AN UNWELCOME CALLER
The entrance to the Guild Hall was, as such things often were, hidden in plain sight. A few blocks from the top of Victoria Street, there was a narrow alleyway lined with cobblestones which passed between two tall, grey buildings. Turn down it, and after a few twists and turns, you'd find yourself at the mouth of a tunnel of sorts—a moist, shadowy, dripping place where one building hung over the street to rest against another. The tunnel wasn't long; twenty meters at most. But it was dark, without a single source of light save whatever stray illumination happened to find its way in at either end. There was an unpleasant aura about it. A nameless unease that made you look nervously over your shoulder and hurry on your way, even when the sun was high in the sky. On the far side was a descending stair. Go down that stair and you’d have gone too far.
In the very middle of the passage, hidden by clever architecture and the lack of light from the casual observer, was the entrance to a second winding path, leading first and foremost into more darkness. That is, of course, unless one knew the password.
Flashlights would not work there, nor would fires stay lit. The place was beset with chilly gusts of wind that beat out the most persistent spark. However, should you but speak the right words, torches would alight along the walls: roaring pillars of smokey yellow flame. Lyfantod, unfortunately, did not know the password, and so he was forced to feel his way along by touch. It was a fact which he resented, but not enough to keep him out. And so, groping along with his fingers Lyfantod came, after a dizzying series of misleading twists and turns, in perfect, stygian darkness, to a place where the tunnel opened out into a larger room, a space which he felt rather than saw. He recognized it by the fact that the walls suddenly dropped away on both sides. And he knew that directly opposite the hall from which he came lay a heavy wooden door which was never left unlocked.
Shuffling forward in the darkness, hands outstretched and worrying he would trip, Lyfantod approached the door and prepared to knock. He was taken aback and nearly fell as the door clattered open and the indistinct shape of what could only have been a Guildsman rushed past him. “Pardon!” said the man as he flew by, the torches flaring up to light his way. Lyfantod hurried to catch the door and squinted as his dark-accustomed eyes were assaulted by the glare from within.
The antechamber was mostly quiet, but he could hear the muted hum of many voices raised in agitation from across the room, behind two enormous wooden doors that lay at the top of a short wooden stair. The doors were flanked by two great, fleshy orange Jack O’ Lanterns the size of baby elephants, with flickering eyes and wicked smiles. They appeared to be growing out of the massive plinths upon which they rested, and it was hard to discern where the real vines ended and the stone ones began.
Between Lyfantod and the stair and off to one side stood a desk which might have better been called a tower. Over two meters high, built of big blocks of rough grey stone, and topped with polished wood, it was surmounted by the head of an ornery, wrinkled old man in a dented metal cap. O’Hoolihan.
As Lyfantod watched, the doors at the end of the end of the hall opened with a bang and two Guildsmen rushed out. The noise from within briefly multiplied into the kind of dull roar that happens when a lot of upset people are trying to speak at the same time—before the doors swung shut again with a bang. Lyfantod glimpsed swords swinging beneath the coats the pair wore as they passed. They don’t even slow as O’Hoolihan cried “Names!” from the top of his tower.
“Bibbs,” called one. “Lark-Fitzsimmons,” said the other, and the desk-sergeant scribbled furiously.
“Where!” he cried.
“Bonnington. Brownies hit a jeweler’s!” replied Bibbs. They soon reached the end of the room and Lyfantod was forced to step aside and let them pass or be bulled over. The door slammed shut behind them.
As he approached O’Hoolihan’s desk, Lyfantod wondered how many Straw Men would have to pretend to be LARPing before the day was out. The desk sergeant scowled down at Lyfantod after he finished scratching at his ledger with a quill pen. Doing his best to project an air of nonchalance, he leaned casually against O’Hoolihan’s post, ignoring the curling lip that this engendered, and asked, “Busy today?”
“You have a death wish, don’t you lad?”
“Heard you fellows were running shorthanded. Something about sick days? Don’t tell me this gig doesn’t come with a health plan.”
“What do you want, Lyfantod? You know you aren’t welcome here. Not anymore.”
“Perhaps I missed the pleasure of your delightful conversation, Farrow.”
The old man snorted. “Not likely.”
“I understand you fellows are working a missing persons. Barrows School Professor. Name of Bones.”
“I was hoping to bend the ear of the detective in charge.”
“I have a personal interest in the case.”
“You got information to share?”
“Not as such, but—”
“Then I can’t help you.”
“Look, all I’m asking is—”
“You know how upper management feels about you, Lyfantod. I believe ‘poser,’ and ‘thrill-seeking bloody leaf-peeper’ were some of the terms I heard used. As well as ‘liability,’’ exposure-risk, and ‘unwelcome.’ Now, he hasn’t gone so far as ‘kill on sight,’ but you are damn well sure pushing your luck by showing up here. Especially today.”
“I’m a better detective than half the boys you’ve got running around and you know it. Or have you forgotten the time I—”
“Even,” O’Hoolihan interrupted loudly, “if I wanted to help, which I don’t, mind you—and even if you weren’t persona non grata around here—which you are, both detectives working the case are out. Working the case. And I’m just bound to get an earful if I’m even seen talking to you. So scram.”
“Can you at least tell me who’s working it?”
“That’s classified, I’m afraid.”
“Classified? Since when?”
“Since I said so.” At this moment, a another pair of young and overworked-looking Guildsmen came scurrying out of the interior doors with a clatter, giving Lyfantod a brief glimpse into the chaos within. One of them, a tall man with a stony face and long, brown hair was sporting a black eye, which didn’t stop him from quirking an eyebrow at the P.I. as he passed. “Names?” shouted O’Hoolihan again, more at them than to them, holding up his quivering quill pen threateningly.
“You know our bloody names, Farrow,” said the injured one, “just once would you—”
“Names!” bellowed O’Hoolihan angrily, louder than before.
The second Guildsman, short, stocky, and bald, sighed and said, “Gow and Philips.”
“Newhaven,” replied Gow as they hurried by. “Shades and Mountain Men’re getting into it again.” They were out the door before O’Hoolihan finished scribbling in his log.
“The Nightshade Gang is having it out with the Mountain Men?” said Lyfantod, his curiosity piqued.
“Nothing unusual about that,” growled O’Hoolihan. “They’re always riled up about something. At any rate, as you can plainly see, I don’t have time to shoot the breeze with you, much as you do brighten the mood around here. If there’s nothing else.”
“There is something, actually. There was another fellow, Proote was his name. They found his body. They’re saying he was killed by a zombie.”
“Don’t know anything about any Prootes or any zombies,” muttered O’Hoolihan, not meeting his eyes.
“You must have heard something. It is your job, after all.”
“I’ll thank you not to try’n tell me what my job is, Detective,” the old man spat from between tightly pursed lips. “All I can tell you is they brought a fellow in early in the morning and he warn’t breathin’. He was missing a few important bits, if you follow me, and he looked like he’d been chewed on some—and not by no animal neither. I didn’t catch his name as he didn’t properly introduce himself on the way in. What with being dead and all. Now get lost, before someone sees you who shouldn’t.”
“I appreciate that,” said Lyfantod. “Listen. Whenever your mystery detectives get back, tell them I might be able to help with their case. If you’re as busy as you look around here, they’ll appreciate my help, unwelcome or not. You know where to find me.”
O’Hoolihan just grunted.
After striking out from the Guild, Lyfantod decided it was time to talk to an old friend--the friend bit being a matter of some debate. From one of his inner pockets he retrieved a worn old map of the city which, despite having been printed on a Gutenberg press, was still relatively accurate. Faded, wrinkled, and stained, it was covered in a countless and ever-increasing number of indecipherable marks whose meanings only Lyfantod knew. Some represented the locations of known or suspected witches and wizards. Others the shops that catered to them. The Adder's Fork Apothecary was denoted by a little snake-like S. Lurkinn and Hayes' cloak shop by a minuscule LH. The headquarters and territories of numerous gangs were there as well; outlines of the possible turfs of ghosts and supernaturals, and other places it was unwise to find oneself at midnight. Much of it was conjecture, and some of it was out of date, but that map was one of Lyfantod’s most prized possessions. The Guild Hall was denoted by a tiny pumpkin. And marked upon it with little diamonds in black pen, were a number of old phone boxes.
The nearest of such was down a small side street in Haymarket. It appeared to have been built around the time phones were being invented. Possibly before. There were more than a few of the archaic structures scattered throughout the city, facilitating communication between people and places who tended to make modern technology do funny things. If you had asked a member of the City Planning Committee why they hadn’t been torn down and replaced decades ago, they would have given you a funny look, told you that was a very good question, made a mental note to look into the matter, and as soon as you walked away promptly forgotten that the conversation had happened at all.
The air outside was sharp with winter's chill, but the inside of the snug glass booth was inexplicably warm and stuffy, the windows thick with fog. Equally inexplicable was the fact that the local homeless, a not-insignificant portion of the city's population, never seemed to notice this font of warmth or take up residence during the frigid months of the year. Stepping inside and rubbing some of the sensation back into his fingers, Lyfantod began fishing around in his pockets for an old silver groat which he kept expressly for this purpose. Finding it, he dropped it into the ancient coin slot with an audible clink, put the chipped black handset to his ear, and dialed a number he had memorized a long, long time ago. The dial, like those of all the phones in Lyfantod’s peculiar life, was still rotary.
The phone rang a few times, until there was a soft click and the erudite voice of an older woman of class said, “Thank you for calling Barrows School.”
“Evening, Moira,” said Lyfantod charmingly.
The voice at the other end of the line, professionally friendly before, dropped to subzero temperatures.
“I’ll thank you to refer to me as Mrs. McMorran. Mr. Lyfantod. To what do I owe the…” she paused, searching for the most suitable word and, no doubt spoiled for choice, giving up, finished, “…pleasure?”
“All business today, I’m afraid,” said Lyfantod. “I’m working a case.”
“A case?” she asked, her voice thick with dislike. “And what case would that be?”
“The disappearance of Professor Aminus Bones, of course.”
“You? I was not informed of anyone hiring the services of a private detective.”
“An oversight, I'm sure,” Lyfantod said. “I’ll be needing to take a look at his office.”
“Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but I was under the impression that Professor Bones’s disappearance was being handled by the Guild?” She said Guild, but what she really meant was the qualified professionals.
“I’m consulting,” replied Lyfantod smoothly.
“Are you?” she said flatly.
“You know the Guild. Their strengths lie more within the realm of lighting things on fire and stomping on them. That’s why they asked me to get involved. Decided they needed someone with real investigative ability for a change. I’ll be in and out before you can say ‘Loch Ness Monster.’” This last an attempt at humor on his part. Nessy was something of a national embarrassment for those who practiced magic in Scotland.
There was only icy silence on the other end of the line. “I don’t think so.”
“I said I don’t think so. If you truly are involved with the case, I will need official—” she paused, “make that written confirmation from Guild representatives. We cannot have persons of uncertain province simply wandering about the premises. Who knows what they might get up to.”
“Aren’t you the least bit interested in finding out where your missing professor has gone?”
“Of course I am,” she snapped, indignant. “What happened to Professor Bones is a travesty. A tragedy. Even if he is a Humorist.” She pronounced the word with a distaste slightly greater than that with which she appeared to regard the world in general--which is to say, a great deal less than that with which she regarded Lyfantod. “But I must think of the students.”
“I’ll submit to an escort. Everywhere I go,” offered Lyfantod.
“I’m afraid there’s no one we can spare. We’re understaffed at the moment as it is. You have my terms Mr. Lyfantod. Get me written proof from the Guild that you are, in fact involved with this case, and—though it goes against all of my instincts—I’ll allow you a brief inspection of Professor Bones’s office. Only his office, mind you. If you can’t provide that, I simply cannot help you.”
Doing his best to keep the disappointment out of his voice, Lyfantod replied, “Alright, Moira. I’ll see what I can do. I’ll be in touch.”
“I’m sure that you will,” she said sourly, and hung up.
There was a tinkling sound and and Lyfantod’s coin tumbled down into the coin slot. Frowning, he picked it up and returned it to his pocket. He had been trying to get into Barrows School for years now, and this case, which was obviously connected to him somehow, presented a real chance. If only he’d been hired to work it.
Barrows School. He knew next to nothing about the school besides its name. But that name carried a lot of weight within a certain crowd. When he’d first learned what it was, he knew he had to find it. It was what had drawn him to this city in the first place: the knowledge that somewhere nearby, hidden, perhaps, right under his nose, was a real, honest to goodness school of magic. Who knew what secrets it held? What mysteries?
But finding it had proven more difficult—far more—than he’d anticipated. After years of searching, in off hours and in what free time that he could find, he’d managed to acquire a phone number. A paltry bit of information that had cost him dearly. Only to find that on the other end of the line was a woman who really, really didn't like him. A one Mrs. Moira McMorran.
He had never seen her, but in his mind’s eye she looked like his primary school librarian: a stern, grey-haired old matron with bony elbows who had always terrified him. In the years since he’d begun his search, the sound of her ill-natured voice over the phone was the closest he’d gotten to Barrows School. He would wear her down eventually.
“Receptionists!” he muttered. “A pox on the lot of them!”
His plan to visit to the Hall of Records to see what he could find on Aminus Bones, unlikely though he knew it was that one of his kind would show up in any public documents—was made moot by the inconveniences of bureaucratic time. He had spent more of the morning than he'd anticipated, and indeed a fair portion of the afternoon, on his ongoing hunt for Craig Sturgis to no effect. Woe befall the man when Lyfantod actually got ahold of him. He was going to charge the old rotter for every damned billable hour spent looking for him, and introduce his forehead to the end of his truncheon if he refused.
He decided to drown his depression with a few rounds at Maggie’s, his second favorite place in the city. The pub, he often observed, drew those who knew that there was more to the world than met the eye, as well as though who simply wished it were--likely due to the ads it put out in publications like The Oracle, which was how Lyfantod had discovered the place. It was a rare space that occupied two worlds at once, and half of the crowd which frequented it had not the faintest idea.
The mood was tense, and it was crowded. Even for a Saturday night. The air hummed with the buzz of conversation. The nervous sort. People gathered around their tables, heads together, glasses clutched tightly in their hands as if they were afraid someone might come along at any moment to take them away. Others stood talking in small groups, and Lyfantod couldn’t help but feel that everyone seemed to know that something unusual was going on. Even those that shouldn't.
Slipping through the crowd on a trail of “excuse me’s” and “beg your pardon’s,” Lyfantod made his way over to the bar. The bartender, an aproned, bald-headed giant named Barlow Mugs nodded at Lyfantod as he sat.
“Lyfantod,” said Mugs, wiping a bit of sweat from his brow with the back of a hand, “just the man I was looking for!”
“What’s new Barlow?” said Lyfantod.
Mugs waved his hand vaguely at the room. “Everyone. They’re on edge. I'm sure you heard about the--" he made a funny face and a gesture that Lyfantod was fairly certain indicated walking corpses. "--Listen. I know you’ve probably been working all day, but would you mind…? Just for a bit. Do me this favor and your drinks are on the house.”
“I don’t mind,” said Lyfantod as Mugs, who never did less than three things at once, plunked a frothy stout down in front of him. Lyfantod nodded and raised the beer in thanks before taking a long draught. “Would you pour me something hot as well?” He held up his pale, bloodless hands. “Cold fingers.”
Minutes later, Lyfantod was settling down before the bar’s piano, which lay in one of the back corners of the room, a fresh mug of beer on the stool to his left and a steaming mug of mulled wine in his hands. A careful sip sent a tingling warmth running through him to settle in his belly and spread out from there. Lyfantod had a theory that there was more in Mugs's wine than spices, but the bartender was tightlipped on matter. Already the cold outside seemed like a distant memory. The man's last imploring request, however, was still plenty fresh in his mind. “And Lyfantod—I want to cheer people up, not drive them out into the blizzard—so please, nothing melancholy.”
“Nothing melancholy. Right.” Lyfantod put down the mug after another few sips feeling more or less sufficiently warmed, and lifted up the slightly dusty fallboard to reveal a long row of smooth, yellowed keys. He took them in for a silent moment before letting his fingers settle into the old familiar position. The ivories were cool beneath his fingertips, but they soon began to warm at his touch. Lyfantod let the hum of the bar fade from his consciousness. Nothing melancholy, he reminded himself firmly, and then, letting the years of muscle memory do their work, he began to play.
He started slow and soft—barely audible beneath the babble of uneasy voices. By the time people became aware that there was music playing at all, they would realize that they hadn’t the faintest idea when it started. He played light and slow at first, simple variations on an airy melody. Gradually he quickened the pace, pressed more firmly on the keys, and as the music washed out over the crowd, he could feel the mood begin to change. Could sense when the tension began to ease. Laughter could be heard for the first time since he'd arrived, smiles seen as the music did its work.
No one paid him any attention. There was no clapping of hands against tabletops. No dancing. Most of them hardly knew that he was there. But here and there, about the room, wrinkled foreheads smoothed, raised voices lowered, hushed voices rose, and somewhere, in the part of people’s hearts they’re least often aware of, they began to decide that perhaps things weren’t so bad after all.
Lyfantod emptied his glass, only to have it refilled with another, and another after that. He hardly noticed himself, when Barlow Mugs came and swiped out his empties for freshly poured draughts—he simply knew that when his hand reached for his glass, it always seemed to be full. Time drifted away from him, and before long the bar began to empty. It was only when Lyfantod glanced up at the shadow that had fallen over him that he realized that he was the only customer left. Mugs regarded him from across the top of the piano. “Drifted off there, did you?”
Lyfantod blinked. He was, it occurred to him, rather tipsy. “Bit,” he said.
The bartender smiled. It was a warm smile. The big man had a way about him. It was part of the reason that Lyfantod kept coming back. “You know,” he said, as he always did. “If you could sing as well as play, you could give up this whole detective thing.”
Lyfantod frowned and shook his head, some of the warmth and some of the fuzz receding, replaced by a cold, unhappy feeling in the pit of his stomach. The feeling he relied on drink to keep at bay. “Don’t sing,” he said huskily. “You know that. Not for a long time.”
The bartender shrugged. He could see the troubled look in Lyfantod’s eyes, but he didn’t push. Lyfantod would talk when he wanted to. “Shame,” was all he said.
Lyfantod changed the subject. “What have you heard?”
The beefy man leaned across the piano on an elbow, presumably so as not to tower, and shook his glossy head. “Nothing good. Rumors. Troublemakers. Making trouble,” he said. “Got people scared.”
“I heard,” said Lyfantod. “The Shades," he paused to hiccup, "and the Mountain Men have been going at it. Any idea what they’re upset about? 'Sides the usual.”
“Not just them, from what I hear.” The bartender looked over his shoulder toward the bar, ostensibly for a glass to clean. He’d once admitted that it was a habit that had started as an affectation. Said he wanted to look the part. Now he felt odd when he wasn’t doing it. He seemed to realize that there were none close enough and turned back. “Thorne’s supposed to be in on it too. There have been deaths.”
“Who’s killing who?”
“That’s the thing. Nobody seems to know. And of course everybody suspects everybody else. Fighting’s spilling out into the streets. Regular folk have started to take notice. Small sure as hell ain’t happy.”
“And then there’s the zombies.”
“Heard about that, did you?”
“Not as such. Gossip and hearsay. And what I read.”
“Same here,” said Lyfantod, disappointed. “You know. Got attacked myself. Twice.” He sipped his beer, found he couldn't really taste it anymore.
The bartender’s eyebrows rose at that. “Zombies?”
“Skeletons,” said Lyfantod, shaking his head. “Never seen anything like it. Can’t imagine what’s holding them together. Haven't the faintest what they're after. They knew my name.”
“Dark times,” said Mugs, looking around the empty room. “This used to be a quiet town. When I came here.”
“It’s a miracle the Guild keeps it all under wraps,” said Lyfantod.
“Not really,” said the bartender philosophically. “People have got their heads buried so deep in the sand that they can rationalize away just about anything. And photographs mean less than ever these days, thanks to computers. Even so. The Council’d have Small’s balls on a platter if anything ever did get out.”
“Right…” said Lyfantod a beat or two later. He might have been a little further along than he realized. Mugs waited patiently for him to come back to himself. Useful skill in a bartender. “Ought to be getting home,” Lyfantod said. “Lots to do tomorrow.”
“No rest for the wicked,” Mugs agreed, levering himself off the piano as Lyfantod rose from the seat. He walked with the graceful sway of a longtime drunk as Mugs followed him to the door, where he shrugged into his coat in companionable silence. "Take care of yourself, detective,” Mugs said, clapping him on the shoulder. Lyfantod nodded his thanks, and took his first uncertain steps out of the warm pub and back into the wintry night.
The frigid air sobered him some, but that didn't stop him stumbling in several snowdrifts. He stopped on the way--perhaps foolishly, but drink will do that to a man--darkly hopeful, in the spot where he’d been attacked the night before. He stood there for a few minutes shivering, waiting to see if anything would happen. The cold and his fatigue conspired against him however, and he soon gave up.
By the time he trumped up the narrow wooden stairway leading up to his flat, he was half-asleep on his feet, and he was looking forward to not spending this night in his office chair. He was in the dim hallway that led to his door, wishing that Greyburne would have the bloody light fixed, digging around blindly in his pocket for his key when, from the depths of shadow a low, silky voice said, “Good evening, Mr. Lyfantod.”
Lyfantod fell back in surprise, suddenly wishing he’d had several more hours to sober up. Abandoning the search for his key, hand trembling, he began scrabbling frantically and ineffectually for his gun.
“Now now,” the voice said from nowhere, “that’s quite unnecessary. I intend you no harm.”
Ignoring the voice, Lyfantod drew the firearm and whirled it about wildly, trying to find its source. “Show yourself!” he shouted.
“Here,” the voice said, and from the darkness above his office door, a nightmare took shape. A coal black head descended, nearly bald save for a few wispy hairs, and upside-down like a spider on a string. Following the head came a pair of too-wiry shoulders, silhouetted weakly from behind by the distant street light shining through Lyfantod’s door. Two milky white pinpricks marked the creature’s eyes. One ear was curved and pointed, the top of the other was missing. The thing’s skin crackled audibly as it moved, like old parchment. It smelled like a crypt.
“What the hell are you?” said Lyfantod, pointing his gun shakily toward the awful, desiccated head.
“This is a ghoul, Mr. Lyfantod, but you are not, strictly speaking, talking to him,” said the voice, whose accent, incongruously refined, sounded possibly Russian. “He is merely a vessel. A means to facilitate communication. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Grigoriy Vodorov. I am a Necromancer, and I would like to hire you.”