OGRE TOWN WAS QUIET AS DEATH—
Until we sprang our attack on the citadel of the human plug-ugly nicknamed Gorgeous. This cold-blooded killer's pack of ogres had been wiping out some people I'd had a personal interest in keeping alive.
Right from the start the battle seemed to be going just the way we'd planned. Then Gorgeous let loose with a roar that could wake the undead. I jumped him, but the damage was done. The stairs were already drumming to stamping feet. And then the ogre stampede arrived!
There must have been twenty in the first rush. They pushed across the room, into the far wall. Even my trolls, hammering ogre heads from above, scarcely slowed them. And more and more ogres kept coming.
It was looking really grim for my little army as Gorgeous shrieked hysterical, bloodthirsty orders. It was definitely time to try something desperate. . . .
Bitter Gold Hearts
A SIGNET BOOK
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____ I ____
THERE WAS NOTHING to do after I wrapped up the Case of the Perilous Pixies. Two weeks of living with the Dead Man's grumblings and mutterings would try the patience of a saint. A saint I'm not. Worse, Tinnie was out of town indefinitely and the redhead refused to share me with anyone she didn't know. It was a trying time to be alive. Nothing to do with my evenings but keep the breweries from going into receivership.
It was early and a devil was doing some blacksmithing in my skull, so I wasn't at my best when
somebody came pounding on the door of our battered old house on Macunado Street. "Yeah?" I snapped when I yanked the door open. It didn't matter that the woman was wearing a thousand marks' worth of custom cloth or that the street was filled with guys in flashy livery. I've seen too much of the rich to be impressed.
"That's me." I lightened up a little. I'd had a chance to give her the up and down, and she was worth a second look. And a third and a fourth. There wasn't a lot of her, though nothing was missing, and what was there had been put together quite nicely. A phantom smile crossed her lips as my gaze drew north again.” I’m half fairy," she said, and for a moment music broke through the gravity of her voice. "Can you stop gaping long enough to let me in?"
"Of course. Can I ask your name? I don't recall you being on my appointment calendar. Though I'd love to jot you in as often as you want."
"I'm here on business, Mr. Garrett. Save that for your bar girls." She pushed past me a few steps, then stopped and glanced back with mild surprise.” The outside is camouflage," I told her. "We leave it looking like a dump so we don't strain the honesty of our neighbors." It wasn't the best section of the city. There was a war on, and it was hot, so there were plenty of jobs available, but some of our neighbors hadn't yet given in to the silly notion of personal gain through honest employment.
"We?" she repeated icily. "I wanted to consult with you on a matter that requires the greatest discretion."
Don't they all? They wouldn't come to me if they thought they could solve their problems through the usual channels.
"You can trust him," I replied, nodding toward the other room. "His lips are sealed. He's been dead for four hundred years."
I watched her face go through a series of changes. "He's Loghyr? The Dead Man?" So she wasn't such a lady after all. Anybody who knows the Dead Man has roots solidly anchored in the downhill end of TunFaire. "Yes. I think he ought to hear it."
I get around and hear a lot of things—some of them true, most of them not. I'd recognized the livery of the Stormwarden Raver Styx outside and thought I could guess what was eating her. It would be fun springing her on the heap of moth-eaten blubber who had become my permanent houseguest. "No."
I started toward his room. The routine is for me to wake him when I have a business caller. Not everyone who visits is friendly. He can provide powerful backup when the mood hits him. "What did you say your name was, miss?"
I was fishing and she knew it. She could have skipped right around it, but she hesitated in an odd way before confessing, "Amiranda Crest, Mr. Garrett. This is a critical matter." "They always are, Amiranda. I'll be with you in a minute."
She didn't walk out.
It was important enough that she would let herself be pushed.
* * *
He was indulging himself in what had become his favorite pastime, trying to outguess the generals and warlords in the Cantard. No matter that the information he got was scanty, out of date, and mostly filtered through me. He did as well as the geniuses who commanded the armies—better
than most of those Stormwarden’s and warlords whose main claim to the right of command was
He was a mountain of rigid yellow flesh sprawled on a massive wooden chair. The works had been moved several times but the flesh hadn't twitched since somebody stuck a knife in it four hundred years ago. He was getting a little ragged. Loghyr flesh doesn't corrupt quickly, but mice and whole species of insects consider it a delicacy.
The wall facing his chair had no doors or windows. He'd had an artist paint it with a large-scale map of the war zone. At that moment he had hosts of bugs trooping up and down the plaster landscape, recreating recent campaigns, trying to discover how the mercenary Glory Mooncalled had evaded not only the Venageti out to destroy him, but our own commanders, who wanted to catch and leash him before his string of triumphs made them look more foolish and inept than they already did.
Go away, Garrett.
"Who's winning? The ants or the roaches? Better watch out for those spiders down in the corner. They're sneaking up on your silverfish."
Quit pestering me, Garrett.
"I have a visitor, a prospective client. We need a client. I want you to hear her outpouring of woe." You brought a woman into my house again? Garrett, my good nature has limits wider than the ocean, but it does have limits.
"Whose house? Do we have to go back to talking about who's the landlord and who's the squatter?" The bugs scattered. Some of them jumped on others. That's life in the war zone.
/ almost had the pattern.
"He does it with mirrors. If there was a pattern, the Venageti War Council would have spotted it months ago. Finding Glory Mooncalled isn't a hobby for them. It's life or death." The mercenary was picking them off one by one. He had an old score to settle.
I take it this one is not that redheaded witch of yours?
"Tinnie? No. This one works for the Stormwarden Raver Styx. She has fairy blood. You'll love her at first sight."
Unlike you, who loves them all at first sight, I am no longer the victim of my flesh, Garrett. There are some advantages to being dead. One gains the ability to reason. . . .
I'd heard this before — several dozen times. "I'll bring her in." I stepped out, returned to the front room. "Miss Crest? If you'll come with me?"
She glowered. Even angry she was a gem, but there was a quiet desperation in her stance that gave me all the handle I needed. "Amiranda, haunter of my dreams. Please?"
She followed me. I think she knew she had no choice.
____ II ____
MIRANDA CREST STARTED shaking when she saw the Dead Man. I'm used to him and tend to forget A
the impact he has on those who never have seen a dead Loghyr. Her cute little nose wrinkled. She whispered, "It smells in here."
Well, yes, it did, but not much, and I was used to that, too. I ignored the remark. "This is Amiranda Crest, who comes to us from the Stormwarden Raver Styx."
Please pardon me for not rising, Miss Crest. I am capable of mental prodigies, but self-levitation is not among them. Meantime, Amiranda blurted, "Oh, no. Not from the Stormwarden. She's in the Cantard. Her secretary, the Domina Willa Dount, sent me. I'm her assistant. She wants you to see her about something she wants you to do, Mr. Garrett. For the family. Discreetly."
"Then you're not going to tell me what it is?"
"I don't know what it is. I was told to give you a hundred marks, gold, and tell you there is a thousand more if you'll do the job. But the hundred is yours if you'll just come and see her." She lies, Garrett. She knows what it is about.
He wasn't paying the rent with that. She had changed strategies while I was alerting the Dead Man. "That's all? Nothing to tell me why I'm sticking my neck out?"
She had begun counting ten-mark gold pieces into her left hand. I was startled. I'd never met anyone with fairy blood who was right-handed.” Save yourself the trouble, Miss Crest. If that's it, I'll stay here and help my friend hustle cockroaches."
She thought I was joking. A man of my class turning his back on a hundred marks gold? A man in my line? I ought to be sprinting uptown to find out who they wanted killed. Chances were she had
run uptown, bartering her good looks for the pretty things she wore.
She asked, "Couldn't you just take me on faith, and for the gold?"
"The last time I trusted somebody from up the Hill I got stuck in the Marines. I spent five years trying to kill Venageti conscripts who didn't know any better than I did what we were fighting about. I didn't figure that out till I came back home, and then I liked your lords and ladies of the Hill even less. Good day, Miss Crest. Unless you'd be interested in some more personal business? I know a little place that serves seafood you could kill for."
I watched her think it over, looking for angles she could use. Finally, she said, "Domina will be very angry with me if I don't bring you."
"How sad. But that's not my problem. If you don't mind? Your boys out front are probably baking in the sun, anyway."
She stomped out of the room, snarling, "You're throwing away the easiest hundred marks of your life, Mr. Garrett."
I followed her to make sure she used the door for its intended purpose. "If your boss wants to see me so bad, tell her to come down here."
She paused, opened her mouth to say something, then shook her head and slipped outside. I caught a glimpse of the sweltering guards jumping to their feet before the door closed. I went back to the Dead Man.
You were a little stubborn, were you not?
"She'll be back."
/ know. But what temper will possess her?
"Maybe she'll be ready to lay it out straight, without the games."
She is a female, Garrett. Why do you persist in such unreasonable optimism where that alien species is concerned? This was one of our running arguments. He was a misogynist to the marrow. This time I refused to play. He gave up.
Are you interested in the job, Garrett?
"My heart won't be broken if it doesn't develop. You know I told the truth when I said I don't have much use for the lords of the Hill. And I particularly have no use for sorcerers. We don't need the money, anyway."
You always need money, Garrett, the way you drink beer and chase skirts.
He exaggerated, of course. His envy was talking. His single greatest regret about being dead was his inability to guzzle beer. Someone is hammering on the door.
"I hear it. It's probably old Dean, early for work."
The Dead Man would not endure a female housekeeper, and my tolerance for housework is minimal. I'd only been able to find one old man—who moved with the flash and style of a
tortoise—willing to come in, pick up, cook, and clear the vermin from the Dead Man's room. I was surprised to find Amiranda back already. "Quick trip. Come in. I didn't know I was so irresistible."
She strode past me, then turned, hands on hips. "All right, Mr. Garrett. You get it your way. The reason Domina wants you is because my . . . because the Stormwarden's son Karl has been kidnapped. If you insist on getting more than that, we're both out of luck. Because that's all I've been told."
And you certainly are worried about it, I thought.
She started for the door.
"Hold it." I squinted at her. "Give me the hundred."
She handed it over without a smirk of triumph. One point for Amiranda Crest. I decided she might be worth liking.
"I'll be back in a minute."
I took the gold to the Dead Man. There was no safer place on earth. "You heard?" / did.
"What do you think?"
Kidnapping is your area of expertise.
I rejoined Amiranda Crest. "Let us fair forth, fair fairy lady."
That failed to put a smile on her face.
Not everyone appreciates a great sense of humor.
WE MARCHED OFF like a parody of a military outfit. Amiranda's companions were clad in uniforms. That seemed to be the limit of their familiarity with the military concept. At a guess I would have said their only use was to keep their livery from collapsing into the dust. I tried a few conversational sallies. Amiranda was done talking. I was one of the hired help now.
The Dead Man was right. Kidnapping was my area of expertise, mostly by circumstance. Time and again I get stuck doing the in-between. Each time I deliver the ransom and bring the body home alive the word gets around a little more. Both sides in a swap know where they stand with me. I play
it straight, no tricks, and heaven help the bad boys if they deliver damaged goods and my principals want their heads. Which they always do in that case.
I loathe kidnapping and kidnappers. Abduction is a major underground industry in TunFaire. I'd as soon see all kidnappers sent down the river floating facedown, but sound business practice makes me play the game by live-and-let-live rules. Unless they cheat first.
The Hill is a good deal more than a piece of high ground looking down its nose at the sprawl of TunFaire, the beast upon whose back it rides. It is a state of mind, and one I don't like. But their coin is as good as any down below, and they have a lot more of it. I register my disapproval by refusing jobs that might help the Hill tribe close their grip even tighter on the rest of us. Usually when they try to hire me it's because they want dirty work done. I turn them down. They find somebody less morally fastidious. So it goes.
The Stormwarden Raver Styx's place was typical of those on the High Hill. It was huge, tall, walled, brooding, dark, and just a shade more friendly than death. It was one of those places with an invisible "Abandon Hope" sign over the gateway. Maybe there were protective spells involved. I got a strong case of nerves the last fifty feet, the little watchman inside telling me I didn't want to go in there.
I went anyway. One hundred marks gold can shout down the watchman any time.
The inside reminded me of a haunted castle. There were cobwebs everywhere. Amiranda and I, after shedding our escort, were the only people tracking the shadowed halls. "Cheerful little bungalow. Where is everybody?"
"The Stormwarden took most of the household with her."
"But she left her secretary behind?"
Which told me there was some truth in the things I'd heard about the Stormwarden's husband and son, both named Karl. Put charitably, they needed a shepherd.
At first glance Willa Dount looked like a woman who could keep them in line. Her eyes could chill beer, and she had the charm of a stone. I knew a little about her from whispers in the shadows and alleys. She arranged dirty deeds done for the Stormwarden.
She was about five feet two, early forties, chunky without being fat. Her gray eyes matched her hair.