“So let’s recap,” said Calder, inhaling deeply from a crooked cigarette he’d produced from the bottom of some linty pocket. “This Vodorov bloke hired you to find his magic ring, because he’s being held prisoner by some mobsters and he can’t go out and do it himself. And he sent a...”
“A ghoul,” Lyfantod supplied, studying his god awful hand.
“A ghoul,” repeated Calder, “to do it.” He wiggled his fingers mystically without looking up. “Nobody knows what’s going on, and the few people who may know something refuse to work with you. It may or may not have something to do with a missing Barrows School Professor--” he said with extreme derision, in spite of the fact that he had just called on a bloody Witchdoctor of all people to save Lyfantod’s life, “--who you suppose is going around digging people up and turning them into zombies. And in the course of looking for this bloke, a task for which I cannot help but observe you are not being paid, despite your desperate financial—”
“Because of your morals,” he agreed, the words rife with condescension. “And in the course of said investigation, which involves finding and somehow subduing singlehandedly someone who can not only return life to but command the dead—”
“Technically they’re un-dead, once they're not dead anymore. And whether he can control them is up for some debate at this point.”
“You got attacked by a teenage zombie who tried to give you extra breathing holes. Which is why I find you lying on the floor in pools of blood, and why you now find yourself indebted to a very likely crazy—”
“You called him. Not me.”
“—who I have no doubt will kill you without reservation if you don’t get him a wriggling zombie heart to do who knows what disgusting things with.”
“Or six thousand pounds sterling.”
“I can tell you which of those two things is more likely to happen. So my one question, since I’m not even going to touch how ridiculous it was for you to take this case in the first place, is why, on God’s green Earth did ghoul-boy choose you, Puw? I mean really. Of all people. Other than the fact that apparently you work for free now.”
Lyfantod scowled and tilted his head in an attempt to stretch his stiff, bandage-covered neck. “I assumed it was because of my keen eye and investigative sense. And my reputation as a brilliant detective with the skills to get the job done. My pluck. My nerve. Even in the face of the unspeakable horrors. Things like that.”
“I reckon it’s because you're fringe,” said Calder, laying his cards on the table—literally.
“Yeah. You know. Liminal.” He sipped his whisky, waiting for Lyfantod to play his hand.
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Think of it like this. This bloke, Vodorov? He’s looking for a magic ring. Which, assuming everything you told me is true, is a powerful magical artifact. If it fell into the wrong hands, it would be pretty bad, seems like.”
Lyfantod started to say that it had fallen into the wrong hands, but Calder held up a finger to silence him. “Let me finish. So he wants to get his ring back, but he can’t do it for himself. He needs help. But who to go to? On the one hand, you’ve got… what, normal people? People who, if you mentioned a magic ring, would either assume that you were having a laugh that you'd eaten something funny. The cops, for example. Our guy doesn't have to worry about you going to them—” He glanced toward Lyfantod’s bedroom from where they sat at the formica kitchen table, in which could be seen a sampling of Lyfantod’s reading. “Because you’ve gathered enough nerdy paraphernalia that if you did flap your lips, they’d just think you were another looney fanboy. With a P.I. license.
“And on the other hand, you’ve got the people who might believe you. People like the Guild—who, despite your thorough knowledge of Tolkien, for some reason refuse to work with you, and seem to generally think you’re a joke.” He put his hands up to ward off Lyfantod’s dark expression. “Not my opinion, just an assessment. You’re isolated. Which makes you a perfect tool, because once he’s finished with you, he can toss you aside and not have to worry about anyone but you.” He took another drag from his cigarette, blowing smoke out the side of his mouth where it swirled in a milky white cloud.
Lyfantod sat silently for a moment, his face a little red. “I’m not fringe,” he muttered, though his friend’s analysis had hit a little close to home. Was it a crime to have read The Silmarillion? You never knew where golden nuggets of real knowledge might be hidden. Look at The Oracle, for God's sake. He glanced down for the first time at the hand that Calder had played, and tossed his cards on the table face down. “I fold.”
“You can pay me later. I know you’re good for it.”
Lyfantod downed his whisky and set the empty glass on the table with a soft clack. “Thanks. Don't know why I play with you. I never win.” He tapped his nails on the table, glanced at the clock. “Christ, it’s almost four already.” He paused. “Christ. It’s only four and I’m already drinking. You’re a horrible influence. I have got to get to work. Fringe or not.”
Calder shrugged, smiling with his eyes. “You probably enjoy the punishment. Masochist perhaps?” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Anyway,” he said, “these Guild fellows have cut you out of the loop. You can’t get into that Professor’s office…”
“If there’s anything to be found there anyway.”
“Seems like you don’t have many solid leads, mate. Sure you don’t want to throw in the towel, cut your losses? You don’t owe this fellow anything, P.T.”
Lyfantod leaned back in his chair and fiddled with the spent cards before him, tracing filigree with a fingertip. “I’m not doing it for him. It’s not safe out there, and I’m one of the few people in a position to do something about it. Besides, if I want people to take me seriously, I’ve got to do things that matter, right? I ought to try to convince Flint to go behind Small’s back…” he said. “But I doubt he’d risk that. Not for me. I don’t think he likes me very much.”
“What’s not to like?” said Calder helpfully.
“There’s Cornelia Mus,” Lyfantod mused aloud. “I’m certain that was her dead brother, Reggie, trying to kill me. The one from the grave. He told me to stay away from her. Does that mean she’s involved? Or does our new Necromancer have less control than I was led to believe? Resurrecting people and letting them run around on their own?
"Either way, I didn't expect him to be so… aware. It was spooky. Unsettling even. I could watch her… see if that leads anywhere. But if she was involved, would she really have hired me to look for his body?”
Calder stamped out his cigarette in the dirty orange ashtray next to him, adding a whole new series of crooks to the sorry little butt. “Perhaps she did that because she wants you to believe she’s innocent.”
“Maybe.” Lyfantod stared past Calder at the frosted kitchen window. “But my gut tells me she’s straight. What would her angle be? No… I’ve got to find Aminus Bones. And I guess I’ve got to do it without getting into his office.” This last in a decidedly melancholy tone.
“He does seem the most likely suspect,” agreed Calder. “You’d think a murderous necrophiliac would be easier to find.”
“Necromancer,” said Lyfantod.
Lyfantod sighed again and stared at the window. He couldn’t see anything because it was covered with rime. Seemed a good metaphor for how he was feeling about this case. “Say,” he said suddenly. “What time did you get here?”
“What time? Around nine maybe. I was hoping we could have a romantic breakfast together. Why?”
“The Oracle. It comes early in the morning. You’d think the delivery guy would’ve seen me lying on my floor in a pool of blood and called someone.”
“Lot’s of people see something like that and pretend they didn’t,” Calder said cynically. “But the door was closed when I got here. Wind maybe?”
“You didn’t find a paper outside?”
“Only this,” he disappeared from the room to return carrying a copy of The Scotsman. “Lots of crap if you ask me," he said, tossing it toward Lyfantod.
Lyfantod caught it. He unfolded it and skimmed over the front page. Nothing out of the ordinary. Though he did note that there were quite a few new missing persons. More than usual.
“They never miss a day,” Lyfantod murmured to himself. He folded up The Scotsman and tapped the table with the end. “It’s one of the reasons so much they publish is garbage. There’s just not enough material, even when they’re making things up.”
“You ought to know,” said Calder smiling.
“I’m going to ring their office.”
“I want to know why there’s no paper. Could be important. Haven’t you noticed? The city’s on edge.” Lyfantod rose and Calder followed him back out into the office, where Lyfantod plopped down at his desk.
Calder snorted and began flipping through an older edition of The Oracle he found lying on a side table next to the couch where Lyfantod had spent most of the morning. Lyfantod dug through his desk for a little notebook he kept various phone numbers written down in. The number he was looking for was on the second page, stained and faded with the years since he’d written it.
“You really have got to get a new phone,” said Calder as Lyfantod spun the rotary dial with his middle finger. “Points for style though. I can’t believe you read this garbage. ‘Winter Harvest Festival?’ Really?”
Lyfantod frowned and held up a finger for quiet. When he’d finished dialing, he held the handset to his ear, pointedly ignoring his unfortunate choice of friends. The phone rang and Calder turned pages. And it rang. And rang. And rang some more. Calder raised an eyebrow as Lyfantod paced a two-meter line, tethered to his desk by the spiraling black cord. He let the phone ring ten, fifteen, twenty times. It never went to voicemail and nobody picked up. He pressed down the plunger with a click and dialed again. He got the same result.
Brow furrowed, he flipped back to the second page of his notebook, the phone cradled between his shoulder and his head, and dialed a different number. The phone began once more to ring.
“Who are you calling?”
“Marcher,” said Lyfantod. “He’s the editor.”
Lyfantod pursed his lips. Twenty or thirty seconds later, he hung up the phone and leaned, arms crossed, against his desk and stared into the distance, mouth set in a mulling sort of shape. “Something’s happened,” he said.
“Because your friend didn’t answer the phone?”
“Let me tell you something about Marcher. He’s a podgy, middle-aged ass with no friends, and no interests besides the paper. He started working there in high school. He doesn't like people, and they don't like him--which he does like--and he doesn't go anywhere besides his apartment, the corner store, where he buys microwave-ready dinners and Irn-Bru—the only thing he’ll drink—and the offices of The Oracle. And despite hating people, he always answers the phone because he’s terrified of missing a story. No Oracle and no Marcher? Something happened.”
“You know the most interesting people,” said Calder.
“Like you, for example?”
He shrugged. “So what’re you gonna do?”
Lyfantod sucked on his teeth. “It’s probably completely unrelated,” he muttered. "I mean what are the odds? And there’s always the chance he’s in the loo after a bad rehydrated curry… But what if it’s not? You said yourself, I don’t have many leads.”
“Master of observation,” said Calder magnanimously, gesturing at himself.
“I’m gonna pay a visit to the office,” said Lyfantod, deciding as he spoke. “You’re welcome to tag along if you want.”
“‘Ppreciate that,” said Calder over a small belch. “But unlike you, I've not had my mid-afternoon nap. Booze can only sustain me for so long.”
“Right. Sorry about that. Go home and get some rest. I never did thank you for coming to my rescue. I owe you one.”
“More like seven. But who’s counting? Anyway, don’t sweat it, you’re just lucky I was in the mood for a bagel,” he said with increasing volume as he disappeared into the kitchen. He reappeared with his bottle, now about three-quarters empty. “Gonna take this,” he said.
“It is yours.”
“And don’t you forget it,” he said with mock seriousness as he made for the door. He stopped at the threshold, looked at Lyfantod with an uncharacteristically grave expression, his hand on the knob. “Don’t get yourself killed, hey?”
“I won’t,” Lyfantod promised.
“You’d better not,” said Calder. “If you do, I’ll have to start drinking these entirely by myself, and then I’ll be an alcoholic.”
It was Lyfantod’s turn to snort. “Think of your poor liver.”
Calder gestured at himself with the hand holding the bottle. “Do,” he said. “Jaundice doesn't go with my pale complexion. Or is that the kidneys? Be safe, mate.”
Lyfantod, listening to the sounds of his footsteps retreating down the stairs, was filled with a sudden and inexplicable sense of disquiet. The feeling lasted as long as it took him to lace up his boots, shrug on his jacket, locate his gun and baton, and toss down a very quick cup of coffee to clear the whisky-flavored cobwebs from his mind.
He considered taking the sword for the space of about six seconds before deciding against it. He’d probably end up just hurting himself. Not to mention looking like an ass. And violating section blah-blah of article whatever it was of the City Council Code of Conduct, which had been quoted at him God knew how many times: Only the Guild and licensed professionals are permitted to carry conspicuously anachronistic weapons.
Lyfantod was neither.
Determined, focused, and not the slightest bit woozy, he locked the door behind him and went to find out what the devil had happened to Marcher. The man was a miserable bastard, but he was reliable—as a source of information as well as a pain in Lyfantod’s backside.
Lyfantod whispered a silent prayer that he hadn’t been eaten.