AN UNSATISFACTORY CONCLUSION
It was nearly sunrise by the time Lyfantod finally stumbled home. He was not sure when he'd last slept, weary to the bone, and within his flat it was almost as cold as it was without. He bolted the door, kicked off his boots, hung up his coat, tossed his keys on his desk, lit a fire in the hearth, and went to rummage in his closet. Finding he did not in fact possess a red cloth, in a stroke of sleepy inspiration he went to his laundry basket instead and retrieved a pair of worn red socks.
Going to the window he flicked the latch and slid it open, letting in a gust of wintry air and a whorl of snow. Moving as quickly as his cold-numbed fingers would allow, he tied the socks to a conveniently-located, rusty old nail below the sill, shut the window firmly, replaced the latch, and stumbled off to bed, where he promptly fell into a deep slumber that lasted the better part of twelve hours.
Back at the Guild, Small and his men—the ones who weren’t either injured or dead—were in the midst of a massive cover-up, the details of which Lyfantod was not privy to, and of which he would likely not have approved if he had been. They had begun turning up in small groups to report in before Lyfantod had left. The situation with the zombies, as well as the gangs they’d been used to rile up, had been so bad that Small had been forced to send literally everyone. Apparently he’d even reconciled with the strikers, though what compromise they’d come to was as yet unclear.
The Strawmen with the poor luck to make it back first, exhausted to the point of near collapse, had nevertheless been sent immediately back out to search for Reginald Mus and the hand of his sister—which was to say Vodorov’s ring—but the both of them seemed to have vanished entirely. What Zombie Reggie would become without the influence of his revenge-crazed older sister only time would tell.
It was yet to be seen how many Guildsmen would return from that night, and how many would not. Thanks to Horse’s speed and the work of the potion he'd stashed in his desk drawer, Flint looked to make a full recovery. Perhaps he’d get a promotion for his heroism. Perhaps not. Cornelia Mus, excepting the loss of her hand and apparent insanity, was expected to recover as well, though the use of the ring had left her irrevocably altered. She would spend her convalescence—and likely the rest of her life—locked in the Guild’s dungeons.
Lyfantod awoke, still in his clothes, around five in the evening. Being winter, it would soon be dark, but a hint of pinkish sunlight still shone through his kitchen window when he shuffled out of his dark bedroom. Before he even used the toilet, he went to peer out of his office window and found that, yes, the socks were still there, though they were stiff and, he thought, not quite as red as they'd been when he last saw them. He then went and stuck his head cautiously into his outer hall, but found it empty.
Making sure the door was securely locked, he put some more wood in the fireplace. The fire he’d set had long gone out and the entire flat was as cold as the grave. He used a match to light the stove and left some bacon and eggs in his old cast iron skillet, and took a quick, scalding shower. By the time he emerged, feeling more human, the food was only a little burned. He scurried about making toast and coffee, and after he'd finished eating, he dressed.
His toilette complete, he sat down patiently at his desk to wait. He lasted almost three whole minutes. He rose, poured himself another cup of coffee, and set about the numerous menial household tasks of a bachelor-slash-business owner. He took apart, cleaned, and put back together his gun; loaded it and set it at the corner of his desk. He swept the ashes around the fireplace and washed the dishes. He checked the hallway. He mopped. He looked over his book of accounts. He shook his head. He checked the hallway—and was very surprised to find a cylindrical package wrapped in brown butcher paper and twine lying before his door. Where did that come from?
Feeling more than a little wary, he brought the package inside and set it on his desk, praying that it wasn’t a pipe bomb. He took comfort in the fact that while there were likely more than a few people who would be happy to see him splattered across a wall, they would probably be more direct about it. There was nothing to be done except to open it. Gingerly, he undid the twine, peeled back the wrapping, and found, to his immense pleasure, his truncheon! He’d completely forgotten about it in the flurry of events that had been the past twenty-four hours. There was no note, but he could only assume that whatever Strawman had gone back for the bodies in the park had found it as well. He would have to write them a thank you card.
His contentment, however, could only last so long, and soon he found himself pacing the hard wooden floor of his office flat. Night had well and truly fallen, the clock on his wall read 9:36 or thereabouts, and Lyfantod was dozing with his feet on the desk, when there came a gentle tap-tapping on his door. Startled, he nearly toppled his chair, but just managed to catch himself on his desk with the very tips of his fingers. When both his feet were on solid ground, he took his pistol, made sure the safety was off, and approached the door.
He opened it, letting it swing out on its own and taking a nervous step back, to find a dark and empty hallway. Had he imagined the sound? No. His gaze tracked slowly upward and he was rewarded with the sight two unsettling milky-white eyes staring back at him out of an oil-black face, above a few thin wisps of hair.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” groaned Lyfantod in a tone of fear turned to anger.
“My apologies,” replied the cultured voice of Grigoriy Vodorov, with his heavy Russian accent. The ghoul dropped lightly to the floor, twisting as it fell so that when it landed with a meaty squish like some giant undead frog, it was in an elegant crouch and not on its head. “You summoned me, Mr. Lyfantod. I assume you have something to report?”
“I do,” said Lyfantod, “and you’re not going to like all of it.”
The ghoul looked back at him expressionlessly, though Lyfantod thought its head tilted slightly. “Do tell."
“Well,” Lyfantod began, leaning against the door frame in an attempt to appear at ease, “the good news is we know who stole your ring. It was a woman named Cornelia Mus. And before you ask, she’s already in Guild custody, and has probably lost her mind, so I don’t think you need to worry about getting revenge.”
“I see,” said Vodorov levelly, though it was possible there was a hint of anger in his voice. Lyfantod couldn't quite tell. “And am I to understand that my ring is in Guild custody as well?”
“Not exactly. This is the part you’re not going to like. The ring is missing.”
“Missing,” echoed the Necromancer. “You mean to say that she didn’t have it on her?”
“Oh, she did. She had a gun on one of the Strawmen, so his partner cut off her hand. Ring and all. And then for reasons I don’t quite understand, her teenage zombie brother took the hand and jumped out a three-story window. The Guild is looking for him, mostly to kill him probably, but they haven’t had much luck so far. Any idea where he might be headed?”
“No,” said Vodorov slowly. “It is… interesting that this Mus woman was able to produce sentient undead. She must have put a great deal of herself into their creation. It is not generally considered a viable long-term option. Do you find her much diminished?”
“She’d lost a bit of color,” said Lyfantod enigmatically.
“Mm,” agreed Vodorov thoughtfully. “Unfortunately, if she truly gave her brother back some of his intelligence, I have no way of predicting his movements. Only someone who knew him could do that.”
“Of course, if you could you wouldn't tell me.”
“Indeed,” said Vodorov. And then, “Does the Guild know about my ring?”
“‘Fraid so. Mus did a bit of speech-making before she was stopped. She mentioned the ring. And you as well. To Garrick Small himself. You can bet he wants to get his hands on it, if only to melt it down into slag. And the Guild isn’t noted for subtlety—so anyone who’s anyone is going to know about it before too long.”
“That is… unfortunate,” said Vodorov in a tone of voice that communicated very clearly that he considered this a dramatic understatement.
“Unfortunate. Yeah.” Lyfantod, considering what he knew now about Necromancers, didn’t feel much sympathy. It was one of those rare cases when he found he might actually agree with Garrick Small.
“I imagine they’ll be looking for you as well. And don’t think they’re above telling the Nightshade Gang you’re responsible for the whole thing in order to flush you out. They know there’s a connection between you and they’ll put it to use if they can.”
“I’ll take that under advisement."
Lyfantod wasn’t entirely sure why he was warning the man. He was a practitioner of forbidden magic after all. Rightly forbidden. But so far, he’d given no indication of being the kind of murderous psychopath that Mus had become in the end. Perhaps he’d found a way around it. In any case, the fact that people hadn’t been disappearing before Mus had gotten ahold of his ring was enough for the detective to cut him a bit of slack. If the Strawmen ended up locking him in a cell, Lyfantod wouldn’t lose any sleep over it, but he saw no harm in giving him a little heads up either.
“So,” said Lyfantod, breaching a silence that had lasted for the better part of a minute. “What are you going to do now?”
“As you might have guessed, I am going to try to recover my ring. I don’t suppose you would be amenable to continuing the search on my behalf?” Lyfantod thought he could hear the Necromancer quirk his lips in amusement, though the ghoul did no such thing. “I am willing to pay.”
Lyfantod’s thoughts drifted unbidden to his largely empty bank account. “No,” he said firmly. “I don’t think so. Cornelia Mus was a clear threat to the city, so I helped you find her. But her brother? He feels too much like a victim in all this. Can he even use the ring? The Guild is already searching for him. They’d probably find him long before I did. And, to be perfectly honest, Mr. Vodorov,” Lyfantod kept a white-knuckled grip on his gun and did his best not to let any fear creep into his voice, “I’m not sure I think you ought to get that ring back.”
“I can see,” acknowledged Vodorov through the ghoul with surprising calmness, “that I have no choice but to respect your decision. You have already done me a great service, I—” The ghoul froze mid-sentence, falling as still as a statue. It was remarkably like having the line go dead in the middle of a telephone call. The ghoul stayed that way for fifteen uncomfortable seconds, Lyfantod peering at it nervously. His gun hand shook ever so slightly. When the creature spoke, he nearly jumped out of his skin.
“It seems,” said Vodorov calm as ever, “that the Guildsmen have found me sooner than expected. Our business will have to be cut short.”
Lyfantod pictured the Strawmen bursting into Vodorov’s house, swords drawn, grappling with the Shades holding him captive. Assuming they weren’t already dead. Or perhaps even if they were.
“It is time to make good my escape." Vodorov sounded resigned. "I thank you, detective, for the aid you have provided. Perhaps we will meet again.”
And then, before Lyfantod had a chance to respond, the ghoul, moving with inhuman speed, went scurrying out his door and into the night to join whatever undead legion Vodorov still had to command. Privately, he hoped very much never to see it again.
It was an entire week later before, opening his door one early morning, Lyfantod found a folded up copy of the Oracle on his doorstep tied with string, atop his copy of the Scotsman. It seemed things were finally getting back to normal. He undid the knot, unfurled the paper, and read the headline. In bold black letters it announced, "Oracle Saves City!" Lyfantod smiled.
In a stroke of unexpected good fortune, Lyfantod had gotten his hands on Craig Sturgis three days prior. He'd cornered him by chance in a coin laundry, washing his unmentionables. He’d threatened him and menaced him with his truncheon until, out of a combination of fear and embarrassment, the man had offered up the contents of his wallet. Not everything he owed, but close enough that Lyfantod decided he’d let it pass. It was enough to pay his rent and keep him in food until he managed to get another paying case.
Not wishing to survive zombies only to wind up getting turned into a toad, or something even more unseemly, Lyfantod had wrapped the putrid zombie heart, sack and all, in about a mile of butcher paper and had it sent by courier to the Witchdoctor, who had used the same runner to send him back his bill, Paid in Full written elegantly across the top in red pen. He’d also stopped by Madame Humphrey’s and picked up his three new shirts. Almost a month would pass before he found the three soggy, hundred-pound notes tucked into one of the front pockets. After he’d washed them twice, of course.
This turned out to be a good thing. The day after finally wringing his fee out of ol’ Craig, Calder had come by for a friendly game of poker, fully intent on relieving him of his money—only to let his losses slide when Lyfantod revealed just how broke he actually was. If he’d known that Lyfantod had three hundred quid in his laundry hamper, he’d have taken him for every penny.
When Lyfantod finally got around to reading the paper, he was disappointed to find that most of it was the usual drivel. The gap in publication was explained without any mention of the Thorne, and instead with a two-page article, wholly fabricated, entitled Lost Time.
It claimed that sometime in the late 1840’s, a Cambridge Professor by the unlikely name of Thelonius Wrinkle had invented a device he called the Time-Scruncher, which subsequently fell into the wrong hands and caused no end of trouble for everyone. No attempt was made to address the fact that had such a thing existed, it surely would have altered the course of human history. Instead there was much insistence that the device had recently resurfaced and been used by "Agents of Mal-Intent" in an attempt to prevent the daring writers at The Oracle from getting out The Truth. Readers were to be assured that they would be kept up-to-date on any further time-related incidents. No pun intended.
Among all the make-believe and ads for tarot readings, Lyfantod did find a few objects of note. There was a very short editorial on the conclusion of the strike at the Guild, written by Marcher, offering no details regarding whether any compromise had been reached, or whether the Strawmen would be joining the NHS. There was also a very inconspicuous advert on the second-to-last page, offering a reward for a lost family heirloom: a ring in the form of a wolf biting its own tail. The name provided, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, was unlisted. Though a number was attached, when Lyfantod called it he received an automated message telling him that the line had been disconnected.
Last but not least, the fire at the University and the tragic, conspicuously non-flame related deaths of a number of students—a topic of international discussion these days—was being blamed on a very dubious gas leak. By those in the know, it had been attributed to the mischief of bugbears. Nearby residents and business owners were strongly advised to leave bowls of honeyed milk outside their doors and windows in order to appease the simple brutes, but were given no indication as to what to do when the sugary confection almost immediately froze. Nor were they offered any clue as to whether or not bugbears would accept ice-cream instead.
Over the past week the papers, The Oracle excluded, were reporting an ongoing investigation into the possibility of a local ergot outbreak, their attempt to explain the recent rash of shocking reports and stranger-than-usual behavior. Not to mention the Youtube videos.
A staggering number of people had recently come down with very isolated short-term amnesia, or had reported seeing things like cackling skeletons and men in forest green robes and pointy hats waving daggers around and scowling. Once the media confirmed that no, in fact, there was no LARPing convention in town, they were at a loss to explain the substantial number of sightings—or the single, unforgivably grainy cellphone capture—of tattooed, fur-clad barbarians walking the streets with swords at their hips.
Of course, there were those who pointed their fingers vaguely at "The Immigrants" to account for the recent increase in random damage to public and private property. The last weeks had seen no less than eleven buildings lost to fire, a great many more broken windows, and even one inexplicably bisected lamp-post. The rise in unexplained violent deaths was largely glossed over and ignored, because it was too troubling for most people to think about for very long. Trying times were these.
Lyfantod was sitting on the couch in his stocking feet, comparing Oracle and Scotsman accounts of what had been tastelessly dubbed by both "The Erotremor," when the phone began to ring. He reluctantly tore his gaze from the Scotsman Editorial Department’s speculation as to the cause of the very localized earthquake, registering 7.6 on the Richter Scale, which had managed to level a local nightclub—fortunately empty at the time—but left all of the surrounding buildings intact. There were no eye-witnesses of the event, but one Mr. Umrani, owner of a nearby kebab takeaway, reported hearing a very loud noise, and upon coming round the corner to investigate, finding an old man in strange green robes and a funny hat staring at the site with a look of immense satisfaction.
Leaving the newspapers behind, Lyfantod walked over to his desk and picked up the phone, wondering who it might be.
“P.T. Lyfantod Private Detective Agency,” he answered. “This is Lyfantod.”
He was greeted by the cultured voice of an upper-class woman in her later years. “Good afternoon, Mr. Lyfantod. My name is Margaret Coutts. I found your number in the listings. I am interested in hiring you regarding an extremely delicate matter. It is quite the mystery. Can you be relied upon as a man of discretion?”
“Certainly, Mrs. Coutts,” Lyfantod replied, his curiosity piqued. “What is it that you’re wanting to have investigated?”
“Wonderful!" she replied with just a bit too much relish. "Yes. You see, I believe that my husband is—well, having an affair. With another woman! Can you imagine? I’d like to have him followed. And if you could see your way to taking some illicit photographs…”
Lyfantod rested a hand on his desk. Head hanging, shoulders slumped, and muffling the receiver against his shirt, he groaned. Though he was, to be sure, still recovering both physically and emotionally from what he’d begun to think of as The Ring Case, he had hoped for something a little more interesting than a cheating husband. Like a murder conspiracy. Or aliens.
Still. He had rent to pay. Mr. Greyburne was a forgiving landlord, but not that forgiving. And then there were the groceries. And the money he owed Calder. He sighed.
“Mr. Lyfantod? Are you still there?”
“Yes, Mrs. Coutts. I’m here.” His replied with a sense of heavy oppression to which the older woman seemed completely oblivious, and fished around for his notepad and a pen. “You can start by filling me in on the particulars of your husband’s routine. Favorite places. Things like that. And any information you might have on the woman you suspect him of being unfaithful with. Anything you think might be relevant.”
“I hope you have a pen ready,” Mrs. Coutts warned, just a little too much excitement in her voice. He could hear her holding the phone close to her mouth. Could nearly feel her leaning in, eyes twinkling with emotion. “Now then, where shall we begin? Ah! Yes. It was the morning of March the fifteenth that I first began to suspect. The year before last. You see, Mr. Lyfantod, my Henry, he was acting peculiar. Normally he takes his morning coffee with cream and two sugars, but on this day—on this day he had three."
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