries home. Boss don’t want the people that live on Regency to be scared of us.”

“Just stray finders passing through.”

“We thought you was a scout for another gang, sizing up the take. Happens a lot. People think the Boss is soft cause he don’t beat down the residents.”

I put my fingertips together and assumed my Thoughtful Finder pose while I digested the concept of a civic-minded gang lord.

“What do you know about Cawling Street, back in the day?”

Bolton shrugged. “It was a slum,” he said. “Bad before we left for the War. Worse when we got back. The Boss staked it out, cleaned it up, saw it rebuilt with some of that Reclamation money.”

“Who was running Cawling, before you boys got back?”

Bolton frowned. “Bunch of punks calling themselves the Bloods,” he said, grinning. “I reckon some of ’em are still running.”

I groaned.

“I say something wrong?”

“No. But you did just expand my search to include aging street gang members.”

“You think they might know something?”

“They might offhand remember the names of the people they extorted, yeah,” I said.

Bolton’s brow furrowed. “The head knocker was a punk named Stick. We never got around to a face-to-face. He took off when he saw we were moving in.”

“Any of the others put up a fight?”

He shrugged. “None that lived to tell.”

“So, you think the name Sellway brought back some bad memories among the old folks, who are too scared to talk to this day. And the gang running the neighborhood is either dead or scattered all over the Frontier by now.”

“’Fraid so.” He pushed my chair back and stood. “Wish I had more to tell, but that’s it. Hope it makes up for yesterday. Boss said you could come back and ask questions if you wanted, no problem.”

“If they won’t talk to the men who tuck them in their beds and carry their groceries they aren’t likely to talk to me either.”

“Well, if anybody does decide to tell any tales, we’ll let you know.”

“Thanks.”

Three-leg Cat emerged from the back room after Bolton was gone. He meowed a few times to express his displeasure at being wakened so early and then settled into my lap for a rare session of loud, rough purring.

I had no desire to shake down frightened, grannies for decades-old neighborhood gossip.

“My best bet,” I told Three-leg, “is to find someone who moved away from Cawling Street about the time Owenstall and his lads took over, or find a surviving Blood and hope they feel like talking.”

Three-leg Cat didn’t seem enthused about either prospect.

Neither did I. Either task could take weeks. And that’s assuming any of the former Bloods had survived until the present. You don’t meet many middle-aged youth gang members. They just don’t live that long, even in postwar Rannit.

But I did have something I don’t usually have when I’m trying to find someone.

I had a fat bag of solid gold crowns.

Three-leg Cat felt the shift in my mood and jumped out of my lap, insulted and stiff-tailed.

“Somebody has to work around here.”

Three-leg broke wind and sauntered out, his opinion of that statement made pungent and all too plain.

I found a printing shop and had them make up a waybill. I ordered four hundred and fifty copies. I’d never seen anybody covered in that much ink ever look so happy.

Then I went looking for Granny Knot. I don’t like spending a client’s money without their say so, and since my client was currently busy pushing up the oft-quoted daisies I figured Granny would have to speak for him.

Mama wasn't home, and when I finally found Granny’s place she wasn’t answering her door either.

Granny Knot had said she had a place on Elfway. I’d been a little surprised. Elfway is one of those old, narrow lanes that twists and turns and are now so popular with the newly wealthy because, I suppose, they look quaint.

And it did. I gathered a lot of people spent a lot of time and considerable effort to keep it looking that way. The storefronts were all tall, with exaggerated overhangs and round-topped doors (because nothing says Elf like a round-topped door, apparently) and leaves worked into every visible surface. Everything was Elf-themed, whether it was taffy or glass or hats or jewels. Even the restaurant menus posted in the windows were done up in faux Elf.

And here I’d always thought Elves were a bloodthirsty lot of murderous elementals with a penchant for casual torture and a taste for human infants.

I kept watching the numbers posted haphazardly here and there, and the street suddenly seemed to end well before I got to Granny’s scribbled address.

I kept going anyway. The street didn’t exactly stop, it just sort of lost its cobbles and became a hard-packed dirt footpath for a while. Vacant lots sprouted weeds and trash about me. Here and there, the hulk of a burned-out building stood twisted in the sun. The backs of buildings a street over rose, windows boarded against the grim sight of Elfway and the burglary-inclined residents thereof, until I made another block.

And then I was on cobbles again. A hand-painted sign informed me I had just entered Old Elfway and that I should enjoy my visit.

The prospect seemed unlikely. The structures were all pre-War wood, grey with age and weather and neglect. Not a board I could see had been spared curling and splitting.

Faces moved behind curtains. Doors slammed shut as I passed.

I decided Mama would be right at home in Old Elfway just as I reached No. 19.

Granny’s door had no glass. But painted on it was a grinning white face, which, like my painted finder’s eye, led the illiterate to our doors.

As I said, Granny wasn’t there. I knocked, and then I sat down on her tiny rotten porch. I decided to wait until the Big Bell clanged out four before I headed back to the print shop to check on my waybills.

Granny’s neighbors began to show themselves once they could see I was waiting for Granny and not, therefore, looking for random heads to knock. Half a dozen paraded back and forth before me, carefully not making eye contact or acknowledging my wide and charming smile.

Still, I waved and greeted each one.

I was still waving and greeting when I heard a familiar cackle ring out down the street, followed by a much softer muttering.

I stood up and wiped ants off my britches. Mama and Granny ambled up, gabbing away in some private, incomprehensible Old Lady tongue while giggling and snorting like tipsy teenagers with their first bottle of grown-up hooch.

“Good day, ladies,” I said, with a practiced tip of my hat. “I hope I’m not too late for tea.”

Granny shrieked in laughter and gobbled something at Mama. I suppose it was funny because it set them both off for so long I nearly sat back down again.

“I was hoping to talk to you, Granny,” I said when the gales of laughter subsided.

Granny muttered into her fist of rags, and then scampered up and unlocked her door.

Mama barged in, right at home. I followed, stooping to fit beneath the door, which lacked a rounded top but was scaled for Elves nonetheless.

Granny shut the door behind me and then listened to her rags for a moment before motioning me into a chair beside Mama.

I sighed and sat. Asking Mama to leave would be like asking goats to take up painting.

“I need to spend some of that money,” I said without preamble.

I laid out the problems inherent in locating people who’d last been seen ten years and two major fires ago. I hinted that something that had happened in that neighborhood, which might not have had anything to do with Marris Sellway, was making people nervous and therefore quiet.

Then I described my plan to use good old-fashioned greed to provoke recollection and loosen lips.

If Granny had rather Mama didn’t hear our dealings, she’d have to throw her out herself. She didn’t.

Mama chuckled, and Granny held a long conversation with her rags. When that was over, she looked me in the eye and nodded, and when Mama wasn’t looking, she winked.

That was all I needed.

Almost all.

“I do have a question, Granny.”

She tilted her head, silent and expectant.

“Something’s bothering me. You say the dead-you say your client spent ten years wracked with guilt, amassing a small fortune to give to this Marris.”

Granny nodded. Mama listened, too, her beady Hog eyes fixed in a frown.

“Why doesn’t he know where she is, then? Surely he kept tabs on her, on the kid. Anybody willing to put that much coin in a bag isn’t going to just let them vanish. He’d want to know if they had a roof, had food. He’d want to know if they were dead or alive. So, why can’t he tell you where she is?”

Granny listened. Her handful of rags apparently had things to say, directly into her ear, as usual.

“He couldn’t bear it.” Her voice croaked and wavered. “The guilt. The shame.”

“Horse flop.”

“Boy!” Mama grabbed my elbow. “Don’t you shame me with that lack of manners.”

“I’m not saying Granny is lying. I’m just saying that if her spook had the ability to tell her where the bag of coin was, it’s reasonable to ask why he suddenly forgot an address he certainly knew.”

“The dead. Don’t think like the living. Confused. Life fading like a dream.”

I sighed. I was really wishing Mama would scoot, so I could speak to Granny in plain Kingdom and dispense with the carnival sideshow diction.

“Fine. Our heart-broken, guilt-ridden spook can lead you to a bag of coin in a buried butter churn in a privy, but he can’t cough up even part of an address. Wonderful. So I have your assurance, Granny, that he won’t come a rattling his chains at my place in the middle of the night because I spent thirty of his precious crowns to find his estranged spouse?”

Granny dutifully whispered all that back to her rags, giggled at the reply, and finally gave me my answer.

“No. Do it.”

I nodded. “Ladies, if you’ll excuse me, I have chores to tend.”

We exchanged farewells, Mama and Granny and Granny’s rags and me. I got out of there when Granny uncorked a bottle of something pungent and dark. The prospect of seeing Mama tipsy was far more daunting that walking back through Elfway and its faux Elf tackiness.

I didn’t figure the print shop was even a quarter of the way rolling out my handbills. So I had time to take the long way back toward my place. Long enough to visit the workhouse over on Kerston, long enough to gather up a mob of street urchins and feed them all at a soup stoop, and then sit them down and explain what I wanted them to do.

They listened with an intensity far more mature than their years should have allowed. I wasn’t going to mind parting with that portion of the treasure. It would probably be more money than any of them had ever seen.

Sad thing was, I knew it would probably be just that, for the rest of their lives.

Once they were fed and instructed, I placed myself at the head of the line, and led my very own soot-faced parade all the way across town and to the very heart of Regency Avenue. I made sure my soiled army understood their mission, made sure they knew the lay of the streets and the way the neighborhood had grown and shifted. We went up and down the street, then up and down Talent and Farstair and Wicker and Holt, where I hoped at least a few former residents of Cawling might have settled.

That down, and dark and the Curfew approaching, I led my parade back to the printer’s, and we waited outside for the handbills. True to their word, the staff of Carson and Sons made the deadline, and as the Big Bell banged out the last hour before Curfew I was divvying up waybills and handing out final instructions.

I told them all to wait until first light before they struck out. And I could see it written plain on their dirty faces that none of them meant to let things like the Curfew or the prospect of a grisly death deter them from making their wage.

I’d not truly thought through my promise of a bonus to the lad who brought the gift horse to my door. But it was too late to change the plan.

I just hoped the vampires would leave them be in favor of older, cleaner fare.

My brave mob dispersed, waybills clutched in their eager hands, the promise of coin burning like true love in their thin, little chests.

I went home feeling dirty.

I sat in my office, daring that lamp-flame to find a wind in the dead still air. It didn’t.

But it did illuminate my waybill.

SEEKING MARRIS SELLWAY, it read. FORMERLY OF CAWLING STREET. MOVED AFTER WAR.

The printers had inserted a little artistic do-dad below that. It did help to space out the words.

SOUGHT BY THE FINDER NAMED MARKHAT ON CAMBRIT STREET. LOOK FOR THE DOOR WITH THE FINDER’S EYE.

And below that, a perfect rendition of the same.

THE PERSON BRINGING THIS WAYBILL AND ACCURATE INFORMATION CONCERNING THE WHEREABOUTS OF MISS MARRIS SELLWAY FORMERLY OF CAWLING STREET WILL RECEIVE TWENTY (20) OLD KINGDOM CROWNS. THE FINDER WISHES NO ILL TOWARD MISS SELLWAY. AN INHERITANCE IS INVOLVED.

Below that, the printer had decided to reinforce the point by adding a crude drawing of a pile of coins.

And below that, centered, was a number. I’d assigned a range of numbers to each kid, and the one who brought in the winning talker would get a gold crown of his very own.

And they’d all get a half crown just for handing out each and every one of their waybills.

So I sat, and I did what I’d done so many nights when I’d served my six in the Army. I got my whetstone and my oil and my leather rag, and I laid into my old Army double-edged combat knife while I listened for footsteps heading my way.

It didn’t take long. I’d loosed a band of half-starved kids out past Curfew, and hunger scared them a lot worse than any vague threat of the halfdead.

Mumbles and a knocking at my door. I scooped my whetstone and oil and cloth into a drawer and accidentally left my knife in its sheath under my shirt before I opened my door.

One of my urchins-owner of Waybill Number Six, called himself Skillet-stood there. He was kicking his companion in the backside, an act rendered simple since the companion was on his knees retching on my sidewalk.

“He knowed the woman,” said Skillet. His eyes were old and hard, and if they had any fear they didn’t show a hint of it.

He was maybe ten.

He kicked the man again and yanked his face up by his wild mane of filthy hair.

The retching gentleman was maybe ten years my junior. Maybe. With weedheads it’s hard to tell. He didn’t have any teeth left. His eyes were sunken and vacant. The smell oozing off his trembling frame would have set ogres to gasping and backpedaling.

“Right,” I said. The weedhead bowed his head and vomited again, narrowly missing my shoes, and I decided an invitation to come inside was out of the question.

“He got a name?”

“Stick,” said the kid.

I didn’t bat an eye.

“Stick it is, then,” was all I said. “Well, Mr. Stick, you don’t look so good. Life take a hard turn after you left the Bloods?”

His head snapped up, and I saw recognition in his rheumy eyes.

Fate was finally showing the Markhats of the world a bit of long overdue love.

I dropped down to my haunches so I could meet Stick eye to eye. I didn’t figure I’d have time to wait for him to sober up and stand to meet mine.

“So, tell me about this woman, Stick. Start with her name.”

He had to get through a bout of dry heaving and coughing, but he finally managed to croak out a name.

“Sellway. Mary Sellway. Or Mardis. Something.”

I nodded. “Marris. But that much is printed on the waybill, Stick.”

Stick snorted. “Ain’t been to no school. Can’t read.”

“What a shame. Still. You want my coin, you’ve got to do better than that.”

Stick started growling and grinding his empty gums, the way weeders do when they start losing it. I let him see my knife and watched him slowly calculate his chances of taking me on and living.

He opted for more dry-heaving and a brief bout of uncontrollable shaking instead.

“She. Had a kid,” he managed to say. “Girl. Doris. Darcy. Something.”

I nodded. I’d purposely left that part out. Just a way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

“You need to think really hard about what you say next, Stick.” I paused and let the words sink in. “Really hard.”

He gulped and nodded.

“Where is Marris Sellway, right now?”

He licked his lips. He took a deep breath. He struggled to put the right words together in the right order.

And then his pupils flared, his muscles went slack, and he passed out face-first into the liquid remains of his last pitiful meal.

Skillet kicked him and spat out a stream of cursing that would have made my old sergeant proud.

Stick was beyond feeling, though. I cussed a bit myself.

“Look, mister, I brung him. You heard what he said. He’s the real thing.”

“You’ll get paid.” I sighed. “Help me haul his stupid butt inside. Be my luck the halfdead will get him if I leave him on the sidewalk.”

We both picked out bits of Stick that were the least encrusted in filth and wrestled his limp form inside my door. I rolled him onto his side so he wouldn’t choke and put a handful of copper into Skillet’s outstretched hand.

The kid’s grin was the only thing about him that still looked young.

“You can stay here too,” I said. “It’s not safe out there.”

The coins vanished. A kitchen knife, honed down to a wicked edge, replaced them. “I got a little sister to watch,” he said.

I just nodded. “Come back around tomorrow. You’ll get the rest then.”

He nodded and was gone. I never once heard a footstep.

Stick moaned and twitched. His attendant stench wasted no time in pervading my office. I lit every candle I had, pulled my favorite lead-weighted head-knocker out of its hiding place under my desk, and settled in for a long and malodorous night.

Chapter Three

The bathhouse attendant, a blind old man named Waters, gathered up Stick’s clothes with the end of his cane and without a word hurled them into the furnace.

“That there man stinks,” offered Waters. “Use all that soap. I’ll go fetch more.”

And off he went grimacing and muttering.

I gave Stick a couple of good hard slaps, which roused him to mutter but not open his eyes.

So I hauled him up by the scruff of his neck and simply tossed his ugly, naked butt into the big, hot, copper bathtub.

Three-leg Cat couldn’t have put on a better show of flailing and howling and sputtering. I put my right hand on his head and pushed him back under briefly.

“Good morning, Mr. Stick.” I had him by the hair, and though he punched and struggled all he did was splash. “It’s bath day. If you behave yourself, it’ll also be breakfast day. If you keep making a ruckus, well…”

I put him under again. The water, I noted, was turning muddy.

At least it was cutting down the smell. Waters arrived as I let Stick back up for air and dumped a bowl of something fragrant into the tub.

“Gonna need more of that,” he opined before shuffling off again.

Stick was furious, but beginning to wake up. He quit trying to punch me, and a ghost of recognition flashed across his face.

“You.”

“Me,” I agreed. “The finder? The one with the coin? The one who wants to know all about Cawling Street and a woman named Marris Sellway? Ring any bells, Stick?”

“You said you pay.”

“I did. And I will. But first you’re going to get yourself clean. And then you’re going to eat. And then you and I are going to sit and talk about the Bloods and Cawling and Marris. Got it?”

Stick closed his eyes and brought up his hands to run water over his face.

“Got it.”

I let go of his head and tossed him a bar of soap. “Waters here did your clothes a favor and burned them. I’m going to go back to my place and get you some of mine. If you want the coin you’ll be here when I get back. You do want the coin, don’t you, Stick?”

The weed-lust in his eyes was the only reply I needed.

“Don’t make trouble for Waters, you hear?”

“I hear.”

I told Waters what I was doing on my way out. My place is just a short walk away, and I swear I could smell Stick in the still, early morning air all the way back to my door.

I found an old shirt and an old pair of brown trousers and a pair of socks with holes in the toes under my bed. They bore the faint aroma of Three-leg, who had apparently been using them as a bed. Even so they were a vast improvement on anything Stick was likely to ever own again.

A pair of old black shoes, soles worn paper thin, completed Stick’s new ensemble. I gathered them all and headed back, more worried about Waters and the possible application of his cane to Stick’s head than I was about anything Stick might decide to do.

Mama popped out of her door as I neared.

“No time now, Mama,” I said. “Bath emergency.”

Mama eyed my bundle, and wrinkled her nose at me. “Something stinks. Come back around when ye finish your doings. Got some things to say.”

Don’t you always, I thought. I just nodded and kept that to myself.

Stick was still in the bathtub when I got back. Waters had near-empty bottles of bath salts lined up by the tub, and he was emptying the dregs from each one onto Stick.

He had at least managed to knock the smell down.

“Gonna have to charge you double, Markhat. Can’t use this water for nothin’ but fertilizing flowers.”

“Not a problem.” I put the clothes down where Stick could see them. I think he muttered a toothless thank you.

Beneath the grime and the filth, Stick looked thin and pale and weary. And no amount of bath salts was going to wash that yellow skin away, or heal those open sores.

I paid Waters and got Stick dried off and dressed. The man had to have help getting shoes on. He simply couldn’t operate more than two fingers at a time.

We left the bathhouse to the sound of Waters draining the tub and burning the towels.

“You’re bathed. You’re fed. Now let’s talk about Cawling Street and Marris Sellway.”

Stick swallowed the last bite of biscuit and washed it down with water. I’d never seen a toothless man eat a slice of baked ham before. I hoped I never did again.

“She lived in old Number Six. Up top. Nice lady. Baked us bread when she had extra.”

I nodded. Number Six hadn’t been on the waybill either.

“What did she do for a living, Stick?

He looked confused by the very concept.

“Did she have a job? Did she take in laundry or sewing?”

“She sewed some,” said Stick. “I remember. She sewed some.”

“That’s good, Stick. That’s very good.” I shoved another biscuit his way. “Now tell me about her husband. Did you know him too?”

Stick had half a dry biscuit in his mouth, and he nearly choked trying to reply.

“No husband,” he finally choked out. “Dead. Dead and gone.”

I frowned. But maybe that’s what she told people, when he didn’t come home.

“Died in the War?”

Stick shook his head no. Biscuit crumbs went flying.

“Kilt in a bread riot. Stabbed in the street. We brung him home. She cried and cried.”

Something in the back of my mind said softly but plainly, I told you so.

“What? Tell me again. And tell me who died, and who you brought home.”

Stick rubbed his chin. “Mr. Sellway. Got hisself stabbed dead in a bread riot down on Forge. We found him, brought him home. Me and Eggs and Lark and Stubby. Mrs. Sellway. Marris. She cried and cried.”

Bread riot. The last one had been on Midsummer Eve, a year before the War ended.

Which meant my dead client-or Granny Knot-was lying through his metaphorical teeth.

“Army wouldn’t take him. Mr. Sellway. He had a bad leg. Bad hand, too, all twisted up.” Stick curled his right hand into a claw and held it limp at his side. “We didn’t know what to do. She just stood there crying and screamin’. Eggs started cryin’ too. Lark took off. Me and Stubby wound up sitting with her ’til the dead wagons came. She had to let him burn. Couldn’t afford no burial. Can I have another biscuit?”

“Are you telling me the truth, Stick?”

Stick tilted his head, genuinely confused. “I think so. Is that not what happened?”

I looked into his yellowed, rheumy eyes, and I realized he no longer had the capacity to create such an elaborate lie.

“I’m sure it is, Stick. Here, have two.”

I sat back and watched him gobble down a week’s worth of food. Tears ran down his cheeks, from what I couldn’t discern.

“What happened to the lady after that, Stick? What did she do? Where did she go?”

Stick gobbled and nodded. “Heard she took up with some other fella,” he said. “Or something. Moved after the second fire. Up and took off, left her door wide open. Don’t know about that.” His face clouded. “War ended, them soldiers came. Lark dead. Eggs dead. Stubby…”

He teared up again. I tossed him my last biscuit. He gummed it and gobbled like he’d not just eaten six of its kin.

“So, let me get this straight. Her husband died in a bread riot a year before the War ended. She was seeing another man shortly after. Then came the fires, and she left in a hurry. Is that about right?”

“About.”

“Any idea who this second man was? A name?”

Stick shook his head. “Don’t know,” he said. Worry creased his brow. “Sorry. Don’t know.”

“Doesn’t matter. You’ve told me what I needed to know.”

“I get the coin? The twenty crowns?”

“That was the deal. You did your part. I’ll do mine.”

I flipped him a single Old Kingdom gold crown. He could buy a decent place to sleep with that for a month, and food, and clothes, and maybe even a middling good set of carved oak false teeth.

Or he could blow it all on weed and vein and whatever other drugs were in vogue, and wind up encrusted in his own wastes and drooling before the Curfew bell rang again.

It took Stick a long time to count the single coin he gripped in his skeletal hand and realize that one coin was, just possibly, fewer than twenty.

His face darkened.

“You said twenty.”

“I didn’t say all at once.” I pulled my Army knife out and stuck it point-first in my desk. Weedheads don’t respond to subtlety.

“We both know what’ll happen to you if you walk out of here with twenty gold crowns in your pocket, Stick. You got a place? You got a bank? Have you got so much as a sack to keep your money in?”

“I want my money.”

“Those pants you're wearing have holes in both pockets. So, that coin will do you for today. I’m going to put the rest in a bank, Stick. They’ll keep it safe for you, and you can take all of it out, if you want. I hope you won’t. I hope you’ll clean yourself up and get off the weed and have what’s left of your life. I doubt that’ll happen. I figure you’ll march into whatever bank I choose and take all of it out and you’ll be dead before you spend a tenth of it. But that’s your decision. This is mine.”

He eyed me and eyed the knife and finally his eyes fell on the crown in his palm.

“This is a lot of money,” he said.

“Enough to buy you a brand new life. Come back around before Curfew. I’ll tell you where your bank is; give you the bank chit so you can get to the rest anytime. Deal?”

Maybe, just for an instant, Stick really meant to start over. Maybe he realized what a stroke of rare good fortune had befallen him, and maybe he meant to turn his miserable life around.

He stood. He looked me in the eye. And after I stood, too, he shook my hand.

“Thanks,” he said. “I mean it.”

And then he was gone.

I did all that, by the way. I went to Crowther and Sons. I opened an account in the name of Mr. Stick. I deposited the nineteen gold crowns. I had the bankers make up a chit just for Stick, made them promise not to throw him out even if he stank, and I put Stick’s bank chit in my pocket.

Stick never returned. The chit is in my desk, waiting for him. I suspect it will wait forever.

Even rare good fortune can be too little and too late.

I spent the rest of the morning greeting other respondents to my waybills. I stopped counting Marris Sellways after the fifth one sashayed into my office. All of them, though, seemed surprised to learn they had a daughter. One couldn’t even recall where she’d lived. One was obviously a man.

Mixed in with the would-be Marris Sellways were the people who claimed to have known her. Not a one recalled her daughter’s name, or much of anything else. Reported ages ranged from teenager to granny lady. One asked me, “How old do you want me to say she was?”

I shooed them all out and only had to resort to waves of my head-knocker once.

I paid the urchins, as promised, and I even flipped a pair of coppers to the man in drag because at least he showed a sense of humor about the whole wretched mess.

Skillet came back around and got the rest of his pay and his bonus. By early afternoon, the crowds had thinned out, and I posted Skillet at my door with instructions to tell any stragglers they’d have to come around later.

I wasn’t very happy when I left Skillet behind and hit the street. The sun could beam and the birds could sing all they wanted to-I’d been lied to, either by a dead man or the old lady who claimed to speak for him. And since Granny was the only one of the pair with a corpus, it was her I headed to see.

I stopped by Mama’s, more out of a desire to snag a cup of her tea than anything else. She was waiting, and instead of her usual tea she’d splurged and made coffee. I cleaned off a spot on her card-reading table and plopped myself down.

“I seen quite a crew file in and out of your place,” she said.

I grunted. “All a waste of time. All but one.”

Mama nodded sagely. “The stinkin’ one?”

“He ran a gang called the Bloods back before the fires, when Cawling Street was Cawling Street. He remembers the Sellway woman. Remembers her kid. He also remembers her husband getting himself killed in a bread riot a year before the War ended. That business about the spook being a soldier coming home never happened.”

“I reckon dead ’uns ain’t no more honest than the living.”

“And I reckon I’m being played, Mama. Spooks my ass. You know Granny. Tell me why she’d need to make all that up? If she wants me to find Marris Sellway, fine, I don’t even need a reason. Just hire me to find her. No questions need be asked.”

I half-expected Mama to shake her dried owl at me, but she just shook her head.

“Boy, I know you don’t believe. And maybe I don’t blame you much. For every Granny Knot, there’s two dozen put-ons. Just like for me. You do believe in me, don’t you, boy?”

“I worship the ground you drop feathers on, Mama, you know that. But Granny. I don’t know her. And somebody is lying to me. What am I supposed to believe?”

“You ain’t never supposed to believe nothing but the truth, boy.” Mama cackled. “Trouble is, sometimes the truth gets buried with the dead.”

I thought about Stick. “Sometimes it’s better that way.”

“This ain’t one of them times. I done some askin’ on my own, boy. I got some answers you ain’t going to like.”

I can read Mama pretty well. When she lowers her voice and leans in toward me, I know to expect Eldritch Wisdom wrought from her dealings with things Mystical and Arcane.

“This involves portents and signs, doesn’t it?”

“There’s worse things than tellin’ lies afoot, boy. There’s killin’. And a powerful want to kill.”

“Throw in some vengeance from beyond the grave and I’m sold.”

“Ain’t about vengeance, boy. At least folks might have a reason for wantin’ that. Ain’t no reason here.”

“That part I believe.”

Mama snorted. “Boy, I’m telling you plain that Granny ain’t a fake. That means you are dealing with a dead man.”

“A dead man who’s so far lied about everything but the money.”

“Why do you reckon that is, boy? Why do you reckon he’s gone to all this trouble just to find that woman, if what he said about being her husband ain’t true?”

“I don’t know. Yet.” I stood and drained my cup. “I’m going to see Granny and ask her.”

“Take this with you.”

Mama rose and rummaged around on a shelf behind her and finally produced a little cloth bag tied at the neck with a piece of dirty yellow yarn.

“You get in a tight with that there dead man’s shade, you remember you got this.”

She put it in my hand.

“Mama.”

“And if you drop that in the gutter a block from here I’ll know it,” said Mama. She shook her owl for emphasis. “Took me all night to mix that up and hex it. Now get. The Eltis sisters are comin’, any minute.”

I put the pitiful little bag in my pocket.

“Thanks, Mama. The coffee was good.”

“The advice was better. One day you’ll appreciate that.”

“I always do, Mama.”

I heard a cab slow to a halt outside, so I hurried out.

Again, Granny wasn’t home.

I didn’t sit on her porch this time. I started banging on doors. Having once been seen in Granny’s company, a couple of faces poked outside. No, they hadn’t seen Granny today. No, she didn’t keep any kind of regular hours. The first face had no idea where she might be.

The second gave me a “what, are you stupid?” look and suggested Granny might be down at the bone-yard.

Some finder I am. Where else would I look for a spook doctor but the cemetery?

Rannit’s well-heeled dead spend their eternal rewards laid out on the Hill, on the other side of the Brown River. On this side of the Brown, the lucky ones get planted at Noble Fields. Those who can’t afford a plot there wind up providing ash for the crematorium smokestacks or being interred, on a yearly paid basis, in one of the tiny, rocky cemeteries granted grudging existence by the Church. Poverty plots, they’re called.

Families who go more than seven days late on a payment wake up to find their deceased relative dumped without ceremony on their doorstep.

No one ever accused any of Rannit’s churches with being sluggard when it came to collecting their due.

I got directions to the nearest such place and headed out. It wasn’t far, and I saw Granny hobbling along just inside at the same time I saw the open cemetery gates.

There’d been a funeral there recently. The fireflowers in the gate urns hadn’t even wilted yet. The place was tiny, less than a block in any direction, and it was enclosed on all sides by buildings and a wall of scraggly hedge-bushes. The gravewards were crude affairs, some obviously homemade, all leaning in different directions. Some had fallen, and hadn’t been righted.

Here and there were open empty graves, evidence of the Church’s unflagging and doubtlessly holy efficiency in all manners fiscal.

I caught up with Granny easily. I hadn’t wanted to shout out for her, not among the dead. Mama Markhat had instilled a few manners after all.

“Granny Knot,” I said, puffing a bit. “Glad I found you here.”

Granny held her rags up to her mouth and looked carefully around to make sure we were alone.

“Good to see you as well. Do you have news for me?”

I fell into a slow amble beside her. The sky was bright and cloudless and blue. The gravewards gleamed white all around us.

“I do.” I retold Stick’s story, gave an accounting of money spent. I didn’t voice my own misgivings just yet.

“So, my shade has lied to us.”

“It seems that way, Granny.” A pair of ink black crows gazed down on us from atop a leaning, above-ground crypt and issued a chorus of ragged caws. “Any idea why he might do that?”

Granny shook her head. “None whatsoever.”

“Think you could ask him?”

“I intend to.” Granny shook her rags. “I don’t enjoy being lied to. Especially when by doing so he made me complicit in his lie.”

“Can you ask him now?”

Granny halted. We stood before a relatively new wardstone. This one had been bought, not made by a grieving but unskilled family. It bore a few words of Church, and at the very bottom, a single name.

Gorvis.

“I’m very much afraid I cannot, Mr. Markhat.” Granny scowled at the graveward. “At least, not at the moment. But I shall, I assure you. As soon as possible.”

“This is him, isn’t it?”

“First name H-O-R-A-C-E.” Granny spelled it out so the name wasn’t spoken aloud. “Yes, I believe so.”

I frowned. “You believe so?”

“Like you, Mr. Markhat, I have my resources. I employed them with the aim of learning the true name of the spirit who called himself Sellway. These-resources have provided me with a first name and led me to this spot. This is not who the spirit claimed to be. I am as surprised as you are. Possibly more so.”

Granny’s handful of rags fluttered in her hand. There wasn’t a breath of wind.

Granny whirled to face me.

“We must go, Mr. Markhat. Now!”

“Why?”

That was as much as I got out before Granny grabbed my wrist with her implacable, elderly hand and dragged me at a middling fast run away from the graveward.

We made good time down the winding path to the gate, and through it, and onto the street, before Granny halted and bent double, gasping for air.

I let her catch her breath.

“That. Was close.” She was grinning, like we’d just outrun the Watch. There was even a twinkle in her eyes.

“What was close?”

“He almost saw us there.” Granny straightened. “I’m not ready for him to know I know, just yet.”

“Who, the spook?”

“The spook, as you say. They often return to the location of their remains as they prepare to intrude upon our world. This one is no different.”

“Won’t he see us?” I could see the wardstone plain from where we stood. The hedges were not much more than sticks on the street side of the cemetery. I guessed that wagon-drivers let their ponies nibble on the foliage as they passed.

Granny shook her head. “No. Not in broad daylight, not before he has a chance to…let us say, assert himself. We are quite safe here.”

Granny turned and started marching for home, and I followed.

“So, his real name was Gorvis.” It wasn’t a name anyone had mentioned yet. Not that I was at all convinced by Granny’s fist of rags. She could easily have staged the whole scene when she saw me coming. For what purpose, I still didn’t know.

“He’s buried not far from your house, Granny. And that’s not a name you know?”

“It isn’t.” Traffic started picking up, so Granny fired up her public spook doctor act, complete with muttering and random bursts of howled laughter.

“I’m not a big believer in coincidence, Granny.”

“Nor am I.” She replied in a whisper between rants about spying spirits and groaning ghosts.

“I’m going to go out on a limb, Granny. I’m going back to Regency Avenue, and this time I’m going to ask about a man named Gorvis. If you just staged that whole, little scene back there on the spur of the moment, tell me right now, or so help me I’ll start handing out the crowns at random, on the street.”

Granny guffawed.

“You go. You ask your questions. You get down off that roof, shade of Angus Fergis!” She said the last in a screech that caused pedestrians all around us to stop and search the rooftops for spooks.

“And when you’re done, come back. You and I will have business tonight. After Curfew. You and I and a man named Gorvis. Are you willing to do that, Mr. Markhat?”

“If that’s what it takes to earn my pay.”

“I see you, shades of the Lowrey twins! I see you peepin’ in them windows!”

Granny winked.

I said my farewells and headed back to Regency Avenue.

The first thing I did after arriving at Regency was present myself to the biggest pair of Owenstall’s bullies I could find.

They knew my name, and they knew I had the blessing of the boss himself. One of them even went so far as to suggest a place or two some of the older folks might be at the moment.

Oh, what a difference a few words from Mama had made.

I thanked them and started making my rounds. This time, I wasn’t concentrating on the name Sellway, but on Gorvis.

And I wasn’t having much better luck, either. Blank looks. Shakes of the head. Frowns and creased brows and ultimately, variations on the theme of no.

I expanded my search, no longer just talking to people of a certain age and above. I talked to kids. To their parents. To their nannies, to their grannies, to their yipping poodle-dogs.

One of Owenstall’s bullies brought me a sandwich and a glass of tea sometime well after noon. He even wished me luck.

I had the blessing of the local muscle, but none whatsoever from Lady Luck. I pondered that as I chewed. I’d seated myself on a bench under the largest of the poplars that lined the avenue. It offered scant shade, but I’d learned long ago to take whatever comfort I could get.

The sandwich, at least was good. And the tea was cold and dark.

So I was more than a little annoyed when a trio of well-dressed toughs walked up to my bench and knocked my glass of tea right out of my hand.

I swallowed and put the rest of the sandwich down, lest it too be cast into the street.

“Whoa,” I said. I did not stand. I could tell from the expression of my tea-tosser that he’d just knock me down if I did. “Look, gents, you need to check in at the head office. Owenstall himself said I could ask my questions. And this sandwich and that tea were his, by the way.”

“I don’t know any Owenstall,” snarled my new friend. He made his hands into fists. “But I do know you.”

“Are you sure? Because to know me is to love me. Trite, but true. It’s my innate charm-”

I didn’t get to finish, because I was hauled to my feet by the two silent gentlemen.

I’d assumed they belonged to Owenstall because of their dress. They weren’t common street thugs. Their shoes were shined, their shirts were pressed, their trousers actually fit and someone had ironed the wrinkles out not too long ago.

I didn’t struggle. That made the third man frown. People were beginning to stop, to stare. Some even flocked out of doors to watch the show.

I knew none of them expected that. The normal procedure in most of Rannit is to turn away from trouble, lest it come and visit you.

I grinned. I was seeing something else they weren’t-namely, a half dozen of Owenstall’s boys, who were rounding the corner and coming my way, their expressions none too happy.

“You been poking around, finder. Messing in things that ain’t your business. Maybe it’s time you was taught a lesson.”

“Maybe so,” I said amiably. “But it’s not one that’s going to be taught by you. Now here’s what’s going to happen. Your boyfriends here are going to let me go. You’re going to buy me another glass of tea. And then we’re all going to sit down and talk about who sent you, and why they sent you.”

The man cursed and drew back a fist, and I was wondering if I should have kept talking for just an instant more when Bolton himself stepped right up into my new friend’s face and slapped him, hard, right across his mouth.

The man blanched. But then Owenstall’s boys were on him, and on the two pinning my arms behind my back, and after a very brief scuffle I was free and facing tea-tosser from a very different perspective.

Bolton slapped him again, from the other side.

“You come into my neighborhood?”

Slap.

“You start shaking down people on my street?”

Slap.

“You think you can walk in here and start pushing people and nobody pushes back?”

Slap.

It took two slaps for the man’s face to go from fury to fear. He looked to his companions, but they weren’t displaying any heroics.

“You all right, Mr. Markhat?”

Slap.

“I’m peachy,” I said. “Do you know this gentleman, or his friends?”

Bolton snorted. “Sure I do. This here is Mr. Corpse. His friends are Mr. Fishbait and Mr. Hogfeed. You don’t need to worry about them bothering you again. Unless you get a line snagged on this one’s torso when you’re out fishing in the Shallows.”

All three men blanched. Bolton was convincing. Even I wasn’t sure he was bluffing.

I frowned. “I don’t know. Dismemberment seems a little harsh for the loss of a beverage. Maybe they’re willing to make amends. What about it, gentlemen? Have you seen the error of your wicked, sinful ways? Are you filled with a burning desire to rejoin polite society as helpful, productive citizens?”

Bolton grinned and produced a very long, very sharp knife. “Or would you rather be gutted and dumped in the Brown?”

There was dried blood plain in the gap between blade and hilt. It wasn’t that old.

All three men professed repentance, and we were off to Owenstall’s office.

I finished my sandwich on the way.

The three men who’d accosted me and abused my tea were named Argis, Florint and Wert. Wert was the leader.

And Wert was a very nervous man. It was cool in Owenstall’s well-appointed office. But from the amount of sweat pouring off Wert, you’d have thought he stood on a sunlit gallows, and in a way I suppose, he did just that. I almost felt sorry for the man.

Even seated like civilized beings in Owenstall’s luxurious office, it was clear that Bolton and his well-used knife were not just possible outcomes but probable ones.

Owenstall himself joined us, after a while. Bolton made introductions, and laid out the events of the day. Owenstall nodded, seated himself, and let out a heavy sigh.

“I ain’t gonna waste all day on you three road apples,” he began. “I’m going to ask this one time. Who sent you down here, and why?”

He asked it in a quiet voice. He didn’t make a single threat.

He didn’t have to.

Argis and Florint gave Wert a pair of frantic looks. Wert raised his hands in surrender.

“We work for Burnsey Mays,” he said. “And we didn’t mean any disrespect to you. We came to see him.” He jerked a thumb at me. “He doesn’t even live here. We didn’t think-”

“No. You didn’t think. ’Cause if you had thought, you’d have thought ‘Maybe I shouldn’t go making a ruckus in Mr. Owenstall’s neighborhood. Maybe making Mr. Owenstall angry is not a good idea.’ That’s what you would have thought. And you’d have been right. Who is Burnsey Mays?”

Wert mopped sweat. “Mr. Mays owns the Stig River Runners,” he said. “Stig River? They run payroll, mail convoys. Out West. Were big during the War?”

I frowned. Owenstall frowned. His men exchanged what-the-Hell looks.

I said what they were thinking.

“Why would an outfit that guards payroll stages and mail wagons send you three down here to give me fresh bruises?”

Wert gobbled and spat out a series of uhs and wells. Owenstall’s face went dark.

“I ain’t believin’ a word of that.”

For the first time since meeting him, I heard death clear in his voice.

“Wait a minute. Wait a damned minute!” It was Argis, the youngest of the three, who spoke.

“I was willing to risk my job over this foolishness, Wert, but I am not going to get killed over it.”

“Shut up,” growled Wert. “They’re bluffing.”

“Like Hell they are. Burnsey Mays didn’t send us anywhere. Yeah, we work for him, but he’s got no idea we’re here. It was his daughter what put us up to this, and I told you it was a fool thing to do.”

Owenstall gave me the smallest of nods.

“What’s her name?” I asked before Wert could speak. “The daughter. Her name.”

Argis faced me. “Natalie. Natalie Mays. She rounded us up this morning and showed us that waybill you plastered all around town. Said for us to find you and see what you knew and then…and then beat you ’til you didn’t care to poke around anymore.”

Owenstall grinned. “You know this Mays woman, finder?”

“Not yet,” I said. “Now, Argis. Why would your boss’s daughter send you down here to ruin my day? What have I ever done to her?”

The one named Florint saw the lay of the land and decided to chime in, lest he be numbered with the fish bait when pardons were being handed out.

“She didn’t talk like she knew you. She just showed us the waybill, said to find you.”

The waybill.

“Any of you boys know a Marris Sellway?”

Blank looks and shakes from Argis and Florint. Stupid defiance from Wert.

“That’s very helpful, gentlemen. Very helpful indeed. So. I’m in a generous mood. I might even be willing to intercede on your behalf with Mr. Owenstall here.” I turned to face the grinning force behind Law and Order on Regency Avenue.

“What say you, sir? Shall we spare these miserable urchins their lives, or feed a few of the Brown’s less discriminating catfish?”

Owenstall shrugged. “I’ll let that be up to you, finder. As long as you mention all this to Mama.”

“Deal,” I said. “I wonder if I might ask one small favor of you?”

“Ask.”

“Let’s say you’ve got a nice, sturdy room somewhere. A room without windows. A room that muffles shouts for help, screams of agony, pleas for mercy, that sort of thing.”

Owenstall pretended to ponder this. “I might.”

“Would it be too much to ask to have these three worthies deposited therein, for, say, two full days? Just as guests, mind you. Fed once a day. Food served with tea.”

Instant protests arose from the three worthies, but Bolton showed his knife again, and they fell into a defeated silence.

“Two full days? I think we can do that. Bolton. See to it.”

And that was that. Bolton led them out, and soon Owenstall and I were alone.

“You are a source of vexation for many, finder,” offered Owenstall.

“Nature of the business.”

He nodded. “This ought to make us even, you think?”

“More than even. Way I see it, I’m in your debt now, and then some.”

That’s always the right answer, when you’re speaking to a man who can impart life or death on a word and whim.

We parted friends. I hurried out, looking for a cab. It was time I made the acquaintance of Natalie Mays.

Chapter Four

I took a cab down to Rannit’s shiny new business district and hopped out in the middle of Arson Street. I knew it was named for a War hero, but I looked up at all the tall, new buildings and hoped nobody took the name as a suggestion rather than an homage.

I’d heard of the Stig River Runners. They’d made a name for themselves during the War, and they’d maintained it throughout the peace. I guess getting stagecoaches from Rannit to the depths of the Frontier was basically the same enterprise whether you were fending off Troll raiding parties or gangs of bandits on stolen Army horses.

I had no idea where their offices might be. I had no idea whether this Natalie Mays would be anywhere near her father’s office. I had basically no idea what I was going to say even if I found her.

Sometimes you just have to let the situation determine these trivial details. And I did have three items I could at least try to use as leverage. I hoped they were enjoying the hospitality of Owenstall’s windowless room.

All that badmouthing the outlands do about Rannit being filled with stuck-up city folk is nonsense. I found any number of passersby eager to help a stranger find Stig River’s main office.

I whistled. The building was ten stories tall. There was apparently more money to be made guarding stagecoaches than I’d ever imagined.

The doors were huge blood-oak slabs done up in carvings that featured riders and stages and the crossed whip and sword sigil of the Stig River Runners. Inside was a big marble floor and a desk the size of a small house and an honest-to-angels babbling brook that made soothing, bubbling liquid noises all through the place.

There was a woman seated behind the desk. She was tiny and blonde and smiling a practiced, professional smile. She didn’t let it dim or waver just because it was aimed at the likes of me.

I smiled back. The babbling brook made happy noises, so I spoke over them.

“Good afternoon,” I said. “I know I’m coming at a bad time, but it’s important that I speak to Natalie, right away.”

The blonde’s smile vanished. My heart skipped a beat.

“Oh no. Is this about the floral arrangements? Don’t tell me they’re really out of blue fireflowers.”

I nodded gravely. “They say they may be able to get some in time, but they won’t be royal blue-more an azure. Oh, and there’s a problem with the seating too. Could you help-”

I didn’t have to finish, which is a good thing, because I’d run out of lies to spin. But it had worked-the blonde raised a finger, yanked at something, and then raised a speaking tube to her lips and spoke urgently into it.

“Please have a seat, Mr. Simmons. Natalie will be right with you.”

I smiled. It was genuine. She smiled back, and it was too.

“Thank you, Miss…” I said. I inserted a careful, questioning silence after the Miss.

“Miss Hawthorne,” she replied. “Miss April Hawthorne.”

I winked and took a leather-bound chair close to the indoor brook. I could have dipped my toes in the stream, were I inclined to part with my shoes.

There were murals on the walls. All depicted the company’s more famous exploits during the War. None were half as interesting as the way Miss Hawthorne looked at me with that impish little half-smile.

We’d done a lot of not talking, Miss Hawthorne and I, before I heard feet upon a distant stair and a polished oak door opened, and a second young woman stepped into the room.

I stood. My smile was broad and civil.

“Good afternoon, Miss Mays,” I said.

“April? Where is Mr. Simmons?”

I took the waybill from my pocket and unfolded it. Miss Mays looked from April to me and to the waybill and the blood drained out of her face.

“Mr. Simmons sends his regrets. But I think you’ll want to hear what I have to say anyway. Shall we sit?”

The girl was terrified. She didn’t know my face, but she knew damned well what that waybill meant, and she knew she’d sent her three henchmen into something that had gone horribly wrong.

She knew I was trouble. But here I was, smiling and offering to sit down more or less in public. She wavered between bolting back upstairs or screaming for help, but she finally hid her look of shock and took a seat beside me.

April looked on, confused. I reassured her with a grin and a nod and folded the waybill and sat down myself, turning to face Miss Mays.

She was all of eighteen. She was brown-haired and blue-eyed and pretty. Maybe not so experienced at not talking as Miss Hawthorne, but give her credit, she was looking me in the eye and she wasn’t tearing up or biting her lip to keep it from trembling.

“You know who I am,” I said. I was whispering, barely audible above the helpful babbling brook. “Markhat. The finder. I wanted to come around myself and thank you for sending Argis and Wert and Florint around to see me.”

She swallowed, but wisely said nothing.

“Now, I have to think that your father doesn’t know you’re using his employees as unskilled labor,” I said. “And I also have to think he’s not going to be happy when they don’t show up for work again.”

She blinked at that. I kept smiling.

“So, what’s the occasion, Miss? A wedding?”

“What?”

“Miss Hawthorne there mentioned a floral arrangement. You’re wearing an engagement ring. I assume you’re getting married?”

She struggled to keep her voice level. “In just a few days. On St. Ontis Day.”

I nodded. “A fine choice. My congratulations. Now then, what is it about my waybill that led you to send you friends out to greet me?”

I let her stew a moment.

I sighed. “You’re in over your head, Miss. You sent three of Father’s best to issue a beat-down to a licensed finder. They’re among the missing. What if I file a complaint with the Watch? What if I hire a lawyer and file a suit? Be a shame to postpone the wedding, wouldn’t it? Especially for something so deliciously scandalous. Why, I’ll bet dear old Father doesn’t have a clue what you’ve been up to. Does he?”

“Are they dead?”

“You don’t get to ask any questions until you’ve answered mine. Next time I ask it will be down at the Watchhouse on the Square. And after that, you won’t have time to worry about the scarcity of blue fireflowers, Miss. Last chance.”

Her eyes blazed. But she weighed her options.

“There’s only one person who might be looking for Marris Sellway,” she said, so low I could barely hear her. “If you’re his man, screw you. Go get the Watch. Go get a lawyer. Go get them and go to Hell.”

She stood up. I had to admire the way she saw a world of hurt coming but spit in its eye anyway.

“April,” she said. “Call Father.”

I shook my head. “Whoa, young lady. You’ve got me all wrong. I was hired by an old woman named Granny Knot. She brought me a bagful of money and said she wanted it to go to Marris Sellway. That’s who I’m working for. That’s what I was hired to do. That, and nothing else.”

“April. Wait.”

“I’m telling the truth, Miss. I’m not out to hurt anyone. Not you.” I went out on that limb made famous in the proverb. “And not your mother.”

Her face fell. I was right.

“Why don’t you go by Doris anymore?”

“Because of him,” she replied.

“Him?”

Natalie, formerly Doris, glanced furtively around. “He started the fires on Cawling. And I’m sure he killed my father. And if you’re working for him now, and you tell him who we are and where we are, he’ll kill us both. Mother and me.”

“Nobody is going to kill anybody, Miss. And look, this is going to sound crazy, but the man I’m supposedly working for is dead.”

“Dead?”

I sighed. “Like I said, it sounds crazy. A spook doctor came to me. Claimed she came on behalf of a ghost.”

Natalie laughed. It wasn’t a normal laugh, but a release of pent-up terror, and April gave us both the eye from across the room.

“Was this man’s name Gorvis, Miss?”

She shook her head. “He called himself Connors back then. But he liked to brag that he was wanted, so that probably wasn’t his name.” She shivered. “I know they said Father died in that riot, but I never believed it. Father wasn’t stupid. He wouldn’t have gotten in the middle of a thing like that.”

I nodded. “A few questions. First, why did you turn Wert and the boys loose on me?”

She bit her lip. “My wedding is next week. I don’t want…my fiancee doesn’t know- When I saw that waybill, well… I thought maybe you’d go away, if…”

“If I got a good beating and a stern warning.”

“Are they…?”

“They’re fine. Not a bruise on them. They’ll be back around looking sheepish in a day or two, I promise.” At least I hoped so. Though I doubted any of Owenstall’s boys would just beat them for the sport of it. “Your mother know about any of this?”

She shook her head an emphatic no. “She thinks I’ve forgotten all about Cawling Street,” she said. “It makes her happy, believing that. So I let her. But. I’ve always known that…man would show back up, Mr. Markhat. I’ve been watching.”

She was pretty. Dark-haired and fair-featured. Her eyes looked older than eighteen, and I guess maybe they were, at least in experience.

“All right. Miss. Like I said, I’m not here to bring you or your family any grief. I’m not going to tell anyone that we’ve spoken, tell anyone your name. It may be that I need to talk to you again. If that’s true, I’ll come back here. I won’t ask you to meet me anywhere else. Got it?”

She nodded.

“Now comes the tough part. I need to know exactly what happened back on Cawling Street. I need as much detail as you can remember. Especially about the man Connors.”

Her face went pale.

“April,” she said. “Could you send for a pitcher of tea and two glasses?”

And then she put her hands in her lap and took me back to Cawling Street.

It was still bright and sunny when I left Stig River’s offices and set back out for home. Normally, I’d have been smiling.

But Natalie’s recounting had erased any vestige of a smile.

Connors or Gorvis, by any name, was a monstrous piece of work. He’d set his eyes on Marris Sellway, and from that moment no one in the family had known any peace.

Natalie was convinced Connors had stabbed her father. If her story about Connors showing up the next day and catching her in a headlock and whispering a description of her father’s death throes in her ear was true, I was willing to believe it too.

Connors even had the Bloods cowed. He paid no protection. They gave him wide berth and showed him complete deference, though outnumbering him an easy twenty to one.

According to Natalie, Connors had gone house-to-house, kicking in doors and searching for Marris, after she hid from him one day. And when he hadn’t found her, he simply started setting fires.

And still, no one had raised a hand against him.

I stomped my way out of the shiny, new business district and took a wandering route towards home.

The man had burned an entire street nearly to the ground. Not once, but twice. And no one could work up the courage to steal up behind him with a brick in hand?

Marris had finally fled with Doris, literally hiding in the rolling clouds of smoke from the second fire. Homeless and penniless, she had somehow avoided the fate that would usually have resulted from such a flight. Instead, she’d taken on another name, found work, found a husband, found a life.

Until now.

I thought about the nature of a man willing to burn down dozens of homes just to make a point to a woman who’d spurned his every advance. I thought about what kind of monster could murder a kid’s father one day and brag about it to the grieving child the next.

Mostly, though, I thought about being used by such a man under the pretense of speaking from beyond the grave.

I wasn’t sure where Granny Knot fit into all this. Maybe she was out and out feeding me the whole line of bull and was being paid for her troubles. Maybe she was somehow being duped into thinking she was speaking with a dead man.

But either way, I’d nearly led a monster to an innocent woman’s door.

It was the bag of coin, of course. I’d been so distracted by that I hadn’t focused on anything else. And that, I decided, was planned as well. I was supposed to be convinced Connors was dead, simply because I couldn’t imagine someone alive letting that much coin slip out of their hands.

At the corner of Maddon and Vent, I paused. Right would lead me to Granny Knot’s. Left would lead me back home.

I squinted at the sun and estimated my walking times. I decided I could just make it home, and then head to Granny’s. I was feeling distinctly unarmed, and while most of the time I don’t feel a need to haul around the implements of mayhem, that afternoon was shaping up to be different.

So left I went, at a brisk pace.

Dead man or not, somebody was going to feel the weighted end of my head-knocker, and bloody well soon.

I was trying to decide whether Granny was duped or dastard when I marched onto Cambrit and passed Mama’s and saw the carriage pulled up right at my door.

I slowed, put my hands in my pockets, lapsed into an amble. I was half-fearing Mama would pop out and shriek my name, but I heard voices inside and knew she had a client.

The carriage was new. It was fancy, too, with rubber-covered wheels and bright steel springs and a shine that would do a funeral wagon proud. And there, on the back, was the logo of the Stig River Runners.

I came up even with the cab, peeked inside. A woman sat there, about my age, clad in an uptown hoop skirt and a hat that someone had festooned with gauze and flowers.

She glared at me and yanked the curtains shut before tapping on the roof of the cab.

“We might as well go, Summers,” she said. “Make the block one more time.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You looking for Markhat, the finder?” I asked.

“None of your damned business,” said Summers. He even swatted the air a foot in front of my face with his whip.

I shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

And the cab pulled away.

I waved and waited until it was out of sight before unlocking my door.

Three-leg Cat was on my desk, complaining about his feeding arrangements. I poured him out some dry food in my room in the back, found places for my Army knife and short head knocker, and settled back, waiting for the cab to make the block.

It didn’t take long. I heard it pull back to the curb outside, heard the door open, heard dainty boots scrape the sidewalk.

And then came the knock.

I rose and opened the door. The woman frowned at me.

“Please, come in,” I said, to her. “Summers, you’ll wait there.”

She stood there for a moment.

“I’m Markhat. The finder. Won’t you come in?”

“You are a very rude man, Mr. Markhat.”

I nodded. “My mother weeps herself to sleep some nights. I have a chair. Please sit in it.”

She came in. Summers glared at me over his shoulder, so I gave him a cheery wave as I shut the door.

“Let me guess,” I said. “Your name is Eva Mays. These days, anyway. Not so many years ago it was Marris Sellway. Your daughter Natalie is getting married next week. Natalie is a prettier name than Doris. And that paper in your hand is one of my waybills. Any of that right?”

She paled. I realized I was being an ass.

“Calm down, Mrs. Mays. I’m occasionally rude, but I’m not a villain. I have no intention of revealing your past to anyone. I especially won’t be mentioning Cawling Street to a thug named Connors.”

She gulped air. Whatever story she’d concocted on her way over here was falling apart before her eyes.

“I was hired to find a Miss Marris Sellway under the pretense of handing her a large sum in pre-War coins. But I’ll tell you plain, Mrs. Mays, that I don’t plan on fulfilling my charge. If this Connors character is trying to find out where you are and who you are, he won’t be doing it through me. I quit.”

She gave up trying to come up with a workable lie.

“Connors is dead,” she said, after a moment. Her voice still shook. “He died six months ago.”

I shook my head. “Maybe that’s what he wants people to think. But if that’s true, then I was hired by his ghost. And I’m not a big believer in ghosts with bags of crowns.”

She looked for words but failed to find them. I gave her a moment.

Mrs. Mays, aka Marris Sellway, was pretty enough, in a slightly overfed way. Her daughter had her eyes and nose. I assumed the chin and the widow’s peak were her father’s.

Mrs. Mays wore more rings than a pirate and that necklace alone would send a mere three hundred crowns back into its bag in abject shame.

I laid it all out for her, from Granny Knot to Owenstall. I did fail to mention her daughter’s attempt to have me beaten, or our talk downtown. No need to drag any family secrets out into the sun.

“So, here you are. I’ve found you. And if I have, he can too.”

She shook her head. “He’s dead. I’m sure of it.”

I nodded, made sure my voice was soft. “Unless you killed him yourself, Mrs. Mays, I don’t think you can be absolutely sure of anything.”

She shook. She had to bite her lip for a moment.

“I saw the body. I watched them put it in the ground.”

“This is important, Mrs. Mays. Where did the burial take place?”

“One of the poverty cemeteries. Elfend? Elways? Elfway. Yes. I remember.”

“And the name on the wardstone?”

“Gorvis.” She spat the word, as though it reeked of something foul. “Bastard.”

A literal shiver went down my spine.

In my tiny room behind my office, Three-leg Cat began to spit and hiss and then make that throaty feline growl he only made when feral dogs were outside.

I didn’t hear any dogs.

The air got cold. Mrs. Mays’s eyes got wide. Her breath steamed as though we were standing outside at Yule.

I didn’t see anything. There was Mrs. Mays, in my chair. There was my desk, a slew of crumbs from my breakfast thrown into sudden high relief by the slanting afternoon sun. There was me, my door, the door behind me. But the woman seated across from me was going pale. Her eyes were wide, and she was seeing something behind me that I know just wasn’t there.

Mrs. Mays leaped to her feet. I did the same.

And then her hands flew to her throat, and I could see and hear her choking.

I rushed around the desk and took her by her shoulders. Her mouth was open and working, but she couldn’t make a sound. I took her hands in mine and pried them away from her neck, but she continued to shake and stare and wordlessly beg for help.

My right hand darted into my pocket. I felt Mama’s hex bag, and I took it out and I yanked the yellow yarn from around the neck of it, and I shook the contents of the bag right out on her fruit-encrusted hat.

She screamed. She screamed and backed herself hard into a corner, and she kept screaming.

The glass pane set in my door shattered, sending slivers of glass tinkling out onto the street.

Three-leg Cat went berserk. Summers yelled something incomprehensible, and I heard him land heavily on the street and then charge my door. Mama Hog yelled from her door, and I heard it slam just as Summers barged in to my office, a shortsword in one hand and his pony whip in the other.

He took one look at Mrs. Mays and took a slice at me with his blade. If he’d served in the Army, it hadn’t been with the infantry, because he dived in with a clumsy overhanded swing aimed more or less at the top of my favorite head. I grabbed my chair and let him have the legs of it hard in his gut. His blade clattered off the high chair back, and I shoved and swept his legs out from under him and sat down hard on his fool back.

Mama charged in and kicked the sword away and then kicked Summers in the face for good measure.

Mrs. Mays finally stopped screaming.

“Boy,” said Mama, “what in Hell’s name is goin’ on in here?”

“I hope you can tell me,” I said. “See to the lady. I’ll handle Summers here.” I grabbed an ear and yanked. “Listen, you. I never laid a hand on her. So if you take another whack at me I’m going to put you down, and put you down hard. Tell him, Mrs. Mays. Tell him I wasn’t the one hurting you.”

Mrs. Mays managed a nod. Her fingers were probing her neck, which was beginning to show red marks as if she’d just been choked.

“He-he was trying to help, Summers,” she said.

Summers cussed and wiggled, and I damn near pulled his ear off.

“You better listen to the lady,” I growled. “I’m not in a good mood.”

“Summers. He’s telling the truth. He didn’t touch me. Quite the opposite. Behave.”

At least he quit struggling.

Mama glared at me, opened her mouth, then clamped it shut. Out came her dried owl. She shook it twice at Mrs. Mays, who was covered in the powder from the bag.

“You opened the hex bag.”

“I did.”

Mama frowned, waved her owl. “Why’d you pour it out?”

“What the Hell was I supposed to do with it? Make tea?”

Mama stomped around Mrs. Mays, who regarded her warily before giving me a questioning glance.

“Mrs. Mays, meet Mama Hog,” I said. “Mama, Mrs. Mays.” I sat up. “You all know my good friend Summers here.”

Summers rolled over and rose to his feet, but wisely found a corner and folded his arms across his chest and settled on glaring at the floor as an outlet for his wounded pride.

“We were talking, Mama. About you-know-who. Then the room got cold, and Mrs. Mays here had trouble breathing.”

“There were hands,” said Mrs. Mays. She brushed hex dust off her shoulders and shook it off her hat. “Hands around my throat. I could feel them.”

“I couldn’t see or feel anything. I dumped your hex bag out on her, and my glass shattered, and the Hero of Cambrit Street over there charged in here and tried to stick me. Which was actually brave of him, even if I was the intended party.”

Summers grunted.

“So, what about it, Mama? Your owl find anything sorcerous floating around?”

“Hush.”

Mama wandered about, mumbling and shaking her owl. I couldn’t help but think she was putting on a show for the woman in the fancy necklace wearing the expensive clothes.

Another dried bird popped out, this one a finch even more ragged than the owl. Mama held a long, whispered conversation with them, and then she walked to the door and repeated her performance just outside.

I managed to get Mrs. Mays back into a chair. Summers stood protectively by her. We were becoming fast friends. He only glared at me when he touched his ear.

Mama came stomping back in.

“Boy. You got to get these people out of here right now.”

Mrs. Mays looked up at me.

“I mean right now, boy. Right now.”

“Out,” I said. “Mama is the closest thing to a wand-waver I’ve got. If she says get out, we’re all getting out. Mama, the lady’s carriage-safe or not?”

“Leave it where it sits. He knows it, might follow it. You all got to go.” Mama grabbed Mrs. Mays’s sleeve and yanked her out of her chair and dragged her protesting body toward my door. I saw Summers tense up. I snatched up his sword and poked him in the small of the back with the sharp end.

“Mind your manners.”

And outside we went.

Mama made for her place at a run. She let go of Mrs. Mays, but whatever she’d been muttering must have had some effect because the plump woman was outpacing her.

I flipped Summers’s sword around and handed it hilt-first to him and made for Mama’s. If he didn’t want to follow I wasn’t going to herd him. But we all piled into Mama’s tiny potion shop at about the same time.

Everyone started talking at once. Mama shushed us and started rummaging through drawers and opening jars and screeching long, strange words that made the hairs on my arms stand up. She concluded her brief fit by throwing a handful of dust into the air and giving her door a thorough shake of her dead owl.

Then she collapsed into her card-reading chair and looked up at me with weary Hog eyes.

“I done what I could, boy. Reckon the rest is up to you.”

Mrs. Mays and Summers both started yelling. Mama and I ignored them.

“What exactly did you do, Mama, and why?”

“I reckon I fixed it where that haint can’t follow you or them two. Leastways not for a while.”

“So you’re saying we just had a visit from-”

“Don’t say his name, boy, what I done weren’t that good. I ain’t no spook doctor.”

Our companions fell silent, listening and glaring.

I leaned against the only bare spot on Mama’s sooty wall.

“Mrs. Mays, even if I don’t believe in vengeful ghosts, it may be that sorcery is involved here. Did you-know-who have any connections to anyone with that kind of talent?”

She shook her head no. “None that I know of. But I suppose he could have hired one.”

Freelance sorcery is illegal in post-War Rannit. Not that the law stops private practitioners, although it cheerfully hangs them if they make nuisances of themselves.

“Boy. That weren’t no wand-wavin’. That was a haint. Come to do this lady harm.”

“Sure, Mama.” Sorcery or spook, one thing was clear-everything led back to a wardstone that bore the name Gorvis.

And even a sorcerous working would need a focus. Something solid, material, to act as an anchor.

Or a trigger.

The bag of coins and Marris Sellway. In the same room.

I cussed.

Everyone gave me the eye.

“Sorry. I’ve had an epiphany. Mrs. Sellway, we need to get you out of here. But if I’m right, this isn’t just going to go away on its own. If I send word for you to be at a certain place at a certain time, even if it’s after Curfew and in a bad part of town, can I count on you to show up?”

“Now wait just a damned minute.” Summers put himself in front of Mrs. Sellway.

“You can bring General Summers here. And as many others as you can trust to keep their mouths shut and do what I say.”

Mrs. Sellway knew what the certain time and the certain place were likely to be.

“How many?”

“Five. Ten. A hundred, if you can get them. As long as they know I’m running the show.”

I was hoping she could manage a dozen. Making a scene after Curfew in a poor neighborhood was going to be like ringing a big, silver dinner bell for any halfdead out for a snack. It’s one thing to slip down to Eddie’s after dark for a quiet beer and a sandwich, but if I was going to raise a ruckus I wanted an army at my back.

And raising a ruckus was the order of the day.

Summers snorted. “I reckon you’re aiming to put this here ghost back in the dirt. How much that gonna cost her, Mr. Markhat? Look me in the eye and tell me how much.”

“Not a copper. I’m not doing this for show. Something has taken a swipe at someone sitting in my office. They’ve broken my window and upset my cat. I won’t have it. Mrs. Sellway, go home. Make sure you keep your daughter in sight. Don’t say certain names, round up men you can trust and wait. Can you do that?”

She nodded. The marks on her throat were plainly visible now. Some of the red was going purple.

Summers opened his mouth to say something, but Mrs. Sellway cut him off. “Get us a cab, Summers.”

He stomped out, giving me a good hard glare the whole time.

Mama appeared with a clean, white china cup steaming in her hand. She offered it to Mrs. Sellway, who took it but did not raise it to her lips.

Mama laughed. “It’s clean. Just tea. With some honey and chamomile. Your throat’s goin’ to be needin’ both before long.”

Mrs. Sellway sipped.

“He burned Cawling Street,” she said, after a moment. “Twice. All because I wouldn’t come out into the street when he called.”

“Somebody ought to have put him down,” muttered Mama.

Mrs. Sellway nodded. “They ought to have. But no one did. He was a monster, you know. Not just a bad man. Not just an angry man. You could feel it. He wanted to hurt you. Even strangers, children, animals. Anything that lived, it-offended him, somehow.”

I’d known a man like that, during the War. Even the officers were afraid of him.

Until one night someone emptied an oil lamp on his tent and set it ablaze while he slept. Not a soul had moved to aid him as he burned. I’d watched too. But I hadn’t lifted a finger to help.

“Whatever it is, Mrs. Sellway, it gets put down tonight. I promise you that.”

She shuddered. “Do you think Natalie-my daughter-is in danger too?”

“Not yet. Not ever, if we do this right.”

Summers stuck his head back through Mama’s door.

“Got a cab, ma’am.”

Mrs. Sellway rose and thanked Mama for the tea. She adjusted the collar on her high-necked dress to hide some of the marks, and then she faced me by the door.

“I will, of course, pay you your usual fees.”

“You’ll send me an invitation to your daughter’s wedding. That and nothing else. Now beat it, before Lance Corporal Summers here has a fit.”

She didn’t laugh, but at least she smiled.

“Boy,” said Mama, when we were alone, “just what have you got planned in that fool head of yours?”

“We’re going to a funeral, Mama. Better knock the moths off your best black dress.”

Mama scowled and set about gathering a bagful of her most potent dead birds.

Chapter Five

The undertaker’s parlor smelled of fireflowers, cinnamon and half a dozen kinds of particularly pungent incense.

And something else, of course. An odor so primal and familiar and so immediately and deeply disturbing that no number of imported incense-sticks could ever hope to do anything more than slightly obscure it.

If the smell of death bothered Echols, of Echols, Masey and Benlop, Morticians, he didn’t let it show.

“Good afternoon, sir,” he said in a voice that oozed a deep and sincere concern. “How may I be of assistance, in this hour of your deepest sorrow?”

We were seated in the reception room. The walls were pine stained dark to mimic oak. The floor was covered in at least three threadbare rugs, each placed to cover the holes in the one beneath it. The ceiling was warped and cracked, and at one point I could hear scrambling above as rats scurried by on urgent business of their own.

I did not want to know what those rats had last feasted upon.

“I’d like to hire a hearse-wagon and a pair of ponies for the night.”

The imperturbable Echols raised an eyebrow.

“And caskets. You have a selection here, I presume?”

“Oh, yes, sir. Finely made, I dare to add, yet priced with an eye toward consideration for the family of the deceased.”

“I’ll need one. A good one. Top of the line. Shiny, with lots of trim.”

Echols almost brightened at that, but managed to keep his enthusiasm from inducing more than the slightest reduction in the furrowing of his brow.

“One is saddened to have to ask this, sir, but nevertheless I must.” He paused dramatically, leaning in toward me. If I’d been a woman, he’d have laid his right hand gently atop mine. His big soft eyes practically welled up with heartfelt tears of abject sorrow.

“When will Sir be bringing the remains by, for final preparations?”

I grinned. “I’m right here, my good man. Shall we start by settling on a price?”

“Boy,” said Mama. “I’m tellin’ you right now I don’t like none of this.”

I grunted. The closest thing I had to a suit was my old Army parade jacket and a freshly bleached white shirt and a pair of black pants I’d managed to haggle out of Echols. I’d put a shine on my old Army doggers, and they’d have to do as fancy grave slippers.

I was more worried about my possible need for sudden mobility than actually completing the look of a well-dressed corpse.

I finally got the jacket on. Buttoning it was out of the question. Who’d have thought wool would shrink so much, hanging in my tiny closet for ten years?

“I’m the one who’ll be taking a ride in a coffin, Mama. All you’ve got to do is sit there and look bereaved.”

Mama grunted. “After Curfew.”

“Mama, I’ve seen you break Curfew a dozen times in the last month alone.”

She couldn’t argue with that.

“Still don’t hold with this funeral business.”

I shrugged. I’d already explained to Mama why I thought it was necessary.

If we were facing sorcery, that sorcery was created to respond to certain acts or situations as triggers for built-in actions. That much I knew from being in the Army.

And if something in that cemetery was lying in wait for me, I didn’t want it choking me at the gate.

But anything that hides in a cemetery is going to have to be built to ignore a few things. First among these things would be funerals.

And even if what had tried to strangle Mrs. Mays was a murderous ghost, well, I had surprises in store for it too.

“Ain’t no way Granny is mixed up in no shenanigans, boy.”

“Not knowingly. I never said she knew what was going on.”

My reasoning was this-assume the man Gorvis is so bent on getting his hands on Marris Sellway one more time that he planned all this. He had himself buried right next to Granny Knot’s stomping ground, because he’d also heard she was the real deal. He comes spooking around to her, with sob stories of lost love and guilt. He hands her a small fortune and begs her to give it to the wife he left behind.

Only the coin is tainted, either cursed or ensorcelled so that it leads him right to her.

My reasoning worked whether Gorvis had hired a sorcerer before his death to put all this in place, or whether, against my better judgment, he’d risen from the grave to do the dirty work himself.

But either way, he hadn’t counted on Granny hiring me. Or Marris having so much money of her own that three hundred crowns was something she could sneer at.

But even without the money being near her, I knew whatever was out there would eventually find her, or her daughter. And that would be partly my fault.

And that wasn’t going to happen.

So the funeral carriage, and the coffin, and my old Army jacket to boot.

That’s something else I’d learned, way back when. Never go into a battle by doing exactly what the other side expects you to do. Show them something new. Make them pause and scratch their heads and think.

Make them wonder just what it is you’re up to.

“You understand what I need you to do, Mama?”

“I ain’t daft, boy. I remember.”

“Good.” I squinted at the light seeping around Mama’s doorframe. The sun was about to sink behind the rooftops. Soon I’d need to climb into my casket and prepare for my sad, slow journey through Rannit’s empty streets.

I just hoped it wouldn’t be my last.

Mama sent word to Mrs. Mays via one of the street kids she feeds. True to her word, Mrs. Mays met us at the corner of Stricken and Pack.

I popped out of my casket long enough to do a head count.

I whistled.

Summers, arrayed in clean, black funeral finery, sat atop a white widow’s cab. Behind the widow’s cab were six road-beaten heavy transport stagecoaches, and from the number of faces I could see through the barred windows I figured she’d brought close to a hundred men.

I could have kissed her. A hundred armed men, many of them presumably vets who rode with the Stig River Runners. The halfdead usually hunted in pairs. Even vampires would find those odds daunting.

Mrs. Mays popped out of her cab and lifted her veil so she could see better. Her face was half wonder and half horror at my choice of conveyance.

I opened the lid and sat up.

Summers cussed and spat.

“Good work, Mrs. Mays. Don’t be alarmed. This is all to get us in safely. Follow, please.”

I lay back down and let the lid slam shut. Mama snapped the reins and away we went.

Mama was dressed for the event too. She wore a stovepipe hat half as tall as she was, and she had her mane of hair pulled back into a bun. Her long suit coat had tails that actually dragged the ground behind her stubby legs. We would either fool the haunts or the magics, or we’d send them hiding from all the ugly.

We’d had to stop and light the stage and carriage lanterns before we got anywhere near Elfway. I had Mama circle around a bit, since I wanted us to arrive an hour after Curfew fell. I was hoping that would reduce the number of the curious that came out to see our little show.

It didn’t. Word got around, somehow, that some bunch of daft fools was breaking Curfew to hold a funeral. The presence of the stagecoaches and Mama Hog as driver provoked more interest than I had anticipated. By the time we reached the forlorn cemetery at the bad end of Elfway, my hearse was at the head of a middling good parade.

Nothing I could do about that, though. I did worry briefly about interference by the Watch, who I knew would let a hundred-strong funeral party get themselves killed if they wanted, but who might show up to disperse a crowd of gawkers. That worry died when I saw a half-dozen round blue Watch hats buying snacks from a woman who had turned her stoop into a temporary eatery.

My hearse rattled to a halt. A couple of stout, young men from the stagecoach behind us ran past, put fresh flowers in the gate urns, and mumbled the prayers begging mercy and rest for the one about to be interred. I could hear Mama muttering words of her own, but she was peppering her utterances with far too many curse words for them to be prayers.

The cemetery gates swung open with a pair of rusty screeches. Mama snapped the reins again, and I closed my eyes as we passed the threshold, since most corpses probably aren’t eyeing their lids with any kind of intense interest.

Nothing happened. We rolled uphill.

Mama got lost once, and the stages had trouble getting turned around, but we finally reached the wardstone.

I stirred, flexed my arms, but kept my lid closed.

“Granny ain’t here,” said Mama. Her tone was worried. “That ain’t right. She said she’d be here.”

I risked a whisper. “Have a couple of the boys look around.” I didn’t have a good feeling about what they were likely to find.

Either way, spook or spell, Granny Knot was a liability, once she’d served her purpose. Because if she could talk to the dead and help them enter the world of the living, she could also send them back where they belonged. At least according to Mama.

Shouts, and Mama cussed. My heart sank.

“Found her.” Mama was worried. “They’re seein’ if she’s dead.”

“Well?”

Mama clambered down, and I heard her stomp away. Someone called for water. Someone else called for a blanket.

Mama came rushing back to stand beside the rear of the hearse.

“Ain’t dead. Yet. Took a knock to the head. Pushed down into a wardstone, I reckon.”

“Is she conscious? Can she help?”

“Just you and me, boy.”

I bit back a curse. It was getting hot in the casket and sweat was pouring off me. I was tempted, so tempted to get out, to feel cool air, to at least open the lid. If Granny had been right, if spooks had nearly as much trouble seeing the world of the living as we did the spooks themselves, the risk would be small. All anything dead, alive, or ensorcelled would likely see was a hearse and a casket and a bunch of men milling around a grave.

“Let’s get this going then.”

Mama barked orders. I heard stage doors open and shut, the clang of shovels on shovels, the voices of a hundred wary young men.

And then I began to hear the thock-thock of shovels biting into the earth, and the thud of turned earth being cast out of the way, and I silently urged them to hurry.

It didn’t take them long.

I heard the first shovel strike the buried casket. It was a wet solid sound. Being shut in a casket myself gave the sound a certain memorable quality.

They went carefully, from that point on. I could hear them working in shifts-one man would take ten digs, then leap out of the grave and be replaced. Four men stayed down that way, all of them fresh. The others ringed us, facing outward, their shovels in one hand and plain sharp swords under their coats in the other.

Mama kept me updated in whispers. The crowd remained outside the fences, hooting and drinking and setting fires in the street and generally doing the things that might attract a bevy of thirsty halfdead and thus get them killed. The Watch, as far as Mama could tell, had lingered for a bit and then vanished, apparently deciding that if a whole neighborhood wished to commit mass suicide, it was no concern of theirs.

Still, no halfdead had appeared. I knew that by the lack of agonized screaming from the street.

“They’re ready to lift it out,” said Mama.

“Go ahead.”

Mama gave the word. Men grunted. Ropes strained. Clods of wet earth fell.

There was a thud, and it was done.

I slammed the lid of my coffin back and hauled my stiff, sweat-soaked body out of the damned thing. Mama had a half dozen of Mrs. Mays’s troops haul it out of my hearse, and put it on the ground next to the one they’d just dug up.

Everyone tensed. Mama had her dried owl in a white-knuckled death grip. Mrs. Mays floated to my side, her eyes wide and wet behind her veil. Her daughter stood with her, holding her hand. Natalie met my eyes and held onto her mother for dear life.

“We’re ready, Mr. Markhat.”

I nodded. Axes flashed. The lid of the coffin put up a fight, but six months of wet earth had done its work.

There, after a moment, was the man himself.

I’d expected a bundle of sticks and hair or a complex arrangement of bones and silver threads-anything of the sort sorcerers tend to favor when they’re fashioning their wonders.

But this was just a man. A dead man, a dead man buried for six months.

There wasn’t much left. The coffin had leaked. The smell wasn’t even what I’d expected. Instead, it was more wet, rich earth than a full and awful dose of the odor from the undertaker.

I doubt even the corpse of a kindly old granny ever looks benign and peaceful. But even after six months in the ground, I could still see the hate and fury in the set of the dead man’s jaw, and the shadowed gape of his hollow eyes. His skeletal hands were on his chest, but they were clenched as if holding something, or choking it.

“I speak your name, Horace Gorvis. You have no power over me,” said Mrs. Mays. Her voice shook, but she got the words out, just like Mama had written them. I hoped they were the right words. “You never did. I said no then, and I say no now. I spoke your true name. Trouble me no more.”

“I speak your name, Horace Gorvis. Your power died when you did,” intoned her daughter. “I spoke your true name. Trouble us no more.”

“I speak your name, Horace Gorvis. You’re dead and gone and good riddance,” said Mama. “Mr. Summers, knock his damned fool head off.”

Summers lifted his shovel high and let it fall.

The air around us went cold. Dead of winter cold. Our exhalations steamed and twisted in a wind none of us could feel.

Mrs. Mays’s hands went to her throat.

“Oh, I reckon not, Horace Gorvis.” Mama stood on her tiptoes and slipped a loop of string around Mrs. Mays’s throat. A little bag, twin to the one Mama had given me, settled at the base of Mrs. Mays’s throat.

“You ain’t got no business here, Horace Gorvis. Whatever you was when you lived, all that’s over. Over and done. Now git.”

Mama reached down into the coffin and held up the man’s freshly severed head. She eyed it critically and knocked it hard twice against the wardstone. Most of the clinging hair and remaining tissue fell away.

Mama wrapped what looked like a dirty rag around the skull’s vacant eye sockets. Then she drove thick iron spikes into the spots the ears had been, and she grunted as she tore the jaw away.

“We come to bury this sorry excuse for a man,” said Mama. She chunked the skull into the new casket. “He can rest in peace or not, for all I care, but he ain’t gonna walk no more.” The jawbone followed. Teeth came loose and bounced and rattled. “May Angels fly him to his rest and all that hogwash, amen. Mr. Summers, finish him.”

“More’n happy to.”

Summers and his shovel went to work. Mama hauled the parts out as they became available, saying a few words over each one. I didn’t think the somber Echols would have approved of Mama’s hostile running eulogy one bit.

The air grew colder. Torches flickered and wavered, and a few went out. Mama handed Natalie a bag of her own when she yelped and whirled as though she too had been touched.

“Mind me, Horace Gorvis. This is for them fires what you set,” said Mama. She tossed the man’s two severed hands into the coffin and then opened a bag of what appeared to be salt and poured it over the remains.

“And this is for all them you hurt.” Another bag, this one of ash.

“And this is for Granny Knot.” A final bag, the contents wet and dark and dripping.

Out in the night, something shrieked.

Mama nodded at me. I called in the troops and had them gather around, more to block the view from the street than for any other reason. The very last thing I wanted was a sudden mob of enterprising grave robbers showing up the moment we were at home in our beds.

I called out. True to his word, Skillet scampered up, out of breath and grinning. If he’d followed my instructions, and his mere presence suggested he had, he’d carried the bag aimlessly around Rannit, keeping anything attached to it occupied while we’d dug it up.

I opened the bag and made a quick count. Skillet looked hurt. I eased his delicate feelings with a handful of perfectly good silver and sent him on his way.

The dead man’s coin was all there, aside from the few I’d spent. Mama had assured me that which remained would be enough.

“This is for my window pane, you bullying worthless spook,” I said. “Take your money. We don’t want it. I hope the winged Angels drop you on your nasty head.”

And I poured the bag of treasure out, coin by coin, onto the scattered corpse.

I heard it. We all did. A long, high, agonized scream, a scream mad with rage and fury and, finally, defeat.

The chill in the air died as the last coin joined its brothers.

Mama spat down into the casket.

“Now stay dead.”

I nodded, and shovels were replaced with bright new hammers and silver nails, and if anything remained aware inside that casket after Mama’s bags and Summers’s shovel, I almost pitied it.

Almost.

The rest was anticlimax.

Granny Knot started moaning and moving about the time we got the new coffin lowered into the grave. I had the boys scrape the bits of the former Horace Gorvis that had spilled onto the ground on top of the lid, and then we covered it with a thin layer of earth.

Next, we burned the old coffin. Mama added some of her own special items to the flames, and whatever she added made them burn high and fast and blue and hot. When the sudden inferno finally died, there was nothing, and I mean nothing, left but ashes and a handful of melted iron nails.

They went into the grave too. With so many men working, it was over before I’d had time to say much to Mrs. Mays or her daughter.

They kept watch over the proceedings though. They held one another, and I suppose they both cried a bit. Ten stalwart Runners kept them in the middle of a tight circle of swords the whole time.

I let go a sigh of relief.

“Granny any better?”

Mama’s face was blank. She does that when she has unpleasant things to say. I put my hand on her shoulder.

“I’ll get her a doctor,” I said. “Least I can do. Should have seen that coming.”

“Wasn’t your fault, boy. You put down the one what done it.”

I spoke softly. “You sure about that?”

Mama nodded an affirmative. “I ain’t got to be a spook doctor to know when Death has took his own. That one there won’t be troubling nobody never again.”

The men with the shovels stopped and leaned on them. The grave was filled in, neatly mounded.

And occupied. For good.

“I consign this evil, worthless blight on the earth to the worms and the devils,” I said, loud enough for wives and daughters and Runners and revelers to hear. “I hope they both choke on him. Amen, amen and good night.”

And that, as they say, was that.

Epilogue

I made it to Natalie’s wedding, by the way. In the pleasant company of a certain Miss April Hawthorne. I even met Mr. Mays. He thanked me for what I’d done, so I guess Mrs. Mays finally told him the truth about Cawling Street and a man named Gorvis. He sent a man around to my office the next day, and when he left, I was twenty-five crowns richer.

Natalie greeted me at the reception, but no more than that, and I was glad. The last thing I’d wish on a new bride was any remembrance of that night in the cemetery.

The day after the wedding, Mama and I set out once again for Elfway.

Mama Hog can bake a fine pan of biscuits, when she puts her mind to it. Those biscuits and that Pinford ham were filling the cab with an aroma that set my stomach growling nearly loud enough to spook the horses.

Mama laughed. “You done et two of ’em, boy. Leave a few for poor Granny.”

We were nearly there. Granny had lain insensate for three days, tended by the best doctor I could afford. Despite the doctor’s best efforts, Granny woke, got up and was showing every sign of making a full and speedy recovery.

We’d been by every day since she’d awakened. Mama took her something new each trip-so far we’d shared a chocolate cake, a plate of deviled eggs, a platter of tomato sandwiches, and now, biscuits and ham.

According to Granny, we’d done all the right things, laying Gorvis to rest like we had. She had chortled about my arrival in the coffin, which she’d said was just my way of making a grand entrance.

The cab finally rattled to a halt, and Granny Knot herself, the right side of her face still swollen and blue, met us on her stoop.

“Well, well, if it ain’t Mister Markhat his-self. Leave your funeral wagon to home, did you?”

“Hello, Granny. You’re looking spry today.”

“I look like a beat-up, old woman, son, but thank ye all the same. Ya’ll come on in. I’ve got us some coffee a brewin’.”

We went in. Granny peeked under the cloth covering Mama’s basket and grinned.

“Now that there will set a body right.”

Granny’s shack stank of something burning. No, not just any something-I knew that smell.

“Granny, why are you baking dog crap?”

“I ain’t baking it, boy. I’m makin’ candles. Grave candles, for our favorite friend’s grave.”

Mama’s eyes went hard.

“Why? He ain’t tryin’ to come back, is he?”

Granny cackled. She waved her handful of rags in triumph.

“Whatever is left of him ain’t never comin’ out of that grave. Not after what you done. But these here candles stink worse to spooks than they ever will to us. I ain’t of a mind to let bein’ knocked in the head pass without some vengeance. So I reckon if there’s a shred of Mister Big Britches left he can choke on my candles every night for a spell.”

Granny winked. “Might be a long, long spell.”

Mama nodded. “Serves him right.”

“Look what I done. Left the coffee in the kitchen.”

“I’ll get it, set yourself back down.” Mama waddled off into the next room.

“I commend you, finder,” Granny said in a whisper. The rags she clutched fell into her lap. “Your actions saved my life and well as the lives of the Sellway woman and her daughter.” She frowned. “I apologize for allowing that beast to deceive me so easily.”

“That beast had a lifetime of practice at being a two-faced bastard, Granny. You’re here eating biscuits. He’s decomposing and sniffing dog crap candles. I’d say you didn’t have a thing to apologize for.”

She smiled. Mama trundled back inside, cups in her hands, a big grin on her wide whiskery face.

“Now, Granny. Tell us how you’re a feelin’ these days.”

I opened a window, grabbed a biscuit, and headed back out into the sun. Mama and Granny gabbed. The cemetery was so close I could have thrown my biscuit right over the hedge-wall.

Marris Sellway could sleep sound, these nights. And walk the streets without fear that the next turn of a corner would put her face to face with the monster of Cawling Street.

I finished the biscuit and wiped off the crumbs and wrapped a chunk of ham in a napkin for Three-leg.

I got up. “Need to stretch my legs, Mama,” I yelled. “Be back in a bit.”

And when I walked past Horace Gorvis’s fresh new grave, I whistled a merry tune, and, like Marris Sellway, I never once looked back.