/ Language: English / Genre:sf_detective / Series: Garrett P.I.

Gilded Latten Bones

Glen Cook

About the Author Praise for the Garrett, P.I., Novels "A wild science fiction mystery that never slows down for a moment." — Midwest Book Review "Garrett, private detective, returns after too long an absence. . Cook makes this blending of fantasy with hard-boiled-detective story seem easy, which it isn't, and manages to balance the requirements of both genres superbly." — Chronicle "Cook brings a dose of gritty realism to fantasy." — Library Journal "Eminently satisfying." — Booklist

Glen Cook

Gilded Latten Bones

1

For a long time it always started with a beautiful woman at the door, sometimes in the middle of the night. That had ended. Good things do. I wasn't in that racket anymore. There was only one beautiful woman for me. She was on my side of the door already.

Tinnie Tate. Tinnie had wreaked all sorts of changes in my life.

Tinnie had the word out: Garrett, that most marvelous specimen of former Marine, was no longer one of TunFaire's serious players, however you cared to define that term. Mama Garrett's boy was now devoutly monogamous. He reserved his vast professional acumen for the benefit of the Weider brewing empire and, more importantly, for that of the Amalgamated Manufacturing Combine. The man hadn't hit the mean streets in a rat's age. Which was pleasing to many and unpopular with a much smaller crowd.

Bottom-feeders and parasites really liked the new Garrett. He was out of their lives. The reverse was true for workmen at the breweries and Amalgamated. Garrett had this habit of turning up just when some underpaid and underappreciated genius was about to enhance his income by reassigning ownership of company property.

My wondrous new life.

2

It did begin with a beautiful woman in the middle of the night-a stunning redhead bereft of any perspective other than her own. She gouged me in the ribs with a specially sharpened fingernail. "Wake up, Malsquando."

"Again? What? Are you trying to set a new record?"

"We'll work on that tomorrow night. We have another problem, now. There's somebody downstairs."

We lived in two-story quarters we had carved out of a little-used part of the Amalgamated Manufactory Annex. Something rattled down below, followed by a vague, exasperated curse.

I was awake now, my head filling with subjects I might offer for discussion once we got out of whatever this was. Like maybe the fact that this situation could not have come up had we made our nest at my house.

I was like liquid getting out of bed. Silently flowing. Not even a gurgle. I armed myself with an oaken head knocker that no amount of fussing or whining had compelled me to divorce.

Just in time.

The bedroom door opened with a faint creak. I was behind it, wound up. The villain entering carried a damped-down lantern. That cast just enough light for someone whose night vision had fully adapted. It revealed Tinnie lying there mostly uncovered and wearing nothing, apparently asleep. An impressive sight, I've got to admit.

Lucky me, I'd seen it enough not to be distracted. Much.

"There's something wrong here, Butch." The whisperer leaned in just far enough to offer the back of his mostly bald head.

I seized the day, whacked that mole. Down he went. I spun around the edge of the door-to stare down the length of twelve pounds of razor-edged steel. I couldn't imagine anybody having forged a sword that big. The eyes behind that monster did not belong to somebody in a merciful mood, nor even somebody truly sane.

Tinnie uncovered the goods, arrogantly showing off how lucky Garrett was. The eyes that knew no mercy did recognize those marvels when they saw them.

Clang! That blade brushed aside. Thump! A solid whack to the temple. Half a minute to make sure the villains didn't come back on us. Then, "Trollop."

"How's your health, big boy?" She had some clothes on, now. She had become the promise, not the literal truth.

"I had him."

"Sure, you did. Just a little insurance."

"Something to tell the grandkids about."

"Garrett. What the hell is going on? Are you into something? You promised. What are you into?"

"Nothing. When would I have the chance?" That was one of the costs of our monogamy. I had no life that didn't include Tinnie, nor should I want one as she interpreted monogamy.

Tinnie is a natural-born redhead, long on emotion and not so long on reason. Yet she did recall that our arrangement had not left me time to get involved in the sort of adventures I used to enjoy. "I'm not sure I believe you, but I'll go out on a limb and take your word."

"Bless you. I just had a marvelous idea. How about, instead of you sparking arguments by letting your imagination run wild, we ask our guests what brings them here?"

Tinnie grunted.

She can be reasonable. It just doesn't happen all that often.

3

Neither nocturnal adventurer wanted to share. Neither said a word. Tinnie set limits to how vigorously I could ask questions. She wouldn't let me get loud or messy.

She could be stubborn about stuff like that. This time she insisted on drafting a night-shift nephew to run to down the Al-Khar to collect a squad of TunFaire's self-proclaimed finest.

They responded to the Tate name.

If the boy had used mine, the tin whistles might have taken weeks. The Tates have friends in that community of people who think law and order are good for commerce. They have the kind of money that rears up on its hind legs and howls for immediate attention. The red tops nearly beat themselves to the AMC Annex, where Tinnie had us keeping house.

That was her idea of a compromise. She did not want to live in my house. I was dead set against being pulled in and converted into another drone in the Tate family hive.

"This would not have happened on Macunado Street," I observed. "They wouldn't have gotten through the door. Unless Old Bones wanted to play with them. And we'd know what it was all about already."

They say women change once they get their talons in and locked. I wouldn't presume to enter an opinion. But I am willing to admit that spending time at my place, even with the Dead Man wide awake, had been no problem for Tinnie back when we were just real good friends.

She ignored me. She was working herself up to make a deal with the minions of the law. She ignored our captives, too.

Those two would have a tale to tell their grandkids. If they got lucky, a miracle would happen, lightning would strike, and they would evade the labor gang that was their certain fate at the moment.

A tin whistle named Scithe led the red tops. Scithe was a little too appreciative of a certain redhead. Not a friend, by any means. Most lawmen don't even trust each other. But he was decent and reasonable, outside his weakness for ginger.

Scithe said, "I don't understand, Miss Tate. You're still associating with this known antisocial type."

"He's like a wart. Hard to get rid of. And he does have entertainment value. For now, though, I'd be ever so grateful if you could take these two men somewhere and ask them why they interrupted my rest."

Scithe made an unhappy noise. He considered the villains. They, only now, were getting a grasp on the bleakness of their prospects.

They hadn't struck me as drunk. Maybe they smoked something before they got what seemed like a good idea at the time.

They had to be brothers. The older one muttered, "We're screwed." The only thing either had said yet. They hadn't tried to talk their way out, using ridiculous logic and excuses, which is what these morons usually do.

"Not necessarily true, my friend," Scithe said. "As a Civil Guard officer, I'm permitted a certain amount of discretion. You could walk away from this with nothing but your bruises. If you're the stubborn sort, though, it's a safe bet you'll spend time in the Bledsoe, healing up so you can put in a few years helping reclaim the Little Dismal Swamp."

"Shit," the younger one opined, without heat. "Just kill us now."

"There ain't no easy way out, boys. You done a bad thing. What you got to decide now is how do you want to pay your debt to society."

Scithe was having fun.

His question was not meant to be answered. Neither villain tried. Both were, now, lost souls wandering a desert of despair.

Tinnie said, "They could probably get some cooperation points if they came clean right now, couldn't they, Senior Lieutenant?"

I took a closer look at Scithe. Sure enough, he was sporting senior lieutenant's pips. He was bounding up the law-and-order ladder.

The man had a knack for something besides mooning after redheads. He could get villains to keep him happy by confiding in him, urged along by his implying that he could provide something they wanted badly: a way out.

"Gentlemen, you have to give me something. I know you aren't stupid." Which was a bald-faced lie. "You know how the system works. You'll go to the Al-Khar because I can't not take you in. We have to see if you're on the wanted book for something ugly. If you have no majors there, you could walk out under your own power." In chains, headed for the swamp. "You know we do let folks go to encourage the rest of you to cooperate. So far, here, all we've got is a jimmied lock and some folks who aren't happy about getting waked up in the middle of the night. So why not tell me? What's the story?"

The elder brother thought he'd give cooperation a chance. Condemnation to the Little Dismal Swamp project amounted to a death sentence. Though some prisoners might complete their sentences, someday. None have yet but the project isn't all that old.

"We was supposed to catch the woman and take her someplace. The guy wasn't supposed to be here. If he was, we was supposed to bop him on the head and get out. With her."

That sparked interest all round. None of us expected Tinnie to be a target.

Scithe can be blisteringly obvious. "Why?"

Shrug. "We didn't get paid to ask questions."

"You did get paid?"

Tin whistles looked at me like I knew what this was all about.

"Talk to him," I grumbled. "He's the one with the answers."

Here was one now. "Forty percent. The balance on delivery."

"Let me get this straight." Scithe was having trouble getting his mind around something. "You were hired to kidnap Miss Tate."

"Ain't that what I just confessed?"

"You did. Yes." Scithe took no offense, nor did he argue, however senseless the villain's statement. "Who might be so starved for Miss Tate's company that he, or she, would enlist your assistance in arranging a date?"

Both bad boys frowned and wrestled with that. The younger one worked it out. "Jimmy Two Steps hired us."

I gave Tinnie a dirty look. I was so out of touch I didn't know who Jimmy Two Steps was. Then me and the minions of the law exchanged eyebrow lifts. They didn't know Jimmy, either.

Neither did Tinnie, who said, "I don't know anybody named Jimmy."

Mysteries. We got mysteries. We got off-the-wall mysteries.

It was the way things started. There was a smoldering hot-tie underfoot. But, Tinnie? It was usually a personable wench from the grass-is-greener side.

I told myself, "This isn't something getting started. This is just random." But even clicking my heels didn't convince me.

4

After turning up Jimmy Two Steps, the brothers gave us nothing more. A lot of clever questioning went to waste. I told Scithe, "Take these guys over to your shop. Tomorrow I'll check with my old contacts and see if somebody doesn't know where to find Two Steps."

Tinnie blistered me with a look because she was part of the subtext of what I'd said. I didn't feel the heat.

Once the brothers dropped the name they stayed busy whining about how they knew Jimmy only from drinking with him at a place called Raisin's Bookshop.

I remembered Raisin's Bookshop. It was the lowest of low-life bars. The kind of place where our night visitors would hang out. Nobody knew why it was called the Bookshop. If somebody named Raisin was ever connected with it that was so long ago nobody remembered that, either.

Scithe suggested, "Garrett, stick to your job as a security specialist. You try to pick up where you left off, you'll find out how much you don't got it anymore. Miss Tate? He's in your custody. Keep reminding him that TunFaire's Civil Guard handles these things these days."

"I will." I had no doubt that she would-often, and strongly.

My natural-born cynicism failed me. The tin whistles had been amazingly effective, lately. I took the lieutenant at his word, thinking the Guard would wrap the mess in a day or two.

"All right. Do your job. Just don't leave us twisting in the wind. Let us know why these cretins were after Tinnie. In case we need to be ready to entertain another clutch of numskulls."

Tinnie gave poor Scithe a look that made him forget he'd been happily married for years to a perfectly wonderful but ordinary woman. "I'll do that," he promised. "I'll do that for sure."

Tinnie turned on the heat in the distractions department as soon as I got back from making sure our guests had actually left the premises. "I know what you're going to say, darling."

"Which would be why a roasting holiday goose is usually better dressed than you are right now."

"I can't fool you for a minute, can I?"

No, but she could do a damned good job of diverting me, after which, to be contrary, I didn't have anything to say. I lay there and brooded till I woke up in the middle of the next morning.

5

I asked, "You recall last night?" Tinnie was trying to make breakfast. Trying hard. She wanted to do good. She had nothing else left in her arsenal of distraction. Sadly, she's much better at looking good than at cooking good.

"Yep. Yep. I remember."

Ha! Nervous. Maybe even feeling a little guilty, though the Guard's inquisitors wouldn't get her to admit that.

"The sausages aren't as bad as they look," she promised. "And the toast will be fine if you scrape it a little with your knife."

"Kip Prose has a thing for making perfect toast." I let it go, though. She had used one of the prototypes to burn this toast.

"I just wanted a normal life."

I said nothing. Let her have the argument with herself. Of course, silence is my best tactic in this sort of situation, four times out of five. I let her ramble where she liked.

She ran down. She glared at me. Then she got her second wind. "Gods damn it, Garrett! I know what you're thinking. It wasn't you that those thugs came for. It was me."

Admitting that cost her. Getting any Tate to admit being wrong about anything, even obliquely, is more rare than hens' teeth. And certainly more precious. Having one 'fess up without provocation, voluntarily, is rare beyond compare.

I soldiered on, keeping my big damned mouth shut, a skill I'm still having trouble mastering. Had I done so years ago, I could've saved myself a lot of hard knocks.

"All right! You're right! It never would have happened if I hadn't insisted that we live up here. The Dead Man would have wrapped those idiots up before they damaged the door."

They might not have come at all. Hardly anybody is stupid enough to take a chance with the Dead Man anymore. They would have caught Tinnie somewhere else. They would have made her disappear quietly.

Which they should have done anyway. Why try for her here, at night, when there was such a damned good chance that I would get involved?

They wanted me involved. Had to. Or whoever sent them did. Ha! Butch and his brother hadn't been well briefed on what to expect before they set off to capture the savage redhead.

Maybe Jimmy Two Steps hadn't had a clue, either.

That is the way I would have worked it if I was in the villain trade. I'd make Jimmy a cutout.

I put some toast and sausage down and did not gag. I took a relaxing breath, announced, "I'm going to visit Singe and the Dead Man."

Tinnie stopped rattling pots.

"Singe won't know Two Steps but her brother might."

"You told Lieutenant Scithe that you would let it alone."

"The Dead Man might have a perspective that I overlooked."

"You promised."

"I'll stop by Morley's place and see what he thinks, too." Morley Dotes is my best friend.

"Garrett, you aren't-"

"He should be able to get word out that it won't be healthy to mess with my number-one girl."

Tinnie chomped some air. That made it all about her. Further argument now would make her look petty.

Not a failing she has concerned herself with much in the past.

"Nobody is likely to come after you here, now." She has a raft of draft-age male relatives. Two were outside as we spoke, illegally armed and ready for war. "Stick to business and you'll be fine. No bad guy will ever make it as far in as the financials office."

I wasn't seeing the full picture. Tinnie way far more than normally insecure. And every word out of my mouth was one she didn't want to hear. Including, "You are supposed to be getting the books straightened out today, aren't you?"

One of the draft-age cousins, Artifice, redder in the head than Tinnie, walked in without a knock or an invitation. "There's somebody out here wants to see you, Garrett." He seemed nervous. He evaded Tinnie's basilisk stare.

I made the head knocker at home in my hand. "Duty calls, my love."

My love sent me off with the kind of language used by men in combat. Then decided to come along and see what was what.

She began showing fierce verbal skills once we stepped outside.

My sweetie isn't one hundred percent contrary. There are times when reason will take hold. Times when she will accept a valid argument without herself arguing for the sake of being difficult.

This was not going to be one of those.

For half a minute she was incapable of doing anything but sputter vile accusations.

6

A big black coach sat twenty feet from our door, just up Factory Slide, the broad street running along the northeast face of the Amalgamated manufactory and the Annex that had been thrown up during the war with Venageta. Factory Slide saw very little traffic not involved with Amalgamated.

This coach had nothing to do with the manufactory.

There was only one coach like it. It belonged to an acquaintance. I hadn't seen her in a long time. I didn't want to see her now. Especially not when Tinnie would know I was seeing her.

Belinda Contague, empress of organized crime, deadly sociopath, one-time girlfriend, briefly, and, theoretical current friend, owned that coach. And was the kind of friend you might wish you didn't have because they can complicate your life to no end.

Two armed men perched atop the black behemoth, behind a six-horse team. A brace of armed horsemen preceded it. Four more waited behind. Not a one looked pleased to see Mama Garrett's number-one son.

Though she had a few quiet shares in Amalgamated, Belinda was not here on business.

The beautiful madwoman herself opened the near side door. "Hop in, Garrett. I'll give you a ride." From the gloom inside, louder, she said, "I need to borrow him for a while, Tinnie. I won't keep him longer than I have to."

Tinnie outdid herself. For a moment I was scared there would be a skirmish between Belinda's thugs and the draft-age cousins. That would not go well for the cousins but would be bad news for the thugs in the long run. The Tates have a lot of pull.

But my honey was not as far out of control as she put on, which was often the case. She was fond of putting on the drama. This scene, though, could lead to some really unhappy reviews.

Belinda seized the day. She announced, "Someone tried to kill Morley Dotes. He's hurt bad. He may not make it. I need Garrett to help look out for him."

That fired Tinnie up all over again.

"Who is going to look out for me? It's his responsibility to look out for me. Garrett! I want. ." She went on and on.

I asked Belinda, "Is he really that bad hurt?"

She whispered. "Yes. I really don't think he'll make it." She surprised me by choking up a little as she said that. "Worse, I think there's a better than even chance that somebody might try to make sure that he doesn't."

It could be argued that the Outfit was capable of handling that without me. But if Morley was on his way out, I had no choice. He was my best friend. I had to be there.

I went back to Tinnie, took hold of her shoulders. "You're going to be all right. This is something I have to do. For my friend."

My attempts to make her understand didn't have much success.

She wasn't going to let that happen.

She was mad and she was scared and she was thoroughly accustomed to being the Tate princess who got whatever she wanted whenever she wanted it, even from me. She was the ruling goddess in her own little universe. Right now, because she was unhappy, the wants or needs of others had no meaning.

This was not the first time I had seen her this way. Talking wasn't going to do any good. Only time would have any effect.

And she couldn't get any more angry.

"I'll be back as soon as I can, darling. Midge, take good care of her."

The cousin who had not come inside nodded. Sweat fell from his forehead. He gave up a huge sigh of relief, suddenly sure that he would not have to become the first casualty in a war so small it wouldn't be noticed while it was going on.

I tried to kiss Tinnie. She wouldn't have it. I backed away. "I do love you. But you can't own me."

She managed to keep from saying something really awful.

I got in. The coach rolled before I settled the back of my lap on the plush opposite Belinda.

Time had been kind. She was as striking as ever. Her best feature was her long, glossy black hair. It accentuated her pallor and the red she used to paint her lips.

But today her hair was unkempt, stringy, in need of washing. Her complexion had gained a sickly yellow-green cast-though maybe that was the light. She did not wear any of her usual makeup, crafted to create a vampire look. And she had given little attention to her clothing.

I guessed she hadn't changed in days. She had that air.

Being an accomplished observer, I sensed that she was deeply upset. "Talk to me."

"Somebody took a run at Morley Dotes."

"You said."

Morley had been my best friend for so long that I couldn't recall when he hadn't been. Well, not before the war. But almost forever. I hadn't seen much of him lately. Tinnie didn't approve. Her disapproval was not ethnic, or social, but intellectual. Morley Dotes had the capacity to distract her special guy from what she wanted him focused on: Tinnie Tate.

I appreciated the courtesy of being informed but wondered why Belinda would involve herself in Morley's affairs. Maybe because she was the silent money behind his very successful restaurant enterprises.

"I'll tell you what I know. Three nights ago he staggered into one of our knock shops on the edge of Elf Town. He was full of holes but not so full of blood. The backstairs crew was turning out his pockets when somebody recognized him and decided to keep him alive till they tracked me down. I went there the night before last. He was six inches short of dying. I waited around but he never came to."

"What was he doing up there?" And why had she gone running to a cathouse when she heard? "Rhetorical question. Thinking out loud. I have no idea what he was up to these days. We don't get together much anymore."

"I understand. Red hair."

I doubted that she did. She had no one special in her life. She couldn't possibly know. . "My god!" Could it be? It couldn't be.

Morley's First Law is, never get involved with a woman crazier than you are. But. . There it was, between the lines. Something was going on between the Queen of Darkness and my best pal.

"What do you need from me?"

"Stay with him. Make sure nobody helps him spring any more leaks. When he comes around, find out what we need to know."

Which meant, find out who to hurt.

"All right." She was saying plenty without stating it direct. There were ears up top and she wasn't in a trusting mood. She counted on our shared experiences to convey what she wanted me to know. For example, that she couldn't count on her own people to protect a boyfriend they didn't approve. "But I have my own problem." I told her about my visit from Butch and his brother.

"Tit for tat. I'll look out for Tinnie. Any way I could get my hands on those two?"

"What for?"

"To ask if there's a connection."

Stranger connections have turned up in my life. "They're inside the Al-Khar. You could ask General Block but I don't think he'd cooperate. Go after Jimmy Two Steps."

"Two Steps?"

"That's the name they gave up. You know it?"

"I don't. But there are too many of them to keep track. TunFaire is like a dead dog and they're like flies."

"There was mention of Raisin's Bookshop."

Belinda frowned. In that light, doing that, she looked much older. "A bookstore?"

Carefully, I said, "Think back to when we met. That was one of the places."

She had been hard at work committing slow suicide in the worst dives TunFaire boasts. The Bookshop was one where I interfered with her self-destruction.

"I must've been all the way to the bottom. I don't remember it at all."

"It's bad news on wheels."

"Not part of the family enterprise?"

"It wasn't, then. I doubt there's been any reason for that to change."

"It's a place to start." She thumped the wood behind her head. "Marcus!"

A panel slid aside. A guard showed his face. "Ma'am?"

"How much longer?"

"A minute. Two, tops."

"Excellent." Of me, she asked, "Do you know a place called Fire and Ice on the north side?"

"No. I've been weaned off any such useful knowledge."

"You'll find it. Take the Grand Concourse north. Stay with it after it turns into an ordinary street. When you get close to Elf Town, ask. Somebody will know it."

"I'm going there because?"

"That's where Morley is. I don't want to move him till he can do it under his own power."

He was my pal. I ought to be all over this. But I wasn't sure I was getting the whole truth.

Belinda understood. "I'm not working you, Garrett. You take care of Morley. I'll take care of Tinnie. And her family if it's a trade dispute."

That hadn't occurred to me. There were magnates capable of such shady tactics.

The coach stopped. "We're here. You need anything up there, you tell them. They'll handle it. I'll see you as soon as I can." Before I could protest her presumption she opened the door and gave me a shove.

Belinda is one of those people whose expectations become unspoken commands.

7

I turned an ankle, not badly, when I landed on the cobblestones of Macunado Street in front of my old house. It was still my place, I just didn't live there anymore and had not been around to visit for a while.

The place had gotten a face-lift: paint and some tuck-pointing. The cracked window pane on the second floor had been replaced. There were new curtains up there. And there were planters on the front stoop with unstolen flowers in them.

The siege of law and order had become quite epic.

I stood there considering, wrestling a dread that when I went inside I would be entering a foreign country. I climbed the steps. I didn't feel the Dead Man.

I dug in my pocket for a key I wasn't carrying, then knocked my personal "I'm not here at knifepoint" knock. I waited. I examined the brickwork to the right of the door frame. The hole into the voids inside the wall had been sealed with mortar and a chip of brick. Which explained why, on a fine, warm day, I didn't have pixies swarming around me.

I'd have to get the story there. Melondie Kadare and her mob had been handy friends, if a little rowdy and unpredictable.

The door opened. The lady of the house stepped aside so I could enter.

Pular Singe had matured. She had put on a few pounds and was both better and more carefully dressed. I had nothing ready to say. "How's business?"

"There has been a slowdown. That is Director Relway's fault. But we get by. Dean is making fresh tea. Come into the office."

Her office was what we had once called the small front room, in the front of the house on the right side of the central hallway. It hadn't been used much before Singe cleaned it up and made it our bureaucratic headquarters.

"What happened to the pixies?"

"Melondie Kadare died."

"They don't live long but she wasn't that old."

"She got run over by an oxcart. She was drunk. She flew into something, bonked her head, fell down in the street. The wheel got her before anyone could drag her away. Afterward, the colony moved. I will find out where if it matters."

"It doesn't. Not right now." I settled into a chair. She had gotten some comfortable furniture in. I considered her.

Pular Singe was a ratgirl, a touch over five feet tall when she stood as upright as she could. Her sort-there are several species of ratpeople-were created by experimenting sorcerers several hundred years ago. The majority aren't very bright. They subsist at the lowest social level, doing the meanest jobs.

Singe is a freak among freaks.

She's a freak because she's a genius-not just among her own kind. She's brighter and more clever than most humans, too. So, a freak.

She scares people. Sometimes she scares me.

I adopted her, more or less, while working with her, when I realized that a dramatically fine mind would go to waste if she remained in the paws of the villainous ratmen exploiting her then. She'd been an early adolescent at the time.

Dean Creech, ancient live-in cook and housekeeper, arrived with a tray bearing tea, cups, and sandwiches. He had been generous constructing the latter. He said only, "You're looking fit."

"More exercise and less beer. It's hell." He headed back to the kitchen. I noted, "He's moving slower."

"We all are. What's the trouble?"

Singe knew I wouldn't be home if there wasn't something. That stirred her resentment. She didn't really like me walking in like I owned the place now that she was running it. But, more deeply, she did not like Tinnie telling me who my friends were and when I could see them.

I explained what had happened to me and what Belinda said had happened to Morley.

"Is there a connection?"

I shrugged. "Not logically."

"But you have no faith in the power of coincidence."

"True."

"First thing we will need to do is get Morley moved in here."

That hadn't occurred to me. I did see her reasoning. There couldn't be a safer place to stash him.

"Belinda says he's too badly hurt to move."

"You will be with him. You will know when he can take it."

I nodded.

She stared into nothing briefly, then said, "I am considering knocking out the wall between this room and your old office. Any objections?"

"Only emotionally. There are a few thousand memories haunting that room." It was the smallest in the house. I used to describe it as a broom closet with delusions.

"We will be too busy to have workmen in, anyway. The Dead Man is asleep. If you were hoping to consult him."

"I figured. He hasn't been harassing me." I surveyed some shelving she'd had installed. "That's a lot of books."

"Some days I do not have much else to do. The only call for trackers anymore comes from the Guard. They have grown so effective with their law-and-order scam that they have people turning themselves in after they have reflected on whatever seemed like a good idea after a half dozen pints. The penalties are less painful. I do some bookkeeping for Humility. I manage his investments. And yours. I study. And that is it."

I had investments? How come I didn't know about that?

Because I would have spent the money instead of investing it.

Another female doing my thinking for me.

"You are doing well with your investments."

"Especially Amalgamated?" I had a small percentage but never considered it an investment. I hadn't put money in, just me.

"Especially. But I put some of your cash into other things. You will continue to have an income stream if Amalgamated comes apart."

I wasn't paying attention. I mostly saw a ratgirl when I was with her. I didn't look for signs that she might be making sure I'd be all right if Tinnie, Amalgamated, and I had a falling out. I would get it later, though.

"I see." We had begun talking about stuff that didn't require us to confess how much we missed each other.

Dean came back. He brought his own tea and cookies. He took an empty chair. "Are you back, Mr. Garrett?"

8

I wandered around the house, cataloging changes and remembering some whens. The changes consisted of paint, new wall finishes, and new furniture.

I lugged a big mug of beer. There was a supply.

I had thought there would be. Singe was a fan.

"You haven't been bringing guests in?"

"No one but my brother, some workmen, and the Dead Man's students. Humility only comes on business since I stopped his beer privileges."

Her brother, real name Pound Humility but known on the street as John Stretch, was chieftain of the biggest ratman gang in the city. He was of a different litter so they shared only the same mother, but their relationship was surprisingly tight.

Singe said, "He just could not help being a rat. He took advantage."

"Don't piss him off. He's a handy guy to know."

"Garrett."

"I'm sorry. I can't help fussing."

"And yet you resent it so much when people do it to you."

I shrugged. Being consistent is a sign of a narrow mind.

That was the moment we first stepped into the chill of the Dead Man's room.

One small candle burned in a sconce outside the door. It didn't cast much light when I took it in. It wasn't there for that. It was meant to fire lamps when His Nibs had people in who needed the comfort of the light.

I raised the candle high. The Dead Man was right where I'd left him. Where he had been since I bought the house, seated in a massive wooden chair, looking like a badly rendered idol featuring an anthropomorphic elephant god. I said, "Cold in here."

"Yes."

"Really cold in here."

She explained the mix of spells, leased from the same supplier as those chilling the cold well in the kitchen. "Kip Prose designed the suite. It does not cost that much. It will make sure he is with us for a lot longer."

"Kip Prose. Of course. He's into sorcery, now, too?"

"No. He could not make a rock fall down if he had to use magic. He can come up with mathematical models to make spells work more efficiently, though."

The last contractions had dropped out of her speech. She was talking slower. She had begun to show a little of the ratman lisping accent.

She was nervous.

"How much is the cold costing?"

"Less than you might think. It is an investment in our future. We can keep food fresh in here, too."

I do fuss about money. Someone has to make people think a little before they empty my pockets.

I was the despair of Dean and the Dead Man, and of Singe after she helped herself to a place in my life, because I am disinclined to work any harder than necessary to avoid ending up ranting on the steps of the Chancellery in hopes somebody will be amused enough to toss a coin into my tips box.

I heard harsh talk about poorhouses as those fine business minds missed the fact that the poorhouses were shutting down. Without a war there was no need for sweatshops to make things soldiers needed.

Life, I will confess, has been generous to me. Big bags of money have wandered in just when they would be most welcome. I bought a house. I have investments that generate income enough to keep the place up and to house its occupants in comfort-though that is mostly Singe's fault.

Singe is a big part of my luck.

I got no sense that the Dead Man was remotely close to awake.

Singe asked, "You're going to do what Belinda wants?" Her crisis had passed. Contractions were back. She was an amazement. Ratpeople voice boxes aren't made for colloquial human speech.

"It's Morley, Singe. I have to."

"And Tinnie? This could poison. ."

"I have to. If she can't understand, we've both been wasting our time."

"Wow."

Yeah. I was terrified. That might be the case. Tinnie turned into a different woman once she was sure she made herself the only woman in my life.

Things men associated with the dark side of a redheaded woman became exaggerated immediately.

I will stipulate that the plus side remained as marvelous as ever.

"All right."

Singe sounded like she was having trouble believing what she heard. "Since I know you will head straight for this Ice and Fire place, I'll handle Tinnie."

I started to protest, then grinned. People don't handle Tinnie. Tinnie handles people. "Wrangle away. And good luck."

"Are we likely to make money out of this, Garrett?"

"No. This time is for love."

"That is the way you think most times. Maybe we'll get lucky this time, too."

9

Singe made sure I was armed and ready for the older, less friendly TunFaire before she let me leave. "I will pray to the human gods that the Civil Guard doesn't roust you. You aren't a good liar. They'll pat you down ten seconds after they stop you."

And my record as one of the finest subjects of the Karentine Crown would not tilt the balance away from an arrest for possession of proscribed weaponry.

Singe would not let me go with anything less. And, "Even though this does not look like a situation where we will need the Dead Man, I'll try to wake him up."

"Singe, you are a treasure."

That was a wonderful straight line. I regretted it before I finished saying it. Singe, however, confounded heaven and earth by disdaining her opportunity. "I know. I have trouble imagining how you have survived without me. Get along. No! Wait! What about your other friends?"

Symptomatic of my reduced status, I asked, "What? Who?"

"Saucerhead. Winger. Playmate. Half a dozen others."

"Oh. Them." At the moment Mama Garrett's boy didn't have much of a positive attitude toward her second favorite son. I had done so little to keep in touch. "I guess you could, like quietly, let them know there's a situation. Without mentioning what happened to Morley. But I don't think we'll be asking them to get involved."

Singe just shook her head.

I needed to get out there and make my special ratgirl happy by finding the real, missing Garrett.

10

Fire and Ice wasn't hard to find. It was a well-known establishment on the frontier of Elf Town, serving the needs of the successful working man. Meaning it wasn't quite the upscale hook shop I expected but it wasn't rodent's belly nasty, either. It was a place where shopkeepers and skilled tradesmen could relax of an evening. A throwback kind of place, actually, because it didn't make its money on volume, nor entirely on marketing its keystone service.

I expect the relaxed atmosphere was one way the house competed for scarce disposable income-much of which, these days, ends up in TunFaire's gaudy theaters.

Play-going was all the rage, in part because a man could take his wife. And the wives knew that.

I gave my name at the door. It was no shibboleth. I tried Belinda's.

There was the magic.

A veteran brunette-absolutely a heartbreaker not long ago-turned up quickly. She had something special going. I was tempted to fail to remember that I was taken.

"You came from Miss Contague?"

"She asked me to keep watch on your injured guest."

She considered my claim. She considered me. She consulted some recollection. She decided that I was the real thing, though she was not prepared to be impressed. My feelings were bruised. I was willing to be impressed by her. And I was as fine a specimen of former Marine as you're likely to find still vertical. I had my dings and scars but they just let you know that I was the genuine article.

"All right. Come with me." After a glare that dared me to even think about running with that.

We passed through the fancy public lounge works, entirely uninhabited at the moment. Potential witnesses had been cleared out. In the back, where delicacies comestible and sensual got prepared, I spied several toothsome lasses enjoying a light repast and steadfastly taking no interest whatsoever in anyone passing through. Two appeared to be full-blood elf girls. The others were nearly as gorgeous.

"Stop slobbering on the carpet."

"Sorry. I don't get out much anymore."

"Here's a suggestion. Keep your hands to yourself while you're here." Then she snorted. She was one of those people who can't keep their laughter out of their noses. It took me a few seconds to get the joke.

"I'm taken," I said stiffly.

"Most of our clients are." We came to a narrow, steep back stair.

"I'm Garrett," I said, though my name had failed to awe anyone yet.

"I know. I've heard of you. I'm aware of your reputation."

"Damn! I didn't know I had one. It's probably all lies and exaggerations. Who are you?"

"You can call me Miss Tea. If I find out that you're tolerable, I'll let you call me Mike."

"Mike?" One of those? Here? "I had a brother we called Mikey."

"For Michel." That was a hard "ch." "He didn't come back?"

"No. It broke my mother's heart." She gave up. She'd already lost my father and hers, and some brothers, to the terrible beast of war.

Mike turned a little less hard-ass. Very little. Like almost every human in Karenta she shared the experience. "You were luckier."

"I was. Most of me made it home."

She looked me straight in the eye. "And now you're stalling so I'll go up the steps first. So you can be behind me and watch my ass."

"That hadn't actually occurred to me, but now that you mention it, sure, I'll be a gentleman and let you to go first."

"Living up to expectations so far. Enjoy the show. It's the best you'll get around here."

Did I threaten her somehow? Was she a secret agent of the redheaded Tate? "I'll do that. It's a sin to ignore what the gods generously set before us."

"And me without my work boots." She started up the stairs and laughed mockingly as she went. And, hard as she might have tried, she could not help putting a touch of flounce in her step. "And you said you were taken. Hypocrite."

"Are you my conscience?" I was a tad flustered and confused. So I did try to lean back and enjoy what the gods set before me.

I began to suspect that Misty was not entirely disinclined to have her assets appreciated. And that she considered her behind to be the best of those. And I thought she might be right, seen from where I was standing.

11

They had Morley stashed in a second-floor bedroom at the back of the house. I stuck my head in long enough to make sure he was breathing. He was lying on his back in a big, comfortable bed. He had bandages all over. He was having trouble breathing. A punctured lung?

Two house operatives were there with him, looking decidedly rough, as though standing a deathwatch over their one true love.

I wanted to hop in and give my dark elf buddy a good swift kick. He was out of it, trying to die, and still he had women swooning.

"What are you doing?" my guide demanded when I didn't rush right in.

"Scouting ways somebody might use to come after him. In case the folks who put the holes in him want to add to his collection."

Madam Mike didn't follow my reasoning but indulged me.

There were three ways to get to Morley. Up the front stairs the clients used. Up the back stairs from the kitchen, the way I came. Up the outside of the building, then through a window. That would require a small, skinny assassin. The window would open only six inches.

For the villain with gaudier ambitions there was the time-honored option of burning the house with Morley inside it.

While I examined the window my guide evicted Morley's caretakers. She promised them they could handle communications between the room and the world.

After they left, I asked, "How old are those two?" They seemed a little fresh to be in the life.

"DeeDee is twenty-nine. She has some elf in her. She's just gotten to the point where we can't auction her virginity. Her daughter Hellbore is sixteen."

"Hellbore?"

"Really."

Both were legal, then. I couldn't imagine the older one having weathered the vicissitudes of her career so well.

I said, "I'll settle here. If you have something like a field cot, I'd never have to leave."

"That would be useful. Business has been slow. I don't want what clientele we do get scared off by you."

"By me? Come on!"

"You're so straight-arrow a blind man can see it. They'd think you were spying for their wives. Or you were a Runner collecting stuff for the Unpublished Committee's files."

The Unpublished Committee for Royal Security were the secret police. "I'll be good. I'll stay in here with my boy, making my list and checking it twice. Been a pleasure meeting you, Misty."

Flirty brown eyes flashed. "Not Misty, dolt! Miss Tea. As in the capital letter. For Teagarden."

I gave her my special raised eyebrow, the one that gets the nuns salivating. Miss T came close to slamming the door as she left.

I had been out of circulation too long. I needed to sharpen my tools. Unless she was one of those lesbian types. That would explain her natural resistance.

I paced. I watched the world outside the window. I studied Morley and felt bad for him. I paced some more; then I inventoried chamber pots, bedpans, pitcher of water and bowl. Then a second pitcher and bowl on a small table in a corner, accompanied by a bar of soap and a stack of towels.

Of course there would be towels and soap. Necessary to the trade in an establishment like this.

I decided to ask for a cup or mug so I wouldn't have to drink straight from the pitcher, using a ladle.

The door opened after a perfunctory knock. DeeDee and Hellbore lugged in a mildewed cot. They dumped that, made sure I hadn't let Morley die while they were gone.

Miss T followed, pushing a small cart. "Food. Drink. Other stuff you'll need. Crush or DeeDee will come around regular. They'll bring whatever you need brought and take away whatever you need taken."

"Crush?"

DeeDee said, "She don't like her real name."

Hellbore/Crush, a foot shorter and ten stone lighter than me, gave me a look that asked if I wanted to make something of that.

"All right." I tried to get DeeDee to chat some. She had a marvelous, breathy way of talking.

Miss T said, "And you a bespoke man."

These women could not be fooled or manipulated. Unless you were Morley Dotes and you were unconscious. Then they would be your slaves.

Oh, well. They were too weird, anyway. The mother was mildly inclined to flirt and had a silly streak. Crush had the cynical hard-eye of a twenty-year veteran of the life.

Miss T asked, "What were you figuring on doing while you wait for something to happen?"

"I'll catch up on my sleep. And maybe spend some time worrying about what my woman will say when I come wandering home."

"Are you a reader? We have a few books. Mostly for decoration. Ask Crush. She's read them all. She might recommend something."

I looked at Crush, who did an outstanding bored teenager's "whatever" shrug. "Thank you, Crush." Meantime, DeeDee gave me a suggestive look. The new, improved, extra-mature me thought that might be a marvelous pastime, especially if the excellent Miss T would join us, but then I'd still have to find something to do the other twenty-three and a half hours of the day. And somebody would put a bug in Tinnie's ear before I got my shoes off. So I stuck to, "Yes, I can read. This would be an excellent time to broaden my mind. So if Crush will bring me something, I'll be happy."

At that moment I was still thinking in terms of minutes, hours, and, at desperate most, a couple of days.

Miss T herded the talent out of the room. I watched them go, wondering if they weren't running a scam. The purported mother not only acted younger, she looked it.

Miss T said, "My obligation to the Contagues leaves me no choice but to give you whatever you want. Indulge me. Be reasonable. And, really, stay out of sight."

I blew her a kiss.

She gently slammed the door.

It set my cot up against it.

As long as I was sleeping, loafing, or reading, any intruder would have to knock it over to get in.

12

Waiting for Morley to get better got really, really boring really, really fast. Being Tinnie Tate's boy toy had stripped me of my knack for enduring endless do-nothing.

Tinnie was not patient. She had rubbed off.

Crush's taste in reading was unusual. The first thing she brought me was a collection of plays written by Jon Salvation, including the still running Rausta, Queen of the Demenenes, in which Tinnie had had a featured role when the play first went on in Max Weider's World Theater.

"You're a fan?"

"He tells wonderful stories."

The wildest were the ones he made up about himself. "I know him."

"He's a friend of yours?"

"No. He comes with a woman named Winger who is my friend." Sort of. When temptation doesn't get in the way.

"Wow. I'd like to meet him."

Suddenly, the girl had a new attitude. I stifled a cynical smile. "Maybe someday. Once this is done." I noted that Crush wasn't interested in Morley when her mother wasn't there. I asked, "Did you know Morley before they brought him here?"

"Not me. DeeDee did. I think."

She called her mother DeeDee.

"Is there anything to read besides plays?" I wondered who was putting those out there, and how. I'd had a scheme, once, but it had involved using hundreds of ratpeople to make copies.

Kip Prose could, probably, tell me how it was done. If he wasn't responsible.

"There are some history scrolls. Tedious stuff about the olden times. Somebody left them when he couldn't pay his tab. Mike never got around to selling them." The kid leaned closer, whispered, "She gets airs sometimes, she does. Gets above herself."

All interesting. Grist for the mill. Me soaking stuff up, getting the old ear back.

When I worked up a good case of cabin fever, I tamed it by rolling the sheet back off my friend.

Morley had suffered eight deep stab wounds. He had an additional dozen cuts. And he had a fine collection of bruises and abrasions from having been kicked, clubbed, and dragged.

I hoped that Belinda would have her ear to the ground listening for the brag of the sort of idiot who can't help telling somebody what he did.

People tell me I think too much. Most of the time things are exactly what they seem. Trying to make more out of them is a mug's game.

I say that when you stop believing in weird conspiracies that involve scores of people who never break faith, you're fully ripe for the weird to come get you.

I was thinking that kind of stuff and, alternately, trying to dismiss it or get it to make some kind of sense if I entered Morley into the equation. I couldn't get anything rational to fall together.

There was nothing to do but wait on the man himself.

13

Somebody shoved against the door to the room so hard that the impact against my cot wakened me.

I got my feet under me. I stood the cot up against the wall. I was not in a good temper when I opened that door.

Miss T was my antagonist. I blurted, "What the hell? This isn't any time when a rational being. ."

I sniffed. Something smelled odd.

"Stuff it, Garrett."

Miss T had not come alone. That was Belinda Contague.

The smell came from behind me. I glanced at the window. It was dark outside, except for a three-quarters moon. "What the hell?"

One curtain bottom had been pushed a foot aside. Enough for me to see the moon in a cloudless sky. The window was up about three inches. I had left the curtains closed and the window shut.

The smell came from outside.

I forgot about the rude folks in the hall. Something more sinister had been going on. I might ought to be grateful that they had wakened me.

I went to the window. It would not open enough for me to lean out. Every shadow across the street, though, felt like it was hiding something rotten.

I said, "I'm way off my game. I might not be the man for this job, Belinda. Let me ask, less irritably, what's the occasion?"

Belinda took in the situation with the window. "I brought a healer." She and Miss T moved aside.

A small, well-rounded, bald-headed man passed between them. He sniffed the air. "I hope that's not your patient."

The healer wore dull black clothing in a style declared defunct a hundred fifty years ago. Deservedly. Clotheshorse Morley should have shrunk away even in a coma.

The healer belonged to a cult called the Children of the Light. Of the Dying Light. A prime tenet was no sexual conduct. They were militant pacifists, too-the kind willing to pound the snot out of you if you tried to claim that war might actually solve something. They were born-again do-gooders, as well, but so smugly self-righteous that most people loathed them. They ran soup kitchens. They ran shelters. They ran free clinics. They had made a bid for control of TunFaire's grand, totally corrupt charity hospital, the Bledsoe. They did a lot of good for a lot of people. Their healers were minor magic users. The Hill turned a blind eye to their unlicensed operations because they confined themselves to charity work.

Cynicism being my nature, when I thought about the Children, I mostly wondered where they got their funding.

Saving the life of a friend of the Queen of Darkness might shake loose a serious donation. Unless she decided to have the healer drowned so he wouldn't talk about Morley's condition or whereabouts.

"Excuse me," nameless round character said. Nobody made introductions. He pushed through and plopped his carpetbag down near the head of the bed. He began examining what was left of my friend.

I urged Belinda over to the window. I used my left thumb and forefinger to measure the gap before I shut it again. "As soon as he can survive it, I want to move him to my place."

"Factory Slide or Macunado Street?"

"Macunado. Nobody will come after him there."

"I'd rather move him out to my place in the country."

I didn't argue. There's no point with Belinda. She would go on doing things her way while empires collapsed around her. This time, though, she could be right. The Contague residence didn't have a live-in Loghyr but it was a fortress. The facilities and amenities were superior.

"It could be a long time before he's in shape to travel that far."

I have visited the Contague digs under a range of circumstances. A man could live comfortably there. He could also go in and never be seen again.

Belinda told me, "He won't go anywhere before he's ready." One pallid finger, tipped by a long carmine nail, tapped the windowsill.

I nodded.

A patch of something lay there, glistening. Something drying out. It reminded me of the trail left by a migrating slug.

I whispered, "Send me a pound of salt."

She might have been Belinda Contague but she was a girl. She didn't know about salt and slugs. Puzzled, she said, "All right."

The healer announced, "I've done what I can. He won't die. But he will be a long time getting back to normal. He may have been stabbed with cursed blades."

That smelled religious, which made no sense. Morley had enemies who would happily poke him full of holes if they could get away with it. They weren't religious wackos, nor were they so abidingly nasty as to go after his soul as well as his life.

Belinda concluded, "Must be a woman." No man was that vindictive.

"I don't know what's been going on in his life. I see him only when we stop in at the Grapevine after a show. You know my situation."

"I tried to talk to Tinnie. I wanted her to know what's happening."

I didn't like her tone.

"I was polite and respectful, Garrett. She was not."

I really didn't like her tone. Tinnie could get hurt. "She's really insecure. ."

"I just tried to explain the situation. She didn't endear herself. It wasn't about her."

Almost certainly my dearly beloved had failed to become more intimate with fierce pain primarily because she was my dearly beloved. Could she be made to understand that anymore?

Tinnie couldn't have changed that much. How could she? She was brilliant. She understood the real world. She had shared its harsh realities with me. She could figure things out. She had discovered, years ago, that Tinnie Tate was not the center, fulcrum, or favorite child of the universe.

I had this chill like it was midnight on the boulevard, and I was fixing to whistle my way past the graveyard.

I had an epiphany. "We're seeing symptoms, not the disease."

Belinda grunted, more interested in watching slime dry.

I stopped worrying about my troubles and checked my pal. His color and breathing had improved. He looked ready to wake up.

The round cultist went away. Belinda and I looked at each other. We wore big, goofy grins.

I went right on having trouble believing there could be anything but business between her and Morley.

14

We were alone. The three of us. Morley fought the good fight, trying to escape his nightmares. I wandered my own realms of fear, where my ill-defined love for a friend might have cost me everything else I held dear. Belinda sat beside me on the cot. We leaned back against the door. She was so far gone off somewhere else I wondered if she could get back. Maybe she was trying to find Morley so she could lead him home.

She blurted, "I didn't get there in time."

"What? Where? In time for what?"

"Raisin's Bookshop. In time to round up Two Step Timmy."

No point correcting her. Her heart was in the right place, though maybe oddly shaped, hard, and cold.

"Made a run for it, did he?"

"Straight to the Al-Khar. The tin whistles beat me there."

"They get more efficient by the day. Hard on both of us."

"A few still appreciate a generous tip."

"Good to know. You get anything interesting?"

"Two Step said his interlocutor was a woman."

"Damn. Look at you. You been taking a class? Interlocutor?"

"Oh, yes. Look at me. Damned near as smart as your ratgirl."

"I'm too tired to squabble. I've got redheads on the brain."

"You'd salivate if you met this one. If Timmy told the truth."

Not many guys lie once they're inside the Al-Khar, and the truth is the only key to getting out.

"No more redheads."

"I'm talking red hot, not red hair. Young and with a flair for show. Two Step says she wore skintight black leather."

"You naughty girl."

"Not me, dolt. Not anymore. I sag in too many places to make it work."

Golden-tongue Garrett conceded, "I know that." And he didn't even realize he'd stepped in it.

"Oh, yes. That's why I love you. You say the sweetest things."

"I wish your whole species would dispense with that stuff. Can't talk about the damned weather without it turning into. ."

"Can it, Garrett. What Two Step said could mean we have a bigger problem."

"I'm listening."

"The one witness to the attack on Morley told me that a well-assembled girl in skintight black leather directed the creatures who stabbed him. She had about a cubic yard of bushy blond curls. The girl Two Step met was a short-haired brunette with intense brown eyes. The blonde, no telling about the eyes."

"Creatures?"

"Men in tight wool costumes with big gray eggs for heads."

"You didn't bother to tell me before?"

"I couldn't tell you what I didn't know then."

I got that. "Go see Puddle and Sarge. They might know what he was into." She didn't respond. I had just said something dumb. I guessed, "They didn't know anything."

"You are correct, sir. Morley walked out of the Grapevine after the late play rush. They never saw him again. And that was all they knew."

I had no trouble believing it. That was Morley Freaking Dotes, total individualist. "I guess all we can do is be patient and hope he gives us something when he wakes up."

"You're a screaming genius, Garrett. I'm so glad Morley and I have you for a friend."

"I am a special kind of guy."

15

The sun was up when I awakened. So was the queen of crime, in a good mood despite being caught in the inelegant process of riding a chamber pot. She pointed. "Look there."

"What am I supposed to notice?"

"We closed the curtains and the window."

Oh.

The curtains had been pushed aside. The window had been raised four inches. And the sill glistened with more dried slime.

"I never liked the kind of window that slides up and down."

"I don't know why I woke up when I did. I don't care. But when I did I saw what looked like a python oozing through the crack. It was about a yard in. I guess it was headed for Morley."

I eased over, studied the window close up. That allowed her some dignity at the same time. "A big snake? Really?"

"Not exactly. You saw real giant snakes when you were off in the islands. You probably wouldn't have been impressed. But that's what it looked like to me."

"It went away once it realized you were awake."

"After I hit it about twenty times with your club."

The woman was gorgeous and brilliant and evil, but she was no connoisseur of personal-use nonlethal defensive instruments. I carried nothing so mundane as a club.

"Why didn't you wake me up?"

"I hollered. You didn't even roll over. Then I was busy slamming the slime out of that damned thing."

"You should've poked me with the stick."

"I was distracted. I didn't think of that." And that was right in character. She hardly ever asked for help, even when she had no choice. This thing with Morley was a wonderment.

"All right. Tell me how it happened. In order. Exactly."

"I told you. There was this snake thing. I pounded on it till it pulled back. The shiny stuff is what it left. And, yes, I know we have to move Morley now because we can't totally protect him here."

Morley made a noise. I thought he wanted to say something. I was wrong. He had a problem with phlegm.

"That's a good sign, isn't it?"

"I think so." For a few seconds Belinda was the woman she could have been if she had chosen different parents and wasn't a flaming sociopath.

"You got anybody set up around here besides me?"

"Outside. You're my inside guy. You're the one I trust."

Somebody tapped on the door. I couldn't help myself. "What's the password?"

"How about 'Breakfast,' nimrod?" That sounded like DeeDee.

Belinda collected my head knocker and got ready to brain an intruder clever enough to mimic DeeDee's twang.

I cleared the bowl and pitcher off the nightstand. DeeDee parked the tray she carried. She turned on Dotes. "It worked! He looks a thousand percent better. He's coming back. He's going to be all right." She bounced and clapped her hands like a girl younger than Crush, then bolted out.

I asked, "What's the story there?"

"I don't know. It may be best that I don't."

I hadn't meant DeeDee's connection to Morley. I'd meant DeeDee and Hellbore. On reflection, though, there was no reason for Belinda to know anything about employees so far down the food chain that they dealt direct with the folks whose money fueled the Combine engine.

"She brought food enough for us and our childhood invisible friends. Let's do some damage." I hadn't eaten since I left Macunado Street.

DeeDee came back with Crush before we were done. Crush jumped all over me. "You weren't supposed to eat the cream of wheat!"

"The what?"

"The mush, nimrod! That was for him. The heavy stuff was for you."

The invisible friends must have gotten that. I hadn't seen anything I considered part of a hearty breakfast. "The nearest thing to a real breakfast. ."

Belinda squeezed my left elbow. She had some grip for a girl. "Garrett, your job is to keep your mouth shut, look pretty, and break the legs of anybody who tries to hurt Morley."

I could do two out of three blindfolded but the mouth thing has been a lifelong challenge.

"Belinda, silence is too hard." I was always chock-full of words that want to be free. Some even coagulate into rational. . somethings.

16

Good thing Crush and DeeDee were dedicated to Morley's welfare. I was still wondering if I had what it took to feed him when they finished that and got to work dealing with the consequences of giving an unconscious man food and drink.

He needed bathing. His bed needed changed. I opened the window to the max during the process.

Belinda said, "You have to get more water into him. He's hot but he isn't sweating the way he should."

What would she know about dark elf fevers and sweats? Shrug. I have made a point, lately, of not hearing anything interesting about Miss Contague.

Some would say that I'd made a point of not hearing anything interesting about anybody who lacks red hair.

I wondered how Tinnie was doing.

I said, "My gut is full. While you're all here I'm going to look around outside."

Belinda gave me a dire look.

"Fear not. I won't make a run for it." I reclaimed my stick and got out, just to stretch my legs.

Belinda's watchers were easy to find. They all recognized me. They had been with her when she collected me on Factory Slide. They had nothing to report. Two were so bored they would have talked about anything with anybody.

The last one, though, had nothing to say. He had seen something interesting. Something interesting had seen him, too. He looked like he was napping at the top of a stairwell to a cellar. He had been dead long enough to cool down.

A few years ago that would not have moved me. Back then every night produced its crop of corpses for morning harvest. But our great city is fraught, entangled in the throes of change. Casually created cadavers have become uncommon. Director Relway's winnows have been harsh.

I considered the scene with time-dulled mind and senses. This was not one of Belinda's coach crew. He had not died fighting so had not been alarmed by the approach of whoever did him in.

I crossed over to the wall beneath Morley's window.

That was redbrick. It glistened. There was dried something on the cobblestones, too. A pile of goat scat marbles lay a few feet south of the glisten. Flies were feasting.

I marveled at all the quiet. Senior management at Fire and Ice had to know the true names of some well-placed clients.

True names weren't just useful in the sorcery game, they were invaluable in politics and the blackmail game. Even the passive sort that assures localized maintenance of public works and a useful police presence. Or absence.

The streets were in perfect repair. Night lamps were in place and unbroken. There wasn't a red top in sight.

There wasn't anyone in sight. Which explained why a dead man could cool down without an uproar.

I made a second round of Belinda's watchers. Then I went back to report.

DeeDee and Crush had finished. I met them in the hallway. I found Belinda seated on the edge of Morley's bed, holding his hand. She started, pulled away, looked slightly guilty.

I ignored that. "He does look like he's coming back."

"You don't look good. What happened?"

"Somebody killed your man who was watching the window. You want to see, look to your right, far side, at the top of that cellar well about forty feet along."

Belinda looked. "Oh. I see him now. Looks like he's sleeping."

"Which is why nobody noticed till I tried to wake him up."

Belinda went from concerned to grim in a heartbeat. She nodded but just stared at the dead man. Bodies and parts thereof would begin skewing Director Relway's violent crimes statistics real soon.

"Let me guess. Those idiots never saw a thing."

"No. They did. But I had to ask twice. They only thought they hadn't seen anything. Once they heard that a friend was dead they remembered an old woman with a goat cart passing through, headed toward downtown."

"What's the kicker? I'm in no mood for guessing games."

"It took her over an hour to get from the guy in the north to the guy in the south. It should have taken five minutes. The guy who saw her first said he heard her going. The man on the south side said he never heard anything. Bam. She was there. She scared him. He says her cart smelled."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

"There wasn't a cart out there when I looked. After I hit that thing with your club."

I got up to the window. "If it was next to the wall you wouldn't have seen it."

"I'll go get writing stuff."

"Uh. ."

She was ahead of me. "I need to send a note to Pular Singe. An offer of employment."

"But. ." I didn't want my little ratgirl involved in something deadly. Not again.

Belinda set a brisk pace when she had a goal. She returned with the essentials for letter writing before I finished inventorying improvements in Morley's condition.

"I brought extra paper. I'll write a letter of my own, for Singe to pass on to John Stretch. I may have work to subcontract."

She was in the red zone. Somebody was going to get hurt.

I hoped that wouldn't be her. Or Morley. Or, especially, me.

"I should send a note to Tinnie, too."

17

I did write a letter. It seemed futile once I finished. I didn't have it delivered. Tinnie knew what was going on. Anything I said wouldn't change her mind.

My dearly beloved had become fixed in her attitudes. She didn't let facts get in the way of her making up her mind. My friends thought that was my fault. Tinnie and I had a long history. When I stood up on my hind legs she would pack the attitude in. But I did let stuff slide because it was easier to go along.

I was supposed to be guarding someone, not known to be alive, in a hideout where nobody would think to look. The engineer of the hidery hadn't been successful. Somebody had tried the window already. A guard had lost his life. Then, scarcely an hour after Belinda went away, the last person I expected to see ambled into the room.

DeeDee and Crush were with me, DeeDee worshipping Morley with her too-young eyes, while Crush plotted some means of getting the best of her mother once Morley came around.

I got into weird stuff but not this kind of weird, where a mother looks younger than her daughter and acts it, both of them being professional ladies, fiercely competitive, and desperately eager for positive feedback from a man claimed by a bad woman from far above them in the food chain.

I finished nailing the window shut. "Most excellent, Garrett. A job well-done." I heard the soft scrape of a foot on hallway carpet. I turned.

Deal Relway came in. The Director himself. The terrible swift sword of the law, older and more worn than when last I saw him. I had heard that he never left the Al-Khar anymore. Too many outsiders wanted to break his bones.

He was a little guy, and ugly. Sometime way back an impudent dwarf had taken a climb through the family tree, plucking forbidden fruit. Additional members of the Other Races had contributed over the generations.

Relway's minions were too efficient. He had arrived with no more warning than his shoe brushing the nap of the carpet. He looked around, said, "About what I expected. You ladies finish what you're doing and go."

They had no idea who he was. I told them, "It's all right. He's no enemy."

Frowning, unsure, they drifted out into a house saturated with red tops.

Relway studied Morley. "Hard to believe."

"Bad luck can catch up with anybody. What brings you in out of the smoke?"

"The hope that I might learn something helpful in dealing with a problem that's been nagging me almost since you dropped out." His tone and mannerisms were casual. He was more comfortable than when last I had seen him.

"You do understand where you are? Whose place you've entered without invitation?"

"Not something that concerns me. Her interests and mine coincide right now. Down the road I'll probably shut her down."

"It's good to be confident. But you, sir, are going to die young. And when you do you'll refuse to believe that it could happen to you."

Relway was neither devastated nor confused. I kind of felt sorry for him. I didn't know what I was talking about, either.

"You've been out of action for a while, Garrett. The paradigms have shifted."

"Many casualties? Much property damage?" I wasn't sure what a paradigm was. He didn't look likely to explain. "Good for you. But what about right here, right now?"

"Let us readjust and reassess. At the moment I have no interest in what Mr. Dotes may be doing with his life. I'm even disinterested in the fell Miss Contague. I am interested in making contact with whoever or whatever was responsible for Mr. Dotes' condition."

"Why is that?"

"I am pledged to protect King and Crown. Something out there means to attack both. Your friend may have stumbled into it."

So. He felt threatened because he wasn't on top of everything happening in our marvelous city.

We talked, though not about much of consequence. Half an hour later we parted, me thinking that neither of us had profited, till I realized just how far out of trim I was.

He had learned plenty by listening to what I didn't say. As in not asking what he had learned from Jimmy Two Steps. I must know already, despite being holed up here, seeing no outsider but Belinda.

The runt had peeked through the curtains of my dreams.

Given time, I relaxed enough to realize that Relway had come fishing. He hungered for information on something that troubled him deeply-and I hadn't helped despite my honesty.

Relway's crew left Fire and Ice in stages, careful to protect the Director. So Crush said when she brought lunch, once the scary little man was gone. I loathed myself for my idiot response to a girl her age-while aching because a girl her age considered a guy my age a bad joke.

But she could go cow-eyed over Morley Dotes, thinking it somehow wondrous that she had gotten to change the diaper of a bad boy dark elf a whole lot older than me.

Crush was indifferent to Garrett the man. Our basis for interaction was Morley. She admitted that she had no idea who he really was. DeeDee might know him, though. The whiny guy inside asked, "So why are you drooling all over him?"

She rose dramatically in my estimation. She gave my question some thought. "I don't know. Not when I try to logic it out. Is he a sorcerer?"

"Your guess would be better than mine. You're female. I've never figured it out. Maybe he gives off a smell because he's a vegetarian."

"I doubt that. Anyway, with me it's probably about competition with DeeDee. And he has an exciting reputation. He's bad, he's beautiful, and he has been connected with some famous women. Strip everything else away, there's still bare-naked curiosity. What did those other women find so special?"

I considered Morley sourly. He had told me once that he had worked hard crafting his reputation. By building it and broadcasting it, he guaranteed himself a bottomless pool of ladies wondering what the excitement was all about. He had insisted that there was no trickery involved. He was providing excuses so women could pursue their own wicked desires.

Crush finished her work. She had no excuse for hanging around. She left without an apology, a farewell, or a broken heart.

I shut the door, pushed my cot against it. I lay down for a nap that didn't last but two or three hours. Then I was wide awake again. I took advantage of the chamber pot, then checked the window.

It was still nailed shut.

On the other hand, it was glass. Glass could be broken.

18

Sound came from the bed. I dropped Jon Salvation's omnibus of masterpieces. I thought Morley was choking.

He was. On words. His eyes were open. He was trying to talk.

His eyes were wild. He did not want to know where he was or what was happening. His latest memories were of being stabbed. Seeing me did not help. He did not recognize me.

Time was on my side. He wasn't going anywhere. He had neither the strength nor the will to do so. He was feeling every wound. One try to get up left him clear on how he would spend his next few weeks.

He didn't quite scream. He wasn't loud enough to bring on the rest of the house. He lay there panting, collecting himself. He did recognize me now.

"You finally irked somebody a little too much. Maybe laid your blessings on the wrong wife or daughter."

He made a sound of negation.

"Then it's business or your past catching up."

He did not respond. He turned thoughtful. Since he was supposed to be an honest restaurateur these days, I surmised that he was mining memory for a connection.

He continued not to respond.

Should I put aside the notion of a vengeful revenant? There would be few such who remained alive and dangerous. The Morley I knew when we were younger didn't leave live enemies behind.

He lapsed into sleep, then wakened again a few hours later still unable to speak. He did make me understand that he was thirsty.

He was asleep when DeeDee and Crush came for the evening cleaning and feeding. I did not share the good news. I wanted them out of the way quickly.

Miss Tea looked in during the cleanup but left without saying anything.

Morley went for a long, deep doze. When Jon Salvation became too much for me-I kept hearing his irritating, whiny, scratchy voice as I read-I turned down the lamps, sprawled on the cot, and got busy doing some snoozing of my own.

At some point I halfway wakened with the vague notion that Morley was trying to say something. Very mechanical and as clear as a falling-down drunk speaking his native tongue. Later still, I halfway wakened thinking something was trying to open the window. The glass squeaked. The frame creaked.

There was a flash and bang outside, followed by yelling and screaming. The shrieks of Civil Guard whistles followed. I saw nothing when I got to the window. There was no light. There was a heavy overcast.

I heard nothing more till early birds DeeDee and Hellbore wakened me by banging the door against my cot.

Hellbore. Wow. What a marvelous name. I would honor her preferences and call her Crush.

19

This time Morley woke up while the women were ministering to him. I got to witness another of those fascinating, inexplicably repugnant things that happen around him.

Two professional comfort women went red with embarrassment when he opened his eyes.

I just leaned against the wall, out of the way, and marveled. Un-bee-leave-a-bull!

DeeDee was in a charitable mood. Or needed to overcome her shyness by diverting her attention toward an unthreatening target. "There was some excitement out there again last night."

I'd almost convinced myself that I had dreamed it. "I hope it was less deadly than before."

"I think it was pretty ugly. You should talk to Miss Tea about that."

"I'll look forward. Moments with Mike are more precious than pearls."

DeeDee would never be an aficionado of my special humor. She looked at me blankly, not even wondering if I was poking fun.

Crush, though, rolled her eyes. She awarded me a sneer that said she got me and I was lame.

Morley made noises that sounded like they belonged to the family of questions most frequently asked upon awakening in strange circumstances.

I told him, "We're hiding out on the second floor of a hook shop called Fire and Ice, a subsidiary of the Contague family enterprise. We're here at Belinda's behest. She thought this would be a safe place to hole up till you heal enough to move to her place. Your lovely attendants are DeeDee and her daughter Hellbore, who prefers to be called Crush. They have been tending you since you were brought here. What, four days ago? Ladies?"

DeeDee counted on her fingers. "Yep. Four." Then she actually curtsied.

Crush rolled her eyes.

Morley made noises. I translated. "He says pleased to meet you and thank you for all the care you've lavished upon him."

Crush said, "Didn't sound like that to me."

Nor to me. "He might have expressed himself a little less elegantly. A man with deep stab wounds tends to be curt and cranky, especially when he's just wakened and the pain is catching up. But those were the core sentiments he wanted to convey. Deep down in his heart of hearts."

Crush said, "Man, you are full of it."

"It's one of my most endearing qualities."

She snorted.

"I'm really a big old lovable stuffed bear once you get to know me."

Another snort, dismissive but not derisive. "That isn't going to happen. The Capa left very specific instructions to the entire house. Not even DeeDee is dim enough to confuse them." She eyed her mother. Who kept right on looking like Crush's happy younger sister. "Or maybe she is. But she's already fixated on the bad boy."

"In another place and time, under different circumstances, we could have been great friends. I like the twists your mind takes."

That left her speechless. I indulged my evil laughter. I hadn't had a chance in a long time. Then, being a trained detective, I detected. "You guys didn't bring breakfast with you this morning."

DeeDee told me, "It wasn't ready. There were problems in the kitchen on account of some of the staff are late."

My paranoid bodyguard side went on alert.

Needlessly. DeeDee explained, "Mostly they're late because they have to get through all the tin whistles and whatnot that are out there. But some are fighting hangovers and stuff, too. The chief cook's daughter got married last night and that idiot paid for an open bar after. There'll be all the food you can eat once they get rolling."

Crush rolled her eyes again, this time for no obvious reason.

Morley stayed quiet. He listened, building mind pictures of character.

I said, "I'll need one of you to help feed him when the food does come."

DeeDee startled me. "That should be Crush. She does it better than me."

Crush shook her head. She didn't want the job if her mother didn't want it.

I opined, "Maybe we ought to let Miss Tea decide." Because that worthy had arrived. A wondrous medley of breakfast aromas pursued her. A previously unmet young lady deposited a tray on the nightstand. It was beginning to get crowded. If I had been between twelve and twenty-nine, I would have been in heaven. But I was a big boy now, no longer allowed to think that way. And the stench off a side of bacon was a total distraction.

Miss Tea said, "DeeDee, you and Crush go down and help serve. I'll feed Mr. Dotes while I talk to Mr. Garrett."

"Serve?" Crush asked.

"I opened the grand parlor to the Civil Guards. Serving tea and sweet rolls. A goodwill gesture."

"Always helps to be on good terms with the local red tops."

"It is. Move along, ladies. Garrett, before you pig out totally, hand me that glass and the long spoon."

"That glass" contained a greenish sludge made from something a starving pig probably would refuse but which might be good for a guy full of knife holes. Miss Tea said, "Some water, too."

That got to Morley via a reed, Miss Tea trapping a small quantity by holding a thumb over the reed's upper end, then releasing the dribble into Morley's mouth. It worked better when he was awake.

He was very thirsty.

Miss Tea fed him patiently, in little bits. "There was more excitement last night."

"So I heard. The neighborhood is overrun by red tops."

"They're everywhere. Half my people can't get to work. I try to make the tin whistles comfortable while they waste their time. And mine."

"What happened?"

"The night visitor came back. The Capa had a specialist waiting. And Director Relway had a team of Specials in the area, too."

"I thought I heard an explosion but I didn't see anything when I looked out the window."

"There was an explosion. Why don't you go down and see for yourself while I do this?"

"Sounds like a plan."

"Here." She pulled a slip of parchment from its nest in her cleavage. It was warm and lightly scented.

"What's this?"

"An employee pass. It will get you in and out if you have to deal with people who don't know you."

"Thank you. That should be useful." For a moment I wished I could spread the brag amongst my circle. I had written proof that I was a bona fide employee at a top-level brothel.

On reflection, though, it might be better to keep it to myself. I would hear every possible bad joke from people determined to undermine my dignity. Towel boy would be the most generous accusation I'd hear.

20

The pass proved unnecessary. Several tin whistle sergeants remembered me and had been tipped that I had semiofficial standing. This one time only, my presence within sight of a crime scene was to be tolerated.

Barry Berry was a humorless man but a good guy. He attached himself to me like that was his special assignment. He took me on a tour. "Everything is right where it fell. The Director and General Block want to see it all for themselves before we start the cleanup."

There would be some of that to do. The neighborhood had been blessed with five corpses. Two had been Civil Guards. Another had been one of Belinda's men. The remainder were unknowns presumed to have been companions of the perpetrator. They wore tattered gray wool. They had wooden helmets encasing their heads.

I observed, "Somebody believes in living on the edge."

"The prevailing theory is that it's somebody who can't make the connection between actions and consequences. We got a sicko out there, Garrett. A huge sicko."

A race was on, now, between the Outfit and the Guard. Honors to the winner would be first chance to have a long, painful sit-down with whoever was behind these deaths.

The mystery men in gray had fallen in the street on a line from under Morley's window to the place where Belinda's watcher had perished earlier. The force of the bang had hit them from behind, hurling them a dozen yards across cobblestones. A blood trail said one crawled twenty feet before expiring. The broken remains of a cart and roasted carcasses of two goats marked the beginning of his brief trek. Against the brick wall, below the window, lay a chunk of something that put me in mind of squid. There were no tentacles or anything, it was just that the skin on the uncooked side had a texture that stirred the squid notion.

Berry said, "Most of the guys were reminded of snails. I guess because of the crust on the brick."

"No shell."

"No tentacles, either."

"That's true. Do we know what happened?"

"We know exactly what happened, minute by minute."

"Give me the highlights. If you would be so kind."

"The goat cart showed up just like it did before. Like whoever was bringing it had no idea that we might be watching."

"But with two thugs along."

"Stupid. Totally overconfident stupid. Miss Contague had a friend off the Hill tucked in to watch, same place as the guy who got waxed. He used a stealth spell that wasn't completely effective. The villain didn't notice him right off. When he did the Hill guy unleashed the lightning."

"And that caused all this?"

"It did. Miss Contague used somebody from the first string."

"Where's the villain?"

"Got away. Come over here." Berry led me past the wreck of the cart to a patch of what looked like candle black fifteen feet across. At its center was a circle of perfectly pristine cobblestones a yard across. The black around the circle was an eighth of an inch thick. Small footprints left, passed all the casualties, and headed toward downtown. "There was a running fight. That's when we lost our guys. And the Outfit soldier."

"No wounded. Just dead."

"Yep."

"And the sorcerer?"

"The one who made the bang? Too old and fat to keep up."

Surrounding buildings were too tall for me to see far but I thought the villain's line of flight might parallel a crow's toward the Hill. I didn't mention that. I didn't need to. That angle would be getting a hard look already, not just by the red tops and Outfit but by key people on the Hill. They don't like rogue behavior likely to attract more animus than they already enjoy.

"This is a puzzlement, Sergeant."

"It is indeed. Dotes said anything yet?"

Ha. Here was why I had my very own red top tour guide. "Not yet. Believe me, though, I'll have a book full of questions when he does wake up."

"If he does?"

"He's my oldest friend, Sergeant. I'm bound to think positive."

"Was I you, I'd do my best to be positive. After last night people all the way up to the Crown Prince are going to want to ask him what's going on."

I made one of those intuitive leaps for which I'm not well-known. "I'll bet an angel right now that he won't have any idea."

"He's going to clam and try to handle it himself?"

Morley's mind would work that way. "Not what I meant. I mean I'm willing to bet he knows less about what's going on than you or me."

"But somebody wants to kill him."

"Maybe. But maybe the somebody who was here wasn't the same somebody who turned him into a pincushion. Maybe this somebody wants to find out what that somebody was up to." I was brainstorming. That notion arose from the fact that there had been no sorcery involved in the attack on Morley. "Mistaken identity might be involved. Or somebody thinks Morley knows something that he doesn't. I could come up with this stuff all day. It's just speculation."

"Sicko."

Probably. Undoubtedly. In the spirit of open cooperation, I began to quiz Berry about crimes that might have been related to what had happened here. Relway had mentioned a deep interest in a pattern of ugliness.

I did not get to run with that.After discovering that she could not open the window to yell at me, Miss Tea began pounding on glass to get my attention. She beckoned vigorously.

"Got to go, Sergeant. Thanks for everything."

21

Miss Tea did not give me a chance to ask what was happening. "I didn't tell you to take the rest of the day off, I'd cover for you."

"The red tops gave me the first-class tour. I've never seen them this serious. We may have Prince Rupert himself up here later."

She wanted to go on being irritated but put that aside. A visit from the Crown Prince had a ton of meaning. "I see."

"Our own prince say anything while I was out?" Dotes was sound asleep again.

"He proposed. A two-hour common-law marriage. After he gets on his feet again. I'm thinking about it."

"Another sign that he's recuperating."

Miss Tea scowled at me and grumbled something I don't think Morley would have found endearing. She absented herself in quest of more important duties. She didn't take the breakfast tray. I poured cold tea, put my cot back down, settled, picked up the Salvation omnibus and tried reading Star-Crossed Love. The title said it all. The theme animated most of the plays put on in TunFaire's theaters. There were autobiographical elements to this one. The female protagonist, instead of being the usual fainthearted rose, resembled Salvation's girlfriend, Winger.

After a few pages I glanced over, wondered aloud, "What did you get yourself into this time?"

It looked big. That didn't fit. Morley would not do anything to invite the attention of Prince Rupert.

That left me thinking about the attack on me and Tinnie.

We weren't involved by choice, either.

I went back to the play. I needed to clear my head.

I finished the first scene in act three, looked over, found Morley looking back, not brightly. "What the hell did you do?"

He gave me a weak smile, said, "Water!" in a raspy little croak.

I dribbled water. When he had enough he went back to sleep, nothing said and no questions answered.

Crush brought lunch and took breakfast's remains away. I told her, "I need more water and a chamber pot change."

"I need a diamond tiara."

Despite the attitude, all was handled quickly.

Morley woke up, drank water, dispensed no wisdom, and went back to sleep. An hour before supper the healer returned, tricked out in his best mourning outfit. I did not care enough to ask why the Children dressed that way. I was getting jaded. And distracted.

Accompanying the healer was a serious surprise from yesteryear, the Windwalker, Furious Tide of Light.

She was surprised to see me, too. And a tad embarrassed, I think. She lowered her big, beautiful violet eyes.

I greeted the sorceress politely, inwardly pursuing a goofy calculation trying to connect a heavyweight off the Hill with a cult healer because of the word Light. I don't have an adequately developed paranoid imagination.

Belinda Contague accompanied them but stayed in the hall, observing. I did some observing myself.

The Windwalker hadn't aged a minute. She remained totally waiflike and utterly delicious but today she was all business. She moved to the window, looked out, paid almost no attention to Morley. I tried to remember if they had met. Those were confusing times. Antediluvian times. I was a different man in a different world, then, not a respectable member of the bourgeoisie.

I couldn't help but snicker. That earned a scowl from all women present.

The healer asked, "What's happening with him?"

"He sleeps and he drinks water. I think he's getting better."

"He drinks water."

"He wakes up, makes a little croak that means he's thirsty. I use the pipe. He sucks it down; then he goes back to sleep." For the lady in the hallway, I added, "Miss Tea claimed he made a pass this morning. She was just trying to get my goat."

"It will be a long time before this fellow sins again." He examined Morley's wounds while he talked. "He is the luckiest knife victim I've ever seen. Some of these wounds are six inches deep, yet not one cut an artery or hit a vital organ. There is no infection, either. Don't press him with questions. He won't be able to answer for a while. Ah! Here he is now."

Morley's eyes opened. He cataloged the crowd, made his "Water," sound.

The healer produced a black glass bottle the size of my thumb. It had a clear glass stopper. "Three drops into each pitcher of water. Keep his water separate. This is for pain. There is a good deal of pain still, isn't there?" he asked Morley.

Dotes grunted, closed his eyes.

The healer spoke to the doorway. "I've done what I can. He'll recover. How well depends upon how firmly he clings to my instructions. No straying from the diet. All the water he wants. The drops are not addictive. They will cause considerable drowsiness. Keep him clean. Turn him once in a while. Time is what he requires. There was a timetable in the instructions I gave you, madam. Enforce it to the letter."

Wow! I'd never heard anybody give Belinda Contague orders. This nut was doing it. And she was nodding! She understood the instructions, too. Morley was sure to try going before he was ready.

Furious Tide of Light said nothing. After the early glances she ignored Morley. She was fascinated by something in the street. "Your rat associate is quite clever."

The fit was tight but I managed to join her. Singe was down below, talking to several senior red tops and a brace of wide loads from middle management in Belinda's enterprise. I was pleased to see my little girl getting the respect she was due as the finest tracker in the city.

"How so?" I asked.

"She means to backtrack instead of trail forward."

Backtrack goats? Easier than following some human who killed three people while making a getaway. Safer, too. And more useful. Both incursions had come from the same direction and had gone on toward the Hill. "The girl is scary smart. What are you doing here?"

"Personal appeal from Prince Rupert."

Ah. A family friend, I recalled. "And how is your dad and your daughter Kevans?"

"We're not getting along at the moment. Let's concentrate on the task at hand. I'm not the woman you remember." She turned her cool, emerald eyes my way. I was afraid I was going to drown there.

"I'm sorry. I'm probably not the man you think you remember, either." I watched some of John Stretch's ratman associates emerge from shadows as Singe moved out with a train of thugs behind. Those hailed from several sides of the law. They stayed back so as not to distract her.

I asked, "You know why this mess is causing so much excitement?"

The Windwalker met my gaze. Her eyes were a striking blue. The shy girl I remembered emerged. "I can comment only from a position of vast ignorance. Prince Rupert is concerned about a possible Hill connection."

I met the Crown Prince once. He'd asked me to be his personal agent. He was as determined as Deal Relway to afflict TunFaire with great gobs of law and order. Someone who failed to acknowledge that rules existed would be a definite black beast to him.

"What I wanted to know was, what are you doing here in this room, with us?"

"I had a notion that, with the healer's assistance, I might learn something useful. I was wrong. Then I was so startled by seeing you. . I should get back to work. I need to be with those people out there."

Tight as it was, she got past me and Belinda without getting intimate. She left me totally rattled. Those eyes. . I had forgotten those eyes.

22

Belinda gave the Windwalker a short lead. "There something between you two? I thought I knew all the bimbos that came after me."

"Only in her head. Maybe. She took a weak run at me once upon a time. It didn't go anywhere. Though. . She's a multiple personality type."

"She'd have to be to come down off the Hill to chase you."

Belinda was kidding but was so tired and worried she made it sound serious.

I kept my mouth shut. Belinda wasn't really interested. She held Morley's hand and asked, "Where the hell were you for those ten days?"

I got confused. "Ten days? There some things you haven't shared with me? The backstory changes as we move along?"

"What are you yammering about?"

So I thought back. And decided I was a dumbass. All she had said was that he had been laid up here three days before she brought me in. "I don't know. I'm having trouble getting my mind into fighting trim. You did wait three days before you came to me?"

"I was rattled. You, of all people, understand that we do stupid things when we aren't thinking straight."

"He could have died."

"But he didn't. And I did get around to you and the Children of the Light."

"Sorry for barking."

"I had it coming." Belinda looked at Morley with the same cow eyes I have seen on a thousand other women. I took a short ramble through the realm of intuition.

"Belinda?"

"Uhm?"

"Were there any weird events around here before I showed up?"

Sometimes Miss Contague is a mind reader. "You suggesting that they suspected he was still alive but didn't know where to look? So they watched you. They raided your place to get you moving. . No. That doesn't hang together."

"They watched you till you contacted me. Then they watched me. That's how I would've done it. How come they're so desperate? Where did it happen? What did the people who found him say?"

"I don't know where, yet. I'm supposed to go look at a place. They found him dying. That's about it. It was obvious he wouldn't need his stuff anymore so they started turning out his pockets."

"And found something to connect him to you. So they did the right thing."

"They did what they thought might put money in their pockets."

"Did they bet wrong?"

"No. That's just good public relations. You feed the beast sometimes."

"Did you get his stuff back?"

"I did. I thought he might have been hit because of something he was carrying. He had nothing on him. But he might have been cleaned out where he was attacked."

"How about dead attackers? Nobody could do this much damage without Morley doing some damage back."

"The place I'm going to check, there was some blood and others signs of a big fight. But no bodies. My people found two wooden buttons, a scrap of gray wool cloth, and a broken wooden mask with cast glass eyehole covers. Weird, huh? I hoped Pular Singe could do something with them. She said it's too late. That trail is long gone."

"He was missing for ten days?"

"Yes. Again."

"He really never told Sarge or Puddle or any of his mugs anything?"

"No. I went there even before he turned up full of holes. We talked about this already."

"I have to ask over and over. You had a witness."

"One who can't be found by anyone anymore."

"Put away for safekeeping." In the river, with big rocks for shoes.

"I'm thinking ringer. Not based on any evidence, just intuition."

"No marvelous body in tight black leather?"

"Not him. We'll find him eventually."

We would, of course. "I can't see Morley wandering off for that long. For one night, maybe. But he's a hands-on guy with his business."

"You're not producing original thought."

"I'm not trying. I'm musing out loud. But here's a question of personal interest. How close are you working with the Director?"

"We pretend not to see each other poking around. Communication between foot soldiers will be overlooked."

"Last time our paths crossed, Relway was putting together teams of specialists. One was supposed to do forensic sorcery."

"The Specials. There are a dozen squads, now, and more to come."

"If the forensic sorcery group is up, maybe you can get Relway to check out this place when you visit it."

"I'll suggest it. But the red tops don't give a shit about Morley."

I eyeballed Dotes. What secrets would we prize forth once he could sit up and talk? He looked more relaxed. The drops in the water must have been working.

"There is one obvious answer to why Morley was missing for ten days."

"He was a prisoner."

"Fits what we know. And might explain why someone tried to kill him, assuming he escaped."

"He showed no signs of having been restrained."

I picked up a hand, looked at the wrist. Nothing, of course. "Meaning he wasn't kept in chains."

Belinda stood at the window and watched the street, likely not seeing anything. "I'm considering changing my mind."

"About?"

"Moving Morley to your house."

"Really?" Warily.

"Two birds, I think. He wouldn't be safer anywhere else. And your partner could find out things we need to know."

Belinda is ever-capable of doing the startling thing.

"One problem. Old Bones is dead to the world right now."

"You always say that."

"This time it's true. Actually, it's almost always true."

"And you're here. The one man able to stir the relict out of his dreams."

Marginally true.

Crush and DeeDee arrived.

23

As mistress of an empire spanning the full underbelly of TunFaire, employing more than a thousand people, Belinda had obligations outside Fire and Ice. And she had digging to do. Yet she just sat there staring at Morley, muttering, while seated on a hard folding chair, courtesy of the genius of Kip Prose and the production acumen of the Amalgamated Manufacturing Combine.

Miss Tea had brought four chairs.They took hardly any room when folded. No doubt they cost a fortune. And cheap knock-offs would be available within weeks if I remained unavailable to fight for Amalgamated's intellectual property rights.

There are laws but we have to enforce them ourselves.

"Belinda?"

She did not respond.

"Hey. Girl. Listen up. Investigator working here. Let's get on with the questions and answers."

She turned weary eyes my way.

"A long time ago, two days and a few hours, you told me some things about Morley's situation. There have been changes since, all moving toward the less specific and more ambiguous."

"That can happen when you talk to witnesses."

"True. You had an eyewitness. Now you don't?"

"Like I told you, he disappeared. His story didn't hold water, anyway."

"A ringer."

"Looking back, I think he was fishing for a trace on Morley. I wasn't thinking clearly. I didn't hide the fact that he was alive."

"Could he have been the villain himself?"

"I don't know."

"Sergeant Berry insists that we're up against a sicko. Could he be one of those who feeds on the action around his crimes? Some even try to get in with the tin whistles so they can tag along during the investigation."

"Could be. I'll bet this one is sick in more than one dimension."

"Remember what he looked like?"

"If I was an artist I could paint his picture."

"You have trouble drawing stick figures."

"I do."

"We could recruit an artist."

"I don't think. . Hell. I know my powers of description aren't good enough."

"I was thinking we could have the Dead Man capture the image and pass it to a skilled painter. We have some good portraitists in TunFaire."

Belinda glared like she meant to cause spontaneous human combustion through sheer willpower.

"I thought you'd be too paranoid to do it the easy way."

"Paranoid? Me? You're the loon if. ."

"Suppose he did rummage through your head?"

She did not answer. The idea terrified her.

"He's done it before. You survived. What would he do with anything he found? Besides sit around radiating smug because he'd gotten a peek up your skirt?"

She had no ready answer. The arrival of a flustered Miss Tea saved her the need. Miss Tea gushed, "You better come down, ma'am. The bloody, frigging Crown Prince his own self is here."

Belinda said, "Looks like I'm needed."

"Want me to come with? I know the man."

"Bullshit. You don't even ooze between the toes in his circle, let alone run."

"Bet that and you'd be wrong. He asked me to be his own personal, private investigator one time." And I turned him down. I like being my own boss. As I have been since I told him, "Sorry, no." The job had gone to a clever rascal called Lurking Felhske instead.

Felhske was sure to meet a bad end. So I told myself while stalking the floors of Amalgamated's manufactories, hoping to intimidate the rare fool who would steal from his employer at a time when people starved if they lost their job. Amalgamated and Weider Brewing were the only employers creating jobs, these days. And I worked for both.

Sitting there in the waning hours with the queen of crime and a best friend who couldn't show me his mocking smile, I had no choice but to look at who and what I had become. Which left me a little embarrassed.

Belinda told me, "You stick to your job. I'll charm Rupert."

"Try not to hit him. If you do, though, try to pull your punches."

"Wiseass. I keep telling you I'm not that girl anymore."

Yes, she was. She just hid it better. And she was about to go into the presence of an abrasive and condescending personality.

For all his high-mindedness and determination to do right for Karenta, Rupert was a dork. He was a hard case about his good works but did not have a ghost of a concept of royal subjects being anything but social and mental inferiors.

He was a shepherd oath-bound to shield his dumb animals from danger.

"Good luck then, darling," I told Belinda.

24

Crush came up late, bringing water and a pound of salt. "We had to send out. The cooks wouldn't give theirs up." She moved gingerly. "You probably won't see me or DeeDee in the morning. We need time to recover. Those Guard assholes all want the young stuff. And they're lousy tippers."

What could I say? That you have to deal with assholes whatever your line of work?

I did try to look sympathetic. "Next time you do come, I could use something else to read."

"If I can still walk. Or you could go down and get something."

Wonder of wonders, the excitement faded away. However bold they were, the baddies figured out that it wasn't cost-effective to come after Morley at Fire and Ice.

Night after night I sat there waiting for him to do something more than drink water and poop. It was like having a newborn, only I wasn't the one who had to change his diapers.

I wondered about Singe's tracking expedition. I wondered what Relway was doing, what the Crown Prince was up to, and what Belinda had found out. And, more than anything, I worried about Tinnie. I hoped she was better posted than I was. The only people I saw were Miss Tea, Crush, and DeeDee. Miss Tea helped some while the other ladies dealt with the upswing in demand for the house's principal product. Miss Tea did not pitch in with that. Nobody said anything about anything happening outside the house.

I did get all the dirt on those who made Fire and Ice special.

I sat in that room with that man and slipped ever nearer the bounds of explosive lunacy.

I needed to rediscover patience. There would be a long training period once Morley climbed out of that bed. It might take him a year to get strong enough. Then we would go get whoever hurt him.

Crush came in. "This is the last book we've got. And the most boring." She passed me a ragged old thing from the last century, well into its senior years. It was tied round with ribbon to keep loose pages from getting away.

"What is it? Maybe I won't need to figure out these knots." Crush had decided I wasn't that awful after all. I was unthreatening. Avuncular. The kind of uncle who keeps his hands to himself. We could talk about stuff. Bookish stuff, but not for long. She was a popular girl with an extended list of regular clients.

This book was a history of TunFaire's early years, up to the establishment of the monarchy. It was a copy of a copy. It was a slow read because the language was old-fashioned.

I was excited because several chapters covered times when the Dead Man was still alive. He might get no mention but I could peek through a window into the age that shaped him.

"Crush, how long you figure on staying in the life?"

"What kind of question is that?" Instantly defensive.

"A serious one from somebody who thinks your mind is wasted here."

"The mind may be. That's not the business we're in. The body is getting pounded so hard I mean to walk on my twentieth birthday. I shouldn't ever have to work again. If my investments are good. I might take DeeDee with me-if she can learn to live without the attention."

DeeDee was the star of the house. Normally, she dealt only with select private clients. She was a blonde, none too bright, part elf, extremely sensual when she was so inclined, and, rumor said, thoroughly enjoyed her work. That was unusual in her trade. She craved approval. She got all she needed here. Crush was afraid she would refuse to give it up.

Crush was brighter than she pretended. In time I realized that all of our conversations came round to what we were working on at Amalgamated.

Why? Amalgamated is a company but you can't buy in. Different people have different percentages but every fraction is fixed. If a founding partner wants out he has to offer his points to the other investors first. So far nobody has shown any inclination toward getting out.

Amalgamated was designed to make us all rich by bringing the fruits of Kip Prose's genius to market. The big shareholders are Kip and his family, the Tates, and the Weiders of Weider Brewing. I have a few points for having kept Kip alive through hard times, and for having had the wit to put him into the company of rich people content to let him tinker and fiddle and make them far richer than they already were.

Subjectively, I spent half a lifetime at Fire and Ice. On the calendar it was four days. My best pal kept on sleeping, waking up for water ever less frequently. I wondered if his medication didn't do more than just manage pain. Keeping Morley in Nod seemed like a good idea, medically. It was less optimal for those of us who are naturally impatient.

I kept thinking that if that was me I would have been up and running already-if somebody didn't fix me so I couldn't.

Belinda's doing. Had to be. She thought it was more important for Morley to heal than it was for us to get out and mix it up with villains.

I was thinking stupid and knew it. And was afraid that just sitting watch over Morley would end up with me hating him.

Miss Tea invited herself in occasionally. She did not become less antagonistic. Finally, though, she turned up in a less gloomy mood. "The Capa says it's time to move him. After his supper and evening cleaning. If you need to make special preparations, tell me now."

I mentioned a lamb-and-rice dish that I liked, chattered about how I would miss the place that had been home for so long.

"You've been here less than a week."

"It feels like so much longer."

"It did to us. But you're just being a wiseass. I have the Capa's promise that I don't have to put up with any crap."

"Uh-oh."

"Exactly. Get your stuff ready. I especially want that arsenal under the bed gone before somebody takes legal notice. The books stay home."

"I'll see if I can't send up a few that are more interesting."

"Now you're being a dick."

"I can't help it. It's being cooped up in here."

"Now you're going to blame your personality defects on us, too?"

Ouch! "Good thing we still love each other."

Ghost of a smile. "Will where you're going be any better?"

I restrained myself. Maybe not. My responsibilities wouldn't change. "I don't know. Come by some time and see."

25

As promised, Belinda turned up with several burly henchmen after supper. DeeDee and Crush got Morley back into the rags he was wearing when he showed up. Most of the blood had been scrubbed out. The holes hadn't been mended. Mixed feelings floated around. DeeDee and Crush were sad to see Morley go, though neither ever exchanged a word with him. Despite all the attitude, Miss Tea was unhappy, too. She turned out the off-duty staff to move Morley and my stuff.

"A hearse?" I asked Belinda when I got down to the street. "You're taking him away in a hearse?" Where did she even find one? There can't be ten in the whole city.

"Yes. Put on the hat and coat that Joel has for you. Then climb up and take the post position."

"What are you talking about?"

"Get up on the seat beside the driver. Try to look like a professional."

"A professional what?"

"That's always the question with you, isn't it? Move! We don't have time for games."

Four men emerged from the back door of the hook shop. They behaved exactly like men sneaking a corpse out of a place where it shouldn't be found. I considered leaving Miss Tea with a buss on the cheek and Crush with a promise to visit soon, decided to be more mature, walked away from what would have been signature behavior a few years back. My best pal was on that litter, under that black woolen blanket, and several people, including me, were counting on me to get him where he needed to go with no damage added.

I hustled over for a costume fitting.

Joel was a slim hard case with zombie eyes. He put me into a long black coat and a semierect black hat, like a soft cone, nearly a foot tall. With the hat I acquired the long, twisted sideburn curls of the morticians' guild. The hat had wig elements built in. Joel said, "Quit grab-assing and get up on the post. And, yes, the hat is real. Move!"

Maybe that was why you never recognize a mortician when he isn't on duty. He wears a disguise at work.

The coat cramped my shoulders. It hung to my ankles. The climb to the seat was difficult. The goofy damned hat slipped down into my eyes.

I settled to brood and nurture my resentment of the man who had overturned my life by getting himself all stabbed up. If the damned fool could've skipped that I'd have been snuggling with my favorite redhead.

The hearse was not a tall wagon, though the seats were high. The driver, seated to my left, asked, "You heeled, Slick?"

"Lightly." I showed him my head knocker. "The character with the ratty ginger hair put my heavy equipment in with the client."

The man chuckled. He was an old, long drink of water who looked like this might be his true calling. "Client. I like that. Nice stick, too. Good enough for tonight. Won't no resurrection men mess with this mob."

Two mounted men led, followed by Belinda's coach with thugs all over it. Then came another armed rider, the hearse with the mighty Garrett in the post and an armed thug on a running board to either side. One of those was my new pal, Joel. Behind the hearse were two more horsemen.

"What might resurrection men be?"

"Body snatchers. It's a problem lately. Somebody is buying youngish corpses that're in good shape. Where you been, Ace? Out of town?"

"So to speak. Stealing corpses, eh?" This was the first I'd heard about that. But there had been no reason for the subject to come up while I was babysitting. And less so before that. Nobody had a reason to keep me posted. My business was to protect Amalgamated from the larceny of its workers and the predations of intellectual pirates. Ditto for the Weider breweries.

The hearse jerked. I slammed against the back of my seat. The driver said, "You got to pay attention, Stretch. You're supposed to be looking out for me and him inside. Him being dead and all, he probably won't come back on you if you nod off and the boogie boys get him. But your old pal Cap'n Roger, here, he's gonna come back hard. Especially if'n he gets kilt."

"I have problems paying attention." Problems I had not had in ante-Tinnie times. "You notice me getting glassy-eyed, give me an elbow in the ribs. I'm hell on wheels when I am paying attention."

"I sincerely hope I don't get to see you in action, Bud."

I guessed Roger to be about sixty. That meant he had done a turn in the Cantard and had made it home. Which meant he remembered guys who couldn't focus. All of us who made it back remember guys who couldn't focus. Their bones decorate the desert down there.

The convoy headed south, swung onto Grand, then took that down to my home neighborhood. The streets weren't busy. We didn't attract an unusual amount of attention. I strove valiantly to stay alert, for the sake of my best pal and my new friend Cap'n Roger. It took about half an hour for Roger to decide I was ready for an elbow.

I could not turn off my mind. Calm just would not come.

Cap'n Roger's elbow wakened me as the parade neared my place in Macunado Street. I settled into reality with the suspicion that I'd had an epiphany that I could not now recall because I was too dumb to pay attention at the moment of revelation.

Since I mostly worried about how Tinnie and I were getting along, I guessed that I must have lost a surefire means of dealing.

The hearse stopped even with the steps to my stoop. As I dismounted I noted the neighbors coming out. The door opened. Singe and Dean came outside. Then I felt the reassuring presence of the Dead Man, awake and deeply interested.

Thank you Singe, you wonder child.

In moments I felt more at home and more relaxed than I had for a long time.

26

I would like to say that the depth of Belinda Contague's commitment to Morley was reflected in her willingness to walk into a place where her thoughts could not be kept secret, but. .

Her willingness is tempered by a cautious application of technology.

"What?"

Once upon a time a band of junior sorcerers, amongst other sins, created a mesh able to keep me from seeing their thoughts.

I remembered. I considered Belinda more closely. "She isn't wearing a wig."

I was in the hallway, adding to the congestion. People were everywhere, getting in each other's way. Morley was supposed to go into what had been my office, back in antiquity. Singe had cleared it out, then had installed a bed, chairs, and a few other bare-bones amenities. The guys with the litter couldn't figure out how to make the turn through the doorway.

This room was smaller than the last but here I would not be confined to one space. I could roam from room to room and floor to floor, and even go down into the cellar. Wide open spaces, compared. And Singe would be more interesting company than the surly folk at Fire and Ice.

I backed into Singe's office while the litter boys twisted and shoved and argued. Joel and Belinda barked advice that only added to the tumult. I wondered what the neighbors thought. You don't often see the morticians make a delivery instead of a pickup.

The mesh is next to her scalp, embedded in her natural hair.

"That's a lot of work gone to waste." If any of these brunos knew something Belinda wanted kept secret.

Too much was happening at once. I couldn't keep an eye on it all. The Dead Man had to make sure nobody collected souvenirs or hid in a closet.

It all worsened when Belinda went from the advisory to the imperial edict stage.

"Hey, woman! Yes. You. The pretty lady who forgets where she's at. Calm down. And get those extra bodies out of here." Her thugs had gotten Morley into his new quarters and established in his new bed. At which point I realized that we didn't have Crush and DeeDee to feed and change him anymore.

Belinda gave me the hard-eye. Then she did remember where she was, what she was doing, and who was there behind her, out of sight but maybe not quite out of mind. "Yes. All right. Joel, get the hat and coat from Mr. Garrett. The rest of you, go to Durelea Hall. Wait there. Joel, pay Roger and thank him for the use of the hearse. Worden, tell my coachman to wait at Durelea Hall, too."

I said, "I hate to give up the coat. I like the look." But I handed it over.

Joel said, "See Cap'n Roger. There's always openings in the mortician trade."

"I left some tools in the hearse. I'll need them. Would you be so generous as to run them up to the door?"

Belinda inclined her head slightly. Joel took that as an order. Off he went. The Dead Man touched me lightly, confirming my suspicions. I asked Belinda, "You spend much time around Joel?"

"Not really. Why?"

"He's got the bug bad. And he smells like the kind of guy who could get weird."

Belinda stared like I was a raving lunatic. Like I had accosted her on the street, insisting that she hear my theory about the royal conspiracy to conceal the truth about the mole people who lived in caverns deep under the earth. "You saw something that I missed?"

"I could be wrong. But the way the man watches you, when you don't know he's watching. . I'd say it's close to obsession."

"Good to know. I think."

Truly a human shark.

"You can still get a solid read?"

Not if you ruin it by talking about it.

Always a problem, me verbalizing my half of our conversations. "I'm out of practice."

An understatement.

After his appearance out front Dean had fled to the kitchen. He remained in hiding whilst the old homestead swarmed with villains, not out of timidity but to avoid being trampled. He emerged now. "Is the rush over?"

His great dread had been being told to feed the horde. He was irked enough because Belinda and I were still on scene and special needs Morley was lurking in my old office. "I'll need to do some serious shopping if there are going to be extra mouths to feed."

Singe told him, "Make a list. I'll have John Stretch deal with it. None of us should go out. It might not be safe."

Dean shrugged. He did not ask my opinion. He was used to Singe taking charge.

I caught on. Danger wasn't relevant. Singe was giving an old man an excuse to let someone else do his running.

Dean's years were catching up.

I said, "We need to decide how to handle Morley. Belinda, you'll be busy back in the world. Singe and I can, maybe, muddle through an occasional feeding, sponge bath, or linen change, but we aren't qualified to do it regular. We'll need somebody trustworthy." Because he or she would not be live-in. There was nowhere to put anybody.

Singe said, "Taken care of, Garrett. Some of John Stretch's women will handle it."

Singe had everything covered already. There was no need to fuss.

Belinda said, "I'm not needed here anymore."

"Don't go," I said. "We haven't talked about what you found out the last few days."

"Nothing, basically."

I waited for an opinion from the Dead Man. None came. "Nothing at all? That's hard to believe."

"What you believe is up to you. I'm going, now. I'll check in occasionally. If the lazy dick does wake up, send a message." She headed for the door, striding manfully.

The Dead Man touched me lightly-just a gentle suggestion that I keep my mouth shut till she was out of the house.

27

I shut the door, did a quick mental catalog of the faces I had seen watching. There were dozens, still, even with the hearse and coach gone. Some were Belinda's bodyguards. None of the others tripped an alarm. None made the Dead Man wonder, either.

Mr. Dotes' presence will not remain secret. A clever questioner could pluck a detail from this dim witness and that and assemble an approximation of our situation.

"And? So what?"

That was me being too sure that I was untouchable inside my own house. My watchful partner brought my overconfidence to my attention.

I am ever most effective when my presence and abilities are unknown. One would think that you had worked that out for yourself by now.

I was about to spin a big argument. He cut me off. How would you deal with me, given the knowledge you have?

A couple notions popped into mind immediately. And I limit my options by failing to be as ruthless as some.

You see. It is all in knowing what you are up against. Which is why my people never reveal all there is to know about us, to friend, foe, or sibling.

Wisdom with which it was hard to argue. At the moment I was thinking the best way to get him and Morley at the same time would be a swarming attack with firebombs. Light the place up and burn everybody inside.

There are people out there able to do that and sleep like a baby afterward. People who would do it for the price of a quality high.

Director Relway doesn't always seem like a bad idea.

You begin to see. We are most vulnerable to those who know who and what we are.

No doubt he meant that on multiple levels.

"I see. In fact, I see so clearly that I'm sure Belinda made a mistake by moving us here."

Let me suggest some possibilities. Perhaps she does not plan to leave Mr. Dotes here long. This may last only until it lures someone into range.

"We're bait?"

Possibly. She might, in addition, be pleased if I could excise a clue or two from Mr. Dotes.

"About?"

All of the great questions. Who? Where? What? Why? When? How? And who to? Or anything else that might lead to the cutting of selected throats. I am inclined to agree with Miss Contague about the potential value of the dig. Which will be difficult work. Exploring an unconscious mind, counterintuitively, is much more difficult than rummaging through a mind that is awake, aware, and trying to hide.

"I'll take your word for it. You being the self-declared expert."

Indeed. At this point you should find someone else to pester. I need all my minds to winkle out those things that Mr. Dotes does not know he knows.

28

One custom had not changed since my move to Factory Slide. Singe had kept up the payments on the cold well in the kitchen. Currently, that contained a keg of Weider Pale Ale, a Pular Singe favorite. My taste runs to something slightly heavier but the pale ale was plenty good after several days dry.

Singe and I both drew big mugs and backup pitchers before we headed for her office, leaving Dean preparing a meal obviously meant for more people than me, Singe, and Morley. We settled into the wonderful new furniture and began to scheme out how this thing would go.

I said, "First thing, I want to catch up on what you did last week, up on the north side." I took a sip of the pale. Tasty! "I saw you. They probably didn't tell you what was going on."

"Not a lot, no. I took the job because you asked me to in your note."

"And?"

"And what? You need to use small words and be very clear with us Other Races."

Was she serious? Or just messing with me? Most of my friends did. Singe had been an exception. "The tracking job. Where did that take you? What did you find? That might give me some clue about what I need to do to help Morley. I know you found something because you're you, Pular Singe, the best there is and maybe ever was."

"Wow! Doesn't that make me feel special?"

"Singe! Please."

"I keep forgetting that you're a gelding now. All right. Miss Contague asked me to backtrack a team of goats. I did, into Elf Town, to a small warehouse, where we found some totally ridiculous stuff."

"Meaning?"

"I can't think of a way to say it better."

"So just tell me."

"All right. The warehouse was maybe forty by sixty feet, two stories tall, all open inside. The goat cart left the warehouse through a pair of doors, each three feet wide and of normal height. They were barred from inside when we got there. Miss Contague's men broke in while Director Relway's Specials looked the other way."

Pardon me, children. I can make this easier for you both. It is a significant event that Garrett has no knowledge of beyond the fact that Miss Contague wanted that cart backtracked.

Singe said, "She knew goats are more pungent and persistent than people. Tracing them would be the easiest way to get a handle on our villain. May I get on with my report?"

No. Too much will be lost if you do it verbally.

Vaguely, I heard Singe use language unladylike even for a ratgirl, then found myself living a memory, riding behind her eyes from the moment she started the trace. Initially, there were flashes, excised moments, as the Dead Man skipped me along like a flat stone across a pond. The stills came closer and closer together. Then I was outside the aforementioned double doors. They had been painted recently, a repugnant flat olive with a repulsive odor.

Red tops stared the other way while Belinda's thugs broke through. Nobody came to protest the violation. Because the doors were standing open when they arrived the Specials were free to pass through and see if crimes were in progress inside.

Nobody was home. Belinda's men and the tin whistles alike produced lights, moved fast.

I was fascinated by the differences in how Singe and I sensed the world. For her, visual things were less crisp and weaker on color. Her depth of field was limited. She had trouble seeing clearly things that were more than fifty feet away. But the smells!

She lived in a rich, rich world of aroma.

Her brother once told me the sense of smell was dramatically more important to rats than to humans and most of the Other Races. I had believed him but not to this extent. The smells were overwhelming.

And, inside that place, they were not good. They were the smells of corrupting flesh, of chemicals and poisons, smells implanted in ratkind racial memory. A place that smelled like it was where Singe's ancestors had been created. That thought hit her the instant she stepped inside, before the first lamp shed light.

Light only confirmed truths evident to her genius nose.

I could be a little parasite swimming around in Singe's recollections but I could not fully appreciate her experience. My senses acknowledged much different priorities.

Once the raiders made light I saw that the place conformed to the dimensions Singe had reported. There were no internal walls except for the far corner on the left side where a space eight feet by ten was isolated behind partitions eight feet high. There was nothing overhead but framing for a peaked roof, the rooftree of which was twenty feet above the floor.

Ahead were numerous glass vats big enough to hold a human being. Several did. They could have been blown only by an artist with a knack for sorcery. Every thug and tin whistle instantly decided that discovering the provenance of the vats would lead them right to the devil who had created this abomination.

The intruders moved deeper into the warehouse. The stench of corruption grew thicker. Scores of dead flies floated in the solution in those vats without closed tops. There were no active flies. They came in the front door but did not make it all the way to the rotting flesh.

That did come from dead people. A twenty foot long, massive oak workbench stood against the back wall. It boasted three corpses in the process of disassembly. Extra parts lay scattered about. At the right-hand end of the bench sat the biggest vat in the place, only as tall as the table but three feet wide and six feet long. Scrap pieces could be swept off into a solution that had to be something ferocious-though becoming slightly diluted. There were chunks of inadequately consumed big bones in there.

Singe had shut down all but the observer part of her mind. She handled the horror better than I would have. Certainly better than Belinda's soldiers and the tin whistles did. Several left and would not come back. Others did return but absent their latest several meals. Only the Windwalker, Furious Tide of Light, seemed unaffected. She moved through the place slowly, examining everything.

Experiencing all that through Singe's nose was no joy, though to the primal rats from which she descended stinky meat had meant food.

Singe paid little attention to the Windwalker. I was unable to watch the lethal waif saunter about, surrounded by a ten foot come-no-closer spell. Singe was interested only in the manufactory of horror.

That was what she had found. A place where monsters were made from pieces of dead people. It might be the foulest necromantic den TunFaire had turned up in centuries.

I felt frustrated. She didn't just pay no attention to the Windwalker, she didn't poke where I would have poked. Though she did better than I might have, really. I would have focused on the Windwalker. She was remarkable in so many ways, including by being off the Hill, one of TunFaire's top sorcerers. And, once upon a time, she had made it plain that she was inclined to stand very close to a certain professional investigator.

Garrett!

Nothing like a hammer between the eyes to make you concentrate.

Singe left the others for the walled-off section. It had a makeshift door that could be latched from either side. It was ajar. She pushed it open. "Can someone bring a light?"

One arrived quickly. Singe and the light bringer entered the room. The Windwalker followed. She did something mystic to create a better light.

The space was a child's room. Dirty clothes were scattered everywhere. An unmade bed was occupied by a large, tattered stuffed bear. Clutter was everywhere. It included moldy remnants of unfinished meals. The tin whistle with the lantern observed, "Somebody likes stuffed critters." There had to be fifteen of those, mostly large. The clothing was girl stuff, in what seemed to be a variety of adolescent sizes. Singe never actively examined those.

Singe sniffed. The Windwalker began an intense visual examination. The tin whistle asked, "He kept a kid prisoner?" Jumping to the obvious conclusion. "We need to get this guy."

Furious Tide of Light said, "Would you step outside, officer? Watch from the doorway if you like. Our first task will be to find out who lived here." She let Singe stay. Singe was the miracle girl.

The miracle girl didn't pay attention to what the Windwalker was doing. Near as I could figure, the woman was doing the same as Singe, only sniffing for magic.

And that was that. Furious Tide of Light decided that the place ought to be evacuated and cordoned off. A guard would be posted and no one would be allowed in except at Prince Rupert's direction. Singe learned what she could but had to leave with everyone else. She reported to Belinda, then came home. Nothing more had been heard.

Amongst the things I found while Miss Contague was with us was an angry recollection of being asked to drop her private investigation by the Crown Prince.

29

I said, "That was amazing stuff. But what does it have to do with Morley?"

For that connection you must be patient. I have begun exploration but the work goes like trying to fell a tree by gnawing through the trunk.

Singe rubbed her temples. "That was no fun. I hope that is the last time we will go over it."

I have it memorized, now. I can relive it whenever I want. I will not trouble you again.

I started asking questions. I have that habit. Singe said, "You saw what I saw. You have every scrap of information I did. I need to see my brother before I get too giddy."

"Speaking of John Stretch. Some of his people were outside the henhouse with you. What was that all about?"

"Belinda planned to use them somehow. And Humility had them there to look out for me, too. Belinda changed her mind and paid them off."

"After she got warned off."

I might want to talk to her about that.

No. She would wonder how you knew. Then she would conclude that her hairnet is not infallible.

Singe got up. "Shut the door behind me." And, "I won't be long."

She wasn't. I was still standing there, enjoying a mind-sharing experience with the Dead Man, cataloging faces in the street. I watched Singe approach with two brawny ratwomen. Old Bones told me, Nothing remarkable out there. One watcher from Miss Contague's enterprise whose sole task is to see who else is watching.

"That's it? There's nobody from the Al-Khar?" I opened up for Singe.

Does the woman up the street still maintain a Watch outpost?

"Get with the times. It's not the Watch anymore. It's the Civil Guard these days."

And the answer to the question? The woman up the street?

"Mrs. Cardonlos? Singe? Is Mrs. Cardonlos still a stringer for the red tops?"

"Yes. But since you have been gone she does not have a regular team staying there. She rents rooms for real, now. Let me get these two started on Mr. Dotes."

The burly, badly dressed ratwomen looked at Singe like she was a goddess. They'd never seen a ratperson in a conversation of equals with a human. And Singe was female!

One eyed me like she thought there was something wrong with me.

I followed but stayed in the hallway while Singe explained the job. The ratwomen had done this kind of work before. They had no trouble understanding. Cued by the Dead Man, Dean brought a tray with food for the help as well as Morley.

Before he went back to the kitchen Dean offered a wan smile and said, "The excitement is back."

Not really. We were going to sit here and do every bit of the nothing we had done at Fire and Ice. Everything else would be in the hands of others. Professionals. And criminals.

A warn-off by the gods themselves would not keep Belinda from digging.

I hoped no one on the law-and-order side pushed her. She was crazy enough to push back.

Dean went to bed before the ratwomen finished. I helped Singe clean up; then we resumed gossiping and honoring Weider's beer.

It didn't take much of the latter to slow me down.

I meant to quiz Singe on how I could handle Tinnie. But I stayed sober enough to realize that was stupid. Singe was barely an adult. She wasn't human. And Tinnie was unique, possibly unfathomable by Tinnie Tate herself.

Eventually I dragged myself upstairs. My room was the way I had left it, except that somebody had cleaned it and had made up the bed with fresh linens.

Singe was altogether too efficient. And was, probably, resenting my intrusion into her quiet, orderly world.

30

There were four sleeping rooms on the second floor of my house. The biggest, stretching across the front, was mine. Dean's room spanned the house in back, except for a storage closet and space taken by the stairs. Singe occupied the largest of the remaining rooms, which sat on the west side of the central hallway. In area, it almost matched Dean's. The fourth room-our guest room-contained a seldom-used bed and lots of stuff that should have been thrown away. We used to hide somebody there once in a while.

There were two real, glazed windows in my room. They were not barred because there was no easy way for villains to get at them. Both looked down on Macunado Street. The one to the east might as well have not existed. I've never opened it and seldom looked out it. The other, beside the head of my bed, had seen some action. Once upon a time I would stare out it while I ruminated. Tonight, as always in warm weather, it was open a few inches so cool night air could get inside.

I liked sleeping in a cool room.

I had the opportunity that night. The temperature plummeted after sundown. At one point I wakened and added a light blanket to the sheet that had been adequate earlier. Later, I wakened again and used the chamber pot, setting some beer free. Then I wakened a third time, needing a heavier cover and with my bladder ready to explode.

The sky had been overcast during the afternoon and evening. That had cleared. The light of an unseen moon splashed the rooftops and turned them into a weird faerie landscape.

My aim was less than perfect. I missed the pot completely to start. Disgusting. I gobbled something incoherent meant to be an appeal to the Dead Man. No telling what I thought he could do. I got no response, anyway.

Then I saw the ghost.

The specter drifted down out of the night and came toward my window like a vampire in a dream. "But vampires don't really fly," I reminded myself. "They just jump really far." Vampires can leap for altitude or distance but they don't flit like bats. Nor do they turn into bats, much as they might want the prey community to think they do.

I calmed myself, completed my business, formulated a plan for cleaning up before Singe or Dean discovered the evidence. Then I checked the window. And nearly panicked.

The flying woman was still there, hair and clothing streaming in the breeze. Her dress was something light and white that, in moonlight, made me think of fashionable grave wear. And reminded me of what I had seen vampire brides wearing in the nests in the adventure where I first butted heads with Tinnie Tate.

My ears kicked in. I heard my name. Then my brain shed sleep enough to put it all together. That was the Windwalker, Furious Tide of Light. And she wanted in.

So, naturally, I remembered that vampires, like most evils, have to be invited in the first time. And I recalled my reaction to this woman last time our paths crossed.

She didn't look like she had seduction in mind. She looked troubled.

I raised the window as high as it would go, which was not much. I turned up my bedside lamp. The Windwalker, being a wisp of a woman, drifted through the narrow opening.

I settled on the edge of my bed, waited, hoping she would feel no need to pace over there by the chamber pot. She glanced around, shoved my dirty clothes off the only chair, settled. She turned the lamp back down. "A watcher might wonder."

Assuming he failed to notice a flying woman in her nightgown sliding in the window. "You didn't ride anything this time."

"A broomstick isn't necessary." She noted my interest in her apparel. "The King held a ball at Summer Hall. I was invited. He has aspirations." She spoke softly.

So. Not a nightgown. "I see." I matched her soft voice. Singe would invite herself to join us if she heard us talking. "And now you're here."

"Yes. It was on the way."

Only by the most circuitous route.

31

"I'm frightened. Strange things are happening. They're outside my control. I don't deal well with that sort of circumstance."

She spoke like she wanted me to understand, not like she wanted to be comforted, which was how my head worked when she was around.

"I'm lost but I'm listening."

"Otherwise, I'm not sure what my problem is. Actually, I just know that one is shaping up. Besides being able to stroll through the air I'm strongly intuitive, but randomly. I can't control it and don't dare rely on it. Right now I intuit that something abidingly dark is afoot. Powerful people are trying to cover it up. I can't understand why."

"You wouldn't be one of those yourself, would you?"

She seemed genuinely confused. "What do you mean?"

"Last time I was involved in weird goings-on involving secret labs and illegal experiments, your daughter and her friends were in the middle of it. You and your father went balls to the wall to make sure they didn't get eaten alive for their foolishness."

"Kevans isn't involved this time. I don't think any of the Faction kids are."

Kevans' gang of misfit genius friends called themselves the Faction.

"How come it sounds like you're trying to convince yourself?"

"I admit it. Kevans does lie to me. When I see her. Which is hardly ever anymore."

"She's not living with you?"

"She has her own place. I don't think she learned much last time. And I'm scared that some of her other friends might be involved. Or might know who is. And Kevans wouldn't say."

"Teen solidarity. But, involved in what?"

"Exactly."

"Teen solidarity usually collapses in the face of real consequences."

"I don't think Kevans is involved." She was waffling based on wishful thinking. "But she might be close to someone who is. I don't want to press her. Our relationship is complicated and fragile."

"I know. But how come you're here?"

"Let me tell you about my week." Which she did, wasting few words. "When the business on the edge of Elf Town broke Prince Rupert asked me to investigate. That ended after we found the warehouse where somebody was using parts from dead bodies to assemble custom zombies."

"Singe told me."

"I thought she would. She got warned off before I did."

"Uhm?"

"What did she tell you about that hellhole?"

I sketched Singe's report.

Furious Tide of Light said, "The girl who stayed in that room and slept with that stuffed bear was no captive."

Singe was sure the room's inmate had been a girl, too. "Singe said she was young."

"In terms of socialization, possibly. But no child would have the strength and knowledge to do what she was doing."

I ruminated briefly, then said, "An old woman. A goat cart. Something that behaved like and might have been a giant slug. Two dead men, cut down by sorcery. ."

"Who have vanished. I was kept away from them. The old woman vanished, too. Cart and goats have gone the way of the dead men."

"And nothing has happened since." I guessed because I hadn't even been fed what the mushrooms get.

"Nothing."

"But you're worried about Kevans. You've developed some disturbing suspicions."

"Not really. I have some fears. I've been unable to support them, which is a good thing. I am intuitively convinced that we're dealing with someone young, female, powerful, rogue, and entirely amoral, though."

"I see. But back to basics. How come you're here? What do you want from me?" I was determined to make a fully adult effort to remain faithful to the redhead in my life.

"I want to hire you. I think. I remember you from before." The lighting was feeble but it was enough to reveal her embarrassment.

"I'm taken."

Wan smile, without comment, in a manner that said exactly what she was thinking. My defenses were male defenses. And she did have a power besides intuition and flight. She could excite the statue of a dead general if she chose to turn it on.

I had seen her reduce a crowd of skilled tradesmen to drooling idiots with no conscious effort.

But tonight she was totally serious.

I wished I knew her situation better. She said she was estranged from her father and daughter. How much so? Her father had run every detail of her life, back when, despite her being one of the most powerful sorcerers in the kingdom. She had not been long on social skills. I couldn't imagine yesterday's Furious Tide of Light surviving on her own.

I shifted the subject. "What about the other Faction girls? I don't recall them that well. Could one of them be our resurrection man?"

"I only knew the ones that came to our house. They were all odd. There were more than I saw. Kids came and went. Some never really belonged to the clique."

"And some were cross-dressers. Including Kevans."

"That, too."

"Any of those kids connected to the Royal Family?"

She shrugged, not surprised. She had considered the question. "Not that I know of."

"What's the mood on the Hill?"

She frowned. Maybe she hadn't thought about that.

"This will reflect on all of you. You want to police yourselves. This makes it look like you need outside help. The villain fled to the Hill twice."

"No. Toward the Hill."

I had to give her that. The monster may have done that as misdirection. "What are your neighbors saying?"

"I don't know. I don't have much to do with them. I'm not comfortable with the ways they think."

The mental work behind the mad laboratory only exaggerated the attitudes of most Hill folk. Furious Tide of Light was the most sane and least dangerous of any I'd ever met.

"All right. Let's lay it out. Straight up honest. What do you want?"

"I don't want to be shut out. I guess Prince Rupert doesn't trust me after the thing with the giant bugs."

"Understandable. That involved another secret lab."

"I know. I see why he might think what he's thinking. That doesn't change what I feel. I want you to help find out what's really going on."

"All right. You're worried about your daughter. But why not stand back and let the professionals do their job?"

She did not offer an answer.

"So. You're not just worried. You want to be a step ahead so you can cover for her again. Even if she's behind the ugliest criminal incident we've seen in years."

"Yes. Sort of."

"Then Prince Rupert did the right thing when he shut you out."

"She's my baby, Garrett. I can't just let her. ."

"And you can't keep covering. If she can't get a handle on the concept of consequences she'll just keep getting into trouble. You saw the inside of that warehouse. And six people died in two days. You can't make excuses and cover up something like that."

She shrugged. She was near the point where many women turn on the waterworks. She refrained.

32

A tree fell in the wilderness inside my head. Lucky me, I was there to hear the thud. "You've been thinking about this since you saw that stuffed bear."

She admitted, "Your ratgirl friend made me think you were more involved than you said."

"Singe was working for Belinda Contague. She's an independent operator. I don't live here anymore. Which you know. Because you checked up."

She nodded.

"Then you know my real part in everything."

"You're really babysitting your friend."

I nodded.

"Don't you want to know who did it?"

I nodded again. "But I've gotten patient in my old age. I won't do anything till Morley is ready. If the Guard or the Syndicate haven't dealt with it by then we'll see what we can do. It seems odd for you to be pushing revenge when you're afraid your daughter might be involved."

"I don't know what I'm doing. I'm scared and out of my depth. You're the only one I know who does what you do."

I believed her. Including that she would hire me when I might head straight for the kid she wanted to protect. She had been sheltered her whole life.

"So you figure on defying the Prince-for Kevans' sake, even though the best thing now would be to let everything take its course."

"I don't know what I'm doing! I never learned how. All I've ever had to do is be the Windwalker, Furious Tide of Light. I can do that. I can scatter an enemy regiment. I can bring down a castle. But I never learned how to raise a daughter. I never dealt with the quotidian world. Barate handled that so I could focus on being a prodigy."

I wanted to ask about her father but suspected that he would be an unwelcome subject.

"Let's back up to when you got the idea that Kevans-or the Faction-might be involved." I would be covering ground already trodden but she seemed inclined to lurk in the shadow of the truth, now.

"In that warehouse. In that room. That stuffed animal belonged to Kevans. Though I haven't seen it for years."

"You're sure?" I reminded myself that the simplest and most obvious explanation is usually the right one.

"There were other things that reminded me of the Faction. Rupert got the same feeling." So she had seen the Prince at her party.

"You need to talk to Kevans. Straight up, woman to woman, no drama. Then see Rupert again. Be square with him. He'll be square with you if he's really a friend. You might even talk it over with Barate. You're operating on emotion right now. Mostly on fear. You need good information. And you need to decide where you stand on the crime itself, personalities aside."

"I hoped you could gather the information."

She wasn't hearing me. "Don't take the dark side in this. It will just destroy you."

Her jaw tightened. She was going to get stubborn.

"Talk to those people. You have to realize that they'll go hard after whoever created that lab. The Hill is probably a turned-up ants' nest. Nasty people are going to start poking haystacks and turning over rocks."

Her expression told me that she hadn't really considered the reaction of her own class. Those people take a dim and lethal view of rogue sorcery.

"You're sure you won't help me?"

"I can't. Not how you want. Not however much I would like to. I have to stay here, with my friend. That goes to the bedrock of who I am. I'm here even though it could mean the end of my relationship with a woman who. ."

She cut me off. She didn't need to hear that. "All right. I won't put you in harm's way. I'll do the digging and use you as a sounding board. You just tell me what to do and how to do it."

Startled, I realized that we were not alone. I'd caught the ghost of a sense of amusement from down below.

"I've told you the first thing. The most important thing. Talk to people. An honest exchange could save us all a ton of trouble."

She didn't like that idea.

"If this is going to happen you have to put aside your quirks. You have to gut it up and go face-to-face. Promise me you'll see Rupert, Barate, and Kevans if you can, tomorrow."

I felt a ghostly touch of approval.

This would be interesting. I could play Dead Man in the web, directing the hoof work while I crocheted doilies.

"All right. I can't go out but I can help. You ready to put money into this?"

"As much as it takes."

"Curb the emotion. Emotion won't solve anything. Besides seeing the Prince, Barate, and Kevans, here's what I need you to do."

The intensity with which she listened was embarrassing.

33

I was groggy from lack of sleep when I toddled down for breakfast. I missed a step, lost my balance, and might have busted something if my flailing right hand had not snagged the rail on the left side of the stair. I ended up on my belly, shaking, aching in one bruised knee and embarrassed when Singe appeared at the foot of the stair.

"You all right? What happened?"

"Gravity ambush. I think I'm good. Though I might end up wearing a peg leg." I was starting to hurt where I banged my left hip on the edge of a step. "Let's see if I can make it the rest of the way without killing myself." I turned loose of the rail.

"If you are going to kill yourself, don't do it here. I'm too weak, and Dean is too feeble to shift a corpse."

I sensed amusement from old butterbutt.

Dean had come out to investigate. "We could cut him up into smaller pieces."

"That would make a mess. But we could infiltrate him into the resurrection scheme that's got everybody excited."

"Everybody?" I made it down without further mishap.

Dean said, "Tea's ready. Sausages and rolls are warming." He slipped back into the kitchen.

Singe said, "Good thing you weren't carrying your pot when you did that."

"Yeah. Good thing. But why would I be. ."

"Because Dean is having trouble getting up and down. He needs to keep both hands on the rails."

"Got it. Now tell me about everybody being excited."

"The news about the murders and the resurrection lab got out."

Not surprising. Too many people knew. Which I mentioned.

"You're right. I hear the public reaction has been strong. Maybe that's because they've gotten spoiled, shaded by the Civil Guard and the Unpublished Committee. Unorganized crime isn't a commonplace anymore. Something like this spooks people. They want it fixed. Fast."

We moved into the kitchen. Dean was just settling my breakfast onto the massive little table. He placed a bowl of stewed apples opposite me, Singe's favorite food. My hip bone barked when I sat down.

I asked, "How is Morley?" I'd drop in as soon as my belly was full.

"Unchanged. But healing. Doing well, physically."

"But?"

"Something inside doesn't want to come back. So I'm told."

"He did try, early on, at the other place." I had a momentary notion about him getting lost in Faerie, a willing captive of illusion.

"And then he decided not to try anymore."

"Is he working on it?"

"Of course. He says it might take a long time. It's some of the finest, most delicate work he's ever done. What do you think of the rolls?"

"I like them. Spicy. Sweeter than I'm used to."

"They're from a specialty bakery I found in Fointain Lane. Looks like you're done. Get on with your chores. You slept in so you've only got an hour before the meeting."

"What chores? What meeting?"

"We talked about this. You need to make up your room, deal with your pot, and gather your dirty clothing so it can be laundered. Then you have to deal with the trash. The dust-man's wagon will come through the alley this afternoon."

Changes, changes. They come in a blink of the eye these days.

My eyes must have been the size of saucers. I got the sense that Old Bones would have busted out laughing if he wasn't so far gone he no longer exercised a respiratory function.

Welcome to the new regime in the house on Macunado Street.

Like the new regime in TunFaire as a whole, writ small.

"What meeting?" I asked again, maybe a little too plaintively.

"I sent for some people who can help the Windwalker." I had not breathed a word about my night visitor. "You'll have to acquaint them with the facts of the situation. And you'll need to make sure they understand possible ramifications if they do get involved."

"All right, you. What have you done with Pular Singe? And what are you talking about?"

"I just told you."

"But. . If I wanted my life all planned and managed I could've just stayed on Factory Slide."

Oh, my! What did I just say?

"I am not running your life. I'm making it move more efficiently. This meeting had to happen, sooner or later. You would have gone at it piecemeal, catch as catch can."

"Exactly what I mean. Running my. ."

Children, enough! Garrett, please resist becoming all machomale excited because someone is thoughtful enough to ease your burdens. He put some power behind that. It was a command. Pour yourself a fresh mug, then join me for a moment before you start your chores.

This was not going to be a good day. I resented every minute already. I'm not self-employed because I care about efficiency. I'm interested in not having to do more than it takes to get by. Which was why I moved out of my mother's house as soon as I could.

Was that why she always favored Mikey?

Could be, come to think.

34

"Tell me something that makes sense," I told the Dead Man as I settled facing him. Shivering. My teacup sent up clouds of steam.

Life and afterlife have become more structured. Only you seem to consider that a bad thing.

"The world hasn't changed that much, has it? Everybody still wants to unload on me."

He was amused. He did not argue. I heard my mother telling me I had a wonderful mind. Why couldn't I just try to live up to my potential?

The amusement deepened, still absent comment.

"Did you find anything interesting in the Windwalker's mind?"

She believes you would make an excellent husband.

"What?" There was a hit from the blind side.

I know. If she can delude herself that deeply in a personal matter how can we possibly credit anything else inside her scrambled brain?

That was not what my expletive meant. "Are you making up for time lost?"

No. We have no time for amusements. You have chores that need doing. Pay attention. Feel sorry for yourself later. The Windwalker was, overall, as honest as she could be. She is frantic about her daughter. She is in the cleft stick of a quandary that no parent should have to face. Her only child may be a monster in human guise.

I could see the quandary. It might take a stronger spirit than mine to roll over on my own family, though that would save the lives of strangers.

You have done the equivalent. You have the strength to champion the right. The Windwalker's deepest fear is that her daughter may not only be a villain. She may have created corpses for her experiments.

What could I say to that?

Young, undamaged corpses would be at a premium. Many lost souls roam the byways of this city and are unlikely to be missed. Mr. Dotes could have stumbled onto the harvesting in progress. Nothing I have found in his mind rules that out.

"Look, I remember that kid. Her head was messed up because of her family situation but she wasn't homicidal. She was creative. Weird creative, like Kip. Not deadly weird."

You are correct. To that point. But people can change. When they do, it is usually for the worse.

"I take it you haven't had much luck with Morley."

Very little. He is remarkably closed. If he were an animal I might think he was hibernating. Inasmuch as he is intelligent I have to believe that something was done to keep him untouchable.

"He might never come back?"

He will be back. I promise. As the challenge grows bigger I become more determined. I will build him a path of escape. Henceforth, do not be startled if I reexamine every second of your recollections of your time together before you came here.

Clever Garrett got it in one. Morley had started to wake up. Then he had gone away. "Belinda's healer. We need to find him."

Yes. Though I was thinking about what tried to get in through the window.

"Maybe he just decided to dig a hole and pull it in after him."

That would not be in character. Enough. Do your chores. I have a visitor arriving momentarily. She is not comfortable in your presence.

That had to be his pet priestess, Penny Dreadful. He had taken Penny under his intellectual wing when she was little more than a toddler. He had mentored her ever since.

I considered lying back in the shadows at the foot of the stairs just to get a look but thought better of it. I was upstairs being domestic when Penny arrived.

35

I was still upstairs, taking a nap. Singe invited herself into my room. She poked me with a stiffened finger. Impossible! It couldn't be! Not across species as divergent as redheads and artificially intelligent rats.

"Ouch! Once was enough."

"Drag your lazy ass out and go downstairs. People are waiting. Their time is valuable, too. Look at this mess. You didn't do anything."

"I made the bed."

She snorted derisively.

"And I considered the possibility of changing the lock on the front door," I grumped, sourly enough for her to take me serious for a second. "That might get me some peace."

"I despair of seeing you grow mature and responsible."

"I don't. It isn't on my agenda."

"Be that as it may, you need to go downstairs. Otherwise, those people will drink all the beer and eat everything in the pantry."

"A blatant provocation of my natural inclination toward frugality."

"The correct word is parsimony, but if you prefer the illusion of thrift, indulge."

I was out of practice. I had to settle for being proud of me because I did not let my frustration overcome my self-control. I swung my feet off my bed, planted them firmly on the floor. "Look at me. I'm on my way. Now would be a good time for you to get yourself a head start."

Clever Singe realized this was not the best time for further nagging. Maybe she got private advice from the Dead Man. She scooted out.

I saw Dean leave the kitchen with refreshments as I descended the stairs. He staggered under the weight of the provisions. An absence of cups, mugs, plates, milk, and sugar bowls suggested that this was not his first run. The natural parsimony that Singe had mentioned kicked in-as she had intended.

A dull roar of conversation came from the Dead Man's room.

I followed Dean, wondering if I hadn't made some mad, long-term mistake when I took Singe in.

The Dead Man's room was wall to wall with bodies and faces. There was Saucerhead Tharpe, showing a touch of gray, with an extra layer of muscle around his midriff. There was Singe's brother Pound Humility, better known as John Stretch, gaudy in the latest ratman style. Jon Salvation was there, looking cocky and prosperous. Why the hell was he here? Looking for an angle for a new play? Sarge, one of Morley's oldest henchmen, stood alone, vaguely confused. Playmate looked awful. He had lost a hundred pounds. He was as gaunt as a man dying of starvation.

There were others, in disguise, maybe to avoid being identified by watchers outside.

Belinda had done a creditable job of turning herself into a slim, handsome dandy with a dark dash of a mustache, reminding me of the chap squirreled away in my old office.

General Westman Block looked like a wino who had wandered in unnoticed while the door was open. He looked confused. He was not well-known but everyone here had run into him before. No one seemed troubled.

There were people I did not recognize. I took it on faith that the Dead Man needed them.

I looked for a special one with red hair and came up with a count one short. Singe saw me checking. "I sent word. Maybe she'll come later."

I got no chance to respond. My own respite from recognition ended. People swarmed me. Saucerhead said, "Man, I didn't hardly know you, all dressed weird, and shit."

Jon Salvation stroked his pointy little beard, which wasn't the same color as his hair, and said something about me having adapted my fashion flare to something showing a distinct feminine influence.

A third kind soul mentioned that I was developing a pot. Someone else said, "That happens when you don't got to work for a living no more."

To which Saucerhead responded, "Garrett never did do no more work than it took to keep from starving. He just had a run of luck." Stated with a touch of envy. Like me, Tharpe worked as little as possible but his luck never shined. Too often he had nothing more than the clothes on his back.

36

Amongst those people who stayed quiet and didn't move much were Sarge and Playmate. A good look at Play left me shocked. Not only had the man lost a huge amount of weight, he stooped to where he was no taller than me. He looked like he had to deal with bad chronic pain.

He does. Had I been aware of his situation I would have made something good happen for him, long ago. Without you here these people never visit. I remain unaware of what is happening in their lives. On a positive note, I have gotten Miss Contague to send for the healer who worked on Mr. Dotes.

"Clever. Two birds."

Probably just one. Playmate's cancer appears to be advanced.

I could say nothing more out loud.

I shook hands, slapped backs, exchanged hugs. I asked Jon Salvation where his shark woman was. He astonished me by reporting, "I don't think she was invited."

"You came anyway?" I blurted.

"I do things like that these days. You'll find me more independent than the Remora you remember." He had been called the Remora because he swam in the slipstream of his girlfriend, Winger, betraying no personality of his own. "I expect she'll turn up anyway. She'll be sure the lack of an invite was an oversight."

I looked over at Singe. She was doing a credible job of being the lady of the house, seeing to our guests while being smoothly sociable. Even the prejudiced were unable to consider her as just a ratwoman.

Neither Belinda in disguise nor General Block in disguise did any socializing. With the exception of brief exchanges with John Stretch, neither spoke to anyone.

The more I looked around the bigger the crowd seemed to be. I kept spotting people I didn't know. I saw John Stretch associates helping Dean with the refreshments. I saw people I did know but would not expect at a let's-decide-what-we'll-do party themed round Morley Dotes.

Singe's office was open to the crowd, too. People drifted back and forth in search of conversation. Morley himself had been declared off-limits. Three of John Stretch's worst villains were in there and had permission to hurt people who wouldn't take a hint.

There were exceptions, one-on-one and closely watched. Sarge. Saucerhead. Belinda. Me.

Once I lost my appeal to the mob, Belinda and the General drifted closer. Block shook my hand, told me I was looking good, then said how wonderful it was that I was showing some civic interest again. I kept a straight face and did not ask when he thought that I ever demonstrated any civic mindedness. He asked, "Can we slip into your kitchen for a second? This isn't private enough."

"How can I say no?" Though there wouldn't be much privacy back there, either, what with Dean and his ratfolk assistants underfoot.

This may be important. Do not waste time fencing, Garrett. I sense the imminent arrival of someone who may be Miss Contague's healer. He is very closed. Also, the population of loafers has begun to grow out on Macunado Street.

We stepped into the kitchen, conveniently as Dean and his helpers trained out with trays that looked like each ratman was carrying his own weight in drinks and treats.

I began to suffer grim thoughts about how the Dead Man better not be only plundering minds, he had best be bringing the right people together to talk about what needed doing. And he had better be putting the right ideas into the right minds while he was at it. Because this was going to bankrupt me if it went on for long.

I drew a mug, asked, "Fill you up?" Headshakes. I settled at the overloaded table. "Talk to me."

The General seemed disappointed.

He had changed. The weary but determined middle-aged functionary had become a worn-out elder bureaucrat.

"Garrett, I don't know what to say. I hear you've changed. I'm told you've turned into a model subject of the Karentine Crown."

"I always was."

"Pardon me? You were always a stubborn, obstructionist asshole. You had no interest whatsoever in forwarding the welfare of the commonality."

What the hell? "You mean I wasn't excited about 'forwarding' the cause once Deal Relway defined it for me."

Do not argue. Accept. From his viewpoint he is stating one hundred percent truth.

Meaning he got to define the welfare of the commonality. "I love you, too."

No two people see everything the same. You know that. At the moment it is important that we not antagonize our allies simply for the pleasure of being difficult.

Hang on. Even my partner thinks I refuse to cooperate with the tin whistles, and hold back information, just to tweak them?

"Garrett? You here?" the General asked. "Or have you died and gone to hell?"

"I'm sorry. I was in the throes of what might have been a grand epiphany." On the other hand, it might have been breakfast backing up. "What do you need?"

"We Guardsmen have a morale problem that is becoming a moral problem."

"I hope that's not contagious."

"Exactly. All the good we've done could start to unravel if this mess keeps on the way it has been."

"You lost me."

"Will you. .?" He glared in exasperation.

"Ever since we met you've accused me of stonewalling or deliberately holding things up. You were right. When it was in the interest of my client. Maybe one time in ten. I knew why you were barking, then. This time I don't. All I'm doing is protecting a friend who came within a frog's feather of getting himself stabbed to death. In case somebody tries to finish the job. I've been told by half the people here and some who aren't that this is all I'm allowed to do. It's all I intend to do. And at least one woman doesn't want me doing that much."

"Touchy."

"Damned straight."

"Why do you have all these people here, then?"

"I don't. I didn't invite them. Did you get an invitation from me?"

"No. But this is your house."

"It's a place where I'm staying because I thought Morley would be safer here than anywhere else."

He gave me a dubious look.

"The first I knew about this was just a while ago when Singe woke me up from a perfectly beautiful nap and told me to come help."

"You always blow a creditable cloud of smoke."

"Again, what do you want?"

"We've been warned off this case."

"You're going to let it slide? You lost people."

"Garrett, can the shit. For the rest of us this isn't about Morley Dotes. About him and his problems I don't much care."

"Tell him that."

"Gladly. Is he up for an interview?"

"He's in a coma."

"Too bad. But his testimony isn't critical. What is critical would be our incorruptibility. When we started out Deal and I were promised that no one would be above the law. Not even the Royal Family. Prince Rupert stood behind us when we stepped on sensitive toes. But this time he's telling us to back off. We have to let it go. The same word has gone out to the Syndicate."

"Who has the drag to bully the Crown Prince?"

"Exactly. We mean to find out."

"You're not going to back off?"

"We're going to be less obviously vigorous. Unobtrusive. But the more pressure we get the more we'll dig. Same pertains for the Syndicate, I suspect. You push the Contagues, they push back."

"You think dread of an explosion in production of dead bodies might be why the Prince wants to stand down?"

"No. I think somebody on the Hill, somebody who can make even Rupert shit his knickers, wants the thing left alone. I'll even go so far as to guess that the Hill as a whole wants it left alone."

"Because the villains might be some of them?"

"In part. But more because if we poke our noses in very far we're likely to turn up all sorts of things they don't want the public to know."

I poured myself some tea. Dean was outside the kitchen door telling me to hurry up. He had to get back to work.

I raised a questioning eyebrow.

Block said, "I'll stipulate that most Hill folk are as distressed by the warehouse as the rest of us. But they want to handle it themselves."

"So let them."

"And next time somebody wants to shut the Guard out? Next time somebody wants to handle justice privately?"

Block had a fierce case of the same disease that ruled Relway. Most of the time it did more good than bad.

"All I can do is wish you luck. I'll be right here babysitting."

He didn't believe a word.

Sometimes there's no point trying to communicate with some people. They live everything inside their heads. Outside things that don't fit get ignored.

Westman Block was a good man. I liked him. But he could frustrate me like almost no one else but Tinnie.

"Come on in, Dean."

Dean burst in and got cracking. He was determined to render me destitute before the sun went down.

37

Belinda isolated me, in with Morley, amongst the deaf ratmen. "They insist that we back off. That we have to let this alone."

"They? We?"

"Don't play word games."

"I'm not. You know what I mean. Nobody has told me not to do anything. And the only we I'm part of is me and Morley."

"Then I'd have to ask why most everyone you know by name is here. I even saw that poisoner, Kolda, a minute ago."

"He's not a poisoner." Distracted. "I don't know why you're all here. I had nothing to do with that. Like I told the General."

She didn't believe me either. Someday I'll make a huge score because nobody will take me at face value. I could loot the Royal Mint, then run around yelling about how it was me that done it.

I did know what was going on. Singe and the Dead Man had cooked a plan to investigate out of my house. They would use people we had worked with in the past. I found it disconcerting that they weren't troubled by a Hill interest potent enough to make Prince Rupert back off. Old Bones must have seen a way to get away with defying that which must not be defied.

This was shaping up to be what I'd had in mind when I'd visited with the Windwalker. Who was not around today.

I asked, "Is that healer ever going to come?"

"Are you kidding? After what I paid him before?"

"And he isn't worried about my friend in the other room?"

"He doesn't know. I told him you spilled the medicine. That we'll want more. But first he has to take another look at Morley. I'm pretty sure there's something more wrong than what he thought before."

"And if he's a villain?"

"We'll know that straight off, won't we?"

We contemplated our mutual friend. Morley looked as peaceful as a man in a coffin.

I kept wondering why it was taking the healer so long to show.

He is out there. All the traffic makes him nervous. He does not like that but cannot shake his greed. He will come into the trap eventually.

My impatience faded. I just worried about Morley. Till my mind wandered off to Factory Slide.

An unexpected voice asked, "Garrett, are you all right?"

I looked up. "Gilbey?" Manville Gilbey and his recently acquired wife, Heather, were framed in the doorway. Gilbey was the number-two man in the Weider brewing empire. He seemed concerned. "I'm all right."

"We haven't seen you at the brewery lately. When I heard about your open house I thought we'd stop by and see what your situation is."

"It's marginal despair." I glanced at Morley. "What do you need to know?"

"Nothing, now. We've been circulating long enough to get a flavor. Max will stand behind you."

Of course, because Max Weider didn't like folks involved in illegal experimental sorcery. Several of his family were murdered by shape-shifting things created in abandoned beer vats. Max wouldn't mind exterminating the whole tribe of sorcerers.

Heather Gilbey was usually more forthcoming and social, naturally, than Manville, but today she just smiled and kept her mouth shut.

Gilbey told me, "Take care doing what you need to do, Garrett. We value you." He eyed Morley, then the ratmen with illegal weaponry. He knew Morley. Morley's restaurant was across from Max Weider's World Theater, where Heather was manager.

Heather gave me a slight smile before she stepped out of sight. I liked her fine but she was high on Tinnie's list. Tinnie had acted in several Jon Salvation plays. She had gotten a big head. A huge head. Heather wasted no time letting her know that her talents might be better appreciated elsewhere, a fierce stroke since the World is the only theater where female actresses are not expected to have other commerce with audience members.

Tinnie is not accustomed to failure and has almost no capacity for accepting criticism.

38

I had some quiet time with my friend, then, sharing the space with John Stretch's goons. I stared hard, willing Morley to come back.

Belinda stepped in. "No change?"

"None. There's definitely something not right."

"We should learn a lot from the healer."

"You sure he doesn't know about Old Bones?"

"Believe it or not, Garrett, almost nobody outside your acquaintance does. Particularly since you've been inactive for so long."

Things do get forgotten quickly in TunFaire. Maybe that's an urban survival skill.

"The Dead Man is barely a spook story. He's something kids scare each other with. Nobody really believes that he exists."

"Interesting."

"I have to go soon. But not right away. I want to be here for the healer."

"If he ever gets here."

"He'll show up. He might not come inside if he doesn't see me."

He would-unless he could shake off Loghyr mind control.

The healer is close now but is very uncomfortable. He is not a people person.

Belinda did not react. He had not included her. I told her, "His Nibs thinks the healer is finally here." Old Bones would avoid direct contact till it was too late for the man to get away. And, maybe, Belinda would go on believing her own thoughts were inviolate.

I felt a tickle of Loghyr amusement.

I told Belinda, "Your man is really nervous. Get him before he spooks." And, "Let's don't jump him before we lock the door behind him."

I got a hint of something like the old saw about teaching grandma to suck eggs. At the same time Old Bones used a gentle influence to move our guests into his room or Singe's office.

Moments later I said, "Doctor. There you are. I'm getting really worried about my friend."

The healer gripped his bag in front of his chest. He stared at the three ratmen. He looked like he had just been sentenced to hang.

"Are you all right?"

His mouth open and closed. Nothing came out. Belinda filled the doorway behind him. She did not keep her expression benign.

I said, "Don't mind these guys. They're here to protect Morley."

Almost inaudibly, the healer asked, "You spilled the medicine I gave you before?"

"Yep. Fumbled it when I was opening it. It hit the floor and rolled under the bed. It was empty before I could fish it out." He relaxed slightly. I grinned. "No, not really. That was a lie. We thought having you think that would help us get you here, you villain."

His eyes got big. He managed to turn even paler.

His attempt to flee failed totally. Belinda didn't move.

Oh, yes. He is guilty. The medication he provided was designed to keep Mr. Dotes unconscious. Our villain is greedy but he is not a murderer.

I told the little man in black, "Friend, you have reached a crossroads. This is the pivotal moment of your life. And it could be fatal."

Take care. He believes he still has options.

"The lady behind you isn't happy with you. She paid you to heal this man. You poisoned him instead. The gentleman behind her is General Block of the Civil Guard. He wants to ask you some questions, too."

Easy, Old Bones sent. Stop pressing. I have to get control of his body functions, especially his heartbeat. He could die if I do not.

I started to ask a question.

Silence! His heart is about to burst.

I'd heard of that in mice and horses but never a human being.

I raised a hand to Block and Belinda. We had to let the Dead Man work his magic.

Old Bones stilled, calmed, and reported, He was prepared for entrapment by a master hypnotist who was unaware that he might encounter someone like me. I have undone the commands driving him toward heart failure but I have failed to discover who placed those commands.

Inspiration. "Belinda, why did you choose this particular healer?"

"I went to the Children of the Light. I asked for someone. Then I proved that I could afford them."

Maybe that inspiration was halfway a dud. "How long did it take them to decide to help you?"

"Oh. Several days. More than three."

"You went to them before you came to me." Which didn't hurt my feelings. My skills as a healer are slightly inferior.

Old Bones sent, This one was given the assignment by lot. He was suborned between his first and second visits to Mr. Dotes. A great deal of money was involved. He has done wicked things before. This is the first time his perfidy has been detected.

The old devil was gleeful.

Belinda said, "You have a lifesaving opportunity, healer. That life being your own."

The Dead Man stabilized the healer's vitals, denying him the escape of death. I'm sure he plundered the man's memories at the same time.

I said, "I'm feeling generous. I'm going to offer you a chance to save two lives." Playmate was asleep in a chair in the Dead Man's room. I would make this greedy idiot heal him after he turned Morley around.

This is remarkably difficult, the Dead Man sent. I cannot negate the full regime of posthypnotic commands. What we want we will have to get quickly. The self-destruct sequence has only been stalled. I may not be able to hold it off indefinitely.

I looked at Morley, at the healer, at Morley again, and could not find in myself any sympathy for the healer.

39

I called General Block back. He had drifted away, seduced by the siren of free food and beer. Plus, for the moment, he was a celebrity. Even he craves admiration.

"See if Kolda is still here."

"The poisoner?"

"He's a chemist. An apothecary. A natural extracts guy." Why was I making excuses for Kolda? Because I kind of liked him? He did try to poison me, once upon a time.

"Whatever."

"Never mind. Skipper, find Singe. Tell her I need Kolda."

One of the ratmen left. While I waited I filled Block in on what we had dredged out of the healer while he was away enjoying his back-patting. He was aghast. "And now he's doing his damned best to die before we can get anything else. While he's practically begging Old Bones to save his ass."

Block lost color. He swallowed a few times. That one of the Children of the Light could be so twisted was a shocker, apparently.

In this mean city we should find nothing darkly amazing. Even in the age of police protection.

Block gurgled, "He's awake. I thought he was asleep. I was promised that he was in a full, deep sleep."

I got it, then. It wasn't the twisted healer. It was the Dead Man. I laughed. "Somebody lied. But not to worry. He doesn't poke around inside people just because he can. And when he does he passes on only what is germane. In this case, what this man knows about what was done to Morley Dotes. Meantime, we're going to lose him if he carries out the hypnotic instructions driving him."

"That can't be. I know a little about hypnotism. We use it in interrogations. You can't make somebody kill himself."

"Old Bones tells me you can if your victim doesn't know that's what he's doing. You make him think he's doing something else."

Whoever prepared this man was a genius. He started with a typical healer and made the man over into an assassin without triggering any serious conflict.

"And quick enough to prep him for Morley?"

Pay attention. We have established that this man has committed other crimes. I suspect that similar mental manipulations were used on Jimmy Two Steps.

"There is a connection?"

Information in General Block's mind, compared with facts in the healer's, makes that seem likely. The puppet master evidently agrees with the Al-Khar about you. You need to be kept away. You are a wild card. The cascade of events so far suggests that they might be right.

"Interesting." I began making further connections.

Yes. The attack on you and Miss Tate took place soon after Miss Contague decided to ask you to protect Mr. Dotes. Then, on successive nights, attempts were made to get you at Fire and Ice.

"Me? Not Morley?"

You, I am certain. Mr. Dotes would be useful collateral damage but would be neutralized anyway once he started his medication. You, however, have a history of stumbling around and causing avalanches of unexpected consequences. It is what you do. Particularly in the mind opposing us.

"This is someone we've run into before."

I expect only obliquely, if at all, with us taking no notice. Aha! I broke the code. I found the key to the sequence.

"Huh?"

The healer. I can save him. I have cracked the progression of suggestions laid into his mind.

"Good. Once you have him calmed down and set to go, turn him loose on Playmate. Accept no excuses."

Of course.

Block asked, "Interesting private chat?"

"Yes. He figured out how to save our healer assassin from himself."

"Excellent. I do have some questions for that man."

"Go through His Nibs. Otherwise, you'll be wasting your time."

Block did follow. He nodded, admitted, "This isn't the first bad guy to turn up with no notion why he did what he did and no idea who told him to do it."

Intriguing. The General is reflecting on thefts of chemicals that turned up in that warehouse.

"Bring them around, General. Let Old Bones chat them up. Meantime, how about you see the Children of the Light about this guy? They might be able to shed some light."

He refused to acknowledge my clever word play. "Ooh! That sounds like fun. Deal will be all over that. We wouldn't even be breaking any recent rules. This would be a separate case. An attempted murder possibly connected to successful murders that had no obvious connection with a warehouse in Elf Town."

I started to ask if the Guard had canvassed the neighborhood. I got a caution from the Dead Man. That had been ruled out by Prince Rupert.

"How about hunting the resurrection men? Has that been disallowed?"

Block smirked. "Not yet. But they're damned hard to find. They've been told to lie low and keep quiet by somebody who scares them more than we do."

That figured.

Belinda leaned into the doorway, which was the best she could do because of the crowd in the room already. "I got Kolda. It took a while. We had to run him down."

40

Block had arrived looking for one thing. He went out with something else in mind, but happy and eager to get to work.

The Dead Man would give him additional information. Soon the Al-Khar would be a-bustle. No one but the Director and the commanding general would know that the Guard was violating the spirit of their orders.

Kolda joined me in with Morley. He was nervous. Our history, while limited, left him no reason to think that he was in a good position. I told him, "You're an expert in chemicals and exotic herbs. My friend, here, has been poisoned. It's not lethal, it just keeps him from waking up. And it makes him heal really slow."

Kolda gave me a big-eyed, frightened look but didn't say anything.

"The pudgy character with Dollar Dan's paw tangled in his collar delivered the poison. That was given to him, along with a lot of money, by a third party, after Miss Contague engaged him to heal my friend. She gave him a lot of money, too."

Kolda had a worse flair for fashion than me. He couldn't keep his hair combed or his shirt tucked in. He was always nervous. His social skills were negligible. But he was a genius in his field. And he owed me.

I had insisted, to Block, that Kolda wasn't a poisoner. But he did poison me, once upon a time. I'm still breathing and complaining. The evidence suggests that I found the antidote.

I said, "Healer, give this man the bottle you brought today. Then Dollar Dan will take you across the hallway. Your redemption begins when you start work on Playmate."

He didn't want to do that. Freebies went against the code of the Children of the Light. "I understand." His voice was slow and toneless. He dug out a little bottle identical to the one he had given us during his visit to Fire and Ice.

I asked the air, "What are the chances this bottle contains the same ingredients as the first one?"

Indeterminate. Ten seconds passed. Clever catch, Garrett. He did, in fact, consult a contact after he heard that you needed more medicine. The excuse we provided was of a sort to excite the suspicions of a paranoid supplier.

"We do still have the original philter. Kolda can compare them."

The healer surrendered his new bottle. Dollar Dan hustled him across the hall.

I gave Kolda the original bottle. "This stuff goes three drops to a two-quart pitcher of water."

"Potent, then." With commendable caution he unstopped each bottle and took a gentle sniff. Of the new bottle he said, "This is vanilla, a touch of clove oil, another of castor oil, in wood alcohol. There is something more that I don't recognize." After sniffing the original bottle, he said, "This includes everything in the other bottle, with less of the unknown odor and more of something that smells like death."

"Definitely different formulas, then?"

"Yes. But subtly. Both would be deadly, in different ways."

I asked the air, "What do you think?"

You may be on the right trail. Neither oil of clove nor oil of castor ought to dissolve in cold water but their presence, with the vanilla, might be there to suggest that the concoction is medicinal.

"The poison has to be something that is effective in amounts so small. ."

The beans from which castor oil is rendered. They contain a poison so deadly that infinitesimal amounts can kill scores. The poisoner's dilemma has always been how to remain unpoisoned himself, then how to disperse the poison in an effective manner. It would appear that someone has found a way to use it, one customer at a time.

Ah! Friend Kolda has begun thinking along the same lines. I will spare you the admiration he has for the genius of his fellow chemist.

Kolda said, "Someone has done the impossible. Someone has achieved an unbelievable breakthrough."

I asked, "What do you mean?"

"Someone has found a way to extract the poison from castor beans."

"You dud. That's been known for years. What nobody does know is how to use the poison safely."

Kolda gave back an unhappy grunt. He might not be as ignorant as we hoped.

He was ignorant about the Dead Man. I'm not sure I approve but last time we crossed paths Old Bones added some trapdoors to Kolda's memory.

Kolda will never remember anything he learns while visiting us.

I was beginning to think my partner wasn't as swell as I claimed he was.

I felt a touch of amusement from outside.

41

With Kolda and the healer gone to see the Dead Man there wasn't much for me to do with Morley. And it was almost time for the ratwomen.

I decided to cultivate my atrophied social skills. But only a handful of guests remained. The healer, Kolda, and Playmate were in with the Dead Man. The rest were in Singe's office. Jon Salvation was talking up his next play. I checked the corners and under Singe's desk. Still no Winger. How did he manage?

The Dead Man's special student, Penny Dreadful, hadn't fled when I turned up. There had been enough witnesses for her to feel safe.

My, how she had grown!

You notice these things when you're male and still alive.

Morley's longtime associate Sarge was there, too. He looked lost. He looked like somebody just poisoned his kitten.

I snagged the last available chair, beckoned Sarge, indicated my willingness to share the contents of a pitcher clearly in need of refurbishing. Sarge was slumped on a chair in a corner not occupied by Saucerhead Tharpe's or Singe's office furniture. He brightened slightly and dragged his chair over.

"How is the restaurant managing without our boy?"

"We don't need no barkin' from Morley to make dat work, Garrett. We been in da racket so long da business rolls on like a mill wheel turnin'. But he's our frien', too. An' none of us know what we'll do if'n he don't make it t'ru dis."

"Belinda has probably made you crazy trying to figure out what Morley was up to when he got hurt, but. ."

"Dat's for sure. But she don't listen to what nobody tells her so she ain't never gonna get nowhere. She's one a dem people what figures out ahead a time what dey're gonna believe, den dey don't never hear nothin' dat disagrees."

I'd known Belinda longer than I liked to remember and more intimately than the world needed to know. She had huge intellectual flaws. Willful disdain of facts was never one of those. "For sure? Like how?"

"Well, you know, Morley don't got a lot a use for his et'nic roots. He's a dark elf, but, yeah? So what? He's in business in a human city an' half da people dere, dey don't know dat, can't tell dat, an' maybe don't need ta know dat if'n dey're da kind what gives a shit about dat."

I nodded. Sarge's dialect was thicker than usual but I was following him. He was saying Morley wasn't one for living in the past. "Did something change?" He had been found in that zone where greater TunFaire fades into the neighborhood known as Elf Town. Folk there, who never saw a house in their home country, live in tenements twelve to a room and insist that they'll never put the old ways and old tongue behind them.

"Sumptin' did. Maybe dat bint what his folks arranged him ta marry came ta town."

"I thought he bought his way out of that a couple years ago."

"We all t'ought dat. Maybe he just wished he did."

Jon Salvation joined us, uninvited. He planted himself in front of me, hands on his skinny little girl hips. "Garrett, you have to help me."

Story of my life. "I can't afford to invest in one of your plays. And I'm busy, here."

"I don't need investors. I have people lined up to buy into anything I put on. I stick with the Weiders because they give me artistic control. But you're the only one I can count on to make my next project a success."

I forgot Sarge and Morley briefly. Pilsuds Vilchik had presented me with a grand conundrum. No way could a street operator like me assure the success of a stage drama. Unless he wanted me to sell seats at knifepoint. Or maybe he wanted Winger kept out of his hair.

"Where is Winger?"

"Getting into mischief somewhere." He shrugged. "What I want is for you to get Tinnie to come back. She's perfect for the lead in The Faerie Queene."

"You want to cast Tinnie as a fairy? Man, that's a stretch. She is way too substantial." That wisp Furious Tide of Light was far more suitable.

"That's the point. I'm not doing fairy-tale fairies. They won't be ethereal. They'll be like elves, only from a realm at right angles to our own. Tinnie's coloring and attributes, her stature and sharp attitude, even her freckles, make her the perfect Mathilde."

"Will this go on at the World?"

"Main stage, expanded. This will be my biggest hit yet, Garrett."

"Tinnie doesn't get along with Heather Soames."

"I'll make them get along."

I liked his confidence.

He said, "Tinnie is Mathilde but I will send her packing if she behaves the way she did before. You don't need to tell her that. I'll make it clear at first rehearsal."

Interesting times were headed our way. "Look at you getting all self-confident and assertive. What happened to the Remora we knew and loathed?"

"He found his passion. Are you going to pitch Mathilde to Tinnie?"

"No."

"What? Why not?"

"I'm committed to my own passion. That will keep me here with my injured friend. If you want Tinnie, head on over to Factory Slide. Or, better, catch her at work. Go in the afternoon. She'll be sick of accounting. I can give you a letter to get you past the guards."

"If that's the way it has to be. Would you be interested in a small role? I need a banged up hulk to play the faithful old soldier. ."

"Jon, you need to come at me some other time. I was involved in an important discussion with Sarge when you horned in."

The playwright goggled. He had lost his appreciation of direct talk.

People did talk to the Remora that way, back when. They talked to Pilsuds Vilchik that way in the once upon a time. They didn't talk that way to the town's hottest celebrity today.

Sarge volunteered, "I'd make a good fait'ful old sojer what's been banged aroun' enough ta have some character."

And there was another reason Jon Salvation felt free to unleash his inner dick. People put up with it because he might cast them in a play.

42

Salvation did not get in a huff. He just went away, no doubt deleting my name from his roll of potential character actors.

"Sorry about that, Sarge."

"He ain't timid no more."

"No. Unless he was on the street."

"No shit dere. Dat attitude don't cut no nutin' wit' da brunos. If dey was any dat da Director didn't already ship off ta da work camps."

An interesting notion, that law and order had become so ubiquitous that smarmy little peckerwoods like the Remora could turn snotty and not have to pay with bloody head wounds.

What did Deal Relway think of that unintended consequence?

"Anyway, you were telling me that Morley's country fiancee might be in town hoping to dip into his pockets."

"Dat's just one t'eory."

"Are there others?"

"Probably. You gotta ast da Capa. Me, I don't t'ink so fast so I jes' follow along."

"I see. Don't put yourself down. You have a knack for doing the right thing at the right time." He saved my life, once upon a time. "Did you hold back anything from the Capa? Something you guys thought might upset her?"

A downside to being a sociopath, like Belinda, was that people walked on eggshells around you. They didn't tell you things that might upset you. You ended up operating in a bad news vacuum.

Belinda was smart enough to see that. She created ways around the standard distortion. But those ways would not work inside a closed and loyal crew like Morley's. Belinda might suspect that they were blowing smoke and leaving things unsaid but that would be outside her imperial reach.

"Any other time, Garrett, an' you'd be right. If Morley survivin' wasn't involved, we'd mix up a whole stew a half-troots an' misleadin' troots. We wouldn't let her know what was really what. But dis time it was himself as da table stakes. Dis time we had ta tell her true."

The dialect had weakened. I understood every word.

Morley's crew would not hold out on Belinda while she could do their friend and employer some good.

They would turn loose nothing that didn't bear on the immediate problem, though.

"You didn't hold anything back?"

"Nut'in'! We gotta get our Morley back-which I guess we sorta got, if'n he ever come outta dat coma-an' we gotta have a shot at fixin' whoever done whatever got did ta him. We figure you an' da Capa tagether are gonna see the blood spread where dat's gonna do da mos' good. An' I t'ink I better get on back down ta da place, now. Dey're gonna need me. Dis is da busiest night a da week."

"I wouldn't want to interfere with business. Get going. If something turns up that might interest me don't waste time letting me know."

Sarge nodded. "He's gonna make it, ain't he, Garrett?"

"I'm sure. Tell the others. Morley will be back real soon."

"T'anks, Garrett." He stared at me for several seconds. "Maybe you ain't da complete sponge we always t'ought."

Sarge, Puddle, and others of Morley's bunch had, back when, treated me like I carried a social disease. They had kept it in check only when Dotes was there, watching.

"I'm pleased to hear you say that, Sarge. It means a lot. Now go back to work and make Morley rich."

As Sarge headed out I realized that I could not remember what Morley called the place he had opened across from the World. What was wrong with me? Tinnie and I had eaten there several times.

43

A quick census revealed that the Garrett household had shed most of its visitors. Some, when the Dead Man showed me the roster, were folks I'd missed. Some I didn't know. "Tinnie never showed?" I asked Singe.

"Which means nothing," she told me. "She was informed that important matters would be discussed but this is the middle of the workweek and Amalgamated still suffers from explosively good sales. Note that the people who were here mostly aren't the kind who have ordinary jobs."

Yeah. True. She made it sound plausible.

Those who were still around sure fit. Saucerhead Tharpe, maybe passed out drunk, looked pathetic snoring in a corner. Jon Salvation was bold enough to use Singe's pens and inks to scribble in the bound book of blank pages he carried everywhere.

Then Salvation was up and reminding me, "You said you'd write a letter that would get me in to see Tinnie."

"So I did. Help me swing this desk around and I'll get on it."

I created a three-hundred-word masterpiece that would get Tinnie salivating over the prospects of what Jon Salvation might want to discuss. I kept me out of it. I said nothing about where I was, what I was doing, why, or even my state of health. She could squeeze that out of the Remora if she wanted to know. And he could let me know how interested she was.

If it went right I might try to sneak away for a peace conference.

And then we were down to Saucerhead, a few ratpeople, and the folks over there with the Dead Man. I complained, "I never got a chance to talk to John Stretch. I wanted to catch up on his adventures."

Singe said, "He's doing fine. Outstanding, considering he's still the boss of bosses in the rat underworld. After all these years."

"That would be about three, wouldn't it?"

"Only one as boss of bosses. The first of his kind, really."

She glowed with pride. Her brother was the undisputed overlord of crime amongst her species.

Her look dared me to disrespect her pride.

I'd never do that. Not to Singe.

Garrett. Please join us.

Though I did not hear Singe mentioned I was not alone in migrating.

It seemed there wasn't just one corpse in the cold room when Singe and I arrived. Nobody moved. You'd expect that from Old Bones but Kolda, Playmate, or the healer should have been doing something.

Singe went straight to Playmate, who, definitely, looked dead.

I had Mr. Kolda give him a measure of the medication meant for Mr. Dotes. We will put a bad thing to good use by keeping Playmate under while I battle the monster devouring him from inside. Singe, engage one of the Kerr tribe to take a message to the brother-in-law managing Playmate's stable. He will need to understand what is happening. Do not give too much detail. Do not suggest that we have any great hope. The brother-in-law will, almost certainly, find the prospect of Playmate's recovery disheartening.

From what I knew about Playmate's brother-in-law, I reckoned the Dead Man was spot on. Play's sister was his only heir. The idiot husband probably had a buyer for the stable lined up.

"So what are you actually doing?"

I am working inside Playmate's brain to shut down the pain that distracts him from handling the rest of his life. In parallel, I have been scanning Mr. Kolda's herbal knowledge in hopes of discovering a specific for Playmate's cancer.

"Any luck?"

Possibly. But it comes from the mind of Brother Hoto instead. He knows of a reptile venom that attacks tumor tissue vigorously.

"Where do we find the poison lizard?"

It is a tropical species. A flashily-clad critter something like an iguana with saber teeth appeared in my mind.

"I remember this guy from the islands. A bad actor. You went down if he breathed on you."

As always, you exaggerate where there are no witnesses to contradict you. Nonetheless, the venom is potent. A few of the lizards may live in TunFaire.

Somebody in Kolda's racket had a few hidden away. Or maybe the Children of the Light, selling miracles to the wealthy.

They are in the exotic reptile house of the Royal Zoo.

Oh. Yeah. The royals did collect odd critters. One of the princesses had a special building for moths and butterflies. None of us low-life types ever get to see that stuff.

You have a connection with a prince.

I did. Sort of.

Meantime, I am mining Brother Hoto for anything useful in developing an understanding of the who, what, and why behind Mr. Dotes' misadventure.

"Why not just pluck that out of Morley's head?"

Those fruits are not there to pluck. It could be that he was hit with a rock from the sky and will not be able to tell us anything when he does wake up.

"But he will wake up?"

Within two days. Possibly sooner. Assuming Brother Hoto knows his poison. You may go ahead now, Singe.

He had given Singe work without consulting me.

I was getting hungry. I hadn't seen Dean for some time.

You now know what I know. There is nothing you can contribute here. Check on Mr. Dotes. Go to the kitchen. Get some rest.

I took a good look at Playmate before I went. The man was one of my oldest and most reliable friends. We had helped one another countless times. He grumbled when I asked for something but never failed to come through. I would do what I could to be a good friend in turn.

Morley was sleeping normally. There was more color in his face. Dollar Dan told me he had said something, one word, but nothing the guards had understood.

Headway!

I found Dean in one of the chairs at the kitchen table, leaning on his folded arms, asleep.

I downed the last of a collection of tasteless leftovers. I had caught something from one of our visitors, several of who had had the sniffles.

Whatever it was, wherever I got it, it was aggressive. I felt weak as I headed upstairs. At that point I thought it was because I'd put away too much beer. Half dreaming already, I caught the edge of the Dead Man's concerned thoughts. He was worried about something. It was a generalized worry, about all of us, not targeted.

44

I wakened in the middle of the night. A cool breeze came in the open window. The Windwalker, Furious Tide of Light sat cross-legged on the corner of the foot of my bed, on the side where my feet weren't. I was stretched out kitty-corner from top left to lower right. She looked far more the fairy princess than Tinnie ever could.

She looked like the queen of temptation, too.

She had turned the lamp up. There was light enough to reveal her flash of a smile when she saw that treacherous flicker in my eyes. She could have had me then. If she'd wanted.

But I sneezed.

She thought that was funny.

"I can't help it." I prayed she wouldn't turn on the heat.

I had seen her reduce an entire construction crew to drooling idiocy, not even doing it deliberately.

I'm a committed man. I told myself. I can't jump into these things. .

I sneezed again.

She produced a dainty handkerchief.

"Thanks." My head was full of stuff.

The bright side was, a man sneezing and clearing his head doesn't make that interesting a target for a vamp.

Still, I asked, "How about you get to business before I go crazy?"

Ghost of a smile. She was pleased. She had reassured herself. She was desirable.

She had serious issues but none connected to what we were into today.

"Business. Yes. I need that, too." She shut her eyes and made a conscious effort to become asexual. She wasn't entirely successful but it did get easier to consider something beyond the possibilities of our situation.

I blew my nose again.

She told me, "I visited Prince Rupert today."

"You sound glum. It didn't go well?"

"It went better than I expected, actually. It just didn't go the way I hoped. He named no names and pointed no fingers. He admitted that he's under pressure to stay away from the mess on the north side. He kept up a brave front but he's scared. I think the pressure comes from his brother."

"The King?" I sneezed. This cold could become ugly. The coughing couldn't be far away.

The King seemed an unlikely villain. Since peace broke out he had done little but party all night and sleep all day.

"I know. So, then, who has the power to move the King? I'm top ten and I don't. I can barely get in to see Rupert."

"Why would he go along?" I looked at her and tried to keep my gaze from roaming.

"Bless you."

Yeah. Bless the common cold. My honor saved by mucus.

I turned so I could look at anything but her.

She said, "One good thing came out today. I'm satisfied that Kevans isn't involved."

"I'm happy for you." I wasn't so sure. Her daughter had serious head problems that disconnected her from society and its rules.

"First proof is, nobody would cover for her like this is being covered up. And she has alibis for both nights when crazy things happened." She didn't sound happy about that.

She said she was estranged from both her father and daughter. Maybe her dad was Kevans' alibi.

Had to be. And that might not hold up.

The Windwalker really did not want to rely on her father anymore. She had pushed him out of the family mansion on the Hill.

Barate Algarda-who was, in every other way I'd ever seen, as exemplary a human being as you could hope to meet-had instilled in this daughter an insecurity so great she thought that her only real value could be as somebody's sex toy.

Which I was thinking when she said, "I'm one of the ten most powerful sorcerers in TunFaire." But the little girl inside didn't reckon her worth that way. "I know that here." She thunked her noggin with her fist.

"So the question would be, who scares Rupert more than you do?"

That drew a surprisingly adolescent grin. "Yep. But you need to remember that Rupert will still be his own man. Even if somebody has him wetting his pants. He's kind of like you, that way."

I felt a far, far sense of amusement.

She rambled on. "Without saying so he let me know he hopes I'll keep stirring the pot. He hinted that there are people on the margins who aren't likely to turn their backs because an authority doesn't want them nosing around."

That sounded like Rupert. He would conform to his instructions but would fail to notice insubordination. A toe tap here and there might encourage more noncompliance.

The Windwalker said, "I have to leave. I can't stand the distraction." She eased off the end of my bed, headed for the window more slowly than she could have done. I had no trouble sensing her willing me to stop her. I imagine she had no trouble sensing me wanting to do exactly that.

It didn't happen. It wasn't the time, even if it was fated.

She clambered out the window. A clumsy process, also slower than it had to be. But she turned divinely graceful once she started walking on moonlight.

She said, "There's something about you. . When your relationship with the redheaded woman falls apart, I'm coming for you. You'll be amazed. We'll be the talk of the town. We'll have the wedding of the year."

I gulped and gaped as she fluttered away, leaving no doubt that she meant every word. Hill folk do when they make a declarative statement. Even shy, socially inept Hill folk.

Which left me with extremely mixed emotions.

I lay back, sure I wouldn't sleep again for the rest of my life.

45

I've got talents. I've got skills. When my head gets too frothy with what-ifs, I've got a live-in (so to speak) Loghyr who steps in and shuts me down. I slept till midmorning.

Singe came to wake me. I came round in a good mood. "If it wouldn't get us both burned at the stake I'd pro-" My tongue froze. My jaw locked. Old Bones never touched me that way.

That he had needed no explanation.

Ratpeople weren't built to frown. But Singe could squint and demand, "What?" in her most puzzled tone.

"Singe, I was going to make a really bad joke that would've been way out of line. I'm sorry. I've been away too long."

Singe was bright but didn't work that one out. Thank God. Or the gods. Or maybe the old dead thing downstairs who saved me the taste of leather in my mouth.

So. Singe was a grown ratwoman and no longer entertained adolescent fantasies about us becoming lovers. She was the wondrous perfect business side of my business. But she still had emotion invested. She could be hurt deeply by what might sound like me poking fun.

By the time you reach two hundred we will turn you into a mature, thoughtful, sensitive adult who thinks before he says. . Oh, sugar!

Oh, sugar? What the h-e-double-broomsticks did that mean?

While the mental stuff happened I dragged myself out of bed. My marvelous business partner, whose feelings I had just so bravely taken into account, sniffed around with increasing agitation.

"You had a woman in here last night!" There was an angry edge to her voice. After several bellicose sniffs round the bed, though, she relaxed.

Maybe the Dead Man brought her up to speed. Or she worked the whole thing out with her mutant nose. Garrett had avoided temptation.

Oh, sugar, because we are about to have unexpected guests. And you need to be here to help manage them.

An image of an angry band of Children of the Light formed in my mind. They made a big black blot in the street.

"What's the big deal? Ignore them."

I would rather not. More than most who come threatening grief or mayhem, these old men could cause us some discomfort.

Naturally, he didn't explain.

With Singe's assistance I made myself presentable and was ready before the hammering on the door commenced. I used the peephole, saw a lot of black clothing. I let the folks stew till the Dead Man thought they were ready.

My first impression was, wow! I'd better send Singe for Cap'n Roger. Half these guys were going to expire before sundown. Their median age had to be in triple digits. The youngest looked like he started yearning for the good old days when the Dead Man was a pup.

Four had reached my stoop.

"Howdy, fathers. How can I help you?" How had they survived the climb? "If you're collecting for your church I have to tell you we're Orthodox here." By birth. I hadn't been to a service in an age.

"You have Brother Hoto Pepper confined here. We have come to take him away."

The Dead Man sent, Pull the ugly one inside and shut the door. Lock up, then bring him in here.

Excellent. We had a plan. All I needed to do was to pick a winner.

Old Bones had no patience. One old man developed a halo. I grabbed, pulled, slammed, locked. Well, Singe did the locking while I held the door shut.

Our victim shambled dispiritedly off to the party room. The Children of the Light outside waxed enthusiastic in their threats. The Dead Man showed no concern.

I asked, "You need me now?"

Not right away.

I headed for the kitchen. I was hungry.

I didn't get far with correcting that.

You may allow our visitors to leave, now.

I pushed back from the table, marched off to do my duty. "You sure?"

There is nothing more that I can retrieve from any of them.

Two old guys in black and the poisoner Kolda-pardon; the apothecary Kolda-awaited me outside the Dead Man's doorway.

Kolda will be gone only a short while. He will gather some specifics to help with Playmate. Please make sure that Brother Hoto does exit the premises. He is reluctant to rejoin his own kind. He fears that they will ask him the same questions I did, but using tools.

I expected a hassle from the crowd when I released their brethren. That did not happen. The Dead Man had tamed or confused them. And they had worn themselves out chipping the paint off the door.

I closed up and went back to reacquaint myself with breakfast.

As I passed my former office I noted that Morley's only company was Dollar Dan. The caretaker ratwomen had come and gone. The other guards had gone with them.

We do not need them now that there are no outsiders in the house. Mr. Dollar can go once you finish eating.

I trekked on and in time assailed a stack of griddle cakes. Dean didn't make those often. He was in a good mood. I mentioned it.

"Perhaps because of the excitement yesterday. It took me back."

I looked at him askance.

He didn't change his story.

46

I shut the door behind Dollar Dan. He would come back later, to sit with Morley while I was upstairs snoring.

"And snoring it had better be," Singe told me, remembering the woman smell. She did not like Furious Tide of Light today. I wasn't sure why.

I can't quite work out how Singe decides who she likes and who she doesn't, nor why she will change her mind overnight. Her brain doesn't work like mine. I'm sure her sense of smell has something to do with it.

I settled in near Morley, a pot of tea at hand. The Dead Man filled me in on what he had learned from our visitors, including tidbits from the elders who had come for Brother Hoto. Of interest was the fact that Winger and the Remora were drifting apart, the drift mainly hers. She couldn't handle his success.

We do not know much more about the threat to the city. We do know who has been warned off it. We have eyes and ears watching and listening, now. We know we will get Mr. Dotes back. Additionally, we have set in motion actions that offer a chance of rescuing Playmate from the natural monster devouring him.

That was good news. "Did you get anything from the Windwalker?"

Vague amusement, presumably at my expense. That woman is the most simple-minded, empty-headed genius I have ever encountered. She can focus her entire being on the moment. You could do far worse.

"Excuse me?"

As a practical matter. She would provide all the fireworks-and more-with none of the drama of your Miss Tate.

"Uh. ."

Miss Algarda is ready to grant her devotion. That would be unreserved and absolute. She considers you an ideal candidate. Although she is an immense and formidable power, and a genius professionally, her emotional world is simpler than that of Deal Relway.

"That's scary."

It is. She does not grasp nuance or shades of gray.

The answer to why me might be tucked inside what he had sent. A different kind of sociopath, she would not need time to work things out. Is/is not, with nothing in between. "She would be clever enough not to push me, wouldn't she?"

You could be right in considering her a special kind of sociopath. She is smart enough to show the behavior she has seen in courtships. But she will not be resilient if she is mislead, mistreated, emotionally abused, or blackmailed.

"I believe I get the idea."

Good. You are staring into the eyes of a big responsibility.

I had an uncomfortable notion that I knew what he meant.

Dotes' First Law. Keep your hands off a woman crazier than you are. Which I observed in the breach. Furious Tide of Light would be, "You Touch It, You Bought It."

But I didn't believe she was crazy. Not the way girlfriends usually are.

Her head worked different, sure. She had grown up sheltered from life. She coped now because she didn't go out much. When she did she dealt with people she scared so bad they couldn't imagine messing with her.

Hers was a unique emotional realm but it was the only one she knew.

Part of me did find her damned intriguing. It hunted loop-holes in Dotes' Law.

That was the part exhausted by squabbling with Tinnie.

"What do you think, Old Bones?"

I think it is none of my business. I think you are an adult now, and I should not tinker-unless, as was the case with Singe this morning, you start running your mouth with no thought to the consequences.

I was stunned. By making that carefully neutral statement he had told me something I'm sure he did not intend. He had doubts about Tinnie. After all this time.

I would have expected him to endorse the redhead and reject the Windwalker. I wasn't in her class and she came with a whole different drama. (I wasn't in Tinnie's class, either, but a different definition of class was operative there.)

Maybe he was tired of the drama, too.

Still, I carefully reviewed his communications since he had labeled Furious Tide of Light an empty-headed genius. I got a strange impression that he did prefer the Windwalker but would be careful not to say so.

Off I rambled into my own internal drama land, wondering what it was about the beautiful but weird sorceress that made her a preferable mate.

Morley tried to say something.

47

Morley was awake.

His eyes were halfway open, fluttering. He wanted to say something.

Having been in his position myself, I told him, "You're at my place on Macunado Street, being watched out for by me, Singe, the Dead Man, Belinda, John Stretch, the Civil Guard, and the godsdamned Windwalker, Furious Tide of Light. Somebody really wanted to close you down, buddy. Oh. You've been out for more than a week. They tried to poison you, too."

In retrospect, that actually helped. His wounds healed a lot while he was unconscious.

He tried to sit up. He got nowhere. His wounds were not healed enough. He felt them, too. And now had no strength left.

"Water!" was the first word I understood.

Then Dean was there, not only with water but with warm chicken broth. Singe was only a moment behind. She helped lift Morley so Dean could deliver the water and liquid chow.

After the stress level declined and the broth began to work, Morley croaked, "Tell me."

"Be easier for the Dead Man to. ."

"You tell."

I told my part and what I knew to be true with the precision I used reporting to the Dead Man.

Morley did not seem much interested in who had stabbed him. He was intensely interested in all the whos and what happeneds after he went down. Singe and I added what we had heard from unreliable sources.

Everything given him, I moved on to my own curiosities. "What were you doing in that part of town, anyway? Not that you don't have a right to go wherever you damned well please. But, unless things changed lately, you don't have much to do with those people."

Sometimes I think he was embarrassed by his ethnic background.

He was not yet in any condition for real talk. He eyed me in disbelief. Then his handsome face collapsed into despair. "I can't remember!" Moments later, "He couldn't root it out?"

"No. Unless he didn't recognize it because it didn't connect with everything else." That was my theory. Morley had been involved in something else entirely when he walked blind into something deadly.

Morley frowned. I took that to mean he wanted an explanation.

"Sarge thinks you were up there paying off your fiancee's family."

Morley looked puzzled but I didn't feel any honest emotion behind that. I didn't pursue it.

Old Bones could fill me in later.

I did ask, "How do you justify Belinda Contague against Dotes' First Law?"

"There are twelve kinds of crazy, Garrett. Romantic attraction is the worst." His first complete statement, and, probably, one of the truest things he ever said.

I am getting nothing more now than I did while Mr. Dotes was unconscious. There is nothing there. Though it would appear that chunks of memory may have been lost to concussion or that drug.

"A pity."

Indeed. All that can be done now is to protect him till he can protect himself.

"He'll want to get after this before he's physically ready."

Should he be so inclined I will make sure he falls asleep on his way to the door.

I chuckled.

Morley scowled.

I explained. "Not to worry. We're just planning your future. You'll thank us later."

He hurt too much to be amused.

I said, "There's some silliness taken care of. What do you figure on doing?"

"I'm going back to sleep." And he did, just like that. And it was the best thing he could do once he was full of high-potency chicken broth.

Soon he would get full-bodied chicken soup with noodles and bits of bird.

The Dead Man suggested that I forget Mr. Dotes for a while. I should go relax with Singe, who could help bring me up to speed.

That made me feel like I had been cast as a spear-carrier.

I had few options if I wanted to stay close to Morley.

Old Bones didn't mind not keeping me posted, but Singe had to know stuff because she managed operations and handled the money.

She commiserated over my problems with the redhead. "Pack up your pride and go talk to her. Morley will be safe."

I hemmed and hawed but I'm no good at stalling while trying to find plausible excuses for avoiding something that could turn out ugly.

"Good gods, Garrett! What are you? Thirteen and an only child? Go talk to her. What's the worst she can do?"

I told her what the worst was.

"After all the time, trouble, training, and emotion she has invested in you?"

"Yes. After all that. She's turned into a pretty selfish girl."

"How did that happen? Who gave her the idea that whatever Tinnie wants, Tinnie deserves and gets it? Garrett, you are a first-class dum-dum. Tinnie has been in your life since my mother was a pup. She came and went a few times but she was always back after whoever was distracting you moved on."

That was harsh but essentially factual. Both ways. Tinnie had had some gentlemen suitors. I had had. . Maya, Eleanor, even Belinda.

I scowled, hoping Tinnie's man friends had not gotten as close as I had to some of those ladies. Maya had been determined to marry me. She never managed to get me to hold still long enough. She had gone on to do much better. And I had gone gaga for Eleanor despite her having been murdered long before I ever met her. Her ghost and her memory were an important part of my life for a long time.

Singe told me, "You need to leave the yesteryear baggage behind. Get back to Tinnie being who she was when she was your special best friend who happened to be a girl."

I wondered if she was being coached from across the hall.

"Good stuff, Singe. Stuff worth thinking about."

She preened.

"What do you think of the Windwalker?"

"Who?"

"The Windwalker, Furious Tide of Light."

"The sorceress who tagged along when I backtracked to the warehouse where all the horror stuff was? The woman who was in your room last night?"

"Her."

"What about her?" She didn't have much of a ruff but it was up.

"You remember her from the thing with the ghosts and giant bugs?"

Several seconds of silence. "All right. That was the same woman?"

"Singe."

"What about her?"

"Singe, I'm asking your opinion of that woman based upon your exposure, interaction, and magical nose."

"I don't have an opinion. How could I? My personal exposure hasn't been enough to develop one. Probably less than an hour over both our lifetimes. Anything I said would be speculative. So. Why is my opinion important?"

That had a high bull-poop content. I didn't challenge it. "Because she's important to me. Because you're important to me. I'm extremely attracted to her, physically and intellectually. And she says she's going to marry me."

The Windwalker did say that, didn't she? Or did I dream it? No matter. It was out of the bag now.

Singe said nothing for several minutes, though she did spout the occasional interrogative sentence as she discussed this revolting development with our deceased friend.

Singe was, apparently, astonished by the Dead Man's positive attitude toward the Windwalker and his lessened enthusiasm toward Tinnie.

I must say that, though forewarned, I didn't understand him, either. And he offered no explanation.

I needed to think about that. The mix for consideration should include not just what I knew about Tinnie and the Windwalker-whose given name I did not yet know-but, also, what the Dead Man knew and never shared.

I should get Tinnie to visit. Old Bones hadn't burgled her head in ages.

I asked the air, "Do I need to be scared?"

I got no answer. Of course.

Then I got distracted by supper and Kolda's return. Then it was time to supervise the ratwomen who came to clean Morley. They were amazed and amused by a gallant salute that reared up while they changed his diaper.

He was on his way back for sure.

The caretakers gave way to a brace of armed ratmen. Singe's brother came with them. We settled in her office. We drank some beer. John Stretch had become an interesting person in his own right. I wondered how many more geniuses his mother had produced.

I wasted a lot of time wondering about nonproductive stuff.

48

Confusion. A lot of beer went down during the discussions with Singe and John Stretch. Then came bed, me thinking this was like the good old days. All that commotion about relationships was silly-ass fuss with no enduring real-world significance.

Singe had bullied me into reaffirming my commitment to Tinnie. She wasn't hot to have Furious Tide of Light as her stepmom.

So the woman had a few quirks. Didn't we all? The problem she had was breaking loose from her father.

As I noted, the Algardas might be weird and have dark secrets but they were still caring, kind people where others were concerned.

Such was my tangle of thought as I drifted off, not nearly as reconciled to the redhead as Singe hoped. I left the window ajar. I told myself that was because I needed the night air to cool my room.

More than air got in. And had done nothing to cool anything down.

Furious Tide of Light played more fair than most women. She knew she could turn me into a sock puppet with some eye-batting, heavy breathing, and a dash of suggestive dialog. Women understand these things by the time they're ten. Some just don't learn to trust their instincts.

A desirable woman who catches a man in bed in the middle of the night won't need to work hard to have her way.

The Windwalker was gentle, thoughtful, and careful not to unfairly exploit her advantage. She could have made the situation more chaste only by standing off and touching me with a ten-foot pole. Once I woke up all the way, though, I took over. The natural Garrett charm kicked in, made sure she found me completely unappetizing.

I had done honors to a lot of fine beer earlier. It now yearned to be free. My choices were to be embarrassed a little or embarrassed a lot.

I chose the chamber pot over wetting myself. Not behavior accepted in the drawing rooms of the upper classes but not utterly gauche and unacceptable in mine. Elimination processes are natural and necessary. And I was polite enough to step into a corner and face away.

Never mind. The Windwalker woke me up. I did what I had to do. Any romantic notions she brought along got put on hold. Still, she was a resilient fey. She might have bounced back had it not been for the interruption.

I was looking at her, determined to ask why she was here but getting entangled in the fantasy-wondering if I shouldn't have taken a bath-when she let out a baby squeal and slammed a fist down hard on the windowsill.

She had to leap to do it, and when I say hard I mean she shook the house. The wood in the window frame groaned.

A soft curse from the street followed. And I felt nothing to indicate that the Dead Man knew something dangerous had begun.

The Windwalker had not brought the lighting up brighter tonight. Yet. Only a candle burned, its wan light barely potent enough to reveal a blindly groping arm of flesh like the one that had tried getting in through the window at Fire and Ice.

I joined the Windwalker in an effort to punish that. Unhappy noises came from outside. I hurled raging thoughts the Dead Man's way. I slammed the window shut.

Furious Tide of Light used the candle to light my lamps, then applied the business end to the probe still oozing in through the crack of the window.

That caused some excitement.

Sudden as an explosion, an awful, despairing wail came from the street. The arm of flesh went crazy as a snake with a broken back. My friend kept right on attacking it. Something on the other end decided that it did not need to explore my bedroom after all.

Furious Tide of Light leaped into the air, slammed down hard on the double-hung.

A chunk of whatever two feet long and as thick as her wrist separated from what lay outside.

That was most remarkably unusual! Definitely a woman with potential.

I had nothing to say. I fell down on the side of my bed. The Windwalker landed in my lap. Our hearts were pounding. Our attention was on the severed tentacle. I croaked, "They found Morley again."

A shriek of rage and pain ripped the night outside. It did not stop. It headed away, uphill on Macunado, at no great speed.

The Windwalker did not get up to take a look. I did not have the moral fiber to set her back on her feet.

The Dead Man made contact but his thoughts had no form. I got the impression that were he a living being he would be puking up his guts.

His distress took me away from my dilemma, some, though the Windwalker kind of leaned back and made herself comfortable.

Old Bones needed time to pull himself together. Once he did I was in contact with a different being. He had dipped a toe into a darkness even he could not have imagined just a few days ago.

He was centuries older than me. That something contemporary would appear terrible to him scared the pants off me. Did I dare be pantsless in the presence of Furious Tide of Light?

If they are not on now, Garrett, get them on. You have to make a census of the people who were supposed to be watching.

I do? "What?"

Your trousers. You are not actually wearing them. Remove the Windwalker from your lap and put on your trousers. I want you both out in the street. Her I want aloft and following the thing that fled up Macunado. It was not traveling at any great speed. Let her catch up. If she can control it, have her bring it back.

I had questions. This was not the time. This was the time to move fast. Response times are crucial.

Singe will come collect the specimen.

"She'd better hurry. The one up north turned to stink and goo."

The Windwalker, prized loose, looked at me oddly.

I told her, "You know about my partner. He's why you're wearing the Kevans mesh. So he can't get inside your head. He wants me to ask you to do some stuff." I relayed the Dead Man's instructions quickly.

She understood immediately.

"I'd better get going. I don't think there's much chance I can control that thing. I don't have those skills. Get that window open."

I'd just finished when Singe bulled in, armed with a bucket and sour attitude. She turned sourer still as she watched the Windwalker float away. Which I wasn't watching because I had turned to face her.

As I pointed out the piece of monster flesh, she demanded, "Why isn't that woman wearing any underwear?"

"Damn! I missed that completely."

Lucky for Singe's peace of mind, I'd had my pants on when she charged in.

49

I went out the front door like people who can't fly. Singe had armed me up, though my lead-weighted head knocker was the only tool of mayhem obvious. I was feeling less confident than I ought, being fully aware that I hadn't done this stuff for a long time. My skills and instincts had atrophied.

The Dead Man filled my head with an itinerary. And, There will be much to tell once I have had time to reflect. Those things should not have been able to get close. They should not have been able to brush me aside so easily, though it may be a blessing that they did. I cannot imagine the mind of a master vampire being more filled with filth.

Five men representing as many interests had been posted to keep an eye on my place. No doubt they knew about one another. They might have pooled resources. Old Bones wanted a roll call. Men doing similar work had come to grief up by Fire and Ice.

This was nothing I wanted to do. Which might suggest that I was past the point where I should stop doing what Tinnie wanted me to stop doing.

If I couldn't handle the ugliness anymore I should get busy being the neutered door guard I'd seen myself as before this came rumbling down.

Among the Civil Guard, Belinda's friends, a guy from Morley's crew and one from the Children of the Light, I found six of the five people Old Bones claimed were watching. John Stretch's guys nabbed the extra.

First was a red top right across the street. He was uninjured but his mind had gone blank. Which was the story over and over. The last man, a tin whistle posted on the steps to Mrs. Cardonlos' house, was awake but deeply confused.

I found one dead man, a door up the street from my place. Nobody knew him. Probably an unlucky guy who thought he'd found a nice place to spend a homeless night.

I approached the Cardonlos homestead, wakened the widow. She pretended that I was disturbing her rest with my assault on her door. She had not aged well and had not handled that well. She had become a cosmetics huckster's dream, a younger man's nightmare, and an object of derision for attractive younger women.

I've seen so many like her that I suspected a disease strikes women of a certain age. Badly colored hair. Makeup laid on with a trowel. Perfume dense as a swamp's miasma. And a ready, pathetic simper for any man young enough to remember what it's like to stand upright.

She did not simper at me. She recognized me. "It's started, hasn't it?"

"Excuse me? What's started?"

"The death of tranquility." She freighted that with omen, like she was proclaiming the twilight of the gods. "There hasn't been any trouble here since you followed your trollop up the Hill."

She didn't have that right. My trollop was actually a lady. And she had nothing to do with the Hill. "I'm back. You should petition the Director to put you back on full time. Meantime, he needs to know what happened tonight. All his people were hurt. One man died. He'll recall what happened on the north side."

Mrs. Cardonlos gulped some air. She wanted to make that all my fault but didn't know how.

I pointed. "That one down there has lost his hearing."

The veteran lady gulped again. "The excitement is back."

"Get word to the Al-Khar. I'll be busy getting the casualties together and trying to help them." Extra info she could include in her report, to encourage a quick response.

Relway would want his troops exposed to the Dead Man as briefly as possible.

50

Furious Tide of Light returned before the Guard showed. She was morose and uncommunicative. I wasted no questions. The Dead Man would winkle out anything of interest.

I did suggest, "How about you help with these guys that got hurt?" I had three pulled together in one place. Keeping them there was problematic. They wanted to wander off.

Singe had gone to find her brother. She returned with a half dozen ratmen who helped collect the other casualties and wrangled those already rounded up. Singe was antsy. She wanted to get on the trail of the thing that had started the excitement. But she restrained herself in front of the Windwalker, at the gentle urging of the Dead Man.

Furious Tide of Light went through the motions halfheartedly, aiding the injured. She must have found something she had not wanted to find, following that whatever to its lair.

When she wasn't being her brother's surrogate on the spot Singe glared at the Windwalker and gave me looks, demanding, "When are we going to get going? The trail is getting cold."

I told her, "I don't think we will."

"Why not?"

"Three reasons. We are forbidden. My mission is to protect Morley. And Old Bones already knows."

She understood. But still she made hissing noises to express her exasperation.

The Windwalker's healing skills were basic. She reached her limits quickly. But she did stabilize everyone.

Nobody else died but the man I had found dead stayed that way.

The man who came out on behalf of the Guard was one Rocklin Synk, previously unknown to me. He was rational and reasonable. He didn't automatically assume everybody who wasn't him was guilty of something. He didn't treat people like they'd already been convicted of aggravated capital treason with a garlic pickle on the side.

We were headed into the graveyard shift when he showed. We had a smaller audience than seemed likely. Evidently people didn't get out of bed to be entertained by the misfortunes of others anymore.

The time and pitiful audience may have helped shape Synk's attitude. Maybe it wasn't worth the work, putting on a hard-ass show.

Still, any true believer in the Relway vision must start from the premise that anyone who isn't Deal Relway or one of his henchmen is likely an agent of chaos and a harbinger of the coming darkness. Investigations are built on such foundations, their function to find or create support for the initial supposition. Synk was the kind of guy who palled around with you till you handed him the end of the rope he would use to stretch your neck.

I kept him near the house while we talked.

Old Bones soon let me know why this man had been sent.

This is Mr. Synk's first field assignment. His functions at the Al-Khar have involved payroll accounting and personnel management. His task tonight is to learn as much as possible without revealing the Guard attitude toward this case.

Meaning the Civil Guard did have an attitude they didn't want expressed. "I don't care. All I'm interested in is taking care of my friend till he's ready for release into the wild."

By now the Guard had established an overwhelming presence. Ratmen were scarce. The Windwalker got inside before she was recognized. I was outside with nobody but Singe and swarming red tops.

I developed the suspicion that nobody interested in this mess was really looking the other way just because some unidentified entity insisted. Not privately.

I was a gracious host. I repeated my story over and over. Synk insisted that he had to have the fragment of a tentacle. Singe hustled off, brought it out. It was spoiled already. The bucket contained noxious brown soup with chunks of meat quickly melting. It did not smell like fresh seafood.

I didn't care. That was what I expected. I wanted to get back inside and find out why the Windwalker was distraught.

Rocklin Synk knew more about the Garrett friends and family than Garrett did. I started to give him hell for loading all the downed watchers into his Al-Khar wagons. He cut me off. "Will we be able to borrow your tracker?"

Singe was close enough to hear. "I don't have a tracker. One of my associates is a skilled tracker. If you want to avail yourself of her talent you'll have to work it out with her."

Synk did not like that at all.

Old Bones assured me that Synk was not a bad human being. My own impression was that he was about as decent as they came inside the Guard. But he was a definite product of TunFaire's human culture. He did not consider ratfolk people. There was a solid chance he didn't consider members of any of the Other Races real people.

The thinking underlying the whole Human Rights movement was unfashionable at the moment but it hadn't gone away. It could come back fast. It needed only one ugly nudge.

I added, "Though I wouldn't ordinarily presume to tell her what to do, I'd insist she got her fee up front because she's dealing with the Guard."

"Sir?" Taken totally off balance.

"Your runty boss has a habit of expecting people to help him for the sheer joy of participating in the process. It be-hooves those addicted to food and shelter to have the foresight to collect their pay before they do the work."

Synk honestly seemed bemused."You don't trust the Guard?"

"When money is involved? Consult your own experience."

Seconds passed. Then, "I see. Unfortunately, I wasn't given the wherewithal to undertake any negotiations."

Singe said, "You are on your own, then, Constable." She headed for the house. Where had she found that title? Pulled it from the air, perhaps.

I shrugged. "There you have it. The track may still be there in the morning." I watched Singe close the door behind herself. I told Synk, "On an unrelated point, you won't get much joy from arresting Belinda Contague's men."

Synk engaged me in a brief semantic debate, insisting that nobody had been arrested.

"You'll have a hard time selling that to folks whose agents you're hauling off."

"I don't have to sell anything." He might have been an accountant turned loose but he did have a full ration of Civil Guard conceit. He gave me some crap about protective custody for witnesses and about making sure material witnesses got the best of health care.

"Mr. Synk, I have to hand it to you. You are a prodigy of Guard bullshit and refined Relway-speak. You'll go far. As long as you don't have direct dealings with disgruntled folk like Belinda Contague."

Synk proved he was a complete desk weenie, then, by not being concerned that he might irritate a gang princess.

Let it be, Garrett. He is a good man who believes his goodness to be a shield in itself. I understand that you think you must look out for everyone, but the crushing this man is thundering toward might be instructive to the Civil Guard as a whole.

"That lesson being?"

That righteousness is not a shield. The good die more quickly than the bad.

It's also damned subjective but I did not bring that up.

I had reached a point where my hopes and ambitions swirled exclusively round the prospect of getting back to bed.

Still, some things needed attention. I had to see how Morley had weathered the last few hours. Which proved to be, he had slumbered on through. And I wanted to hear about what had the Windwalker so glum.

I had a suspicion.

The Dead Man told me I was wrong. He did not want to fuss about it tonight. I did need to get back to bed. I had a stressful tomorrow looming.

My plan to hit the sack had to go on hold while I convinced Furious Tide of Light that Singe was doing right by putting her into the guest bedroom. Though nothing would have happened if she had been allowed to snuggle in the warm with me. I was exhausted and so not in the mood. Singe's nose told her that. But there were proprieties to be observed, as far as she was concerned.

Splitting the difference, I kissed the Windwalker on the forehead when Singe wasn't looking. A minute later I was secure beneath my own blanket. The window was shut and latched. I warmed up the snore cycle.

51

The Dead Man was a perfect prognosticator. Next day was a nightmare of visitations. General Block came and went. Belinda Contague did the same, and mother-fussed Morley till he begged her to leave. Deal Relway his own self turned up, accompanied by Rocklin Synk. I thought we'd never get shut of him, though early on, for a wonder, he granted that he must be getting the truth from me.

It was hard to keep a straight face. Relway wore a custom metal mesh coif under silver mail. His freakish ears protruded through slits provided. Weird. I'd never seen his ears before. They'd always been hidden under his hair.

The headgear was guaranteed to shield his thoughts. The Dead Man assured me that the Director had been conned. It hadn't taken him thirty seconds to break through.

Relway got no warning from me.

I wasn't sure I cared to know what was hidden inside his head.

The Windwalker stayed out of sight, upstairs. She showed no inclination to leave. Singe stoically delivered her breakfast and lunch.

Sarge turned up. I joined him in with Morley. Not much got said. Sarge was just plain misty-eyed.

While I was in there other people came by with preliminary reports. Most just shambled past and let Old Bones pluck what he needed from their heads, thus betraying no connection to us.

The Dead Man touched me. I need you to catch Mr. Relway. He is a block east of Wizard's Reach, briefing some of his men.

I scooted out, chock-full of message and thrilled to be running free.

I was hacking and panting before I found the Director. He wasn't wearing his magical headgear. He looked like just another red top. Five more of who got ready to thump on me. But Relway had them hold off. No need to start right this instant.

"You should get in shape, Garrett. You're way too young to be wheezing after a quarter-mile trot."

"Old Bones says to tell you that four new watchers just moved into the neighborhood and he can't read them. Yours and the Outfit's he recognizes and considers harmless. This bunch are different. They showed up right after you left. There might be more than four, too, since they're so hard to spot."

Relway's ugly little face lit up. He asked where to look. I told him. "Thank you, Garrett. I'm going to take back some of the harsher things I've said about you. Go home. Get inside. Lock your door. Don't let anyone in after sundown."

"What? Why not?"

"Because that thing might be back and maybe has a shape-shifter side to it. Which guarantees some high adventure." He turned away, handed out assignments to his escort. Those men began to hurry off.

The Director noticed me standing there with my thumb in my ear. "Why the hell are you still here, Garrett?"

I headed for the house. It was uphill all the way. Not steeply but enough to taunt my flabby muscles. The Director's men snapped up their first victim as I climbed the steps.

Shouting and threatening attended the process. The captive considered himself exempt from the attentions of the Civil Guard. Relway disagreed. An application of nightsticks ended the argument.

The Dead Man felt so smug about it that I could feel it in the street.

But once I got inside: Double lock it, then see Dean about salt.

That was off the wall. "All right." I headed for the kitchen, where I found a disgruntled old man making supper for twice the usual crowd, with the added burden of two meals having to be suitable for consumption by invalids. He sucked it up and didn't complain so I didn't remind him how easy he had it, overall.

I expect he liked it better when Singe was the only one he had to feed and fool.

"Salt," I said.

"Yes?"

"Do we have any? His Nibs said see you about salt. I'm seeing you. He must have let you know. Damn! That smells good."

Something in the pan had me drooling.

"I have two pounds and a pinch. I picked up some last week."

"And I have some they gave me at the place where we stayed before." I thought I knew what Old Bones wanted done. He gave me a confirmatory nudge.

52

I ate. The main course was pork chops, for him and me. Singe and Dollar Dan Justice, in with Morley for the night, got sausages and that ratfolk favorite, stewed apples. I snagged a dollop of apples for myself. Dean makes them good. For Morley and Playmate it was chicken soup.

I hoped Playmate's brother-in-law didn't destroy Play's business while he was away.

We all forgot the Windwalker. At first. Old Bones nudged me.

I hustled up and let her know it was all right to come down. The outsiders were gone and we were having supper. Downstairs, Singe let her know it was all right for her to go home. Nobody would notice her leaving. I wondered if she thought the watchers had been stricken blind.

Singe's whiskers twitched in a way that said she was irritated-probably because she didn't like something she was getting from the Dead Man.

The Windwalker stayed close, which meant she crowded into the kitchen with me and Dean. She donned her vulnerable guise and conquered Dean immediately. In a soft, breathless voice she told me, "I don't think your associate likes me."

"My associate is scared of you."

"Why?"

"She thinks she knows me better than anybody but me. She thinks I'll get infatuated, will lose my sense of proportion, will grab the short end of something, and mess up everything for all of us."

Garrett. Really.

I meant it. That would be Singe's thinking, in essence.

"She might be jealous."

"That's possible, too."

"Are you infatuated?"

"Not quite. Definitely intrigued and valiantly trying to fight it."

She smiled slightly. Maybe wistfully.

"Don't you do whatever it is you do that makes every man in sight turn into a drooling wannabe love slave."

"I'll be all business. You'll see. You won't even know I'm a girl."

Yeah. Right. And then the pigs will come home to roost.

It would be impossible for most men and some women to ignore her sex in her presence even when she didn't want to be noticed.

I thought about letting her know that the Dead Man thought well of her, decided against it. She did not need to be reminded of his existence.

Dean poured fresh tea. We sipped. I said, "Singe was right about this being a good time to slip away unnoticed."

"I don't want to."

"Fine. Then you can help with the salt."

"The salt?"

"The thing that keeps trying to get in shows some characteristics of slugs or snails. Slugs and snails don't do well when they run into salt."

Furious Tide of Light was the victim of a sheltered childhood. She had no idea.

I told her, "They melt when you put salt on them."

"Gross!" But, seconds later, her attitude brightened. "I'll help with the salt."

"Want to talk about it?"

"Talk about what?"

"Why you were so down after you followed that thing home. But now you're not."

"I don't think so."

She really believed in that metal hairnet her daughter had invented.

It does work, some.

"I'm done here. Dean, you outdid yourself."

"Not really. You've been eating inferior cooking."

Ouch! He wasn't going to turn on Tinnie, too, was he? He'd always been a booster. Though, to be perfectly accurate, the redhead was not much of a cook. With her looks that hadn't been a skill she'd needed to develop.

"Salt," I said. "Time to do it. Dean?"

Thunk! A cloth sack landed in front of me. "Save as much as you can."

"I'll use my own before I break into this. Promise."

53

The front door was easy. I opened up. The Windwalker sprinkled salt along the sill plate. I shut the door carefully. We would have to redo that one because of traffic. For now it should stay shut till Dollar Dan and the cleaning ladies traded places.

We did the back door next. That got almost no use. Likewise, the transom and one barred window that let light in during the day. That was the only window left on the ground floor. The others had gotten bricked up during the heyday of lawlessness.

Then down we went into the dank of the cellar, me with the lantern, the Windwalker lugging the salt. The steps groaned under my weight. They needed replacing. They had begun to rot. I said, "This is nasty."

"Only if you're not a spider."

She had that right. Spiderwebs and cobwebs hung everywhere. They covered the surface of the foundation stone. There was dampness on that stone, too. The air was thick. Our passage stirred dust despite the damp. The floor, nominally tamped earth, was one cup of water short of becoming pure mud.

The door to the outside was in worse shape than the steps. I said, "Be generous with that stuff down here. Yuck! This is nasty! I can't imagine why Singe hasn't had it cleaned out and fixed up."

Singe didn't think about those parts of the house she didn't visit, that was all. She was conscious of appearances and utility but not maintenance. She would overlook the cellar till the house fell into it.

Once we emerged from the underworld I let her know. She looked me over, sniffed, said, "Definitely. Morley is awake."

"Ten minutes. We still need to get the upstairs windows. And I need to get this gunk off me."

I returned to the kitchen for tea. The Windwalker wasn't there anymore. "Where'd she go, Dean?"

He pointed up. "She went to clean up."

"It's really nasty down there."

"I like this one, Mr. Garrett."

"What?" I wasn't paying attention because I'd noticed that salt had been laid down along the bottom of the door to the cellar.

"This woman. I like her a lot."

"You do? What about Tinnie?"

"I like Tinnie a lot, too. Tinnie is entertaining and challenging. Because she's always there, there's never been a question if she is the best woman to be there. With this one, though. . I'm relaxed and comfortable, despite what she is. I don't worry if she'll start barking about something I have no idea. . You do see what I mean?"

I did. Still, I was flabbergasted. A great word, that. I didn't get to use it often enough. Flabbergasted. From a root word meaning he ate too many beans.

Dean had been a booster of Tinnie Tate since the day he finally accepted the fact that he would never hook me up with one of his homely nieces.

Did I need to get nervous? In no time, with no apparent effort, Furious Tide of Light had conquered Dean and the Dead Man both. It had taken Old Bones an age to accept Tinnie. If the Windwalker seduced Singe, I was in it deep.

"Dean, she is remarkable. Like you say, easy to be around. She just naturally seems to belong. But you have to remember what she is and the people she runs with. And I don't even know her real name. She's still just the Windwalker, or Furious Tide of Light."

"That might be cumbersome, socially, if you're making introductions, especially in your circles. But it won't be a problem much longer."

"Huh?" Caution: Giant Intellect at Work.

The Windwalker's shy little girl voice piped, "My name is Strafa. Strafa Algarda." She moved very close as she came for tea of her own. She bumped me gently, at the hip. I was pretty sure she'd overheard everything.

Dean grinned almost lecherously. He'd never done that with Tinnie. He'd always been frowns and disapproval when he thought we might be playing grown-ups.

I was in it now, definitely and deeply, riding it without reins or a saddle, at a gallop, straight into one of those narrow places every man hates to go: a time of decision.

How could I get out of this without somebody getting mangled?

The Dead Man was amused in the extreme. He didn't have the imagination I did. He couldn't picture a future where the Tate clan hunted me down and staked me out on a termite mound. Or where one of the top dozen operators in a city renown for black-hearted and cruel sorcerers had a bone to pick with a man who done her wrong.

Do not become hysterical.

And I couldn't respond because we were still pretending that he couldn't read the Wind. . Strafa's mind.

I wished I could get in there and look around myself. I had questions. Chuckles hadn't given me much, yet. Too, I wanted to know what he learned from that thing in the street. He should have given me that a long time ago, unless it was too scary for somebody as young as me. And, as long as I was feeling left out, how about what he had gotten out of my best pal?

On cue, sourpuss Singe stuck her head into the kitchen. "You said ten minutes an hour ago, Garrett. He's fading now."

"I've told you a million times not to exaggerate. It hasn't been anywhere near an hour."

"The point remains. You are ignoring your most important task while you indulge in flirtation."

What was this? My cheeks got hot!

I headed for the cold well, grabbed a pitcher.

Singe took it away. "I'll handle that. You go see Morley."

54

They had him propped up in a chair. He wore clean clothes. Belinda must have had those brought by. He was fading when I arrived, but he brightened some. "They're promising me a real bath soon."

"Be like heaven on earth."

Strafa had followed me. Morley's eyebrows rose. The hunter light sparked in his eyes. He tried on his girl-killer smile, then looked at me, curious. His face collapsed into a mild frown.

"Morley, this is Strafa. She's helping find out what happened to you. Strafa, this is Morley Dotes, purported restaurateur and genuine crime victim."

Would he recognize her?

"Pleased to meet you, ma'am." He had made that fast a read.

More politely than seemed plausible considering her feelings, Singe eased the Windwalker aside so she could deliver my pitcher. Then she herded Strafa somewhere else.

Dotes asked, "Something special there?"

"Might be."

"Uhm." He asked none of the questions my conscience primed me to expect. "Interesting."

"Frightening. I'm getting lost. This shouldn't happen to me. I'm a big boy, I'm a good boy, and I've been in the same place a long time. The place I've always ended back at since way back when we went to the Cantard to fight vampires. But now this. And I don't know her that well."

"It happens, Garrett. How well did you know Maya? Or Eleanor? Eleanor wasn't even alive. And what about Belinda?"

"Belinda was the other way around. I was mostly trying to keep from getting my throat cut."

He didn't call me on that, probably because he didn't want to talk about Belinda. "Not to worry. You being you, you'll mess it up out of some compulsion to do what you think is the right thing. You'll end up back where you started even if it isn't what you want."

Not what I needed to hear. "Let's talk about you."

"My favorite topic, but why? Hasn't the Dead Man drained me dry?"

"No. He says you've got a brain like a rock."

"What can I say? When he's right, he's right. If I had the brains of two rocks I wouldn't be in this condition."

"You starting to remember things?"

"No."

"Really?"

"Truly. It's like whole weeks have been cut out of my memory. I have a vague recollection of waking up in a bed somewhere with you and Bell hovering. Or was that. .? Now that's getting murky."

"That could've been four different women. Belinda had you hidden upstairs at a classy hook shop."

"Yeah? That's murk. Before that, though, it's all a dark place. Not just vague but a big black obsidian chunk of nothing. Then murk before that. I know I was walking. Not sneaking but being unobtrusive. I don't think I was following anybody. I don't know where I was coming from. Something caught me from behind."

Morley, taken by surprise? Wow.

He jumped as though pricked. His eyes lost focus. He started speaking fluent incoherent.

Old Bones was feeling benevolent. He filled my head with Morley's recollections of what had set him off.

There was a woman, vague, becoming clearer as she approached. She was tall and slim and wore black leather. She moved with natural sensual arrogance. Her hair was big and almost old lady gray. She was far from old, though. She might be just starting her twenties. Her mouth was small but her lips puffed a bit. They were an intense red.

Those lips held the only stark color in the picture.

The vision faded. Morley's mind slipped into the murk, then plunged into the obsidian oblivion.

I collected myself. "I didn't recognize her."

Old Bones fed the vision back to Morley, who said, "Me neither. And I wouldn't forget those lips."

The one task I gave Jon Salvation, because he was desperate to be included, was to recruit an artist unafraid to work with me. Once we develop portraits we may be able to make identifications.

"Portraits? Plural?"

General Block has generously agreed to lend us Jimmy Two Steps.

Singe proved she was being included by calling from her office, "Why hire an artist? Let Penny do it. She has the talent and the materials. She lives close by and she could get started right now."

She is also insanely timid around Garrett.

"I will promise her to defend whatever virtue she pretends to have left."

Oh, catty!

Singe had a problem with Penny Dreadful, too? This was news to me.

Of course, after being away so long, everything was news to me.

"Do both," I suggested. "At least once. We'll see if two different artists see the same thing. And, while we're borrowing the King's property, why not take a look at Butch and his brother?"

I tendered that request. It came too late. The younger man was released because he cooperated fully. The other received a minimal sentence to the aqueduct project.

Then, Oho! This could be interesting. Singe, please stand by at the door.

55

My heart jumped into my throat. There was only one person this could be. Despite all my thought, I wasn't ready.

So while I headed into panic mode, the Windwalker contributed by coming down to see what was going on.

The amusement exuded by the Dead Man was overwhelming.

Singe opened the door. Kolda came in. "Hey, Garrett, I think I found remedies for both your friends."

"Good on you, Brother Kolda. Tell me about it." My relief was so huge I was about to pee my pants.

More amusement.

Kolda produced a half dozen small bottles. "These brown ones are for your poisoned friend. The one with the green stopper will help his memory. The one with the red stopper will work on the poison. The one with the clear stopper will make him piss. A lot. He'll want a lot of water. Let him drink as much as he wants. It'll flush his body out. The blue bottles are for your sick friend. I wrote the instructions out so you don't have to remember them."

Kolda was pleased with himself. I would have to give him some strokes. He had done good.

Singe was still standing by the door. I said, "You want to take these instructions? I'll lose them just going down the hall."

"Put the paper on my desk. I'm busy." She began sliding bolts back.

I panicked all over again. And with no more need. When I shambled back from putting the medicines and instructions on Singe's desk, with the latter carefully weighted down by the former, I found Kolda pressed back against the far wall of the hall, completely rattled. DeeDee, Crush, and Miss Tea filled the hall with bounce, beauty, and chatter. DeeDee was in a blood sport mood. She had Kolda picked for the weakest game on the plain and thought he needed tormenting.

I blurted, "What are you three doing here?" Ever the boy with the golden tongue. "I'm glad I made a good impression, but. ."

Miss Tea moved into my personal space. I cringed back into Singe's office. She chucked me under the chin. "We have the evening off. We couldn't stay away."

Crush came in close, too, but she was just looking past me.

Strafa Algarda descended the stair again, drawn by the hubbub. She began to glower. Likewise, Singe, from the doorway end of the hallway. I said, "Morley is in the room on the left, right there."

"Thank you."

Crush asked, "This is where you live? You must do pretty good."

"I was lucky on a couple of jobs. And I work with people who are the best at what they do."

Singe kept scowling. She was seriously irked about something.

Crush looked at her, Kolda now getting his breath and color back, and the Windwalker. She saw something I didn't. She said, "I see books. Can I look?"

Singe gave a grudging nod. She may have gotten advice from the Dead Man.

"Sure. Come on. They aren't mine, though, so don't touch."

Some kind of joyful reunion commenced in the other room. Morley Dotes and Miss Tea were old friends after all.

Crush asked, "Are they the witch's books?"

"The witch?"

"The woman at the end of the hall. It's obvious."

"She might resent being called a witch. She's a lot more. Height of the Hill. A Windwalker. No. The books are Singe's. The one who let you in."

"Really?" Amazed.

"Truly. She is the smartest person I know, human or rat. I couldn't survive without her." No need to mention the Dead Man.

He had to be in heaven, slithering through the secrets buried in all these fresh minds. He'd never use what he found, likely, but he would feel good knowing.

He had to be in heaven, complete with this whole mess. He was learning a lot of the secrets of this dark old city. Or so it must seem after a long dry spell.

Be careful, Garrett. That crumpet will fall in love with you for Singe's books. More amusement.

I asked Crush, "Didn't you want to see Morley?"

"Not so much. DeeDee is enough competition for Mike."

I didn't follow. I heard the front door open and close. Now what? I went to look. Crush crowded up to peek past me.

Penny Dreadful had arrived. She was loaded with artist's stuff. She froze when she saw me looking. I couldn't resist. I winked. Her gaze shifted to Crush, who wasn't much older than she. She scowled. Crush glared. Penny headed for the door to the Dead Man's room. Kolda opened it. I asked Crush, "Do you know Penny?"

"Only by type."

"Kid has lived a rough life." I sketched it.

Crush was not impressed. She had some background of her own.

"Singe, how did Penny know we needed her help?"

"I have skills, partner. I sent a message." She gave Crush a look that should have caused bone bruises.

She was not feeling charitable toward any female today.

The Dead Man finally clued me to something he should have mentioned as soon as I came into range. It is her estrus time and today is its peak. She has taken drugs to suppress the effects. Those are not entirely efficacious where the psychological indications are concerned. I do enjoy these newcomers. I had quite forgotten how colorful some of your acquaintances can be.

Crush said, "She was jealous when she saw me."

"What?" The Windwalker? Singe? Penny?

That roused the logic beast and got it shambling. It fed on things that had been happening the past few days.

Singe no longer consciously entertained the adolescent fantasies she had suffered when first we teamed up but I was top rat around here. She might have formed a deep down attachment that got the salt in the raw wound treatment when she was in heat.

Time to be careful.

She was taking some potent drugs. The rat thugs who were in and out never responded to her. Dollar Dan had been nursing a yearning for Singe since John Stretch took over as number-one rat gangster. Dan would be watching for an opportunity.

All right. Singe didn't like anyone female right now because they were competition for the boss rat's attention. Tinnie must be way up on her transitory list. But Tinnie wasn't here. Strafa Algarda was. And Crush, who was just a kid.

Crush slipped past, stepped down the hall, glanced back, gave me an unwarranted "gotcha!" look that I would have expected from DeeDee first.

That had to be for her own benefit. She thought she had proven that I could be manipulated even when I was trying to be a good guy.

Singe smoldered.

How long would this last? Would this be her worst day? I hoped.

I then realized that she had not left the door.

Oh, God and all His Saints defend me! All I needed was for the redhead to walk into this menagerie. The only female in the place Tinnie would trust might be Penny. And that would change the instant she got a look at how Penny had grown.

Someone knocked. Singe started undoing bolts.

56

Kolda sort of half whimpered. "You don't got any more need for me, Garrett, I better get on out of here." Body language screamed that he was a liar. What he really wanted was to dive into the visiting mob. Team Fire and Ice could have their way with him till the stretcher bearers carried him away. "Trudi don't like it if she has to wait up."

Who was Trudi?

Fiancee.

That old devil time playing tricks again. Did Kolda have a wife back when he was trying to poison me? I thought so but couldn't remember for sure. Well, he didn't have one now. The woman he did have scared him, though not as much as the fantasies tormenting him here.

"If you got to go, you got to go. You wouldn't want to miss supper on account of these beasts. Are you having trouble, Singe?"

"That idiot out there keeps pushing on the door. This bolt won't slide if there's pressure. I had it made that way. Ah. I've got it now." She let the door swing.

In came Jon Salvation and a companion recently escaped from a homeless shelter. The latter lugged gear similar to what Penny had dragged in. His was seedier. He was seedier, by an order of magnitude. He needed to discover soap and water. He needed to steal some clean clothes. And he maybe ought to forego the next dozen bottles of ardent spirits.

His hair was a wild, gray tangle. I shuddered to think what vile livestock he was importing into my house. He was shorter than Salvation and a whole lot dumpier. He was the epicenter of a fierce medley of smells.

Jon Salvation said, "This is the Bird, Garrett. Bird, this is the guy who needs your help." He turned. "Singe, can you show the Bird where to set up?" He nudged me a few steps toward the kitchen, whispering, "You have any hard liquor? The Bird has a problem inside his head. He needs the stuff to keep the voices quiet."

I opened my mouth with intent to remind the Remora what he was known to be full of. I received a gentle cautionary brush from the Dead Man. "Voices? Really?"

"You need to see it to believe it. This guy is a genius. When he has just the right amount of firewater in him, so the voices are softer, he paints like an angel."

I believed Salvation. I had run into something like that before.

I asked Salvation, "You have any idea what Bird's real feelings about his madness are?"

"What do you mean?"

"Does he want the voices to go away?"

"Wouldn't you?"

"I would. Yes. But would you? If that meant that you wouldn't have the magic to be a playwright anymore?"

"You're thinking that the Dead Man might be able to shut the mental doors on his demons."

"Might. Come down here one more step." I looked into the room where Morley was taking the attentions of several beautiful women as his birthright. "Crush. Got a minute?"

Young Hellbore turned away from her mother and Madam Mike. She showed me a teen's practiced expression combining boredom, embarrassment, and disgust. "What?" Her expression did not improve when she glanced at my companion.

"I told you that if I got the chance I'd introduce you to Jon Salvation. This is him." I told the Remora, "Crush likes your plays."

The kid got mad. Of course. But she didn't make a scene.

I couldn't see the big deal. This here was Pilsuds Vilchik, the Remora, a weasel who tagged along behind a friend of mine. He whined a lot, got underfoot, and had a twist in his brain that left him unable to see what Winger really was.

I considered Winger a friend but had no illusions about her character.

The idea that this noxious squirt could become a major celebrity was entirely ridiculous.

Singe came out of the Dead Man's room. The Bird delivered. He should have no problem with Old Bones. He was used to having voices inside his head. She looked at me, Salvation, Crush, leapt to some evil conclusion. Shaking her head, she told me, "I'm going to have a cup of tea before any more complications come up. Guard my office."

I didn't get that, unless she was concerned for the sanctity of her books.

Crush and Jon Salvation got along like Hellbore and Pilsuds Vilchik. He was not the giant she had sculpted in her imagination. And she was just another empty-headed kid who asked the same nimrod questions he had heard a thousand times before.

Singe came out of the kitchen carrying a tray with a teapot, sandwiches, and cups. "Join me." Inside her office, she said, "This place is turning into a zoo filled with human exotica."

"You got used to the quiet life."

"I did. And I find the habit hard to break. Eat. This is likely all we'll get for supper. Dean is exhausted. The sorceress is going to help him get upstairs."

"She's good for something, then."

"Don't do that when I'm starting to not like her a whole lot less. I'm stressed enough. And it will only get worse. We have no hard liquor."

"Old Bones ask for it?"

"He thinks he may be able to create a similar effect but wants the real thing handy."

"We could send Salvation out."

"Winger drinks, doesn't she?"

"Yes. Do I need to have Belinda get us out of your hair?"

"She couldn't get here in time."

The poor girl sounded like she was about to slide away into despair.

"You want to head upstairs yourself, Singe?"

"I'd better stay."

"I can handle this crowd."

"Maybe now. How about half an hour from now? You're too far gone. I still love you but you aren't the man you used to be."

The Windwalker joined us. Singe neither protested nor betrayed any distaste. In fact, there was a cup for Strafa on the tray she had carried in. Was peace about to break out? Or was Singe just too tired to fight?

I asked, "Everyone out there still being civilized?"

Strafa said, "A woman and two girls are fussing over your injured friend. There are three men and a girl in with your dead friend. The three of us are here. And the poisoner is missing."

Singe said, "I let Kolda out after Jon Salvation got here."

So. Crush was in with Morley and Salvation was with the Dead Man. That was a brief romance.

Poor Remora. He couldn't be what his fan wanted him to be.

57

Though there was babble from next door and some sort of foreboding from across the way, all was calm and relaxed in Singe's office. Tea got sipped. Not much got said. Strafa, Singe, and I relaxed.

After a time, Singe said, "The caretakers and night guards should be here soon. I expect John Stretch will come with them. I'm going to draw a pitcher of the dark."

The dark was the most potent beer we had. I had been unaware of its presence till now. The cold well must have been modified to handle multiple kegs.

Singe's tail vanished round the edge of the doorway. The Windwalker said, "She doesn't like me."

"No. But she's mellowing."

"Why doesn't she like me?"

"She thinks you're trying to push into our lives. She feels threatened. She's fragile." I made no mention of her season. Maybe the Dead Man could explain that later in a way that made sense to a human woman.

The Windwalker sipped tea and frowned delicately. She seemed waiflike and vulnerable. "How could I injure her?"

I gave Old Bones a few seconds to caution me before I said, "She sees all women in the mirror of Tinnie Tate." The redhead had to come up sometime.

"The abrasive woman who was there for some of the excitement at the World Theater, back when."

"That would be Tinnie."

"You're still involved."

"You know my situation perfectly well."

She smiled a wan, forlorn little smile. "I might have looked into it."

"Singe never liked Tinnie much. She feels guilty about that. She thinks she should like Tinnie because I like her. So now she feels like she needs to be a voice speaking for Tinnie because Tinnie can't speak for herself. Today she found out that both Dean and my partner across the way approve of you. So she feels more pressured."

"I see." She glowed like a kid who had just won a tough race against outstanding competition.

"I was surprised, too."

"Yes?" The glow waxed stronger. The woman was amazing. She might be who she was, one of the dozen most powerful mortals living, with potential for growth, but she was as naive as a ten-year-old in some ways. She was starved for approval.

Strafa said, "She's right about one thing. I mean to steal you away."

She said that straightforwardly, without a hint of the fierce sensual aura she had used to taunt men, back when she was daddy's girl. She stated a fact and left it for me to digest.

"You're going too fast. ."

Singe returned with two pitchers and four mugs. She meant to do some drinking and did not plan to do it by herself. I sniffed a pitcher. "I'm in." She had brought summer ale as well as the dark.

She told me, "You pour. I have to get the door."

My stomach plunged to the deck.

58

My panic went to waste again. Singe did not admit redheaded doom. Neither did she bring in her brother and the lady rats who nannied Morley Dotes. What she did admit was General Westman Block and two nervous villains so obviously low-life that they might as well have it tattooed on their foreheads. One was the younger of the pair who had come after me and Tinnie. The red tops had tracked him down. Reason suggested that the skinny, shaky little weasel must be Jimmy Two Steps.

Singe came back, took her seat, drank some beer. Crush came in. "Is it all right if I hang out in here till DeeDee and Mike get over that guy? I'll stay out of the way."

"Fine by me. Singe, all right if she looks at your books?"

Of course it wasn't all right. And any animus she felt toward Strafa she was willing to dump on tasty young Hellbore. But she said, "Please be gentle. And make sure your fingers are clean."

Then the General joined us. "Garrett, I hate to beg but, gods damn! I need to drink something."

Which reminded me, "Singe, how about fuel for that lunatic artist Jon Salvation brought?"

"Something will arrive soon."

How did she know that? She hadn't left the house and Kolda went before the Dead Man put in his request.

Old Bones must have sent word to someone outside. That was the only thing that made sense.

She continued, "General, would you like to try the Weider Dark Reserve? It's a limited production brew that few outside the Weider family get to taste."

"How can I resist? Count me in, Miss Pular."

Singe, Singe, you wonder child. Even the head of the whole damned tin whistle tribe considers you a real person. Which thinking I masked with a stone neutral visage.

Block was impressed despite having been around Singe since her adolescence.

It felt good, seeing my baby treated like one of the gang instead of a freak or half-wit vermin.

Big thumping at the door. I had heard the wolf cry so often that Tinnie and all the freckle speckled redheaded Tates in the world could be out there and I wouldn't raise more than a half-assed whimper.

Nor did I need to. Singe opened up for her brother, Dollar Dan, and two ratwomen. They brought distilled spirits enough to keep the Bird fueled for weeks. Singe hijacked a bottle. She poured a half mug for the General. "There's a real drink."

Crush volunteered, "I'll take some of that, please."

"No," Singe said. "You're too young for dizzy water."

Crush was startled. Then she laughed. Then, shaking her head, she went back to looking at Singe's books.

John Stretch joined us, looking Block askance. Dollar Dan and the ratwomen took up space in the hallway outside the room where Morley was holding court.

Singe told me, "I suspect that pretty young girls who ask for something that will impair their judgment seldom hear the word no."

Crush raised a hand in a gesture of agreement. She had found something to fascinate her. She handled the book reverently.

Crush fascinated Westman Block. But he would not cross that line.

Odd. Women definitely interested the General. I never heard of one getting close. No doubt there was a sad old story. There were plenty of those around.

He emptied his mug quickly and did not refuse a refill. He said, "The resurrection men are back at work." Like that dovetailed into the conversation.

Singe gave her brother her mug, filled with summer ale. He lifted that to me.

Strafa generated a squeak that drew the attention of everyone but Crush. I didn't find out why because, after another pull of the water of life, Block said, "Those men in the gray wool tights and pullovers with the wooden headgear from the incident on the north side? They were fix-ups made from pieces of dead people."

Jaws dropped. Crush let her book fall to her waist. Strafa made gurgling noises.

"Way to introduce a subject," I said. My mug was empty. I decided to give the dizzy water a try.

"Blame the drink," Block said. "I'm not supposed to let that get out."

Interesting. More Civil Guard disobedience.

Clear as iron, Block and Relway were way not happy with outside pressure. Their scorn for the rules suggested that they had gotten quiet assurances from Prince Rupert that he would notice nothing if somebody did babble too much after a mug of beer.

Somewhat nimbly, Singe moved into the hallway again, headed for the door. She needed to be nimble to get through the crowd.

I took a long sip of firewater and tried to run a census. I couldn't come up with a firm number but there had to be seventeen or eighteen warm bodies cluttering the place.

I was way out of practice for the social life. A little beer, a few sips of ardent spirits, and I was totally relaxed. I no longer had a care. Nothing troubled me. I looked at Strafa without a professional thought in my head.

She looked back. One eyebrow lifted slightly. Her small mouth betrayed a ghost of a smile of invitation, agreement, or triumph.

59

Singe said something out in the hallway. I didn't catch the words but her tone was troubled. John Stretch and I both got up and headed that way, me wondering where I had left my stick and how trouble had gotten close with the Dead Man on the job.

John Stretch put that together quicker than I did. He stopped. I bumped into him, not hard.

Singe returned to the office, headed straight for the cup she had given her brother. Had she been human she would have been pale and grim.

The reason was a step behind her. A fine looking redhead hove into view. .

That was Kyra Tate, Tinnie's teenage niece, at first glance a dead ringer for her aunt. In the instant it took me to realize that Kyra was not my dearly beloved, the master redhead herself materialized.

Kyra was just a little older than Crush. She came with manifest teen attitude. She did not want to be here-though it soon became evident that it had been her idea to come. Behind her, Tinnie slowed down, jaw descending, as she took in the size and makeup of the crowd.

General Block lifted his mug to Tinnie. "Good evening, Miss Tate. May I say how very handsome you look tonight?"

He could get away with talking to her like she was an old lady. If I said something like that I would regret it for months.

Behind Tinnie came her uncle Oswald. Behind Uncle was cousin Artifice, who had a reputation as a brawler.

I nearly laughed, watching Tinnie's reaction to each presence. Strafa should have fallen down whimpering and crawled under something. Crush should have collapsed into a pile of ash. "Wow. And you still have to meet DeeDee and Mike. And to see how Penny has grown." Which I did not say out loud.

She wouldn't have heard me anyway. She had taken on a glazed look. In a faraway voice she announced, "I have to see the Man Across the Hall."

Said entity touched me ever so lightly, without a word, offering the gentlest of reassurances.

Tinnie had arrived primed for a knock-down, drag-out, once-and-forever showdown but had been, from the moment Singe let her in, thrown off stride. There were ratpeople everywhere. There were numerous human people, too, including the commander of the police and a highly placed sorceress off the Hill. And now she had been summoned to the presence of His Nibs, where she would encounter yet another crop of amazing guests.

Singe collected herself. She asked the other Tates if they would like refreshments. Uncle Oswald nodded.

Never looking up, Crush said, "I'll throw a tantrum if you let her have anything tastier than tea."

"The same rules apply," Singe said.

Kyra knew she was the subject but had no idea why. I explained. "Underage drinking. Singe doesn't approve. Singe, you better check and make sure Penny isn't sneaking anything."

"Your sense of humor never improves."

She and Old Bones both really liked that kid. I never got why. But, so what? I have foibles of my own.

I asked Kyra, "How come you're down here slumming?" She was giving Strafa a suspicious look. She remembered the Windwalker.

No need to explain Artifice and Uncle Oswald. The old man was looking out for the Tate family dignity. Artifice was there to get his butt kicked if Tinnie tried to make her points physically. Also, to make sure she got around safely.

Those streets out there were getting mean again.

Blatant amusement slithered through the ether from the Thing Across the Hall, no cause apparent.

Block recognized Oswald. They were involved in some charity together but only as distant acquaintances. They engaged in a clumsy exchange.

Strafa moved closer, as though to protect me. Kyra and Artifice overlooked that because they had become fascinated by Crush-Kyra maybe because she thought someone her own age had to be as unhappy to be here as she was. Artifice was interested for the reason any man would be. Crush just standing there begged for solicitous male attention. So toothsome was my little Hellbore.

There was, of course, no way Artifice could know that the bloom was gone from that rose and what remained was mostly thorn. Crush was not wearing work clothes.

"Kyra?"

"Sorry, Garrett." She forgot Crush. "It's kind of embarrassing."

"I don't remember you being long on shy." She could be more forceful and straightforward than her aunt. She hadn't had as much practice pretending to be socialized.

Many killers are sociopaths but only a small percentage of sociopaths are killers. Tinnie was the nonlethal sort.

So far.

60

Kyra told me, "I'm not used to having an audience."

Ha! Her problem wasn't Strafa, the General, or John Stretch. Her problem was Artifice and Uncle Oswald. "Bend down here. Whisper."

Crush murmured, "He wants to look down your blouse."

"Humorous, Hellbore, but unfair. She isn't showing a neckline."

Furious Tide of Light tried wilting Crush with her stare.

Crush went back to her book.

Singe arrived with more mugs, more beer, and muffins. That distracted the male Tates.

Kyra dropped to her knees beside me. "I'm having trouble with Kip. That's really why I talked Tinnie into coming. You know Kip. You can give me some advice."

"Amazing," I said in a conversational voice. Strafa had now posted herself behind me, leaning on the back of my chair. Singe was not pleased but her disapproval was so mild that only I got it. "There's a huge chance that I'm the last guy you should ask for relationship advice. But I'll give it a shot."

"I'm seventeen now, Garrett. Kip and I have been together. . Well, what it is? I don't want to be like you and Aunt Tinnie. Going on and on and on and never. . Oh, I don't blame you. What's wrong between you and Tinnie is mostly Tinnie's fault. She could've wrapped everything up years ago if she wanted. Now she might lose you."

Crush made some snide remark about here's your chance under her breath. She got the hard-eye from Strafa. Kyra ignored her. "Anyway, I decided I don't want her advice anymore. I want Kip, not the satisfaction of sitting alone in my room feeling smug about how I showed him. No games. Now and forever."

Way to go, Cyprus Prose! You got one of the hottest girls on the continent bewitched. Amazing, nerd boy. How the hell? But it looked like he was close to losing her, probably without realizing there was a problem.

"Kyra, I'm on your side. You're the best thing that ever happened to that boy. So what's the problem? Is he just being his usual dim self? Can't see what's there in front of him unless you smack him between the eyes?"

I tried mentoring the boy, back when. We had some things in common.

"It's sort of like what's going on with you and Tinnie. Only I believed him when he said a friend of his is in trouble and needs his help. My problem is, he shuts me out of that whole side of his life."

Kyra ran out of steam. She had said it all, for the moment. But Tate women seldom stay silent long. I tried to work out what she meant.

Kip did not have many friends.

Strafa still leaned on the back of my chair. Her knuckles were white. Kyra avoided looking at her even though she should have been curious.

Oh. It was the Faction again. The friend in need must be Kevans, a friend Kip had helped, despite all, back when the Windwalker and I first met.

When Kevans and Kip got their heads together technical miracles happened. They invented strange and wonderful things.

Kyra's concern fed Strafa's. Strafa was hard-pressed because she was still afraid that Kevans might be the girl in the tight black leather. Despite believing that Kevans had an alibi for. .

She did think Kevans was capable of behavior this foul. That was the key.

Oh, my. My new ally, who might become a special new friend, could end up an enemy because the thing she feared most might turn out to be true.

Alibis can be manufactured, before and after the fact.

I had no trouble imagining Kevans dealing with resurrection men, either. I'd never gotten to know her well but I recalled a sociopathic personality. Yet that had been true of most of the Faction. And she had not been the worst.

That might be an angle worth pursuit.

So. Maybe Kevans had been living in that warehouse up north, making new men out of the best pieces of the old.

Where would she get money to pay the resurrection men?

Kip?

I rested my right hand on Strafa's where hers lay on the back of my chair. "She can't afford it."

"What?"

"Think. Where would Kevans get enough money to set up what you saw on the north side?"

Kyra became intensely interested in my hands and dialog. No doubt Tinnie would get a detailed report.

And I, being Garrett the wonder fool, had to ease Strafa's dreads by saying, "Kevans could never look as good in black leather as. ."

Maybe. Maybe not. When I knew her Kevans had been pretending to be a boy. If she took after her mom she could make that leather smolder. Taking a wild shot at making Strafa feel better because her kid was weirdly built was one of those special moments that make me uniquely me.

An instant after it was too late to avoid getting shoe leather caught between my teeth I had no trouble imagining a dozen voices telling me what an insensitive dumbass I was.

One was not imaginary. It came from the Thing Across the Hall and was heavy with exasperation. But that morphed into a vague apology. If I understood right he was taking out on me frustrations developed while conversing with the redhead. Tinnie had shown complete disdain for reality.

I was amazed. He had lost patience and pushed her out, a tactical error for sure. Even today's more difficult Tinnie is amenable to reason if you put in some time. You do need to be patient, to avoid preaching and rational argument. You need to be intense while you present your position. Worried or scared works best. Then you should shut up and go away. You need to have it end up looking like her agreeing with you was her idea.

Which is more work than most guys are willing to do. It's been getting a lot like involuntary overtime for me, too, lately.

Old Bones thought facts and figures should trump emotion. He was a little out of touch with the raw intensity of the living, yet could get irked by a stubborn woman. He wasn't fond of that sex to begin with. It had taken him an age to warm to Tinnie as much as he ever did. It had taken him time to get used to Singe but they were at peace now.

He'd never had a problem with Penny Dreadful, maybe because Penny came to us before puberty came to her. He had few reservations about Strafa Algarda, who was, for sure, simmering, past puberty.

His ability to be amused by my obsessions and angst remained undiminished.

I heard Tinnie talking in the hallway, presumably to Morley. She wouldn't know DeeDee or Mike. Her tone wasn't hostile.

I was able to exhaust her reserves of venom.

Too many eyes were watching. I couldn't get into a conversation. Old Bones found that amusing, too, because half the current population of the house thought he was snoozing.

I focused on Kyra, though Uncle Oswald and Artifice might be more trouble. And, while I obsessed about Tates, never-so-drunk-as-he-pretended Westman Block committed every nuance to memory. Singe and her brother exchanged significant glances. And Crush went on being every man's sweet young fantasy, pretending to be oblivious while she appreciated Singe's literary treasures.

Kyra and Strafa continued to measure one another.

I grumbled, "What can we toss into this to add a little flavor? How about some hot spice?"

Hot spice debuted, her advent entirely civil.

I wore her down.

One quick glance told me that nobody but Ma Garrett's ever-loving, blue-eyed baby boy was intimidated.

Tinnie stopped in the doorway. She eyed each individual, recognizing everyone but Crush. Crush didn't do her the honor of turning to see who had come in. Tinnie frowned when she looked at Strafa, whom she had seen briefly before.

She was impressed. In one room she had found the commander of the police forces of the greatest city in the world, the chieftain of a major underworld operation, a major player off the Hill, and me.

Clever Strafa had relaxed the intimacy of the distance between us before Tinnie arrived, though not by much.

After visiting the Dead Man and Morley, Tinnie could not help but understand that what was going on here was not just a conspiracy to inconvenience her.

She is starting to get it. Take her out on the stoop and explain it.

I hoisted myself out of my chair. Mug in hand. With murmured encouragement from the Windwalker.

And, for the gods' sake, do not make yourself a sacrificial victim on the altar of let us all just get along.

What did he mean by that?

I mean do not just give her her way because you do not like arguing. This is important.

There followed a psychic echo of a kitten crying, then the crack of a whip.

Hey!

He showed me letting myself be bullied by persons of the female persuasion, all the way back to my mother, but specializing in incidents that gave a certain redhead the hold she had gained over the course of our relationship.

Well.

You are standing there with a dumb look on your face, practically drooling, while a dozen people stare and start to wonder.

Oh. Right.

Old Bones was staging plays inside my noggin. I wondered if he was doing the same thing inside hers. I did hope.

I said, "Let's you and me go out on the stoop where we can talk."

61

It was a quiet night. The sky was clear. The moon would not be up for a while. There were a trillion stars. In some parts of the sky there was more silver dust than darkness. None of the watchers in the shadows made themselves obvious. The men who had accompanied Block had gone to find a tavern. We had the night to ourselves.

Neither of us said anything till a shooting star blazed across the firmament, headed west in a hurry. Then it exploded. For an instant TunFaire was bathed in pallid light.

"This may be the most important night in our lives, Tinnie."

She responded with an inarticulate sound that seemed weighted down with sorrow. She pushed against me like she was cold. She was shivering.

I told her, "We've known each other for a long time. I can't imagine my life without you in it. But I can't go on the way we've been. I can't be what you want. Those people in there are important in my life, too."

The last light of the dying star glistened off a tear. She said nothing.

My heart sank. Old Bones had failed. She would remain stubborn till the end.

Proceed gently, Garrett. All is not lost. Even though he liked Strafa Algarda better than this woman whom he knew so much better.

Tinnie said, "Garrett, I love you. You know that. I have forever. I could say something corny like you complete me. I can't imagine myself with any other man. Whatever I said, however I behaved, whatever else happened in our lives, that's been true since I was a kid and you used to come around to see Denny. Ever since then I've tried hard to understand the Garrett who operates outside the closed field of you and me. But I can't, anymore. I know I shouldn't be so selfish. I know I'm twisting away into a darkness that some people might consider insanity. But I'm obsessed. I can't share you anymore. I can't. The monster inside wants to push it to the point where there is no one but you and me. No work. No distractions. Just us. I know that's crazy. But I can't stop it."

Now she had me scared.

What she says is true but right now she is trying to manipulate you through exaggeration. Nevertheless, that exaggeration is being built on a truth from a level so deep it has never emerged before.

"Can you help?" Tinnie was a major part of my life. I had loved her, maybe too often from a distance, almost as long as she said she had loved me. But I was not obsessed. I had been in love before. The rational side of my mind told me I would survive-if the pain insisted on coming.

The adventure called Strafa Algarda waited on the other side. I knew that. Strafa offered a chance for an adult, cooperative relationship.

I looked at Tinnie and wondered how she had gotten to this point.

She said, "The Dead Man has been inside my head, trying to show me things. He says you're part of a network of friendships and obligations. He says there is a fine woman who wants to be important to you but you still look only toward me. ."

What game was Old Bones playing?

Tinnie surrendered to wracking sobs.

The problem here is that a part of her mind does remain fully rational. That fraction knows she is crazy. It knows that obsession drives her. But it has no control. It remains a prisoner inside the growing obsession.

"I can't believe it. How could it happen? Could Kolda come up with an herb? Can you do some kind of surgery?"

I might be able. But you will need to convince Miss Tate that she wants to have the corrective work done. And there is the further question of the strength of your own emotional commitment.

I ignored Strafa, thought a question about working Tinnie and this case in parallel.

That might be possible. Assuming she agreed.

"Curses."

I would have to search her mind memory by memory and hurt by hurt to find tipping points in need of adjustment or cauterization. Each such tipping point will have affected every other that followed. It is a three-dimensional problem. The surgery would be far more subtle than an abuse victim like Miss Algarda needs. She is content with the life she has lived. And there would be no guarantees.

Tinnie said, "You and him are talking about me, aren't you?"

"We are." I pulled her into my arms. As always, she felt exactly right, being there. Designed to fit. She cried. I cried. I told her, "We can work this out. If you let it work out. If you let Old Bones make some minor adjustments. . I'm going to let him work on me."

That was off the top of my head and next to a bald-faced lie. Any refinements my mind needed he would have made already, without mentioning it. Maybe.

Scary thought, that.

Nobody wants to be told that they need fixing. Even when they know it themselves. Tinnie's natural first reaction was rejection. I kept on holding her tight. I said nothing. Talk would not help. What could be talked about had been talked about.

Changes in us would lead to changes in the conversation.

I thought there was a chance. I thought we could find a way.

Uncle Oswald opened the door, checking up. He had a mug in hand. The rosy glow in his cheeks said he was hard at it, enjoying my hospitality. He didn't see any guts strewn about so he grunted and shut the door.

The clinch went on. Tinnie relaxed slowly, surrendering to need. We had to go on. She had to fight the obsession that would make it impossible to do so.

I was confused, for sure. I had this, familiar and mostly comfortable though always freighted with emotion and drama. I had Strafa in the background, exercising a surprisingly powerful pull-not the way it used to be with any female between seven and seventy. That draw was there, too, absolutely. But there was more to it. An intellectual intrigue and a certainty that Strafa Algarda would involve a lot less drama.

Thou foul beast, Temptation!

I felt the amusement of the invisible observer.

It was a classic tough situation.

Tinnie had the lead by a furlong, at the moment. She was as comfortable as an old shoe once she relaxed against me. But Strafa could pull even, or push ahead, with very little effort, if Tinnie wasn't there to rattle my reason.

The invisible observer suggested, It is time to come inside. Something is moving in the darkness. You do not want to be out there should it come this way.

62

The Dead Man's big party rolled on. I led Tinnie into his lair. The temperature had risen there. The air had begun to smell because of the crowd. Penny and the Bird worked on their art. Jimmy Two Steps and Butch's little brother occupied a couple of folding chairs, out of the way, eyes closed, maybe unconscious. Old Bones might be picking their brains.

There is not much there to pick. In any sense.

The lighting was better than usual, on behalf of the artists. The lamps contributed to the rise in temperature.

Playmate's color had improved. It had more depth and sheen. Still, he would be a long-term project, and would demand a lot from the Dead Man at a time when all the rest of this was going on.

Old Bones was a miracle in defunct flesh but he did have limits.

When would he have time to work on Tinnie?

A complication that I am pleased you recognized before I had to bring it up myself. A scheduling problem I will be happy to leave in your keeping.

"Meaning?" I looked over Penny's shoulder. She had several sketches going, all of a very attractive girl. She was doing a sheet of full-body images in different orientations and hairdos. I could say nothing but, "Wow!"

Tinnie failed to poke me. She just looked astonished, and envious.

You are allowing imagination and expectation to carry you away. It is the daring choice of costume that makes the woman so striking. Miss Tate and her niece would appear equally impressive in that apparel.

I said nothing but thought the younger Miss Tate might have an edge on the elder.

Amusement.

"I'm not dead. I notice things."

I watched Penny work. She was talented and quick and had no trouble being close to me while she used charcoal and a variety of Amalgamated's writing sticks to shape her squad of fantasy girls.

The Bird had a color portrait going. It made an ugly, lazy-eyed son of a bitch look like he was about to bark, lean forward, and take a bite.

Tinnie seemed at a loss. I caught the edge as the Dead Man asked her to step back and stay out of the way.

I asked, "Who is this wad?"

A composite of details from many minds. I am not certain but he may be the boss of the resurrection men.

"How did we get to that?"

Mr. Bird, under my direction, is creating a portrait composed of bits taken from the minds of everyone who has come into range since I awakened. Resurrection men are part of what is going on and an angle going unexplored. They gather the bodies that get reengineered. This man could be of special interest. If we can find him.

He was right. It was an approach that had not occurred to me.

Most of our visitors never heard of him. A few have, under the singleton name Nathan. None of our friends, or anyone else, know that they have actually met him but some may have done so without realizing it.

And that, with his wondrous ability to make unlikely connections click, was why the Dead Man was so valuable. I said, "He looks a little like Barate Algarda."

It felt like the warmth went out of the room. His Nibs took a seat behind my eyes, studied the painting through my prejudices.

Not Barate Algarda. The eye. The nose. The scar. The man had a burn scar on the right side of his head, including part of his ear. Ask the Windwalker to come in here.

Tinnie started to follow me. She stumbled, stopped, turned, found a folding chair that she opened and carried back into the shadows.

Damn! Maybe I could get Old Bones to teach me that trick.

Strafa stared at the Bird's masterpiece. The artist himself was on break, nursing a bottle of spirits. Strafa said, "I don't know him. He does look familiar." Unaware that green eyes smoldered in the darkness behind us, she held on to my left arm with both of her hands. Those were shaky.

"I thought he looked like Barate Algarda." I could not call the man her father.

She started. She squeezed harder. "He does, a little! That's weird." She let go. She moved to view the painting from different angles.

I have what I need. You may take her back, now.

I asked Strafa, "So what do you think?"

"I think it's weird."

"Too bad. Well, that's all we needed." Crossing the hallway, I asked, "Do you know anyone who calls himself Nathan?"

"No." Two steps. "Wait! I think Dad's grandfather's name was Nathan. He died when I was four. I remember pulling myself up by the edge of his coffin so I could look." In the doorway to Singe's office, she added, "He didn't have a burn scar."

"Thanks."

Back in the Dead Man's room, I asked, "Any chance this guy could be a vampire?"

Miss Algarda was truthful. She does not know him. I doubt that he is a vampire. His face does resemble that of the man Miss Algarda saw in a coffin when she was a child, though.

Vampires did not last around TunFaire. Their suspected presence will unite classes and races like nothing else. Just a suspicion could lead to a frenzied hunt.

This situation has the potential to turn as ugly as a vampire hunt. Which argument may lie behind the Hill's go-easy attitude.

Vampire hunts always got out of hand. Innocents ended up with chopsticks through their hearts. The last full-blown vampire hunt had happened when I was nine. It had done more damage than any natural disaster since.

"Let me ask the General about that."

Ask him to come view the painting.

Block did not recognize the villain. He did concede that dread of an outbreak of mass hysteria might be the motive behind the hands-off orders being passed around. Might be.

He was, innately, almost as suspicious as Deal Relway.

Block having returned to his firewater, the Dead Man mused, We need to see Barate Algarda and his daughter, here. That is a task the Windwalker will have to undertake.

"That might be a tough sell."

Hardly. She will be compliant to any request so long as you are a gentleman when you present it and you explain the reason for it.

I'd never had that kind of power in a relationship. It was scary.

Miss Algarda is ceding that power in trust. If you breach her trust you will reap a whirlwind more cruel than you can imagine.

"Way to build me up, Chuckles."

It might be valuable to interview your intern, too.

"Intern?"

The boy. Cyprus Prose. I will ask the Miss Tates to bring him in. Making the elder Miss Tate a part of a race against time might go a long way toward improving her attitude. The younger Miss Tate will want to look out for her man.

I was skeptical.

63

I had to reach an understanding with Old Bones about our priorities. Once we acknowledged the most desperate three or four things, there would be, still, time-intensive tasks like honing the ten thousand quirks that defined the mind of Tinnie Tate, all while he kept a sharp watch outside.

You understand.

I understood that everything would take precedence over reconfiguring my special redhead's mental works.

"Your judgment is better than mine. I can't take the emotion out of my choices."

The Dead Man employs profanity infrequently. In a long-winded way he informed me that I was a bone-lazy, backsliding purveyor of mushroom fertilizer determined to avoid even the appearance of contributing anything useful to the conversation.

"Damnit, Old Bones! Life shouldn't ought to be this hard."

Avoid responsibility now, if you like. Do not whine when you face the fattened consequences later.

The change was sudden. For an instant I thought the end had come. The apocalypse. The Twilight. The Rapture, sudden as a dagger in the night. Morley shrieked. Playmate screamed. Tinnie moaned and collapsed. Penny Dreadful and the Bird followed her to the floor. I blacked out for an instant.

I found myself clinging to the frame of the door to the hallway after that instant. I had to concentrate to keep my supper down.

Others had less success.

The light had gone bad. Everything had turned sepia. Those moving did so jerkily. Bad smells developed as folks lost more than their suppers.

Confusion reigned. Dread grew so powerful I knew it had to be artificial. The screaming ended. The screamers had passed out. But chatter waxed amongst the still conscious. None of it made any sense.

No one panicked.

Odd, that.

The initial shock came when the Dead Man dropped everything to focus on one problem. Something that demanding had to be a threat both powerful, lethal, and immediate.

And I, ever-lovin' blue-eyed boy genius that I am, I stumbled up and opened the door for a quick look outside.

Action was developing.

A dozen people in gray wool costumes, their heads inside combination helmets and masks, were headed for the house. Most carried torches. A few were armed. One pair lugged a mini-battering ram that would have dented my door good. Illegally armed ratmen closed in on them from behind.

I found my head knocker and charged, partly because I suspected that a swarming attack would come from other directions, as well.

The attackers kept advancing because the Dead Man was not strong enough to stop so many. He did slow them till their charge looked like it was happening underwater.

His situation would improve as the number of vertical villains declined.

Fine theory, amply supported by the available evidence, but more easily thought than executed.

The grays did not respond well to my initial efforts. My club just bounced off. Lesson learned at the cost of getting dinged a few times.

I shifted to kneecapping. The ratmen started hamstringing. Their efforts were more effective.

Most of my male guests became involved. At some point Jimmy Two Steps and Butch's brother realized they were under-supervised and the door was open. They took advantage.

I pushed through the grays. They did not turn on me. They wanted to turn the house into a bonfire.

Then I was face-to-face with a woman in skintight black leather gifted with the most stunning shape I'd ever seen. Penny's drawings didn't do her justice. She had a mountain of wildly curly white hair. A fierce former Marine bearing down did not rattle her. She seemed inclined to flirt.

So beautiful.

And the face of deep evil. She deserved neither quarter nor amnesty.

We had not met before but we had been at war from the moment those idiot brothers took money from Jimmy Two Steps.

She thrust what looked like a stage magician's wand my way, ever so calmly, all in a day's work, slicing sausage at the butcher shop.

Something hit her like a black lightning bolt to the right shoulder just before I knocked the wand out of her hand by running into it with my big, manly chest. She wore the most wonderful look of incredulity.

The wand delivered enough energy to make me bark and spin, flailing for airy handholds that had not yet been installed. I got one goofy, unforgettable snap view of Furious Tide of Light straddling the front peak of my house, legs dangling, kicking, a ten-year-old up to mischief. She wore a big, happy grin. She flung another dark bolt. Just a kid having fun saving her special friend from a villainess built to torment his fantasies.

That nonsense rattled around inside my gourd for the few seconds it took me to fall asleep on those comfy Macunado Street cobblestones.

I was out only briefly. Still, the excitement was over when consciousness came creeping back. Furious Tide of Light was there with me, now. My head was in her lap. That hurt like I had the mother of all hangovers. Her right hand was hot on my chest, over my heart, maybe delivering the strength I needed to push back the darkness. The agony in my head faded steadily.

Ha! Had I discovered the cure for the common hangover?

I flashed back to that incredible shape in black leather. That was one way somebody could have gotten close enough to stick Morley. That body would have distracted him. A touch of that wand would have left him unable to defend himself, though I suspected the Dead Man would have excavated the evidence if that had happened.

"That wasn't Kevans." Only a liquid weakness kept me from shoving my foot farther down my throat by offering a qualitative comparison of physiques. Kevans didn't bark but there was no way she could make leather look that good.

The time I needed to work up strength was time enough for me to see that I was about to munch a filthy shoe. "She did seem familiar, though. I must've seen her somewhere."

She had been wearing rain gear at the time, or old feed sacks. Otherwise, the moment would be seared onto the backs of my eyeballs.

"Hush, love. The danger is over. Your friends are cleaning up."

It was true. The action was done. The street was carpeted with bodies, not a one twitching. Several torches still burned on the cobblestones. I was awed because tin whistles were not shrilling. General Block was studying the scene carefully. He was both grim and puzzled.

The neighbors began to come out. I heard both negative and laudatory comments. The consensus was, this stuff didn't happen when I wasn't around.

Tin whistles did begin to arrive, from the direction of the Cardonlos house. That old biddy owed me. I was home and she was back in business.

Sleep returned. Whatever the bad girl hit me with, it drained me.

I missed my opportunity to see Tinnie spot me amongst the fallen, being tended by my sorceress friend. I missed the cleanup, too. The red tops carted off nineteen stiffs in gray wool. The lethal blonde and twenty grays got away.

Strafa should have chased them instead of fussing over me.

Tinnie did not head home in high dudgeon. She couldn't. Uncle Oswald and cousin Artifice both had been injured. Oswald could not travel except by coach. Singe sent a runner to the Tate family compound.

64

They tossed me in with Morley, to start, onto the cold, hard floor. Injured people were everywhere, especially against the walls in the hallway. Given the chance to do more than brood and fuss, Westman Block showed us why he had Prince Rupert's confidence. He sent people flying around everywhere. He roused the Guard across the city.

He came by to tell me, "They were all dead, the things in the wool tights. They were made from pieces of dead people."

That did not seem possible. Not in such numbers. Where had the bodies come from? That many people disappearing, dead or alive, should have become a major public issue.

We knew, now, beyond doubt, that there was a connection with Morley and with the break-in on Factory Slide. We knew that several people had to be involved: two women, one old, one young, and, possibly, a stuffed-bear-loving kid. Plus the resurrection men.

I wanted to ask questions but could not. Strafa was not there to ease my suffering. The hangover was back. And I felt like a bad flu had hold of me. I felt naked in a blizzard cold. I couldn't stop shaking.

Speaking of dead. . Where was Old Bones? I got no sense of his presence at all.

That sparked a moment of panic wasted because I couldn't talk.

The chaos in the house settled out without my input. Singe and Strafa went off to stalk the blonde. The delegation from Fire and Ice headed home after taking a moment to say good-bye. Crush told me, "You have great parties. Remember me for the next one."

I couldn't say anything. I tried to wink. The effort was pathetic. I decided to send her a book.

Miss T understood. She touched my cheek. She was more of a mom to Crush than DeeDee was. DeeDee was one hundred percent self-involved. Mike thought my crowd would be better company than the folks Crush encountered in a sporting palace.

I could not disagree with that.

Jon Salvation and the Bird took off. Bird would come back. The supply of spirits was unlimited and free.

Uncle Oswald kept waiting for a coach that must have needed new wheels before it could leave the Tate compound. Kyra visited me. She didn't have much to say. After watching me shake and drool she fled to Singe's office to baby her male kin.

Dean appeared, armed with chicken soup. I could not imagine him being up so late. He considered me and Morley and found himself at a loss. His heart and mind were in the right place but he was physically unable to follow through.

I made some noise that, after years of seeing me come home tipsy, he understood. "He's asleep. It took all he had to resist long enough for the rest of you to get busy." He tried to sound positive but could not conceal the fact that he was extremely worried.

This was not a good time to lose the Dead Man.

Dean was still trying to figure out what to do when Tinnie pushed him out of her way. She brought blankets and two of the heated stones Dean used to warm his feet during winter's bitterest nights. She was calm and businesslike. She placed the rag-wrapped stones against my chest and back, then buried me in blankets. She told Dean, "I can feed them."

I tried to purr, managed to sound like I was choking on phlegm. Tinnie made sure I wasn't, then focused on Morley. Dean said, "According to Mike we lost Dotes the second the attack began."

Typical. Dean was on nickname terms with Miss T after one exposure.

He asked, "What about you, Tinnie?"

"I'm still flustered. Still not sure what's real. But I'll be all right. Worry about Penny instead."

Dean passed the soup. Tinnie settled into the seat the ratwomen used to feed Morley. She blew steam off a spoonful of broth. Dean went off to help somebody else.

"We have a world of things to talk about, Malsquando. Mostly concerning how my head has been working lately." She got Morley to take some broth; then she looked down at me. I wasn't shivering as badly. Her eyes were unreadable. "I saw things tonight that gave me a new perspective."

That did not sound good.

"I promised you and the Dead Man. . Well, I promised. I'll stick to that. General Block explained what it's all about."

I wondered what Block was up to, stirring the pot while drunk and angry.

Tinnie got some more broth into Morley. "I see that this has to be dealt with. There are only a few people who can handle things like it. And you're one." Another spoon of soup. "I should be supporting you, not distracting you and holding you back."

That cost her. She had clamped down hard on her emotions. No doubt Strafa tending me in the street was in the front of her mind. That was a slice of reality she couldn't ignore.

I couldn't say anything. I snuggled the rocks and tried to appear grateful.

Penny came to the doorway. She looked as rocky as I felt. "I'm going to leave now, Mr. Garrett. Please send for me when he's able to go back to work."

I tried to tell her that I would.

Tinnie said, "He can't quite talk, yet. Shouldn't you just stay here? It would be safer."

Penny considered me, weighing the risk of being ravished against the certainty of safety and comfort. From behind her, Kyra said, "Stop worrying. Garrett is harmless. My aunt ought to be ashamed of the stuff she told you. It's because of her in-securities. He won't even look at this cross-eyed." She posed.

Oh, woe! The mighty Garrett considered harmless by the young and the beautiful?

Tinnie snapped, "That is quite enough, Kyra!" She told Penny, "She's right, though. You are safe. There's an extra bedroom upstairs. Use that. Warn Dean so neither of you get any surprises. Go on. You need to stay close to good people right now."

Good people?

What was this? That shock must have hit Tinnie hard.

Kyra said, "I'll show you."

And she knew, how? And why?

Tinnie looked like she had the same questions.

Many interesting things must have happened here in my absence.

Muted girl voices came from the kitchen. Dean definitely was exceeding the call of duty tonight. He should have been in bed hours ago.

65

The woman tried hard to drown me but I was too crafty. Whenever she shoved soup into my face I swallowed it. It was Dean Creech wonder soup. Every spoonful hit bottom, then declared itself throughout my body. Energy came back fast, along with confidence and a sense of well-being. It wasn't long before I found my voice.

"Something I've been wanting to bring up all evening, darling. I never got to it because so much was going on."

Wow. I made a miracle comeback. Almost as good as shaking that awful cold overnight. Though I hadn't, really. A host of unpleasant symptoms were back now that Old Bones was asleep.

I could not help feeling uncomfortable about how my sidekick had begun operating without consultation. Strafa had put me away drowning in my own snot. Next morning the mess was gone and almost forgotten.

Maybe Old Bones didn't think I had time to be sick.

Tinnie developed a mild glower while I rambled through distracting thoughts. "Let's have it, Malsquando! Good or bad, let's get to it."

I was nervous. When Penny and Kyra got upstairs they would see that somebody had used that bed.

The guilty flee where no man pursueth.

We could see some interesting action when Strafa returned.

"All right. Here we go. Before the good goes away and the mucus comes back. Jon Salvation has been bullying me to get you to act in his next play. He wants you bad. Did he talk to you about that?"

"He tried to talk to me about something but I didn't pay attention. And he kept hemming and hawing."

The woman can have that effect on the male of the species.

"He has a new play about fairies. He wants you to be in it."

"I'm done with that stuff." Stated entirely without conviction, damned near begging to be talked into changing her mind. "I wasn't able to be that kind of woman."

"What you weren't able to do was stop being a self-involved pain in the ass. You were Tinnie Tate to the third power."

Had to be the soup. Something in the soup was worse than alcohol for loosening the tongue.

"Garrett?"

"Let's just say you wouldn't have put up with half of what you dished out if you'd been doing Salvation's job."

Her mouth opened and closed. No words came out. She reminded me of a freshly caught trout, with distractions. Say, better, a freshly caught mermaid.

"He wants you for the lead role, darling. And he's sure this will be his biggest play yet."

Her eyes got huge. She drifted off into fantasyland, harkening to dreams she'd had before she alienated everybody.

"Really?"

"Really. I tried to talk him out of it. He insists you're perfect. I'd bet he used you when he created the character. Who you might not like much if you do get involved." Tinnie had no patience with women who had quirks like hers.

Jon Salvation had a reputation for drawing his characters from life, and writing them true.

"What?"

"What I'm saying is, we don't see ourselves the way other people see us. Not saying that what they see is any less subjective. But the way you were at the World. ."

"Stop!"

She did not carry the argument forward.

I had unearthed ambitions my honey had kept hidden. She felt vulnerable, now. Maybe secretly ashamed.

She knew she had been a jerk back when she got kicked out of that select pool of cuties who could act without having to entertain the punters in private after the show.

She had been good but her uncles never approved.

She got all starry-eyed and lost in her imagination.

"Tinnie?"

"I'm sorry, Malsquando. This. . It's. . It's a lightning strike from a clear blue sky. He really said he wants me?"

"Like I told you, I think he used you to create the fairy queen. You wouldn't even have to act. You could just be you. As long as that you isn't the Tinnie that got everybody so mad. ."

She jumped up and down like she was Kyra's age. "I know what you mean. I learned my lesson. I'm not that Tinnie anymore. Garrett, sweetheart, you know what this means?"

"It means you need to get together with the Remora and convince him that you aren't that Tinnie anymore."

"No, dumbhead. It means that if I don't mess this up I can tell my uncles to go to hell. They can find somebody else to keep their damned books."

Epiphany! Though she hid it well Tinnie didn't like her life much. "They'd have to pay somebody."

"Yeah!" She had been trying to be what they wanted her to be. I had suffered because she tried to make me into the man they thought she ought to have. "If you're running some practical joke on me, Malsquando. ."

"He's been trying to get hold of you for days. You wouldn't let him."

"I thought. . Never mind." She bounced up and down again. And didn't turn sour when I suggested that she move into a better light so I could more fully appreciate the view.

I was, for the moment, content. We were rolling along just the way we ought. Only one teensy gnat in the ointment.

Old Bones and I needed to have a sit-down when he woke up. He needed to make his thinking clear. He was the serpent who could slither the deepest cesspits of the human mind. He could explain why he preferred Strafa Algarda to the woman who had been closest to me for an age.

Kyra galloped in. I was sure she would want to know who had been using the guest room bed. Instead, she said, "Our coach is here."

Tinnie said, "It is way late. I need to get Uncle Oswald and Artifice home so they can be treated."

I struggled into a sitting position. "We all need sleep. Kyra, can you see if Dean needs any help? He's got to be half dead by now."

She went. Tinnie asked, "What about you?"

"I'll manage."

"You need to rest, too. But somebody has to let Singe in when she gets back."

"Dollar Dan can handle that." The ratman was in Singe's office, staying out of the way.

"That sorceress will be here, too."

"She might be," I admitted.

Tinnie took a first step in changing the rest of her life. She let that go. She didn't ask questions. She didn't try to manipulate me by telling me how much she trusted me.

Old Bones had had some impact after all.

66

I didn't know when Singe and Strafa came back. They didn't bother to wake me up. I lay back down after Dollar Dan, the Tate women, and their coachmen hauled Uncle Oswald and Artifice away. I was asleep before Dollar Dan locked up behind them.

I slept on the floor. The Windwalker used my bed. Not only did I miss out on the temptation, I knew nothing about it till late next day. By then I was in a bad temper, fighting a terrible cold or incipient flu. I was surly with everybody. Singe had to be the pleasant face of the household to the rest of the world.

I hurt all over. And Old Bones was asleep. But Playmate was awake, ambulatory, trying to help Dean. He looked a lot better, though the plan had been to keep him unconscious several days more.

He had missed his doses of the stuff that had kept Morley down.

Dotes was seated on the end of the cot. He moved gingerly when he moved at all. It hurt him to talk today.

Him being upright brightened things a lot.

He said, "I hope you feel better than you look."

"I doubt it." I climbed onto the other end of the cot, which creaked but held. I told him about my latest brush with the darkness.

Penny appeared with a stack of handkerchiefs. I suppressed the urge to grab her wrist and pull. Keeping right on, growing up.

She offered a half curtsey, fled.

Morley chuckled. "Time's been good to her. So you've made up."

"Sort of. I don't know how long it'll last without Old Bones cracking the whip."

I heard Singe talking to somebody in the next room. Then somebody left the house. Singe joined us. I said, "You look frazzled. Did you get any sleep?"

"Some. We had the usual luck." She sneezed.

"You, too?" I offered a hanky. "They lost you?"

"This is not a cold. It is a continuing reaction to something they used to stop me from following them. I did not stop to identify ingredients. I got away fast. The compound was designed to ruin my nose forever."

"You're all right?" I was concerned despite my own bad humor.

"Yes."

"Strafa?"

"She's all right, too. I owe her. She pulled me back before I got a nose full. She brought me home. She just went back out. I don't know why."

"You're suspicious?"

"Just a feeling. Probably mostly because she is so interested in you. I shouldn't distrust her for that. She is too simple to be evil."

That was an interesting notion.

Morley drank it in without comment.

I said, "I'm going to try to get up, now. I have some business that needs doing." I thought. I ought. It had been a long night.

Singe said, "I'll get a chamber pot."

I lifted my butt eight inches off the cot, could not find the strength to get any higher. Then I realized that I didn't need to go as badly as I should.

Morley grinned when he saw my frown deepen.

"Wait a minute."

Singe said, "The cleaning women took care of you, too. You hardly groaned. And you definitely needed the work."

I faced a creative linguistics challenge but was too sluggish to manage more than an apathetic, "Dirty rotten rackelfratz." I did turn red.

"It is just a job to them, Garrett. They said hardly anything. And you really needed it. You were a mess."

I used another handkerchief.

Singe added, "I will ask Dean to prepare a camphor breather." She left. I blew some more and worried about how bad the cold would get once it got down into my chest.

I was not looking forward to that.

67

Morley asked, "Do we have a plan?"

"We get us back in shape. Then we go find the people who hurt you."

"A masterpiece of strategy and tactics."

"It needs a little refinement."

"That's the usual Garrett approach. Stomp around and break things."

"It works."

"I'm not sure why. I will stipulate that you still walk among us."

Dean and Playmate turned up. Playmate carried a clever little table that folded up flat. It had the Amalgamated hall-mark burned into a leg. Another Kip Prose invention, no doubt. Playmate set it up. Dean deposited a tray featuring tea, dry toast, two bowls of soup, and the thing Singe called a breather. Fresh handkerchiefs accompanied that.

Dean volunteered, "The younger Miss Tate sent us a half dozen of these tables and some more fold-up chairs."

"Thoughtful of her."

"It was, truly." He eyed me expectantly. So I thanked him for the table and tray.

He left looking sour.

Morley poured the tea. "He was hoping you would clarify the direction you're headed emotionally."

"What?"

"They're all wondering the same thing, Garrett. I can see that and I've been dead for a month."

I sipped tea, nibbled toast, downed a few spoons of soup, then suggested, "Clue me in," before I shoved my face into the inhaler device. Which did not bear an Amalgamated hall-mark.

It had been created right here in this house by Dean Creech.

No doubt Kip Prose could polish it and make it a bestseller.

Morley said, "Everybody thinks Tinnie has run her course. That you've started to show some spine. Maybe because of this Strafa. They talk like she's your perfect woman."

They? "That can't be true. They can't know her well enough."

"They wouldn't talk about it in front of you. And they do know Tinnie."

"They? Who? Dean and Singe?"

"Don't get excited. People care about you. They worry. They especially worry about how your decisions might affect their lives."

Another worry I didn't need. "Let's get something straight. Do you think Strafa is better for me than Tinnie is?"

"I haven't formed an opinion. I don't know the new woman-except that she's scary and she's screaming gorgeous. Tinnie I do know."

That didn't sound like a ringing endorsement. "Meaning?"

"Tinnie has some wonderful points. But with some of us she resonates like the Remora does with you. You tolerate him because Winger is your friend. One could make a case for Tinnie being a particularly sinister proof of Dotes' First Law. Don't look at me like that."

"It could be my fault."

"That's the sinister part. She makes you think the problems are all your fault."

I muttered about us having to start recovery training, to avoid an inappropriate vent about him and Belinda. Then I wondered if I ought to poll my acquaintances for their opinions.

Of a sudden I had a distinct feeling that I liked Tinnie a lot more, and thought a lot better of her, than did most any acquaintance not named Tinnie. They tolerated her because she came with me. Odd, that. I was used to thinking that people tolerated me because I came with Tinnie.

Both views would be pure truth-depending where you are standing.

That was not the Dead Man. His Nibs continued snoozing. That was me imagining how Old Bones would respond if I asked his opinion.

I said, "Intellectually, I'm not feeling so good. I need time to get my mind right."

Morley said nothing. He had no need. His expression told the tale.

Garrett had had years to think. He had done his best to avoid that. Now he was caught in a cleft stick, with guilt twisting his arm up behind him.

Sometimes procrastination can be a blessing. And sometimes not, with personal things. Time passing lets opportunities get away and unresolved problems fester.

"Really? Isn't your actual problem that you think too much?"

"Hard to argue with that. Everyone I ever knew accused me of that."

"Let's get back to the plan."

"It's coming along. Since neither of us can go dancing with the devils right now we'll train till we are able."

"I understand the theory. But your thinking is anachronistic. It made sense back when you dealt with stuff that didn't attract attention from generals and princes."

What he meant wasn't obscure, but I didn't get it.

"You kept developing attachments, Garrett."

"I don't follow."

"In the beginning there was you, me sometimes, and a sleek new girl every couple of months. And Tinnie in and out of your life. Then you started getting entangled. There was the brewery connection. Then the Contagues." He made a gesture meant to warn me against interrupting. "You got entangled with Block and Relway and Singe. And Kip and the whole inventory of Tates."

I understood, then. As life proceeded I kept making persistent connections that created ever more complicated obligations. The hiatus under Tinnie's thumbs hadn't shaken me free. People had expectations. I had expectations of my own.

Morley said, "All those entangling people will go right on doing what they do."

I wasn't sure what he meant but he was gracious enough to go on crushing my grand strategy.

That's what it added up to. Our problems existed for other people, too. In this case, most everyone in the city.

"You put it that way, there's no point in us making plans."

"Now you've got it."

I took another shot at getting up off the cot. This time I made it upright.

A drooping Singe materialized before I took a second step. "Where are you going?"

"Upstairs. To bed."

"You just woke up."

I coughed heartily. The cold was getting there. "Ah, crap! You should get some sleep, too."

"Somebody has to run this circus. And I seem to be the only one who can stay awake."

"Unfair. You didn't get the magical smack down."

"Nor did I, eyes wide shut, charge into what a three-year-old dimwit could recognize as a deadly instrument."

"She's got you there, Garrett."

A point. When I charge around overturning and busting things sometimes it's me that gets overturned and busted.

I would have been better off hanging back, throwing rocks.

I picked up the breather. "Show me what to do."

What to do was take notes, for the Dead Man's delectation later, from people poking into things for us. Half of them I didn't know. Some I hadn't seen before. I had no idea how or when they had gotten hired. And they were, universally, boring, because they had nothing interesting to report.

After the fourth I told Singe, "This is impossible. TunFaire can't possibly be that quiet. People can't still be that ignorant. There were witnesses out there."

"Just means the powers that be kept the lid on. So far. Probably by manufacturing clever stories. Gang warfare. Ethnic strife. Something like that. There. I'm caught up."

Nothing interesting happened for the rest of the day.

68

I did get to bed before sundown, never having taken a sip of beer. Dean had gone up right after supper. Singe didn't stay up much longer than I did. We left the house to Penny and Dollar Dan.

I fell asleep snuggling with the breather and a mound of handkerchiefs. Singe had delivered a mug of fierce medicinal tea on her way to her repose. That put me under, fast.

I wakened with the sun on the rise. And I was not alone.

Strafa was spooned up against me as though she had been there every night for years. She was leaner and warmer than what I was accustomed to.

I was startled, but only for a moment. Where else could she stay? The other beds were taken.

I moved slightly. She adjusted, too. My right hand discovered something smaller and more firm than what I anticipated. I cupped it. She pushed against my hand and made a little sound of contentment. I slipped back into Nod. She was purring.

When next I wakened I was on my back. Strafa's head was on my chest, over my heart. She was against me tightly, all the way down. Her hand was on my belly, thumb resting on my navel.

It all seemed perfectly reasonable.

My heartbeat quickened.

That wakened Strafa, slightly. Her hand drifted.

I squeaked. She purred but granted a stay after brief exploration. She wrapped that arm around me, over my right shoulder, pulled herself even closer, half on top, purred some more, and went back to sleep.

Singe awakened us. She showed no attitude. "You won't have time to eat if you don't get moving." She grabbed my used handkerchiefs. "I'll get these washed. There are fresh downstairs." Her nose twitched, no doubt telling her what she wanted to know. "The Dead Man is still asleep. General Block should be here in about an hour. His message didn't say why. Otherwise, there is no news."

Strafa untangled herself from the bedding while Singe talked, exposing my nakedness. No surprise to Singe. She knows I sleep raw. But Strafa was equally bare and not the least self-conscious.

Singe's nose twitched some more. She said nothing. Her season was no longer causing completely tormenting emotions.

She collected the breather. "I'll have Dean recharge this."

"Thanks." I did not look at her. I could not stop staring at Strafa, who was digging in a trunk that hadn't been against the west wall when I went to bed.

The door shut behind Singe. Strafa looked at me, now sitting on the edge of the bed. "You're having naughty thoughts. I can tell."

Oh, yeah.

She came to me, pushed me back, straddled me, asked, "Now? Or wait till tonight?"

I was no moral hero. I was no faithful lover. Had the name Tinnie Tate come up just then my best response would have been, "Who?" I couldn't talk. My brains were scrambled. The woman had found her way deep inside my head. She had established emotional colonies. There was no way to drive her out.

I couldn't come up with an answer. So Strafa allowed herself the luxury of deciding for me.

As far as she was concerned the issue never was if but when.

69

I was still distracted when we reached the kitchen. Kind old Dean served breakfast despite the time. He was in a fine mood.

Morley shuffled in. He checked us out, smirked, but never said a word. Penny appeared as Dean set a plate in front of Morley. She sniffed as she settled into the last chair. She gave Strafa a dark look but didn't say anything, either.

Playmate stuck his head in. "Anything I can do, Dean?" While he eyeballed me and Strafa.

"You could grab a hammer, some nails, and some boards, and add on to my kitchen. Otherwise, no. We can't squeeze another body in."

It wasn't that crowded-though nobody would be able to move if Playmate put himself on our side of the door.

I asked, "Dean, who all is here? Besides who all I can see right now."

"Singe. Some of John Stretch's people. That creature who calls himself the Bird."

Penny said, "Bird came to paint. His Honor is napping, though. So Bird is silencing his voices instead."

That was about the longest speech she'd ever made in my presence. She sounded disconsolate. I risked panicking her. "What do you think about him, Penny? Does he really hear voices?"

She made herself reply, her voice tiny as she did so. "Yes. He hears them. And not just because he's crazy. They're real. He let me talk to them while we were working."

Kitchen business stopped. Penny shrank under the pressure of curious eyes.

"The Dead Man thinks the Bird belongs in the crazy ward at the Bledsoe."

"His Honor can't hear the voices. He only hears Bird's answers. If Bird does answer. Mostly, he just takes another drink."

"How did you talk to the voices, then?"

"Bird told me what they said. They heard me when I answered."

Dean rested a reassuring hand on Penny's shoulder. "You'll be all right."

I didn't get the girl. A couple, three years ago she had been hell on wheels, acting in her role as high priestess of a screw-ball country cult, hiding out from religious enemies. But she'd always been pathologically shy around me. Which, as Kyra had told her, was totally Tinnie's fault.

I asked, "You talked to them?"

"Sure."

I blew my nose. "How did that work?"

"Bird just lets the voice take over. Then I talk to the ghost. It doesn't last long. Bird only lets them talk so people will know he's telling the truth."

I made myself stay calm. I had to keep the intensity down. Penny would trample Playmate trying to get away if I tripped her panic response. "I'd sure like to see that." Penny did not volunteer to arrange it. "Who do the voices belong to?"

"Dead people. People who were murdered. Awful people, mostly."

I once spent time in a relationship with a woman who had been murdered when I was a child. I met her ghost as an adult. I had no trouble with Penny's notion. "Do tell."

"Tell what? That the ones I talked to sounded like they got what they had coming? That's what drives Bird crazy. He has these whiny haunts, who deserved what they got, insisting that he do things for them."

"I've got it." Not only did the Bird have to deal with ghosts, his spooks belonged to that select crew who think they are more special than anyone else and should get special treatment always, in the main because they survived childbirth.

In TunFaire these leeches tend to come to a bad end early, though their survivability has improved since the war's end.

Once upon a time the body politic shed its parasites in the cauldron of the Cantard. They could be counted on to get themselves killed.

The war had had its fierce egalitarian side. There had been no buying out of it-though the clever had been able to wrangle less risky assignments. Princes and paupers, everyone took his dip in the deadly pond. Old folks were nostalgic for the days when the war kept the streets clear of loud, badly behaved, sometimes dangerous young men.

"Mr. Garrett?"

"I'm sorry. Having an old man's moment. You're used to Old Bones. Can he fix the Bird's brain so he doesn't hear those people?"

"I don't think Bird would want that. He hates the voices. But if they aren't pestering him and he doesn't drink, he can't paint." Then she asked, "How long do you think His Honor will sleep?"

"I've never figured the formula out. You'd do better to ask Singe."

"What should I do since he's not awake?"

"What would you be doing if you weren't hunkered down here?"

"Stuff. I don't know. Dean and Singe both say I shouldn't leave. Those bad people might want to get hold of someone from this house."

"Dean is a wise man. Why don't you help him? These past few days have been hard for him. And you can help Singe, if she needs it. I'm going to go bug her myself, right now."

Everyone bailed when I did. Penny stayed with Dean. I saw no enthusiasm in either of them.

Singe was writing something using an Amalgamated steel tip quill. "The Dead Man's pet girl says she talks to the ghosts that haunt the drunken artist."

"Take him along next time you dance with the dead men. Turn them around on their mistress."

"I'll run it past Old Bones when he wakes up. I have some questions for you."

"Blow your nose first. That sniffling is disgusting."

I took care of that, and coughed up some stuff besides. "Did anyone trace the giant bottles and glass vats from that warehouse?"

"Not that I know of. The Director and the Guard aren't keeping me in the loop. I didn't think to ask last time the General was here. Speaking of whom, he's late. No one else tells me anything useful, either. Including your new wrestling partner."

"You're leaping to conclusions. What did Old Bones get out of those villains that Block loaned us?"

"He didn't say, officially. Unofficially, what I expected. Nothing that we didn't already know. They were day labor."

"Has anyone found out anything useful?"

"Not yet. You would think the resurrection men, at least, could be found. Are you bored? I'm not here to entertain you. I have work to do."

"Hokum." I suspected that she was crabby because her body was disgruntled because she had not mated successfully during her season.

"I had another question. The most important one. But I can't remember what it was. Wait! Here it is. Old Bones had me chase Relway the other day to tell him about men who were watching the house. Did Relway bother to let us know who they were?"

"Not officially."

"Unofficially?"

"General Block was informed that they belonged to the King's Household Lifeguard. The Palace Guard. He wasn't convinced. He thought they were really private police from the Hill."

Either possibility was disturbing. I didn't want to attract attention from either direction. "Not good."

"But maybe an indication that powerful people take the situation seriously."

I started to say something.

"If all you can do is chatter, take the woman back upstairs or go frighten Penny. I'm busy."

"Ah, you're no fun anymore."

"That's all your fault. Out."

70

I got the last laugh.

Someone used the knocker as I exited Singe's office. I employed the peephole, saw a fierce green eye glaring back. I opened up.

"Kyra."

"I brought some people for you to talk to. You could maybe break this one's leg for me while you're at it." She had a death grip on Kip Prose's left arm. Kip appeared to be shackled to Kevans Algarda with an invisible chain. Kevans looked like she wanted to fight but didn't know who to hit first. Kip had that numb look men get when they have hold of a Tate woman with her mind made up.

"You did indeed. And I'm most pleasantly surprised. How are you, Kip? We don't see much of you at the manufactory anymore. And yourself, Miss?"

I would not mention her mother or how Strafa worried. No point throwing naphtha on the drama. "No real need for the fancy headgear, guys. His Nibs has been out cold since the other night. But wear them if that makes you comfortable. Let's go into Singe's office."

Singe greeted my return with a bloody look. That evaporated once she saw the kids. She got up. "I'll tell Dean we have more guests. Garrett, shall I make sure you aren't disturbed by the others?"

"That would make these three more comfortable."

Kyra said, "I told them about what's going on and how your place is, like, a madhouse."

"It's getting better. We've got only six or seven extra bodies here today."

One of those, Penny, arrived with tea and a heap of the cookies that Dean always brought out when young people visit. Cookies I could never find when I wanted to nick one or three for myself. Penny offered Kip and Kevans a polite smile. She had a warmer look for Kyra. When she left, Kyra told me, "That's who you should be chasing, Garrett. She's quiet, submissive, and young enough for you to train up right."

"I'll wait a while. At least till she stops peeing herself every time I look at her."

Kip was not in a social mood. He isn't happy when life intrudes. "Kyra says there's stuff we need to talk about."

"Yeah. Kevans especially. You heard any rumors about strange stuff going on?"

Kip said, "In TunFaire? You're kidding." But he spoke without passion and nodded in concert with Kevans as he did.

"You probably heard it wrong. Except from Kyra, who was here."

Kip and Kevans both nodded. They were nervous but I sensed no guilt nor any defensive attitude.

"Bad things have been happening. People are trying to cover up. Others are putting out false reports. The whole thing could get ugly in a few days." I told them almost everything, deemphasizing the role of the Windwalker. Kevans showed no particular emotion when I mentioned her mother.

Singe returned moments after Penny left. She took notes.

Penny returned to the doorway. She wasn't sneaking so she wasn't exactly eavesdropping. "Penny, would you get your sketches and Bird's portrait? Please?"

Kip said, "That's ugly stuff, Garrett. Kyra must have sugared it."

"She's an amazing girl, Kip."

"I know. I have an awful time remembering that she isn't my imagination running wild."

Kyra was pleased. Kevans was not, though she was not strictly a romantic rival. She and Kip strove to maintain that frog's-fur rare boy-girl relationship where they were just good friends.

Kevans was, I noted belatedly, wearing girl clothes. She always dressed as a boy, before. She looked good as a girl but she didn't look nearly as good as that wicked woman in black leather.

Penny brought the sketches and painting. Singe held the latter up while Penny handled her own work.

"Anybody recognize anyone?" I asked.

Kevans countered, "Is my mother still here?"

I glanced at Kyra. Butter wouldn't melt. Then to Singe, "Miss Pular, would the Windwalker still be with us?"

Singe responded a grim rat glower. "She may be. It's hard to say for sure. She keeps flitting in and out of the upstairs windows."

I said, "Why do you ask, Kevans?"

"I wondered if she's seen these."

"I don't know. Has she, Singe?"

Singe had a grand opportunity to be lethally catty. She let it pass. "Probably not. She will not go into the Dead Man's room."

Penny agreed with Singe, though we three all knew that she had seen the artwork.

I saw Kyra doing math based on the fact that Penny Dreadful had moved into the guest room while Furious Tide of Light was staying here, too.

I concentrated on Kevans.

Kyra did not let the completed equation affect her attitude.

Singe saw what I saw. She would have smirked and sneered if nature had equipped her for it. She did observe, "Life gets more complicated every day, doesn't it?"

Kip and Kevans thought that was directed toward them. Kevans declared, "Kip and I are just friends. We challenge each other to think. There isn't anything else going on. Really."

Kyra did not appear to be reassured.

I thought the fact that Kevans needed to say anything might reveal something about what was going on inside her head.

I was fairly certain that in the past the relationship had been friendship with special benefits as two incredibly bright but socially inept kids struggled through the turbulence of puberty.

Whatever, these days Kip trudged along in his mentor's trace, essentially oblivious.

Kip's mentor took a chance and changed the subject. "Your mother is desperately frightened for you, Kevans. The Specials turned up what looks like evidence involving you in this new wickedness."

She did a wonderful job of looking unpleasantly surprised.

I told her what Singe and the Windwalker had found in Elf Town. Singe kicked in points I overlooked. I wished the Dead Man was awake to sift the secrets I was stirring off the stream-bed of Kevans' mind.

"They found your stuffed bear, and some other things." Then I went fishing. "Those hairnets don't work anymore."

Kip squeaked like I had stepped on his toes. "That can't be!"

"It can. Old Bones can adapt when he has time to think. The point I want to make is, you can't hide from His Nibs anymore."

Penny sneered. And looked me in the eye when she did.

Kip looked like he wanted to panic. Kevans was less rattled. Singe gave me an unhappy glare, thinking I had just wasted valuable household advantages.

Kevans said, "That sounds like where I hid out after we had the bug problem. I lived there almost a year."

Kip jumped in with a pretty good description of the place. Obviously he had visited. That won no points over on the redheaded girlfriend side. The redheaded girlfriend had not known.

Kyra didn't say anything but it was plain she was more comfortable with her aunt's man having female friends than she was facing that situation herself.

Kip's mouth ran. He didn't have a clue.

Kevans and Kip being friends would offer Kyra no comfort, ever.

"So you don't know these people?"

"No." Kevans sounded definite.

Kip shook his head. He was less certain. "I think I would remember her."

That got him punched from both sides.

Kyra volunteered, "I think I've seen the girl before."

"She was out front the other night."

"I know. I only got a glimpse, then. She looked like bad news."

"She was. I learned the hard way."

Kyra nodded at Penny's drawings. "I mean bad news because she looks like one of those blondes who has gotten anything she ever wanted handed to her since she sprouted a set of knockers."

That was harsh. And a touch hypocritical. Kyra Tate had been one of those girls till she developed the mental defect that bonded her to Kip.

She said, "I might've seen this one when I was about twelve. Some older girls were teasing me about still being flat." Some pink behind the freckles on the cheeks, there. "The ringleader was sixteen or seventeen and very blessed. This looks like her. Sort of."

Sounded like a long shot. "You should go over that with the Dead Man sometime. Figure out the time and place, work outward from there."

Singe made a note.

Old Bones could sort that out in seconds.

Kyra said, "If you think it's worth it I can probably figure it out. I have a good memory for people who misuse me."

I hoped Kip heard that.

His sins, though, would be of omission, not commission. If he messed up with Kyra it would be out of blind ignorance.

I told all the youngsters, "Let's look at the man. He may be the boss of the resurrection men. Any of you know anything about him?"

No, still, though I'm sure Kevans saw the resemblance to Barate Algarda. She kept sneaking looks.

"Another hope dashed. Kevans. Kip. Please talk to me about the warehouse in Elf Town."

Kyra eyed Kip in a way that made it plain she wanted to hear more, too.

Kevans was getting tired of all this. "I hid out there for a year. I told you. I left when I stopped feeling like I had to hide."

"I'm not interested in that. But why hide there? That's a far piece for a kid off the Hill."

"I'd been there before. With my grandmother. She owned it. It was empty and starting to fall apart. I think she sold it but nobody ever used it."

I worked some calculations. Strafa had borne Kevans at a very young age. Strafa's mother had died when Strafa was a child. I had met her ghost. Kevans must have been talking about Barate Algarda's mother.

"Anything unusual happen while you were there?"

"Nothing to do with what you're fussing about."

Kip backed her up. "I used to smuggle food and stuff. It was all sad for a while."

"Singe, make a note to ask the General if his forensic sorcerers went over that warehouse. And what they found out about the glassware."

"You asked already. He told you he got warned off."

"Even so. He and Relway haven't really backed off. If they could blame the poking around on us, they'd be even happier."

"We should not be discussing that right now."

No. I should be jumping all over the youngsters. They were gaining confidence as they grew more certain that the Dead Man was sleeping.

The look I sent Singe was one of appeal. I had emptied my toolbox when it came to interrogating kids.

Singe understood.

She left her desk. She left the room. A moment later Morley appeared, assisted by Penny. He settled onto a folding chair. He stared at Kevans from the side. He is better than I am at reading females.

Dollar Dan, who must have been in the kitchen with Dean, filled up the doorway. He could be amazingly intimidating when he wanted. But he wasn't the onager Singe meant to bring to bear.

71

Furious Tide of Light arrived. She did not look like anyone's mother. She did not look like anyone's wannabe girlfriend, either. She had on the full power of what she was. I had not seen her in that mode before.

Kevans curled into herself, mentally, like an armadillo. You could almost hear bacon crackling when the Windwalker looked at Kip. Kyra gaped, astonished and thoroughly intimidated. Only Penny seemed undisturbed. She stood out of the way, watched, and learned.

The girl was getting scary. I began to picture her as a human version of Pular Singe. It was in the blood. Her father had been Chodo Contague.

She and Belinda had nothing whatsoever to do with one another.

The Windwalker, when she spoke, was gentle, with the conviction of a whip. "Are you two clear on how foul a crime has been committed? What is happening has had no equal for two hundred years."

Strafa considered the drawings and painting. "This isn't a game." She stopped. She didn't want to challenge the kids. Adolescents will push back even when they're dead wrong.

Still, she asked, "What have you been holding back?"

Headshakes I suspected of being less than completely sincere. My sense, though, was that the insincerity had to do with Kip and Kevans rather than with knowledge of horrible crimes. Their friendship might have a more experimental angle than either wanted brought out in front of her mother or his girlfriend. Both lived lonely lives. They had been friends for a long time.

Everyone caught some taste of that possibility. But that wasn't why we had gotten together. I would overrule should the discussion start to slide that way.

I exchanged glances with Singe. If ever there was a time for the Dead Man to be on the job, this was it.

Kevans continued to wilt under her mother's scowl. That the Windwalker was her mother did not matter. What did was that one of the most ferocious and talented magic users alive might be displeased by the behavior of one rogue teen.

The Windwalker demanded, "You're completely sure you don't have anything more to tell us?" I hoped she really was capable of separating Furious Tide of Light from Strafa Algarda.

She stepped in till she and Kevans were nose to nose. She whispered. The girl began to shiver. She was ready to break down but, still, did not have anything to say.

If she did know anything it was something she would not surrender willingly.

I indulged a vain hope that the Dead Man was playing possum.

The Windwalker focused on Kevans but included her audience when making it clear that TunFaire faced a test of right and wrong more terrible than any since the age of uncontrolled experimental sorcery that had produced the ratpeople, plus worse beasts that had been exterminated during the hysterical public response.

Another Time of Troubles might be coming. Ignorance and fear are with us always. Stupid is all-pervasive. TunFaire wallows in bottomless reservoirs of that. A plague of zombies could trigger something way out of proportion to the horrors we had seen.

The Windwalker changed her approach. "Kevans, come with me." She used her Windwalker voice.

They went to my old office. It was quiet over there. Morley eased himself into the more comfortable chair that Kevans had vacated. He struggled to conceal his discomfort. "I hate being like this," he said softly.

"You've been hurt before."

"Not like this. Not this stupidly. Any other time I always knew why. Singe. Anyone find out who paid that healer to drug me?"

"That would have a yes and no answer. The Dead Man saw the woman inside the healer's mind, but only vaguely." She tipped a hand toward Penny's sketches. "Probably her. Miss Contague, with an assist from Mr. Kolda and reluctant cooperation from the Children of the Light, is pursuing that." Then she volunteered, "Other acquaintances are investigating other things. The reports aren't encouraging. It's amazing that so much wickedness can leave so little evidence. These villains are heinous but careful."

I asked a question that had been nagging me. "Why?"

"Garrett?"

"Why are these people doing what they're doing? If we knew that the search range would narrow considerable."

Singe still looked puzzled.

"Come on. These villains didn't just get up some morning and decide, 'Let's have some fun. Let's cut up dead people and build some jigsaw zombies.'"

"They are not zombies, Garrett."

Literal minds! "Whatever. You know what I mean."

"Yes. And you are correct. The question of motive has not come up in so plain a form. The behavior we have seen may have little to do with that."

I said, "It has to do with covering up. A dumb effort to quash something that never got out. That's what attracted attention."

"We may never know why. I expect the Hill people to get to them first. They have the most resources."

Probably. Those people insist.

One of those people came back with her daughter. The daughter was pale. The Windwalker looked grim. "Kevans will tell Barate to come see you. She and Mr. Prose will then meet me at the warehouse in Elf Town. Question Barate, then send him to join us. No excuses. I don't expect that he will know anything so it shouldn't take long. Is there anything else you want from these two?"

"No."

Kyra certainly had something but she kept her mouth shut.

Kip would have some explaining to do later.

Singe handled the door work.

The instant that shut Morley observed, "That woman can be fierce when the mood takes her."

"She didn't think they were telling the whole truth." I turned to Kyra. "So now we need to get you home safely."

TunFaire suffered ever more virulent paroxysms of law and order but a beauty like Kyra still rated an escort, if only to keep the chatter down.

I was about to volunteer. Singe spoke up first. "Dan, please ask Toast and Packer to do the honors." She followed that with burning eye contact. There would be no adolescent bravura on her watch.

I folded.

Were Singe human she would have sneered and told me I was painfully predictable.

She could play me as easily as Tinnie could. Maybe more so because with her my ego did not feel compelled to take stands.

And Kyra never argued.

The apprentice redhead was feeling exceptionally vulnerable.

Toast and Packer turned out to be the ratmen who had come with Dollar Dan.

72

The population of the house on Macunado continued to dwindle. Dean and Penny overruled me and went out to do some desperately needed shopping. Dollar Dan tagged along. I could not refute Dean's contention that all the entertaining had seen our bones get picked. The old man kept muttering about having trouble remembering the recipe for water soup, which was what we would be eating if he didn't go.

He clinched the deal by telling me he needed to see Jerry the beer guy. We would find ourselves in a desert otherwise.

One keg was dry. The other was down to a slosh.

Singe wore the ratgirl equivalent of a troubled frown after she recorded the advance she had given Dean.

"Reality catching up?" I asked.

"Not exactly. I noticed that Amalgamated is eleven days late with the quarterly dividend. We'll need that money if we keep pouring cash into this case the way we have been."

I heard "we" a lot but chose not to quibble.

She continued, "Considering the season, the dividend ought to be strong. I will claim penalty interest."

Her shoulders hunched like she expected me to take the company line against my interest as an investor.

I disappointed her.

I didn't know what she was talking about. I left that sort of stuff to her. She understood it. She reveled in it. She wallowed in it when she could.

Playmate joined us, trying to sub for Dean. He brought tea but was too shaky to manage pouring it.

Morley told him,"Sit your ass down, man! You look like hell."

I said, "He's two hundred percent better than when he got here."

Singe fiddled with her papers, getting more restive by the moment. Finally, she snapped, "Take it across the hall, boys. Take it next door. Take it anywhere but here. I have a ton of work. I need quiet to get it done."

Morley flashed a killer grin. Playmate looked soulfully wounded. I said, "As you command, so shall it be." I collected the Bird's painting and Penny's drawings. We crossed to the Dead Man's room.

"Warmer in here," Morley opined sarcastically.

Playmate planted himself in the best chair. "The pain isn't a tenth what it was but I still don't got any energy." He had brought the tea with him. He poured while sitting.

"That will turn around," I said. "Old Bones is totally confident. Mostly, it'll just take Dean to feed you up to your fighting weight, now."

"Think he'll be out for long?" Playmate tipped a thumb at the Dead Man. "I can feel the evil starting to grow again."

"I don't know. He's unpredictable. The stuff Kolda brought isn't working?"

Playmate tapped a dusting of brown powder into his teacup. "It's working smoky-ass miracles, Garrett. But it just slows the devil down. If I take it faithfully, obeying Kolda completely, it will take me three times as long to die."

His tone was understandably strained.

Meanwhile, Morley studied the artwork like he was determined to commit every brush and pencil stroke to memory.

Playmate said, "I think I've seen that man in the painting somewhere."

I suggested, "Year and a half ago? The mess at the World Theater?"

Playmate stared some more. "I see what you mean. But that's not the same man. An older brother, maybe."

"Barate Algarda was an only child."

"I got it. Nat something. A long time ago. I was a kid. But. ." He frowned deeply.

"What?" I asked.

Morley blurted, "You're right. He does look like that Algarda creep. But not the same. See the scar?" He pointed.

Playmate ignored him. "The man I remember looked like this over thirty years ago. Scars and all."

I enjoyed that pleasant feeling you get when you stumble onto something good, though I didn't really know if this was worth the stumble.

Playmate smacked himself upside the head. "The drug is working already. I can't hardly remember anything. I know he was a villain. Who ought to be a long time dead."

Playmate slurred. His chin dropped to his chest. Morley observed, "That is some kick-ass knockout powder."

"But of limited commercial value. Otherwise, Kolda would have a pot to pee in."

"I don't like to speak ill of your friends, Garrett, but that Kolda. ."

Singe shoved into the room. "Don't you hear the door, Garrett?"

"No." I did so now only because she had the hallway door open. Door-answering isn't part of my special skill set, anyway. "Who is it?"

"I suppose we would know if somebody answered it."

The thumping suggested someone was getting frustrated.

Singe made an exasperated noise more appropriate to one of our recent young adult lady visitors. She stamped up the hall.

Morley said, "If she was human I'd think Aunt Flo was winding her up."

"It's about the same thing. She'll be over it soon."

He said, "I may have crossed paths with this guy myself, sometime."

73

Singe brought Barate Algarda into the Dead Man's room. He was not in a good mood but he had shown up quickly. He wasn't wearing a mesh helmet. He wasn't going to hide.

Barate Algarda was a big man, Saucerhead size, ugly, and unkempt. He looked like a down-on-his-luck thug not getting much work because of Deal Relway's impact on the shadow economy. He nurtured that image. It left people unready for the real Barate Algarda. He was as bright and quick as his female descendants. His only talent for the magical, though, was a strong natural resistance to the Dead Man's mind probes.

Algarda was darker and wider than Strafa or Kevans. Strafa took after her mother, whom I had seen in ghost form, once upon a time. Kevans had gotten a little more from the paternal side. She'd never be a beauty.

Algarda barely glanced at the Dead Man. "Well?"

Singe remained in the doorway, I suppose so she could jump in if Algarda became actively hostile. He had done so before, when he thought his daughters were threatened.

"Did Kevans explain what's been going on?"

"Honestly? Not really. I got the impression that she thought she was being hounded unfairly."

"That could be."

"She showed the same attitude when her bunch were breeding giant bugs." He added, "Gods, I'm glad they didn't do any spiders."

I shivered. Me, too. "You have to admit, Kevans has a sociopathic side."

"Runs in the family."

Indeed. "So let me sketch some situations that turn out to be tied together." I brought him up to speed.

"Bizarre. Where does my daughter fit?"

I started looking for the best words to indicate a warehouse owned by his mother.

"Not Kevans. The Windwalker."

"Oh." I gave it to him straight, leaving out the personal side.

"The Crown Prince, eh?" he interjected at one point.

"Yeah."

Morley listened quietly. Playmate joined Old Bones in dreamland, only he snored. Curious Singe looked like my sanitized tale made her want to take a nap, too.

"Glassware, eh?" Algarda mused, out of nowhere. "Unusual glassware. In a warehouse. In Elf Town."

"Where Kevans lived for a year. A place owned by your mother."

He seemed mildly surprised. "A strange woman, my mother. She kept secrets."

Why not just add another whole level of weird? Though the Dead Man would have cautioned me about jumping to conclusions based on prejudices.

I reiterated, "There was evidence that Kevans stayed there. The Specials have that. She says she was there for a year. She knew about the place because her grandmother took her there when she was twelve."

"That's how you got to my mother."

"Does the glassware mean anything special?"

"Not really."

"Morley, could you hold that lamp up so Mr. Algarda can get a look at those pictures?"

Morley turned the pictures, too. They had not been visible from where Algarda was standing. Algarda asked, "Who are these people?"

"I was hoping you could tell me."

"I can tell you who they were forty years ago. This is my great uncle Nathaniel. He died while I was in the Cantard."

"Did he have kids? Playmate remembers him as a neighborhood thug from when he was a kid. Morley remembers him vaguely, with no where, when, or why. Today he's a resurrection man called Nathan." I had to explain that because Algarda was unfamiliar with the term.

"Really? People will do anything, won't they? It took a lunatic god to create our tribe. Let me think." He put on a frown more of puzzlement than concentration. "All right. Nathaniel had one child, Jane. She would be my mother's cousin but was way younger than Mom. Younger than me, even. She was a ferociously wicked, precocious six-year-old last time I saw her. She might've looked like this at eighteen." He indicated the drawings of the woman. "She'd be in her fifties, now."

We had an old woman in the mix, though based on nothing solid I guessed she would be older than that. "Could she have produced children who looked like their ancestors?"

Algarda shrugged. "Possibly. I don't know much about those people. We never had a lot to do with them. They weren't good people." He shot me a sudden, narrow look, maybe reading something into my question. "As far as I know, their line died out during my first tour." He looked at the artwork more closely, appreciating what Penny had captured. "The man even has the scars Nathaniel had." He looked hungry when he considered Penny's drawings.

He was deeply uncomfortable when our gazes met again. "Are you some kind of diabolical facilitator?"

"Excuse me?"

"Last time the Algardas got into trouble you were digging up worms. Here you go again."

Morley interjected, "The worms were there, begging to be dug. Be grateful Garrett was manning the shovel."

Algarda was a hard guy. He tried laying a hard look on Morley. Morley took no notice. Algarda said, "You're right. There's probably some serious behind-the-scenes rumbling going on at the top of the Hill. This could even tie in to some odd questions I've been asked lately, by people I never expected to visit my new place."

He did not explain. He did say, "I'll dig into a couple of old family legends." He turned toward the doorway.

Singe did not move. She looked to me for advice. I nodded, but said, "I'm supposed to tell you to go straight to the place in Elf Town from here."

He frowned. "For who?"

"The Windwalker."

He gave me the hard-eye but then just nodded and turned to follow Singe. She returned from the door to say, "I don't think he is happy with you."

"My heart is broken. Was his mother involved last time we had some excitement with his people? A couple of old crows got themselves dead, if I remember."

"I do not recall. I will look it up." Someone knocked. "That will be Mr. Tharpe."

"Have you started reading minds, too?"

"No. That would be crippling around you two. I saw him coming up the street when I let Mr. Algarda out." She went to open up.

Morley said, "We're inching toward something."

"Yes. And it might involve the undead or zombies after all."

74

Tharpe rolled in and crashed onto a folding chair. "Damn! This cold air feels good."

"It hot out there?"

"Working on getting there. And I need to shed about twenty-five pounds. Shit. Look at you, up on your hind legs and everything, Dotes."

I said, "Once we weaned him off the poison he came back fast. Next week he'll be able to make it to the front door with only one rest stop."

"You better watch out for the little girl, then. He'll have her giggling and squealing like a piggy in some dark corner."

Once upon a time Morley would have joined the game. Now he just scowled. "I'm a one woman man, 'Head."

Tharpe said, "Singe, honey, my dogs are worn down to the ankles. You want to take a look out front and see how big that flock of flying pigs is? Take one a them Amalgamated umbereller thing-jobbies along in case they got the flying dyer-rear." He snickered at his own wit.

I chuckled, too.

Morley tried but only managed to look grim.

Saucerhead continued, "Ah, gotcha. A health issue, that woman being involved."

Maybe a real health issue. Morley looked physically uncomfortable. I asked, "You all right? You need something?"

"I've been pushing it too much. I'm starting to feel it."

"Singe, I don't think he's ready to do without his angels." I hadn't seen any ratwomen today.

"I'll make sure they're here tonight."

"Good on you."

She asked, "Why don't we ask Mr. Tharpe what he's doing here? That might prove interesting."

Saucerhead said, "Mr. Tharpe was hoping somebody would bring him a mug so he could relax while he was telling his story."

I asked, "You need musical accompaniment? I saw a mandolin somewhere the other day, when we were salting the windows. It was short two strings, though."

Singe made a growling noise.

Maybe that was enough grab-assing around. "There's a problem, 'Head. The beer barrel ran dry. Dean is out trying to find Jerry right now."

"I guess I can wait."

Singe growled even louder.

"Whatever happened to that sweet little ratgirl you brung home a few years ago, Garrett?"

Singe told him, "She spent those years around crude human men. Please do explain why you came here. Besides the obvious."

She bruised Tharpe's feelings with that, not something easy to do. He knew she was calling him a moocher. Which he was, often enough, but not the obnoxious kind you want to bang on the head with a shovel. Usually you wanted to help, gently, because Saucerhead is a good guy blessed with a plentiful supply of minor bad luck.

I told him, "You've been bubbling. You've been threatening to tell us an interesting story. So how about it?" I glanced at Singe. I had no idea what he had been asked to do.

Singe shrugged. She didn't know, either. And Saucerhead wasn't talking. He did, in fact, seem confused.

He asked, "He's really asleep? The Dead Man, I mean."

"He really is. He'd be snoring like Playmate if he was among the breathing."

"Damn! I figured he'd plunk in there and get what he wanted before it went away."

Getting exasperated, I snapped, "Just do it the old-fashioned way! I'll give him the word when he wakes up."

"Oh. Yeah. That'd work, wouldn't it? So what it is, he wanted me to prowl around the costume shops in the theater district."

TunFaire did not have a theater district as such. Theaters were scattered across midtown, with others downtown. A few smaller venues were out in the neighborhoods. The World was four long blocks from its nearest competitor. The support shops, costume makers and set builders, were concentrated in a patch near the geographic center of the big name play-houses. And that was what Saucerhead meant.

"Costume shops," I mused.

"Yeah. Himself charging in on things from an unexpected angle. Instead of hunting a girl who wears tight black leather and spiffy wigs, find out who makes her outfits. Find out who whipped up them ugly gray wool suits and goofy helmets for the zombie brunos."

"Clever," I admitted, thinking we needed a neologism for the patchwork reanimated baddies who hung out inside the wool and weird wooden helmets.

"Definitely outside the box," Morley said. "Not an angle that would have occurred to me."

"I take it you came up with something, 'Head, on account of you've been wearing such a big shit-eating grin."

"I got to admit I never found who made the stuff for the zombies. Maybe the folks that build them have them make their own outfits. But I did find a guy that made stuff for the hot witch."

"Do tell."

"Here's the part that's got me feeling smart. This guy ain't no theater costumer. He makes custom stuff for the fetish trade."

"Really? I'm starting to think that we've been underestimating you, 'Head."

"People got a habit of doing that."

True enough, though usually only in regard to estimating how much abuse he can suffer and go on living.

"How come you thought of this fetish person?"

"I was passing by his place. I had this friend once, she liked to play dress up. I knew where she got her stuff. So I went in and got a little pushy, pretending like I was working for Relway. The tailor guy went all white and shaky and told me about this custom order for a bunch of black leather outfits that had to sync up with six different wigs. He got his gig through the wigmaker. And he got hands-on with the woman when she came for fittings."

"All right. Good story. Who was she?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. She never told him. But I guarantee you, she got to that tailor. He had stars in his eyes. His hands shook when he showed me how her body curved. And him as nancy as you can hope to find down there."

"Excellent," I said. "Just excellent. What about the wigmaker?"

"I got the name. He should be the next target."

Morley observed, "This is like taking over for the Dead Man, Garrett, us at the heart of the web while minions do the legwork."

Saucerhead frowned. He wasn't thrilled about that minions remark.

Singe said, "Mr. Tharpe, you do recall the name of that special tailor, don't you? And the wigmaker?"

Tharpe understood. Singe wasn't questioning him. She wanted to get the information committed to paper so it wouldn't get lost.

Morley said, "I meant it about just sitting around like the Dead Man."

"I know. And I'm thinking that maybe he gets frustrated, too, because he can't get out and snoop for himself."

"You? Frustrated about having to lay around and do nothing?"

"It's different when it isn't your own choice."

75

Jerry the beer guy turned up while Singe was winkling critical information out of Saucerhead. I helped bring the kegs in. Dean had gone for an extra, a standard-grade tavern beer good enough for our endless stream of guests.

Saucerhead was the first benefactor, though what he got was the last partial pitcher off the cripple in the cold well. I took half a mug. Morley got nothing but he doesn't drink. Singe got a taste off Saucerhead's pitcher.

Dean and Penny came back as Jerry and I were loading the empty kegs on his wagon. Dean had bought so much stuff he'd had to hire a cart to haul it. I did a brief apprentice stint in the porter trade.

It's good to develop new skills.

Dean's purchases didn't inspire me.

He was concerned about our finances-especially after having bought three kegs of beer and paid the deposit on the extra.

While lugging apples and potatoes, I took a look around. The complement of watchers had become disrespectfully small.

Folks thought the tale had moved on. Morley and I were not considered factors anymore. Or, maybe, the powers on the Hill had grown fangs so long and green that people formerly inclined to hang on my adventures had chosen discretion as their expression of valor.

Yeah. That felt better than thinking I wasn't worth watching anymore.

Having made sure the fresh kegs felt at home I scuttled back into the Dead Man's room. "All right, Mr. Tharpe. You've done an admirable job so far. What next?"

"I don't know." His tongue had gotten a little thick already. He was thinking about his next pitcher. "I figure somebody else should take over. I asked so many questions people was starting to believe I was one of Relway's Runners. One of the ones so dumb he don't know how to hide it."

"They act scared?"

"Of course they did. Everybody is afraid of the Unpublished Committee, excepting you and me and maybe your napping friend across the way." He meant Morley, who had gone back to his cot while the beer barrel population was being restored to glory.

"Any threats?"

"You know anybody stupid enough to threaten Relway's thugs? Anybody still running around loose, I mean. There's probably a shitload helping drain Little Dismal Swamp."

"You're right. I don't. Anybody serious about bucking the Director better be smart enough to keep his big damned mouth shut."

Tharpe said, "So I was thinking, since I couldn't find the people who made the masks and outfits for the zombies, maybe the next step would be to look the chain back a link and find out who made that ugly cloth. And who came up with the stuff to make them stupid helmets. Did you save one of them from the other night?"

"The red tops took everything."

"That General Block, he's smarter than he lets on. I wonder if he's been thinking the way I been."

I doubted it. "Did you run into any real Runners when you were poking around?"

"No."

"You were ahead of them." I should give Block a heads-up. He could swamp that district with investigators able to scare a stone into spilling its guts.

"I'm thinking you're onto something, 'Head."

"I got one more thing. Then I'm gonna head into the kitchen and get me another pitcher. I'm gonna enjoy that. Then I'm gonna curl up in a corner and sleep for about two days."

"Sounds like a plan. What's your one more thing?"

"Get the Remora to take over where I left off. He pokes around down there, them people will lay down and spread their legs. They'll do anything for him if it might get them a shot at connecting with one of his shows."

"Saucerhead, you drink all the beer you want." I felt like the peasant boy who's just been handed the magic sword. Big things were coming.

Tharpe showed me his biggest, goofiest grin, headed for the kitchen. I went over to discuss it with Singe. She was recording Dean's purchases in her books.

76

"Saucerhead came up with an original idea." I explained.

"That is an interesting angle. Somebody has been feeding him smart pills. Let's hope Mr. Salvation feels amenable." She brushed aside my suggestion that we send for him. "He'll ignore us if we appeal to him. He needs to think things are his idea. Wrangling him takes craft."

"Did Old Bones craft him into doing something for us?"

"He did. I don't know what. Certainly something the Dead Man told him only he could manage."

I shook my head. Jon Salvation. I couldn't get used to a Remora with airs.

Focused on her books, Singe told me, "You need to put your prejudices aside when you think about that man, Garrett. He is a near complete waste of flesh in ways you consider important, but he is also the best and most powerful playwright working. And, in his mind, he is one of your inner circle."

"I got you. But do you realize how ridiculous that is to anybody who knew Pilsuds Vilchik?"

Singe asked, "Answer the door. I still have entries to make and Dean's notes look like he kept them in code."

"The door?"

"Someone is knocking."

"Damn, your ears are better than mine."

"I'm young. I'm pretty. And I'm not human."

No way could I respond to that and have anything good come of it.

She snickered as I left the room.

John Stretch and two ratwomen were on the stoop. I figured his henchrats had witnessed the beer delivery.

The so well-to-do lord of the ratfolk underworld joined me in with the Dead Man. His women joined Morley. "This cool air is wonderful."

I had worked up a sweat doing porter work so I was in complete agreement. "I'm scared to ask Singe how much we pay for the heat exchange spells but on these warm days it seems worth it."

"There must be some kind of climate change going on. Ratpeople aren't usually bothered by hot weather but this much heat, this early, worries me. What will it be like when we hit the blazing heart of summer?"

"Blazing heart, eh?"

"Not original, I admit. It is from a street corner rant I heard the other day. Though he actually said, 'The blazing heat of summer. ' His point was, the hottest day of summer would seem refreshingly cool once we found ourselves in hell."

"A street theater guy. You got to love them. Life would be less fun without them."

"Too true."

He had a reason for being here beyond a hope for free beer. I put on an expression of eager curiosity. I drank some beer myself.

"The reason I came by-I wanted to let you know, I just launched a special operation."

I took a long sip. "I'm all ears."

"The stink of corruption in that warehouse had to be unique. And something like it would be strong wherever the zombie makers are building their monsters now."

He looked expectant.

"I imagine so." I looked expectant right back, sure he had a point to make. "Yes?"

"Ah." Pleased with himself. "I put out word to ratfolk across the city. Sniff out places that stink of death and chemicals."

"Brilliant!" How could the people who wanted the thing left alone object? "Everybody is thinking more clever than me."

"Everybody?"

"Saucerhead Tharpe came up with the notion of looking for the people who made the costumes, then to work back from them."

"That would be interesting, too. But my method has more promise."

"You're right. Find the monster manufactory and back-tracking won't be necessary."

He wanted more pats on the back. Some parts of his life must not have been going as well as he would like.

I said, "Enjoy your beer." Which must not have been the perfect sentiment at the moment. He looked puzzled.

The day went downhill from there. The world kept intruding.

All the folks sent out by the Dead Man would come back to plague me.

77

Jon Salvation turned up first, glowing. He shook my hand. "I don't know what you did, Garrett, but, thank you, thank you, thank you."

"All right. Good for me. What are you talking about?"

"Tinnie. She's going to take the part. She turned up for first readings this morning. She was an angel. And she nailed her character first try. Thank you, thank you, thank you."

"Any time. But do me a favor. Tell her my dividend is late. Way late."

"Eleven days late!" Singe said, managing a fierce growl.

"All right. I'll pass it on. To business. The Dead Man asked me to talk to people I know about who holds the deed to the warehouse where they were making zombies. The owner is Constance Algarda, better known as Shadowslinger."

"Wasn't she one of the people the Bellman killed when. .? No. I remember now. He busted her up but she lived."

"I report, sir. I don't do analysis. If she's dead she still manages to be active in the real estate world. She owns other properties around town. I brought a list." He produced it. Singe snagged it, began copying it to make sure the information got put away safe before I could contrive to lose or destroy it.

Salvation added, "Just as a bit of practical information, I wasn't the only one asking questions. People from the Palace, people from the Guard, and some scary-looking people off the Hill all poked into the same stuff before I did."

"That might not be good."

"You think?"

"There's something else you could do to help. You being uniquely qualified." I explained the costume angle.

"I can handle that. Easy. I have a big lever. We need lots of costumes and sets for The Faerie Queene."

I couldn't tell the man he wasn't half the waste of human flesh that I'd always thought. But I could think it and maybe he could sense it.

Singe finished copying the list. She handed the copy to her brother. John Stretch scanned it, took a drink, bobbed his head, and left the room with Singe right behind. He was less under the weather than I thought, and more literate.

Singe returned, began making another copy. I asked, "When did he learn to read?"

"While you were away. He's slow and he has trouble with script but he understands that literacy is the most useful skill you can have in life."

"What's he going to do with that list?"

"Have his people sniff around."

"He'll need to be careful if those others are doing the same thing."

"Give the dumb rat some credit, Garrett. He heard. He'll be careful-in the unlikely event that anybody does notice ratpeople."

Ouch! She was in a mood again. But she had a point.

"I understand. Now tell me something. What are you so busy writing all the time? You can't possibly need to do that much bookkeeping."

"I keep a record of everything that happens to us."

Odd. That sounded like one of those truths that have more than one face. Like a carefully crafted answer kept on the shelf for the moment when the inevitable question arose.

Jon Salvation chuckled. He knew something.

Of course he did. The past few weeks even kids like Crush and Kyra knew more than me about almost everything.

"Jon, about the girl who was here the other night."

"Crush?"

"Yeah. She's a good kid."

Singe made a whuffing sound, maybe startled.

"I'm sure she is. And I wasn't at my best."

I showed him a raised eyebrow.

"It's so frustrating. They all have the same dumb questions. Which they can't articulate because they're starstruck. I try to remember that their questions seem unique to them. But I'm not used to all this. Sometimes I lose patience."

I gawked. I asked Singe, "What did they do with my friend the Remora?"

He laughed. "People change when the earth shifts under their feet, Garrett. I'm not Pilsuds Vilchik anymore. Nor the Remora-though that has had a hard downside for Winger. I'm all Jon Salvation, now. Which isn't always a great thing, even though Jon Salvation is living the fantasy that rocked Pilsuds Vilchik to sleep every night."

All I could say was, "Wow!" But I kept it to myself.

He said, "I'll do something to make it up to Crush."

I got all daddy.

Singe made a noise before I said anything.

My little Hellbore was a working girl with ample experience looking out for herself.

Salvation promised, "I'll be the perfect gentleman."

I must have looked skeptical.

"I am aware of her background, Garrett. Though I'd never bring it up. If she pretends to be a lady I'll pretend to be a gentleman."

Singe left her desk. "You're both sentimental, idiot romantics in a world where only pragmatists survive."

She left the room.

I said, "I just wanted something nice for Crush that she could have without having to lie down. She's a good-hearted kid. She deserves a minute when she doesn't have to be a whore."

The famous playwright gave me a goofy grin and a thumb up. "I've got it. But I'll need some help since we're going to pretend that all I know about her is that she's a cute teenager."

78

Singe deserted us to answer the door. She returned with an unlikely duo: Belinda Contague and Westman Block, both in disguise. Block was convincing as an aging hoodlum. I don't know what Belinda hoped people would see. She was dressed more conservatively than usual and wore a curly chestnut wig that changed the shape of her face. She could have passed as my sexy younger sister.

She headed for my old office.

Block appeared to have gotten an early start on White Day, the romantic holiday. Lovers give each other candy. But so do friends. I grimaced at the thought. White Day could get expensive if I fetched up friendship boxes for all the girls in my life. Ha! One for Mrs. Cardonlos! That might be fun.

I made a mental note to ask Dean to see if he could get a job lot rate on a dozen boxes.

Block was a solid one sheet to the wind and maybe closer to two. He needed Singe's assistance to get settled. "It's an ugly world out there, Garrett. An ugly world."

Jon Salvation nodded agreement.

I said, "No doubt you're right. But I'm the kind of guy who loves to hear the miserable details." I sent a questioning look Singe's way. Block had been her excuse for dragging me out so early. She shrugged.

Did Block have anything to share? Or was he just here in hopes of scoring some more free booze?

There was plenty of Bird fuel around.

Block asked, casually, "Any ardent spirits left from the other night?"

Singe produced a half gallon of the finest, smoothest sipping water-of-life ever distilled in Karenta, along with a sizable mug. She filled that for Block. For Jon Salvation and me, there were little sipping cups holding about two ounces.

What was she up to? She would have Block passed out and puking on the rug.

I did not let wondering distract me from enjoying my own drink.

This skullbust tasted like smoked medicine. But I sipped along, just to be sociable.

Block failed to expand upon his contention that the world was less than beautiful. He was too busy spooning with his ardent spirits.

Belinda joined us, evidently satisfied that Morley would live. "Give me a big-ass mug of that shit, Garrett. I'm in a mood to get wasted."

I asked, "You all right?"

"I'm better after seeing him, but, are you stupid? Of course I'm not all right. My idiot lover is still down and there isn't a godsdamned thing Belinda Contague can do to make things better."

"Actually, he was awake, aware, and functioning till a little while ago. He wore himself out. He's doing fine, Belinda. But how about you?"

She looked grim, downed water-of-life like it was small beer. "I'm so damned frustrated, I'm thinking about starting a war just to make people pay attention."

"Whoa, girl! That's not a good idea."

"Just to make them pay attention, Garrett. Just to make them pay attention."

She must have been drinking before she got here.

This side of Belinda hadn't come out for a long time.

"How did you turn up at the same time as the General? And, before you get all old-time hardcore, we have made some headway." I told her what Saucerhead and Jon Salvation had told me.

Salvation himself remained silent and motionless, hoping not to be noticed.

Block said, "There's talk that Shadowslinger doesn't own those properties despite her name being on the deeds."

Belinda slurred, "Clever, going after the costume suppliers."

She wouldn't be with us long.

"I have some other odd angles going. And I've gotten possible identifications of the people whose portraits we put together."

Tipsy, bloodthirsty excitement on Belinda's part. Block was less nasty but equally thrilled.

I said, "There is a problem. The bad guys are people who should have been out of it years ago." I explained what Playmate and Barate Algarda had told me.

Block mused, "The guy's name stays the same. Hmm? Do we have ghosts, like at the World? Or a father-son-grandson thing? Or the undead? You have a theory, Garrett?"

"We haven't yet seen any of them out in the daytime."

"Vampires?"

That would have seemed silly a week ago. Now, though. "The bodies they're rebuilding could be those of their victims."

"Problem," Block said. "We got forty or fifty zombies but no missing persons. We took out nineteen but that leaves thirty to go. We for sure haven't had that many people the right age die."

Belinda was well toward becoming inarticulate but, stumbling and bumbling, she managed, "Roger keeps whining about his business getting so awful. His customers don't want to be embalmed. They just want a ride to the crematorium."

Poor Cap'n Roger.

How does a resurrection man stay in business if all the dead get burned? "What's the story in the refugee shantytowns? They wouldn't be honest with the red tops since they think you're persecuting them."

"We would know," Block said. "Deal would know. His intelligence gathering has improved since your day." He sighed. He took a long, forlorn look into his mug. I could not believe he was still speaking coherently. Belinda had started talking to herself. She could not understand a word she said. "Garrett, our problem is that we're drowning in intelligence. We have so much we can't pick out the important bits."

"What?"

"Occasionally, lately, we've found that everything we needed to know to prevent or solve a crime was in the system but the information just didn't get to the right people."

"Uhm?" I hoped he was making excuses, not fishing for suggestions.

Singe had some. She held us spellbound while she brain-stormed an analytical hierarchy that would sort reports on arrival, evaluate them, then move them to people whose job it would be to determine connections or threats. Those folks would pass information to the people who would take action. The process depended on individual responsibility, with the hierarchy built so that shifting blame would be difficult. Penalties for failure by pettiness or indifference would be rough.

Block was awed. "Magnificent! Pure intellectual genius, Miss Pular! I see just one flaw."

"Sir?"

"Human nature. Even with penalties built in not everyone will strive to achieve the common goal."

Singe was deflated. "Oh. Humans. Right."

"It's still the best idea I've heard. Definitely something to build on. We'll dedicate a holding cell in your name." Which, grinning, he said to her back. She was up and moving into the hallway. "Uh. . Did I hurt her feelings?"

79

Singe's feeling were not bruised. She had heard a knock that eluded the rest of us. She was back in a minute with Kolda, the poisoner.

Damn! Now I was doing it.

The company made Kolda nervous. He refused a seat when Singe offered it. "I can only stay a minute. I just wanted to drop off some medicines. This bottle, with the green powder in it, is for Mr. Dotes. It will help his body flush poisons. Have him use it till it's all gone, no matter how good he thinks he feels. And this bottle, with the stuff that looks like ground amber, is for the man with the cancers. Very expensive but very effective. It's exuded by an exotic tropical beetle. Give him a pinch with every meal. No more than a pinch. More could kill him. Even a pinch may leave him feeling so nauseous that he might try to talk you out of giving him any more. Make him stick it out."

"Kolda, thank you, man. You've gone beyond the call. What do I owe you?"

"This is on me, Garrett. But I figure it makes us even. I'll charge you next time."

"Something to drink?" Singe asked.

"I shouldn't. It's a bit early."

"You sure? Not even one beer?"

"Well. . One can't hurt."

Singe headed for the kitchen.

Kolda glanced around, decided to sit after all. He leaned toward me. "There was one more thing."

"We're all friends here."

Kolda shrugged. "When I was going around the trade looking for something to fight tumors several chemists and apothecaries hit me up for Jane's mint seed. I don't have any. Not to wholesale. It's rare. After I'd been asked a few times I started asking back, about why."

"Uhm?"

"Jane's mint only grows in boggy places. It's not really mint but crushing the leaves produces a juice with a mint smell. It shouldn't be ingested. It used to be used to poison mice. The seeds are hard to collect. You have to catch them at exactly the right time."

"We're interested in Jane's mint seeds because?"

"Because the powdered seeds have an almost miraculous healing effect. And someone has been buying them up. The price has gone up tenfold in a month."

I exchanged looks with Block, then held up a restraining hand when he wanted to press for details. Kolda didn't notice.

Belinda didn't care. She was having trouble staying conscious.

Singe returned. Kolda accepted a mug, took a long pull, was pleasantly surprised, belched, then told me, "And that's about all I know, heading west." He drained his mug and got his feet under him again.

Singe released him into the wild