“Like bloody hell you are,” growled Small. “You’re here to stick your nose where it doesn't belong, and to put my people in danger for the sake of your fixation with things better left alone. Who let you in?”
“Nobody,” said Lyfantod. “I had the good fortune to arrive as some of your men were coming out, I just caught the door and…” He gestured airily.
“That door is kept locked for a reason.”
“I know you don't like working with outsiders,” he said, spreading his hands, “but if you’re willing to invite the likes of Buccio Di Marco, Barmecide Coombs, and Bloody Angus into your home and not lock them up, you must be pretty desperate.”
“I can help,” said Lyfantod. “I’ve got information pertinent to this case.”
“What case,” said Small flatly.
“Oh come on, Small! You can’t pretend that I didn't just hear you make a deal with those men to let them torture and probably kill a Barrows School Professor in order to keep them from killing each other and probably burning the city down in the process. I don't know why they would want to, though I can guess--but if you’re agreeing to it, I'm sure they have valid reason. If he’s responsible for the deaths this past week he probably even deserves it. I can help you find him. And it would go a lot easier if you would let go of the past and just let me. I’m not asking you to like me. I'm just asking for a little cooperation. We want the same thing: to stop whoever dug up Corstorphine Hill, and who's going around and turning people's grandparents into unwilling extras in a George Romero movie.”
O’Hoolihan, who had been watching this exchange in pained silence, clearly wanted to be just about anywhere else than here. The tip of his metal cap was slowly vanishing behind the top of his desk.
"Cor--" Small's eyes narrowed. "Farrow,” barked Small. “Which of my men has been giving information to this interloper?”
O’Hoolihan sat up ramrod straight, looking like he'd swallowed a lemon. “None, sir, ’s far as I know, sir. I don't know how he keeps gettin’ in. Bit like a roach that way. I keep tellin’ ‘im to leave but he keeps comin’ back.”
“Let me make myself perfectly clear,” Small said slowly. “This man does not belong here. He is not welcome in the Hall. And if you see him inside these walls again, you will not talk to him. You will get him out, one way or another. I authorize you to use force if necessary.” He turned to face Lyfantod. “Now go.”
“If you will just listen to me—”
“GO!” he roared. His face was red, and his hand went to the hilt of his sword with white knuckles.
Lyfantod took an involuntary step backward but did his best to maintain his composure. To hide his very real fear. Garrick Small was an imposing man, and he had not risen to the top of the Guild by accident. He had knowledge and experience that Lyfantod didn’t like to admit; but forced into a one on one confrontation, the P.I. thought his chances of coming out on top were about as good as catching a mermaid on a fishing trip.
“Alright. Alright,” he said, barely managing to keep his voice even. “I’ll go. But don’t blame me when more people end up dead because you were too stubborn to take help when it was offered.”
Small said nothing, but his expression said enough. O’Hoolihan looked like the porcupine on his stool was having babies, and the Strawmen behind Small were looking uncomfortably at their shoes.
The wooden door was heavy as Lyfantod backed through it into the hall outside, and he suspected this would be the last he would see of the Straw House for a very long time. Not that he hadn’t been banished before. “Don’t forget!” he couldn't help but call before he let it shut. “I offered!”
The door closed with a solid thunk. Lyfantod stood there for a few moments staring at the iron-bound slab, wondering if he could have handled the last few moments differently. He didn't really see how. Small was, after all, a pig-headed, hide-bound... stupid... shite. From far down the tunnel he heard the sound of quickly moving air, and before he knew what was happening, the torches around him had guttered out, one after another, leaving him blinking in the dark. “Well that’s just great,” he spat. Still grumbling, he extended his arms and started his blind zombie-shuffle in the direction of what he hoped was the exit.
It was just his luck that as he bumbled about in the dark, none of the other Strawmen came or went--inconsiderate of them since he really could have used the light--but eventually Lyfantod was able to work his way out of the tunnel, without even falling over or running into anything. When he finally did emerge, blinking, the lights of the city seemed extra bright. He checked his watch. A little after eight. Late for most people, but for a club owner it was just the start of business. He’d just have to hope that Eroteme opened on Mondays.
Seeing it through the window of his second cab that day, Lyfantod thought the club didn’t look much better now than it had in daylight, though the pink fluorescence of the glowing neon question mark above door did leave him a little more confident as to what the place was. There were no people lined up outside. There was no velvet rope, or red carpet. No floodlights to point the way. There were no windows, and nothing said "Nightclub" anywhere. It was just one more dingy door among many. Long-irrelevant political posters and pictures of missing pets were wheat-pasted to one dirty wall. A few men and women smoked outside and talked in small groups.
Lyfantod paid his driver and clambered once more out onto the sidewalk. Recalling his earlier troubles, he considered telling the man to wait, but he had no long he'd be, and he didn't fancy paying anyway. At least this time he knew where he was going. As he approached the door a large black man in a sheepskin Russian ear-hat and a black bomber jacket two sizes too small appeared out of nowhere. Despite being built like a refrigerator he looked supremely unhappy to be stuck out in the freezing winter weather. He placed himself between Lyfantod and the entrance. “C’n I help you?” he rumbled.
The man's demeanor was threatening but not aggressive. It said that he was perfectly willing to fight--he might even enjoy it--but in the end it would be work, and he was tired, and it was cold, so the sooner he could go back inside the better. Lyfantod had no interest in fighting. He had some height on the man--he had height on most people. But where Lyfantod was wiry and lean, this man was a bull. He had shoulders on his shoulders. Lyfantod was no milksop. He could handle himself in a fight, but this was one he’d rather not start. The bouncer looked like he ate smaller men for breakfast.
“My name’s Lyfantod,” he said. “I’m a Private Investigator, hoping to talk to the owner of this establishment.” He pretended to check his note pad, making a show of flipping through several pages before looking back up again. “A miss Cornelia Mus?”
“What d’ya wanna talk to her about?” His voice was like a semi-driving over a bridge. There were snowflakes on his eyelashes.
“It’s regarding an investigation. I’m afraid I can’t say any more unless it’s to miss Mus herself.”
“You got any identification?”
Lyfantod reached into an inner pocket and took out his investigator’s license, handing it to the man. He perused it for a moment, his gaze sliding once, slowly, back and forth between the card and Lyfantod's face. Finally, apparently satisfied, he handed it back.
“Jst’a moment.” He took a step away and put a finger to his ear, began talking to someone at the other end of the earpiece his hat was apparently covering. A minute or so later he turned back to Lyfantod. “You carryin’?”
Lyfantod opened his coat to reveal the .38 tucked into his leather shoulder holster.
“Gonna have to leave that here,” he said. “That the only one?”
Lyfantod removed the gun and handed it over, careful keep the barrel pointed at the ground. “That’s the only one,” he said.
The man narrowed his eyes at him. “Alright,” he said. “You can go in. But if you make any trouble you’ll have worse than me to deal with. Remember that.”
“Thanks for the advice,” said Lyfantod as the big man stepped aside and opened the door. They said you oughtn't judge a book by its cover. The same was apparently true for night clubs. Inside Eroteme, Lyfantod was greeted by soft jazz, played by a live band on a stage at one side of the room. There were brass, and strings, and a woman with short black hair singing songs made famous a hundred years ago. The place wasn’t packed, but it wasn’t empty either. People sat at polished wooden tables and sipped colorful drinks, laughing and talking quietly amongst themselves. The warm lights were dim, the walls upholstered in red velvet. A man in a neat waistcoat polished glasses with a clean rag behind the shining hardwood bar, performing the age-old ritual of the barkeep with classic style.
Before he’d taken more than a few steps inside, a girl in a skirt approached him, a notepad clutched in one nervous hand. “Mr. Lyfantod?” she squeaked.
“That’s right,” he said pleasantly.
“This way please.”
She turned and he followed, her skirts swaying as she walked. She led him to a table in the corner where there sat another woman. Lyfantod would have thought she was too young to be Cornelia Mus, who ought to have been in her forties by now. This woman didn't look a day over thirty, and a youthful thirty at that. She had silky-smooth skin the color of milk chocolate and pixie cut black hair. Her eyeshadow was deep indigo and her lips crimson. A little too much makeup for his tastes, Lyfantod thought, but she was beautiful. She wore a simple red dress with gold accents that hugged her figure seductively, and she was sipping a bright orange drink that smelled like rum and cinnamon from a martini glass.
“Cornelia Mus, I presume?” said Lyfantod.
“That’s right,” she said. Her accent told him she was a native, born and raised. “Sit down, Mr… Lyfantod, was it? That’s a name I haven't heard before.” She gestured elegantly for him to sit across the table from her.
“Thank you,” he said, sitting. “Yes. It’s Welsh. I’ll get straight to the point if that’s all right with you.
“By all means,” she said. “I approve of directness.”
Lyfantod reached into one of his numerous pockets and pulled out a thin white card, which he handed to Mus as he spoke. “As you may have already been told by your man outside, I’m a Private Detective.”
“P.T. Lyfantod Detective Agency,” she read aloud from his business card. “Finding that which can’t be found. And what have you come here to find, I wonder?”
"I'll get to that," he replied, "but first, do you mind if I ask you some questions?”
“By all means,” she said, “though I can’t imagine what you’d want to ask me about.”
“I was hired by a certain individual to find a missing ring,” he began. “Or, to be more precise, a stolen one.”
Mus held up two bejeweled hands for him to examine, making a pretense of surprise. Many of her slender fingers, tipped with pointed, blood-red nails that matched her dress, sported luxurious looking bands—most of them gold, with a variety of stones. “None of these, I hope,” she said, turning her hands about for him to examine.
Lyfantod looked out of duty, but of course there were no snarling wolves. He doubted whoever had stolen Vodorov’s ring would be foolish enough to wear it to a meeting with a detective. “No,” he said, “but thank you.” He paused when the waitress reappeared, carrying a shallow crystal glass on a round tray. She bent, set the glass on a coaster in front of him with professional grace and walked away. At the bottom rested a few centimeters of rich amber liquid.
“On the house,” said Mus smoothly. Lyfantod nodded in thanks. He lifted it to his lips and took a sip. “Lagavulin 16,” she said.
“It’s very good. Thank you,” he said, setting the glass down and putting his hands together on the table top. “It’s been a strange series of events that led me to you, Miss Mus. I won’t bore you with all the little details. Let me just say that one thing led to another, and I found myself thinking your brother might have a connection with the case. Your brother is Reginald Mus, is he not?”
A well-manicured eyebrow rose at the mention of her brother, and Mus tapped an acrylic fingertip thoughtfully on the table before answering. “When was this ring of yours stolen?”
“Sometime in the last two weeks, I believe.”
Well then. Reggie can’t be involved.”
“Oh? And why is that?”
“My brother has been dead for twenty years, Mr. Lyfantod. Unless you’re suggesting the ring was taken by his ghost?” she said, with a smirk.
“Not precisely,” Lyfantod replied, ambiguous. “Would you mind if I asked you how he died?”
Mus looked into Lyfantod’s eyes, and despite her youthful face and creamy skin, he thought those eyes seemed much older and much sadder than any forty years. They were eyes that had seen a great deal. Too much, perhaps. “Reggie got himself involved with some bad people,” she said. “Our mother died when we were very young. I was seven. Reggie was five. Never knew our father. When Mother died we were separated. I went to one orphanage and he another. It wasn’t an easy way to grow up, and I suppose that contributed to Reggie’s death in the end.”
“You haven’t seen your father since you were a child then?”
“No. I don’t remember him at all.”
“It’s just that there’s no record of either of you after you turn twelve, respectively. I’d thought perhaps he’d come and taken you somewhere.”
If this news meant anything to her, she didn't show it. “I can’t imagine the reason for that,” she said. “But you know that records aren’t perfect.” She took a sip of her martini.
“That’s very true,” he allowed. “Nothing happened during that time then? Nothing unusual?”
“Not unless you consider high school unusual. I’ve never left this city and neither has my brother. I was born here and I’ll probably die here, just like him. For better or worse. Sometimes I hate this place. It’s not what people think it is, Mr. Lyfantod. But it’s home.”
“I believe I understand what you mean,” he paused briefly to swirl the drink in his glass. “Your brother’s tombstone says that he died in 1993. On January 13th. Which I believe is also your birthday. That must have been painful.”
“I don’t much celebrate my birthday anymore,” she acknowledged. “You understand.”
“It was just last week,” said Lyfantod casually.
“I didn’t forget,” she said, her eyes far away. Then, she fixed Lyfantod with a gaze so sharp, so real and honest that he was taken completely off-guard. "My brother was a fool, detective, and it was his foolishness that got him killed."
Reggie stole something. It doesn't matter what. It matters from who. He fucked with the wrong people, Mr. Lyfantod. The wrong man. Sometimes you don't come back from that."
"I don't suppose this man was a... teacher of his?"
She tilted her head, the confusion on her face plain. "What? No. What would make you think that?"
"No, nothing," said Lyfantod, trying to hide his disappointment. "Do you--have you any idea who the man was?"
"I don't know his name," said Mus. "Only his reputation."
“I wasn’t around when it happened,” she said after a moment. What she didn't say—but what the detective could read as plain as day on her face—was that she would never forgive herself for it.
“I can see you regret that,” he said gently.
She pursed her lips very slightly and nodded at him; took the rest of her glass in one long swill before setting it down, empty.
“There was something I found," he said vaguely. "Something that was a little odd."
Her eyes sharpened. He had her full attention again. “And what was that?”
“Corstorphine Hill,” she repeated, her tone bland.
“The cemetery where your brother was buried. Don't you find it an unusual choice?"
"What do you mean?"
"Surely you noticed--all of the other graves belong to veterans of the First World War. Every single one. All but your brother.”
“I had no idea,” she said, and Lyfantod was inclined to believe her. “I was only nineteen when he died. A child. I suppose the site was chosen by the people who handled the burial. I couldn’t tell you why.”
“Can you tell me who that was?”
Something flashed behind her eyes, but her expression was neutral. “I couldn’t say.”
Lyfantod nodded and filed that away as something to look into. Whoever had buried Reginald Mus might be connected to the disappearance of Bones, if not the ring. And despite what she said, he thought Cornelia Mus knew who it was. “Have you been to visit his grave recently?”
“No,” she said shortly. “But--and forgive me for being blunt--what does my brother’s death, or his grave have to do with a stolen ring of all things?”
“I’m not sure yet," answered Lyfantod honestly. "But…” He trailed off into silence, probing her expression under the pretense of searching for words. Her reaction to this particular piece of news would be telling. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” he said at last, his countenance suitably grave. “Your brother’s body is missing.”
“Missing?” repeated Mus thunderously, rising suddenly from her seat. Her face was clouded, her manner tempestuous. Around the room, eyes turned towards them.
“I’m afraid so," said Lyfantod. "Someone dug up his grave, and the coffin is empty. I’ve seen it.”
“Why would someone take my brother’s body? What possible...?” She paced beside the table. A giant of a man in a black suit approached the two of them with the air of a protective older brother ready for violence, but as soon as Mus noticed him she banished him with an angry wave of her hand. He looked unhappy, but soon vanished back from wherever he'd come. Hushed conversations, obviously about them, spread through the club, but Mus was oblivious. If her anger was feigned she was an excellent actress.
“That’s the million dollar question,” said Lyfantod, uncomfortable with the raw emotion. “I believe if I knew the answer to that, I’d know who stole the ring.”
She turned grasped the table with both hands, leaning toward him intently. Her eyes were hot. Not desolate, as he’d expected, but intense. Almost eager, he might have said. “Who sent you here to speak with me, Mr. Lyfantod? Who is looking for the ring?”
He grimaced. “I’m afraid I can’t answer that. Client confidentiality. In fact, no one told me to come here. I'm simply following the clues, as I see them.”
"As you see them..." She straightened. Leaning back and crossing her arms. As quickly as it had gone, suddenly her composure returned. She regarded him coolly, an eyebrow quirked in silent appraisal. “No," she said at length. "No, of course you can't tell me.” She turned her head and shouted to one of the serving girls. “Ara! Bring me my purse.”
“My name is Cornelia, Mr. Lyfantod,” she said, flowing down into her seat like a thunderstorm sliding into a bottle. She clasped her hands in front of her and leaned across the table. “I’d like to hire you. To find out what happened to my brother’s body.”
“That isn’t necessary,” he said, leaning away from the heat of her gaze. “I’m already working the case.”
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking payment from you for work I’ve already been hired to do.” He said this though of course it wasn't the truth. Vodorov wasn’t paying him--because he’d refused to take the man's money. “I can promise you that I’ll do the best I can to—”
“Your client is looking for a missing ring. He doesn’t care about one whit about my brother. He has no reason to. As it stands, Reggie is incidental to your case at best.” The serving girl arrived with the purse and handed it to Mus wordlessly before scurrying off again into the dark.
“Please, Mr. Lyfantod.” Mus extracted her wallet and counted out five hundred-pound notes and set them on the table in a loose pile. “I failed Reggie while he was alive. Let me do this for him now.” She slid the notes toward him, leaning across the table as she did. He could smell the alcohol on her breath, and something else as well. Something hot and sweet. “I insist.”
Lyfantod sighed and nodded. Only when his hand came up to take the bills did Mus release them. He leaned back in her seat, eyes glistening. Truth be told he could use the money. But what was he going to tell her if, as he suspected, Cornelia Mus’s little brother had risen from the grave and become a monster? A mindless slave bent to the will of some evil man? He tried not to think about that now.
“I’ll do what I can, Cornelia,” he said at last, entirely sincere, looking uneasily into those deep, brown eyes that seemed, especially now, so much older than they ought to. Of a sister who had lost her brother--who blamed herself because there was nothing she'd been able to do about it. And whose poorly healed wounds, after all these years of forgetting, he had just gone and torn open afresh. “I’ll do what I can.”