Cook, Glen - Garrett 04 - Old Tin Sorrows

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Cook, Glen - Garrett 04 - Old Tin Sorrows


    by Glen Cook

    Book Four of The Garrett Files


    Just when you think you have it all scoped out and you're riding high, old Fate will stampede right over you and not even stop to say I'm sorry. Happens every time if your name is Garrett. You can make book on it.

    I'm Garrett. Sitting pretty in my early thirties, over six feet, brown hair, two hundred pounds plusmaybe threatening to shoot up because my favorite food is beer. I have a disposition variously described as sulky, sour, sarky, or cynical. Anything with a sibilant. Sneaky and snaky, my enemies claim. But, hell, I'm a sweetheart. Really. Just a big, old, cuddly bear with a nice smile and soulful eyes.

    Don't believe everything you hear. I'm just a realist who suffers from a recurrent tumor of romantic pragmatism. Once upon a time I was a lot more romantic. Then I did my five in the Fleet Marines. That almost snuffed the spark.

    Keep that in mind, that time in the Corps. If I hadn't been there, none of this would have happened.

    Bone-lazy, Morley would call me, but that's a base canard from a character without the moral fiber to sit still more than five minutes. I'm not lazy; I'd just rather not work if I don't need money. When I do, I operate as a confidential agent. Which means I spend a lot of time in the middle, between people you wouldn't invite to dinner. Kidnappers. Blackmailers. Thugs and thieves and killers.

    My, the things kids grow up to be.

    It isn't a great life. It won't get me into any history books. But it does let me be my own boss, set my own hours, pick my jobs. It lets me off a lot of hooks. I don't have to make a lot of compromises with my conscience.

    Trying not to work when I don't need money means looking through the peephole first when someone knocks on the door of my place on Macunado Street. If whoever is there looks like a prospective client, I simply don't answer.

    It was a false spring day early in the year. It was supposed to be winter out there but somebody was nodding. The snow had melted. After six days of unnatural warmth the trees had conned themselves into budding. They'd be sorry.

    I hadn't been out since the thaw. I was at my desk reckoning accounts on a couple of minor jobs I'd subcontracted, thinking about taking a walk before cabin fever got me. Then somebody knocked.

    It was Dean's day off. I had to do the legwork myself. I went to the door. I peeked. And I was startled. And, brother, was I fooled.

    Whenever the big troubles came, the harbinger always wore a skirt and looked like something you couldn't find anywhere but in your dreams. In case that's too subtle, it's like this: I've got a weakness for ripe tomatoes. But I'm learning. Give me about a thousand years and...

    This wasn't any tomato. This was a guy I'd known a long time ago and never expected to see again. One I hadn't ever wanted to see again when we'd parted. And he just looked uncomfortable out there, not like he was in trouble. So I opened the door. That was my first mistake.

    "Sarge! What're you doing here? How the hell are you?" I shoved a hand at him, something I wouldn't have dared do when I saw him last.

    He was twenty years older than me, the same height, twenty pounds lighter. He had skin the color of tanned doeskin, big ears that stuck straight out, wrinkles, small black eyes, black hair with a lot of gray that hadn't been there before. No way to pin down exactly why, but he was one of the ugliest men I'd ever known. He looked damned fit, but he was the kind that would look that way if he lived forever. He stood there like he had a board nailed to his spine.

    "I'm fine," he said, and took my hand in a sincere shake. Those beady little eyes went over me like they could see right through me. He'd always had that knack. "You've put on a few pounds."

    "On in the middle, off at the top." I tapped my hair. It wasn't noticeable to anyone but me yet. "Come in. What're you doing in TunFaire?"

    "I'm retired now. Out of the Corps. I've been hearing a lot about you. Into some exciting things. I was in the neighborhood. Thought I'd drop in. If you're not busy." "I'm not. Beer? Come on back to the kitchen." I led the way into Dean's fiefdom. The old boy wasn't there to defend it. "When did you get out?"

    "Been out three years, Garrett."

    "Yeah? I figured you'd die in harness at a hundred fifty."

    His name was Blake Peters. The guys in the company called him Black Pete. He'd been our leading sergeant and the nearest thing to a god or devil any of us had known, the kind of professional soldier that gives an outfit its spine. I couldn't imagine him as a civilian. Three years out? He looked like a Marine sergeant in disguise.

    "We all change. I started thinking too much instead of just doing what I was told. The beer isn't bad."

    It was damned good. Weider, who owns the brewery, had sent a keg of his special reserve to let me know he appreciated past favorsand to remind me I was still on retainer. I

    hadn't been around for a while. He was afraid his employees might go into free-lance sales again.

    "So what're you doing now?" I was a little uncomfortable. I never had the experience myselfmy father died in battle in the Cantard when I was fourbut guys have told me

    they'd felt ill at ease dealing with their fathers man to man when that first happened. Black Pete hadn't ever been a friend; he'd been the Sergeant. He wasn't anymore but I didn't know him any other way.

    "I'm working for General Stantnor. I was on his staff. When he retired he asked me to go with him. I did it."

    I grunted. Stantnor had been a Colonel when I was in. He'd been boss of all the Marines operating out of Full Harbor, about two thousand men. I'd never met him, but I'd had plenty to say about him during my stint. Not much of it was complimentary. About the time I'd gotten out he'd become Commandant of the whole Corps and had moved to Leifmold, where the Karentine Navy and Marines have their headquarters.

    "Job's about the same as it was, but the pay's better," Peters said. "You look like you're doing all right. Own your own place, I hear."

    About then I started getting suspicious. It was just a niggling little worm, a whisper. He'd done some homework before he came, which meant he wasn't just stopping in for old time's sake.

    "I don't go hungry," I admitted. "But I do worry about tomorrow. About how long the reflexes will last and the mind will stay sharp. The legs aren't what they used to be." "You need more exercise. You haven't been keeping yourself up. It shows." I snorted. Another Morley Dotes? "Don't start with the green leafies and red meat. I've already got a fairy godfather to pester me about that."

    He looked puzzled, which was some sight on that phiz.

    "Sorry. Private joke, sort of. So you're just sort of taking it easy these days, eh?" I hadn't heard Stantnor's name much since he'd retired. I knew he'd come home to TunFaire, to the family estate south of the city, but that was it. He'd become a recluse, ignoring politics and business, the usual pursuits of ranking survivors of the endless Cantard War. "We haven't had much choice." He sounded sour and looked troubled for a moment. "He planned to go into material contracting, but he took sick. Maybe something he picked up in the islands. Took the fire out of him. He's bedridden most of the time." Pity. On the plus side of Stantnor's ledger had been the fact that he hadn't sat in an office in Full Harbor spending his troops like markers on a game board. When the big shitstorms hit he was out in the weather with the rest of us.

    A pity, and I said so.

    "Maybe worse than a pity, Garrett. He's taken a turn for the worse. I think he's dying. And I think somebody is helping him along."

    Suspicion became certainty. "You didn't just happen to be in the neighborhood." He was direct. "No. I'm here to collect."

    He didn't have to explain.

    There was a time when we'd gotten caught with our pants down on one of the islands. A surprise Venageti invasion nearly wiped us out. We survivors had fled into the swamps and had lived on whatever didn't eat us first while we harassed the Venageti. Sergeant Peters had brought us through that. I owed him for that.

    But I owed him more. He'd carried me away when I'd been injured during a raid. He hadn't had to do it. I couldn't have done anything but lie there waiting for the Venageti to kill me.

    He said, "That old man means a lot to me, Garrett. He's the only family I've got. Somebody's killing him slowly, but I can't figure out who or how. I can't stop it. I've never felt this helpless and out of control. So I come to a man who has a reputation for handling the unhandleable."

    I didn't want a client. But Garrett pays his debts.

    I took a long drink, a deep breath, cursed under my breath. "Tell me about it." Peters shook his head. "I don't want to fill you up with ideas that didn't work for me." "Damnit, Sarge..."

    "Garrett!" He still had the whipcrack voice that got your attention without being raised. "I'm listening."

    "He's got other problems. I've sold him on hiring a specialist to handle them. I've sold him your reputation and my memories of you from the Corps. He'll interview you tomorrow morning. If you remember to knock the horse apples off your shoes before you go in the house, he'll hire you. Do the job he wants done. But while you're at it, do the real job. Got me?"

    I nodded. It was screwy but clients are that way. They always want to sneak up on things.

    "To everyone else you'll be a hired hand, job unknown, antecedents mostly unknown. You should use another name. You have a certain level of notoriety. The name Garrett might ring a bell."

    I sighed. "You make it sound like I might spend a lot of time there."

    "I want you to stay till the job is done. I'll need the name you're going to use before I leave or you won't get past the front door."

    "Mike Sexton." I plucked it off the top of my head, but it had to be divine inspiration. If a little dangerous.

    Mike Sexton had been our company's chief scout. He hadn't come back from that island. Peters had sent him out before a night strike and we'd never seen him again. He'd been Black Pete's main man, his only friend.

    Peters's face went hard and cold. His eyes narrowed dangerously. He started to say something. But Black Pete never shot his mouth off without thinking.

    He grunted. "It'll work. People have heard me mention the name. I'll explain how we know each other. I don't think I told anybody he's gone."

    He wouldn't. He wouldn't brag about his mistakes, even to himself. I'd bet part of him was still waiting for Sexton to report,

    "That's the way I figured it."

    He downed the last of his beer. "You'll do it?"

    "You knew I would before you pounded on the door. I didn't have any choice." He smiled. It looked out of place on that ugly mug. "I wasn't a hundred percent sure. You were always a stubborn bastard." He took out a worn canvas purse, the same one he'd had back when, fatter than it had been before. He counted out fifty marks. In silver. Which was a statement of sorts. The price of silver has been shooting up since Glory Mooncalled double-crossed everybody and declared the whole Cantard an independent republic with no welcome for Karentines, Venageti, or what have you.

    Silver is the fuel that makes sorcery go. Both Karenta and Venageta sway to the whims of cabals of sorcerers. The biggest, most productive silver mines in the world lie in the Cantard, which is why the ruling gangs have been at war there since my grandfather was a pup. Till the mercenary Glory Mooncalled pulled his stunt.

    He's made it stick so far. But I'll be amazed if he keeps it up. He's got everybody pissed and he's right in the middle.

    It won't be long before it's war as usual down there.

    I opened my mouth to tell Peters he didn't need to pay me. I owed him. But I realized he did need to. He was calling in an obligation but not for free. He didn't expect me to work for nothing, he just wanted me to work. And maybe he was paying off something to the General by footing the bill.

    "Eight a day and expenses," I told him. "Discount for a friend. I'll kick back if this comes out too much or I'll bill you if I need more." I took the fifty into the Dead Man's room for safekeeping. The Dead Man was hard at what he does best: snoozing. All four hundred plus pounds of him. He'd been at it so long I'd begun to miss his company. With that thought I decided it was time I took a job. Missing the Dead Man's company was like missing the company of an inquisitor.

    Peters was ready to go when I got back. "See you in the morning?" he asked. There was a whisper of desperation behind his words.

    "I'll be there. Guaranteed."


    It was eleven in the morning. They'd roofed the sky with planks of lead. I walked, though the General's hovel was four miles beyond South Gate. Me and horses don't get along. I wished I'd taken the chance. My pins were letting me know I spend too much time planted on the back of my lap. Then fat raindrops started making coin-sized splats on the road. I wished some more. I was going to get wet if the old man and I didn't hit it off. I shifted my duffel bag to my other shoulder and tried to hurry. That did all the good it ever does.

    I'd bathed and shaved and combed my hair. I had on my best "meet the rich folks" outfit. I figured they'd give me credit for trying and not run me off before they asked my name. I hoped Black Pete was on the level and had left that at the door.

    The Stantnor place wasn't exactly a squatter's shanty. I figured maybe a million marks' worth of brick and stone and timber. The grounds wouldn't have had any trouble gobbling the Lost Battalion.

    I didn't need a map to find the house but I was lucky. The General had put out a paved private road for me to follow.

    The shack was four stories high at the wings and five in the center, in the style called frame half-timber, and it spread out wide enough that I couldn't throw a rock from one corner to the other of the front. I tried. It was a good throw but the stone fell way short. A fat raindrop got me in the back of the neck. I scampered up a dozen marble steps to the porch. I took a minute to arrange my face so I wouldn't look impressed when somebody answered the door. You want to deal with the rich, you've got to overcome the intimidation factor of wealth.

    The doorwhich would have done a castle proud as a drawbridgeswung in without a

    sound, maybe a foot. A man looked out. All I could see was his face. I almost asked him what the grease bill was for silencing those monster hinges.


    "Mike Sexton. I'm expected."

    "Yes." The face puckered up. Where did he get lemons this time of year? Maybe he wasn't thrilled to see me, but he did open up and let me into a hallway where you could park a couple of woolly mammoths, if you didn't want to leave them out in the rain. He said, "I'll inform the General that you've arrived, sir." He walked away like they'd shoved a javelin up his back in boot camp, marching to drums only he could hear. Obviously another old Marine, like Black Pete.

    He was gone awhile. I entertained myself by drifting along the hallway introducing myself to the Stantnor ancestors, a dozen of whom scowled at me from portraits on the walls. The artists had been selected for their ability to capture their subject's private misery. Every one of those old boys was constipated.

    I inventoried three beards, three mustaches, and six clean shaven. The Stantnor blood was strong. They looked like brothers instead of generations going back to the foundation of the Karentine state. Only their uniforms dated them.

    All of them were in uniform or armor. Stantnors had been professional soldiers, sailors, Marinesforever. It was a birthright. Or maybe an obligation, like it or not, which might explain the universal dyspepsia.

    The last portrait on the left was the General himself, as Commandant of the Corps. He wore a huge, ferocious white mustache and had a faraway look in his eyes, as if he were standing on the poop of a troopship staring at something beyond the horizon. His was the

    only portrait that hadn't been painted so its subject's eyes followed you when you moved. It was disconcerting, having all those angry old men glaring down. Maybe the portraits were supposed to intimidate upstarts like me.

    Opposite the General hung the only portrait of a young man, the General's son, a Marine lieutenant who hadn't developed the family scowl. I didn't recall his name, but did remember him getting killed in the islands while I was in. He'd been the old man's only male offspring. There wouldn't be any more portraits to put up on those dark-paneled walls.

    The hall ended in a wall of leaded glass that rose the hallway's two storey height, a mosaic of scenes from myth and legend, all bloodthirstily executed: heroes slaying dragons, felling giants, posturing atop heaps of elvish corpses while awaiting another charge. All stuff of antiquity, when we humans didn't get along with the other races.

    The doors through that partition were normal size, also filled with glass artwork from the same school. The butler, or whatever he was, had left them ajar. I took that as an invitation. The hall beyond could have been swiped from a cathedral. It was as big as a parade ground and four stories high, all stone, mostly swirly browns from butterscotch to rust folded into cream. The walls were decorated with trophies presumably won by Stantnors in battle. There were enough weapons and banners to outfit a battalion.

    The floor was a checkerboard of white marble and green serpentine. In its middle stood a fountain, a hero on a rearing stallion sticking a lance into the heart of a ferocious dragon that looked suspiciously like one of the bigger flying thunder-lizards. Both of them looked like they'd rather be somewhere else. Couldn't say I blamed them. Neither one was going to get out alive. The hero was about one second short of sliding off the horse's behind right into the dragon's claws. The sculptor had said a lot that, undoubtedly, no one understood. I told them, "You two want to scrap over a virgin, you should work a deal." I headed for the fountain, heels clicking, the walls throwing back echoes. I turned around a few times, taking in the sights. Hallways ran off into the wings. Stairs went up to balconies in front of each of the upper floors. There were lots of polished round brown pillars and legions of echoes. The place couldn't be a home. Only thing I'd ever seen like it was a museum. You had to wonder what went on inside the head of a guy who would want to build a place like that to live.

    It was damned near as cold in there as it was outside. I shivered, checked out the fountain up close. It wasn't going, or at least I'd have had its chuckles for company. Seemed a pity. The sound would have improved the atmosphere. Maybe they only turned it on when they were entertaining.

    I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the idea of being rich. I guess most people do. But if this was the way the rich had to live, I thought maybe I could settle for less. My trade has taken me into any number of large homes and every one seemed to have a certain coldness at its heart. The nicest I'd hit belonged to Chodo Contague, TunFaire's emperor of the underworld. He's a grotesque, a real blackheart, but his place at least fakes the life and warmth. And his decorator has his priorities straight. Once when I was there the house was littered with naked lovelies. That's what I call home furnishings! That's a lot more cheerful than a bargeload of instruments of war.

    I dropped my duffel bag, put a foot up on the fountain surround, and rested my elbows on my knee. "You boys go ahead with what you're doing. I'll try not to disturb." Hero and dragon were both too preoccupied to notice.

    I looked around. Where the hell was everybody? A place that size ought to have a battalion for staff. I'd seen livelier museums at midnight. Well...

    All was not lost. In fact, things had started to look up.

    I'd spotted a face. It was looking at me around a pillar supporting the balconies to my left. The west wing. It was female and gorgeous and too far away to tell much else, but that was all I needed to get my blood moving again. The woman attached was as timid as a dryad. She ducked out of sight an instant after our eyes met.

    The part of me that is weak wondered if I'd see more of her. I hoped so. I could get lost in a face like that.

    She did a little flit into the nearest hallway. I got just a glimpse but wanted her to come back. She was worth a second look, and maybe a third and a fourth, a long-haired, slim blonde in something white and gauzy, gathered at the waist by a red girdle. Around twenty, give or take a few, and sleek enough to put a big, goofy grin on my face. I'd keep an eye out for that one.

    Unless she was a ghost. She'd gone without making a sound. Whatever, she was going to haunt me till I got a closer look.

    Was the place haunted? It was spooky enough, in its cold way... I realized it was me. Might not bother someone else. I looked around and heard the clash of steel and the moans of those who had died to furnish all those emblems of Stantnor glory. I was packing my own haunts in and letting the place become a mirror.

    I tried to shake a darkening mood. A place like that turns you somber.

    The guy from the front door marched in after the girl disappeared, his heels clicking. He came to a perfect military halt six feet away. I gave him the once-over. He stood five-foot-eight, maybe a hundred seventy pounds, in his fifties but looking younger. His hair was wavy black, slicked with some kind of grease that couldn't beat the curl. If he had any gray, he hid it well, and he still had all the hair he'd had when he was twenty. His eyes were cold little beads. You could get ice burns there. He'd kill you and not even wonder if he was making orphans.

    "The General will see you now, sir." He turned and marched away.

    I followed. I caught myself marching in step, skipped to get out. In a minute I was back in step. I gave it up.

    They'd pounded it in good. The flesh remembered and couldn't hear the rebellion in the mind.

    "You have a name?" I asked.

    "Dellwood, sir."

    "What were you before you got out?"

    "I was attached to the General's staff, sir."

    Which meant absolutely nothing. "Lifer?" Dumb question, Garrett. I could bet the family farm, I was the only nonlifer in the place, excepting the girlmaybe. The General wouldn't

    surround himself with the lesser breeds called civilians.

    "Thirty-two years, sir." He asked no questions himself. Not into small talk and chitchat? No. He didn't care. I was one of them.

    "Maybe I should have come to the tradesman's entrance."

    He grunted.

    "Tough." The General had my respect for what he'd accomplished, not for who he'd been born.

    Dellwood had twenty years on me but I was the guy doing the puffing when we hit the fourth floor. About six wise remarks ran through my alleged brain but I didn't have wind enough to share them. Dellwood gave me an unreadable look, probably veiled contempt for soft civilians. I puffed awhile, then to distract him said, "I saw a woman while I was waiting. Watching me. Timid as a mouse."

    "That would be Miss Jennifer, sir. The General's daughter." He looked like he thought he'd made a mistake volunteering that much. He didn't say anything else. One of those guys who wouldn't tell you what he thought you didn't need to know if you burned his toes off. Was the whole staff struck from the same dies? Then why did Peters need me? They could handle anything.

    Dellwood marched to an oaken door that spanned half the corridor on the top floor of the west wing. He pushed the door inward, announced, "Mr. Mike Sexton, sir." A wall of heat smacked me as I pushed past Dellwood.

    I'd come with no preconceptions but I was still surprised. General Stantnor preferred spartan surroundings. Other than the room's size, there was nothing to hint that he was hip deep in geld.

    There were no carpets, a few straightbacked wooden chairs, the ubiquitous military hardware, two writing desks nose to nose, the bigger one presumably for the General and the other for whoever actually wrote. The place was almost a mausoleum. The heat came off a bonfire raging in a fireplace designed for roasting oxen. Another gink without joints in his spine was tossing in logs from a nearby mountain. He looked at me, looked at the old man behind the big desk. The old man nodded. The fireman marched out, maybe to kill time practicing close order drill with Dellwood.

    Having surveyed the setting I zeroed in on its centerpiece.

    I could see why Black Pete was suspicious. There wasn't much left of General Stantnor. He didn't look anything like the guy in the picture downstairs. He looked like he might weigh about as much as a mummy, though most of him was buried under comforters. Ten years ago he'd been my height and thirty pounds heavier.

    His skin had a yellowish cast and was mildly translucent. His pupils were milky with cataracts. His hair had fallen out in clumps. Only a few patches remained, not just gray or white but with a bluish hue of death. He had liver spots but those had faded, too. His lips had no color left but a poisonous gray-blue.

    I don't know how well he could see through those cataracts, but his gaze was strong and steady. He didn't shake.

    "Mike Sexton, sir. Sergeant Peters asked me to see you."

    "Grab a chair. Pull it up there facing me. I don't like to look up when I talk to someone." There was power in his voice, though I don't know where he found the energy. I'd figured him for a graverobber's whisper. I settled opposite him. He said, "For the moment I'm confident we're not being overheard, Mr. Garrett. Yes. I know who you are. Peters provided me with a full report before I approved bringing you in." He kept staring as though he could overcome those cataracts through sheer will. "But we'll pursue the Mike Sexton fiction in future. Assuming we come to terms now."

    I was close enough to smell him, and it wasn't a good smell. I was surprised the whole room didn't reek. They must have brought him in from somewhere else. "Peters didn't say what you needed, sir. He just called in an old marker to get me out here." I glanced at the fireplace. They would be baking bread in here soon.

    "It takes a great deal of heat to keep me going, Mr. Garrett. My apologies for your discomfort. I'll try to keep this brief. I'm a little like a thunder-lizard. I generate no heat of my own."

    I waited for him to continue. And sweated a lot.

    "I have Peters's word that you were a good Marine." No doubt that counted for a lot around here. "He vouches for your character then. But men change. What have you become?"

    "A free-lance thug instead of a drafted one, General. Which you need or I wouldn't be here."

    He made a noise that might have been laughter. "Ah. I'd heard you have a sharp tongue, Mr. Garrett. I should be the impatient one, not you. I have so little time left. Yes. Peters vouches for you today, as well. And you do get mentioned in some circles as being reliable, though headstrong and inclined to carry out your assignments according to your own lights. They say you have a sentimental streak. That shouldn't trouble us here. They say you have a weakness for women. I think you'll find my daughter more trouble than she's worth. They say you tend to be judgmental of the vices and peccadillos of my class." I wondered if he knew how often I change my underwear. Why did he need an investigator? Let him use whoever had investigated me.

    Again that sorry laugh. "I can guess what you're thinking. Everything I know is public knowledge. Your reputation runs before you." Something that might have been a smile in better times. "You've managed to do a fair amount of good over the years, Mr. Garrett. But you stepped on a lot of toes doing it."

    "I'm just a clumsy kid, General. I'll grow out of it."

    "I doubt it. You don't seem intimidated by me."

    "I'm not." I wasn't. I'd met too many guys who really were intimidating. I had calluses on that organ.

    "You would have been ten years ago."

    "Different circumstances."

    "Indeed. Good. I need a man who won't be intimidated. Especially by me. Because I fear that if you do your job right, you may uncover truths I won't want to face. Truths so brutal I may tell you to back off. You won't do that?"

    He had me baffled. "I'm confused."

    "The normal state of the world, Mr. Garrett. I mean, when I hire you, if I hire you, if you agree to take this job, your commitment will be to follow it through to the end. Disregarding anything I tell you later. I'll see that you're paid up front so you aren't tempted to bend in order to collect your fee."

    "I still don't get it."

    "I pride myself on my ability to meet the truth head-on. In this case I want to arrange it so I have no choice, however much I squirm and ache. Can you understand that?" "Yes." Only in the most literal sense. I didn't understand why. We all spend a lot of time fooling ourselves, and his class were masters at thatthough he'd always had a reputation

    for having both feet firmly planted in reality. He'd disobeyed or refused orders more than once because they had originated in wishful thinking by superiors who hadn't come within five hundred miles of the fighting. Each time events had saved him embarrassment by proving him right.

    He didn't have a lot of friends.

    "Before I make any commitment, I have to know what I'm supposed to do."

"There is a thief in my house, Mr. Garrett."

    He stopped because of some kind of spasm. I thought he was having a heart attack. I jumped up and headed for the door.

    "Wait," he croaked. "It will pass."

    I paused midway between my chair and the door, saw the spasm fade. In a moment he was back to normal. I perched myself on my chair again.

    "A thief in my house. Yet there is no one here I haven't known for thirty years, no one I haven't trusted with my life many times."

    That had to be a weird feeling, knowing you could trust guys with your life but not with your things.

    I got a glimmer of why he needed an outsider. A bad apple amongst old comrades. They might cover up, refuse to see the truth, or... Who knows? Marines don't think like people. "I follow. Go ahead."

    "My infirmity came upon me soon after I returned home. It's a progressive consumption, apparently. But slow. I seldom get out of my quarters now. But I've noticed, this past year, that some things, some of which have been in the family for centuries, have disappeared. Never large, flashy things that would be obvious to any eye. Just trinkets, sometimes more valuable as mementoes than intrinsically. Yet the sum should add to a fair amount by now."

    "I see." I glanced at the fire. It was time to turn me over so I wouldn't be underdone on one side.

    "Bear with me a few minutes more, Mr. Garrett."

    "Yes sir. Any strangers in the house recently? Any regular visitors?"

    "A handful. People off the Hill. Not the sort who would pilfer."

    I didn't say so but in my thinking the worst of all criminals come off the Hill. Our nobility would steal the coppers off dead men's eyes. But the General had a point. They wouldn't steal with their own hands. They'd have somebody do it for them.

    "You have an inventory of what's missing?"

    "Would that be useful?"

    "Maybe. Somebody steals something, they want to sell it to get money. Right? I know some of the retailers whose wholesalers are people with sticky fingers. Do you want the stuff back or do you just want to know who's kyping it?"

    "The latter step first, Mr. Garrett. Then we'll consider recovery." Sudden as a lightning bolt he suffered another spasm. I felt helpless, unable to do anything for him. That was not a good sensation.

    He came back but this time he was weaker.

    "I'll have to close this out quickly, Mr. Garrett. I'll need to rest. Or the next attack may be the last." He smiled. There were teeth missing behind the smile. "Another reason to make sure you get your fee up front. My heirs might not see fit to pay you."

    I wanted to say something reassuring, like he'd outlive me, but that seemed too cynically a load of manure. I kept my mouth shut. I can do that sometimes, though usually at the wrong time.

    "I'd like to get to know you better, Mr. Garrett, but nature has its own priorities. I'll hire you if you'll have me for a client. Will you find me my thief? On the terms I stated?" "No punches pulled? No backing off?"


    "Yes sir." I had to force it out. I really was getting lazy. "I'm on it now."

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