THE BARD WHO COULD NOT SING
Dum Dum Da da dum... Da Dum dum...
Sheets of white tumbled down between wet stone walls, and milky blankets muffled oily black boots on a less traveled street as P.T. Lyfantod held his coat tight around him and hummed a ward against the cold. He was a Welshman, and ill suited to Scottish winter. The cold made his back tight, and the tips of his fingers burn, and as he walked back to his apartment and office his mind drifted to the warm amber bottle in his desk drawer.
Other than the occasional passerby, wrapped tightly against the winter wind, the cobblestone streets were empty where he walked. It was late enough and cold enough that anyone with sense was snug indoors. The snow obscured everything, and Lyfantod could see no more than fifteen feet in any direction. The only sounds he heard were the soft pat, pat, pat, of his footfalls and the frail music of his own voice. The few people he saw came and went within the span of a few feet.
The day was reaching its end, and it left the sour taste of routine in his mouth. In the morning, he’d received a frantic phone call from Madam Humphrey—as he so often did. Peter was missing, and she feared the worst. Madam Humphrey always feared the worst when it came to Peter. Peter was a big black tomcat with claws like knives, and was the old clothier’s only family. The only family she acknowledged, anyway. She had once admitted to having a son, but they weren’t on speaking terms. Lyfantod never learned the particulars.
Peter was a free spirit, like all cats, and his mistress was prone to worry. He'd found the little beast in the belfry of a church, holding congress with three barn owls. One of his usual haunts. Hiding from the sun perhaps, or performing some inscrutable ferine ritual. Four heads turned, as Lyfantod let himself quietly in. Four sets of luminous round eyes—three gold, one green, blinked at him as he set down the customary can of tomato sardines. Pete had come along without a fuss, as he always did. The detective knew he’d never have been able to take him against his will, so he was grateful. The job didn’t pay much, but when Lyfantod showed up with Peter in tow—the rascal pretending that coming home had been his idea all along—Madam Humphrey was over the moon, and Lyfantod liked the old woman, even if she was eccentric. And he had a sneaking suspicion that she was a witch.
Craig Sturgis, now, was a different matter entirely. Old Craig, a surprisingly spry fat man in his sixties, with wire-frame bifocals and a shiny head ringed with a thin grey fringe, had come into Lyfantod’s life a month before. He’d hired the P.I. to follow his wife, who he suspected of cheating on him with his business partner. She had been, and when Lyfantod interrupted their elicit activities by knocking over a potted plant while attempting to skulk, she’d offered him a few choice shots to share with Craig. To say that Lyfantod was mortified would've been an understatement. He detested such cases. He had no particular qualms with lewdness, but in the detective business it was hard to get much duller than a cheating spouse. Dullness was something that P.T. Lyfantod could not abide.
To add insult to injury, when he’d brought Sturgis the envelope full to bursting with eleven-by-fourteen glossies of irrefutable proof, the man had flatly refused to pay, on the grounds that this was not the result he'd been hoping for. They’d got into a public shouting match, which ended with Craig pushing Lyfantod over backwards and running away.
Now, twelve days later, Lyfantod had put so much time and effort into trying to track down the old bastard and collect his fee that he’d nearly exhausted all of his meager reserves. Only his dogged stubbornness kept him from giving up and taking a new case. “I’ll be damned if I let him get off without paying,” had become his fiercely muttered motto, and he consoled himself with fantasies of shaking Sturgis upside down by his ankles and watching coins fall out.
Unfortunately, the fantasies wouldn’t pay the rent. His bank account was long empty except for that untouchable few quid that held the penalties at bay, and his pocketbook was growing anorexically thin. The search for Sturgis had gone on so long that it was causing Lyfantod to start doubting his abilities as a detective. The man's flat was conspicuously empty, all phone calls went straight to voicemail, and the estranged Mrs. Sturgis hadn’t heard from him in weeks. She’d assured Lyfantod that she’d have happily sold him out if she knew where he was hiding, if only for the sheer spiteful pleasure. He believed her.
And so it was that Lyfantod found himself walking home in the dark one night from another long and fruitless hunt, Old Man Winter doing his best to barrel him into a quivering little ball of cold—home and comfort just within his grasp—when he heard a sound in the distance. Lyfantod stopped humming. Frost seeped deeper into his bones, and he slid into a shadowed corner as his gloved hands wrapped around the reassuring weight of his truncheon and his .38 Colt Detective Special. It was the second time this week.
His heartbeat sped, and he could feel a smile creeping onto his face even as his nerves threatened to betray him. He measured his breathing, kept his grip loose but firm, and waited.
A moment passed. Then two. Enough to make him wonder if he was getting paranoid. And then an eerie sound reached his ears carried on the wind. Laughter. As cold as the wind that bore it. Not a guffaw, nor a snicker, but the high, staccato cackle of the insane. It was coming closer, and Lyfantod heard his name.
Lyfanto—d... ...... ...
.. ...Lyfantod! Aahhahahahahaaa!
Pat. Pat. Pat.
Lyfantod licked his lips. Now or never. The words were clear in his mind, the memory as sharp as it had been twenty years ago. The tune was an old one, lively and pure. If he could only get it out.
He opened his mouth and took a shallow breath. The melody danced in his head. His truncheon ticked up and down, up and down, keeping time. "Miiine—" he breathed. And stopped. He swallowed. Shook himself. "Miii—ne—" His voice cracked, and Lyfantod closed his eyes. His smile was nowhere to be seen.
Feet crunched quietly in the snow. There was no more time. Lyfantod bent his knees, squared his shoulders, leaned forward in his crack. A figure passed his hidey-hole. White on white. Lyfantod flew forward, arms wide, his coat billowing behind him like a cloak, and roared a challenge that held all his fear and all of his excitement. His disappointment and his shame.
The figure turned, too late, eyes wide. Too wide. Lyfantod's thick baton, old yew weighted with cold iron, connected with a heavy crunch. A body clattered gracelessly to the ground: a pile of bones long bereft of flesh. A cream colored skull rolled through the white powder, and laughed.
Lyfantod strode over, aimed his gun. Two pinpoints of faerie fire focused on him from dark holes. The broken mandible creaked up and down grotesquely. "Pu-"
Lyfantod pulled the trigger, and the boney shell housing who knew what kind of evil spirit exploded in a shower of white shrapnel and left his ears ringing. Lyfantod looked around for more, but he was alone.
He knelt and extracted a bleached white femur, dusted off the snow and dirt, and put it in his pocket. He put the rest in a dumpster, slid some half-frozen garbage to cover it, and headed for home. Silent.
The rest of his trip was frustratingly uneventful, offering up no clues as to the source of the attacks. The lights were off in Mr. Greyburne's place downstairs, and a CLOSED sign hung on the door. At the side of the building, Lyfantod trumped up the old wooden staircase and through a darkened hallway with a permanently broken light to his own door, lit dimly from behind by the wintry light from the street coming through his window. It was a proper door, of polished dark wood, flemish glass, brass fixtures, and hand-painted across the pane in precise gold characters:
Lyfantod's key slid smoothly into the well-made lock, and the door swung open on oiled hinges. He shut the door behind him, pushed the lock home, hung up his coat, shrugged off his boots to reveal mismatched socks—one red, one gold—and sat down at his heavy wooden desk. He placed the bone, his gun, and his baton before him, atop the scatter of papers. Reaching into the bottom drawer he withdrew a half-empty bottle, a small glass, and another femur, a little smaller than the first. He set the second bone on the desk next to its counterpart and poured himself two fingers. But he found his desire much diminished. What he wanted was to think.
He put his stockinged feet up and tried to get the rusty gears of his tired brain to turn. Beset by specters in the snow. Who sent them? What do they want? He looked with wonder around the room, at the scattering of dubious artifacts he’d managed to get his hands on over the years. Something here? He was more than a little skeptical, but the thought did have its appeal.
His fear had long faded to an occasional adrenaline tingle, his heartbeat slowed to its usual pace, and against his better judgment excitement was starting to get ahold of him. “You’re a damned fool,” he told himself, shaking his head with a self-indulgent smirk. Probably going to get yourself killed. And for what?
For the only thing that mattered of course.
He considered the glass, rolled the golden liquid around the sides and watched the waves. He took a sip, and exhaled a sigh. He stared off into space, his mind’s eye skipping from one fantastic possibility to the next; crooked Craig Sturgis a distant memory. A problem for another time. And the song? His smile faltered, but only for an instant. It did no one any good to dwell on that.
Lyfantod didn’t know what sort of trouble he was getting himself into, but he liked the timbre. Given the choice between a mysterious death and an unremarkable life, he’d choose the road less traveled. Before long he fell asleep, a fool's grin turning up the corners of his mouth. The old bones sat silent and unmoving upon the desk before him, glowing ivory in the moonlight.