THE HAND DEALT
“I don’t understand,” Horse growled as Lyfantod dragged her down the stairs at a run, holding tightly to her sleeve so that she was forced to come along or be dragged. “We killed him. Bones is dead. That ought to be the end of it!”
“We made a mistake, god damn it!” Lyfantod nearly stumbled as they burst out of the stairwell at speed, skidded round the corner, and hurtled down the hallway to the front doors. “We—”
The scene that confronted them when they reached the courtyard outside the dormitory quite literally stopped the detective in his tracks. It took his ability to speak along with it. For all of his intention to be gone he was left staring, glassy-eyed and dumb, his mouth opening and closing without any sound coming out.
“Why are we stopping?” demanded Horse, for whom, it must be said, the spectacle was much less shocking. The Guild had arrived in force. Clean up had begun. Unfortunately, they had not managed to do it before the police got there. Or the fire department.
There were two patrol cars, lights still flashing, and a great big fire engine parked in the middle of the snowy lawn, their tire marks visible where they'd gone bounding off the road. There were also between fifteen and twenty be-coated Strawmen, going about their business with grim efficiency. Flint, much of whose face was covered with a layer of smeared black soot, appeared to be directing the efforts. Even as they stood there blocking the doorway, arrested by Lyfantod’s slack-jawed stupor, several Guildsmen pushed past them, hurrying into the building. They gave the two of them a perfunctory glance as they passed. One of them was clutching what might have been a medicine bag.
“Third floor!” Horse informed them, shouting over her shoulder.
As Lyfantod watched and Horse scowled, one of the Guildsmen leaned into the open window of one of the patrol cars to converse with the officers inside. He made an odd gesture as he spoke, and then stood, backing away from the door. Seconds later, both doors opened and the uniformed officers stepped out, moving slowly, as though they were sleepwalking—and went to join a group Lyfantod hadn’t noticed before.
There were a few dozen people: students, the officers from the other car, firemen and paramedics, all carrying their own gear. They were all facing toward a single Strawman—Straw-woman—who had a wand out—a bloody wand!—and who appeared to be directing them like a conductor of an orchestra. Not a one of them made a move to do anything, but they were all swaying left and right in unison, like grass in a gentle breeze. When the other two officers reached them, they took their places and began swaying back and forth as well.
“Are they… hypnotized?” asked Lyfantod breathlessly.
“Something like that,” Horse grumbled. “Weren’t we supposed to be in a hurry?”
“Right,” said Lyfantod slowly. “Right!”
Forcibly dragging his eyes away from the pile of bodies growing in the snow; the pair of Guildsmen emerging from a nearby building trailing a group of dull-eyed, swaying students, Lyfantod shook himself. No time. No time! His sense of urgency recovered, he hurried down the front steps and over to Flint, who was now conversing animatedly with a pair of younger Strawmen.
He saw Lyfantod coming, trailed by a bemused-looking Horse, and sent the pair of on whatever task they’d been given in the immense cover-up operation. Though Lyfantod was the closer, Flint looked past him and addressed his partner instead.
“Status?” he demanded.
“Bones is dead. And the rest of his thralls as well, as far as I saw. There are dead and wounded in the building, which is still full of students by the way. We’re going to have to get their phones away from them. Blast the bloody things. We—”
“We’ve got to get back to the Guild!” interrupted Lyfantod.
Flint shot him a passing look of annoyance. Nearly dying hadn’t left him in the best of moods, and he had no time for nonsense. Paying Lyfantod no mind, he looked back to Horse. “Already on it, we’ve got men inside—sent ‘em in the back as soon as they started showing up. Probably just missed them. That said, there's not going to be any rest for any of us for a good few hours yet. What I want you to—”
Lyfantod stepped forward, interposing himself between the two Strawmen and waving his arms dramatically “Listen to me god damn it! Bones may be dead, but he wasn’t behind it! I’m trying to tell you—”
Flint leaned around him. “What the bloody hell is he on about? Did he take a blow to the head?"
“I haven’t the faintest." Horse's own fatigue was starting to show through in the form of a shortened temper. “He keeps going on about Bones being dead. Well of course he’s dead! Bloody well took his head off, didn’t I?”
Lyfantod gnashed his teeth in frustration. It was all he could do to keep from jumping up and down like a spoiled child. He shook his fists at them. “I don’t know how I can make this any clearer. Don’t you understand?! Bones. Was. A. Zombie!”
Eyes turned toward them from across the yard. Flint and Monroe looked at him like he’d sprouted a second head. “How is that possible?” Flint demanded.
“Because,” said Lyfantod slowly, as if he were explaining to a five-year-old. “He was a scapegoat! A red herring! A gods-damned distraction!”
“I’m saying that if we don’t get to the Straw House right fucking now, your fearless leader is going to end up dead!”
“Small?” Horse was incredulous. “What has he got to do with this?”
“Can I please please please explain on the way? We need to hurry!”
“Alright, alright." Flint was already turning. He jogged over to one of the empty patrol cars, and shouted over it to one of the other Guildsmen. “Ravenna! You’re in charge! Make sure everything is taken care of and then get everyone back to the Straw House as soon as possible!” A dark-skinned woman with short cropped hair looked up and gave him a single terse nod before returning to what she’d been doing.
Lyfantod ran to catch up to Flint as he opened the driver’s-side door. “You’re stealing a police car?”
“You said it was urgent didn’t you? Now get in.”
Lyfantod did as he was told, climbing into the back seat while Horse threw herself in the passenger side door. Flint hardly waited for the doors to close. He revved the motor, spun the wheel, slammed the vehicle into gear, and stomped on the gas, plowing a deep circle in the snow as the roaring engine dragged them towards home. Horse reached across and flicked on the siren.
Lyfantod had time to reflect, as they tore down the streets of the city like a bat out of hell, that it was probably a good thing that it was nearly midnight. The way Flint was driving, they would surely have killed someone otherwise.
“All right,” he shouted over the wailing of the siren, “tell me why I just abandoned my men in the midst of the worst clean up operation in my bloody career!”
“Bones was a distraction!” Lyfantod explained for the umpteenth time. “But it was only when I realized that he’d been dead this whole time that I could see it! This has all been a distraction! The whole point was to get you,” he flapped his hand vaguely to encompass the Strawmen in general, “out!”
“Revenge! It's all been about revenge. Against two untouchable men!”
“Small?” said Horse, clinging to the safety-bar as they careened through an intersection at seventy miles per hour, “and who else?”
“Revenge for what?” Flint craned his neck, straining to be heard over the siren.
“For killing her brother!”
“Her?” demanded Horse, “her who?”
“Bones killed her brother?”
“No, Garrick Small did!”
“What? Then why go after Bones?”
“Because it was his fault!”
“That doesn’t make any sense, god damn it—whooaa!”
The patrol car spun to a stop in the middle of an empty street, tires screeching and threatening to slip on the icy asphalt. It was only when Flint and Monroe hopped out, drawing their swords, that Lyfantod realized where they were—on the nearest street open to vehicular traffic to the alley that hid the entrance to the Guild.
Lyfantod scrabbled at the handle—only to realize that he couldn't open his door. Police cars! He pounded violently on the window until Horse turned and saw him. He gestured through the window glass with an angry index finger and she ran over to let him out.
“Bollocks!” he said to no one in particular as she yanked it open, his frustration manifesting as a transient puff of steam. “Let’s go!”
They ran down the alley and turned, into that dark recess that you’d miss unless you were looking for it. They didn’t have to wait for the torches along the inner corridor to light however—they'd already been lit. And what was more, once they'd passed through the maze of winding paths, Flint leading left here, right there without a trace of hesitation, they found the door to the Straw House standing wide open, warm light spilling out from within.
“What the…?” Flint's tone was disbelieving. He and Horse had their swords drawn in an instant. The sight of that open door gave even the hardened Guildsmen pause. Things like this just didn’t happen.
“No time!” Lyfantod pushed past them. He sprinted down the hallway, and the Strawmen followed close behind. He vaulted through the open door feeling none of the usual excitement that accompanied a visit to the Straw House, and a great deal more than the usual dread. His eyes went immediately to the body slumped against the wall a few feet inside. The young Strawman was obviously dead. Living people’s heads just didn't sit at that angle. He swore.
O’Hoolihan’s desk lay abandoned. Or so it appeared until Lyfantod noticed the gnarled old hand peeking out from behind it on the floor. He rushed over to find the gristly old watchman lying on his back with his eyes closed—a great red welt on his forehead seeping blood. He put two fingers to the man's carotid. Flint and Monroe stood silently behind him, waiting.
There was a weak pulse. “Just unconscious." The two sighs of relief echoed his own. The man was an ornery old bastard, but none of them wanted to see him dead.
“Leave him,” said Flint. “If someone is here, we’ve got to find them.”
“Small’s office,” said Lyfantod with certainty. “That’s where they’ll be.”
“Let’s go then." Flint once more took the lead.
They hopped up the short stair flanked with the grinning stone Jack O’Lanterns and pushed through the swinging wooden doors into the Straw House proper—a place that Lyfantod had imagined many times, but never before seen.
It looked something like a police station built in the nineteen-twenties. The room was a large, round-ceilinged cube of stone and dark wood, decorated in an oddly satisfying mix of art-deco and gothic styles which Lyfantod had no time to appreciate. It was dimly lit by two rows of cylindrical, iron-and-frosted-glass chandeliers, and filled with—of all things—desks, which were covered with—of all things—papers and files. And coffee cups! At the far end was a pair of short stairways leading up five or six feet to a landing holding some larger, presumably more important desks, and behind that, a two story wall filled with large windows.
All of them were empty. The whole place was silent.
“Which way?” asked Lyfantod unnecessarily. Flint was already moving across the room, dodging between desks and chairs, Horse a short distance behind him. Lyfantod hurried to keep up.
They climbed to the landing, and Lyfantod saw that there were several doors leading further into the building. Flint took one, and they found themselves in a dim hallway with another staircase leading up at the end of it. Flint made immediately for the stairs. They were halfway to the second floor, which they ignored, as it turned out, when Lyfantod heard the voices.
One of them stood out in particular, and something inside him twinged when he head it: the scornful, gloating voice of Cornelia Mus. It was answered by an unbending growl that was quite unmistakably Garrick Small. Flint stopped as he reached the top of the stairs, holding out a hand as he peered carefully around the corner.
Lyfantod was forced to stop as well. None of them spoke for fear of alerting Mus. She appeared to be monologuing. As they crept, step by careful step, Lyfantod could only listen in horror as the woman he’d so recently regarded with pity reveled in her bloody victory.
“I’ll tell you how I did it,” they heard her say, “so you know how much smarter I am than you before you die. Little man.” She cackled and sounded quite thoroughly mad.
Small tried to respond, but he was cut off mid-word by a loud smack, so that whatever he’d intended to say wound up as an inarticulate grunt.
“Once I had the ring, it was simple,” she purred, her voice growing louder as they drew silently nearer. The only sound that threatened to drown her out was the pounding of Lyfantod’s heart in his ears. He tried not to breath.
“It allowed me to do all those horrible little things that you people wrongly accused me of, twenty-seven years ago. And more.”
Horse, who possessed a back wide enough to do her namesake proud, obscured Lyfantod’s view as they inched forward. He found this very frustrating, as he very much wanted to see. Mus’s voice grew clearer as they drew near, and it was apparent by the sound that Small’s office was around the next corner. Where Flint had stopped yet again.
“The first step was to draw out the professor. So I sent him a cryptic little message, summoning him to my brother’s grave at midnight. I suppose curiosity got the better of the old fool, because he came. And I was ready for him, this time. Once I had my scapegoat, I set about getting myself alone with you, dear.”
Small muttered something unintelligible. Mus laughed in reply. “Oh, that’s right. You never did figure it out, did you? I’m tapped in, honey. Those bad people you spend so much time keeping out of the newspapers? You might call them criminals. I call them business partners. Although I’ve never liked that pompous asshole Coombs.” She tsk-tsked, and Lyfantod could fully picture her red-enameled fingertip wagging slowly back and forth. “You really ought to be paying better attention, Garrick. If you knew half of the things that went unnoticed by your Strawmen, you’d have a coronary. Sometimes I think you people must get your tips from The Oracle.”
“Why?” said Small, the first word she'd properly allowed him. There was a whole lot of anger wrapped up in that one word.
“Oh, lots of reasons. At first, I’ll admit, it was a way of getting to you. When you let me go, I got in touch with some of the boys Reggie used to run around with, after you locked me up. I was so angry, back then. I wanted you dead. But they were all afraid of you. So I put them in my pocket and bided my time. And I worked my way up to the ones who weren’t. Got audiences with all the right people. Of course, I had to earn their respect. Would you like to know about all the mischief I’ve been up to?” There was a smile in her voice. "No? Then I’ll skip ahead—to a month ago.
“T’was business as usual. I was passing behind the bar at my club when the name Grigoriy Vodorov chanced upon my ears and everything just fell into place! You'll know all about him of course. No? Oh, Garry, you really are letting things slide.” She paused. “Imagine. A real Necromancer, moving into town right under your nose, and you without the faintest idea.
“Bones was an amateur compared to him, you know. A real joke. He was playing make believe. My first thought was to hire him. But then I heard a rumor. That all that power came from one little ring! This ring! Can you imagine that? It’s like a storybook!
“After that, it became a simple matter of stealing it. I’d have my beloved little brother back, and dole out—" her voice went low and husky then, and the rage that she'd disguised as sportive teasing came flooding out in the next two words: "poetic justice. So that’s what I did.”
There was a moment of silence, and Flint slipped around the corner, quiet as a mouse, followed by Horse, and Lyfantod. Seated in the wall of another narrow hall was an open door, out of which yellow light spilt. Hugging that wall, Flint, Horse, and Lyfantod scurried forward so that they stood just beside the portal. They exchanged a single, tense glance, and then Cornelia Mus continued to speak.
“I used the ring to revive Reggie here.” Flint’s mouth narrowed at that—it explained how Mus had gotten the advantage over Small. She wasn’t alone. “And then together we killed Bones. All it took was a little knock over the head. Can you imagine that? After all these years of nightmares, that man keels over with so little resistance... I put him at the front of my little army, and then I set about wreaking havoc.
“Those poor boys never saw me coming. Once I started killing them, it was easy enough to get them to suspect one another. They did most of the work for me, really. Conspicuous timing. The right location. A bit of street art. Not that I take pleasure in defacing public property, mind you. They went for each other's throats, and you scarecrows came scurrying out of your hole, just like I knew you would. You ought to be more careful, Garrick,” she tsked again. “Predictability is a very dangerous thing in your line of work.”
They heard the light click of heels as Mus paced the room, enjoying herself. Lyfantod wondered when Flint would make his move. He gave him a look that said, 'Well? What are you waiting for?!' But the Guildsman shook his head. Apparently he wanted to hear the end.
“It was just a matter of time before things got bad enough that you let all the little boys and girls out to play. I did start to get a little worried when that P.I. came around and started asking questions. He knew a little too much for comfort. And judging by the look on your face, you already know who I’m talking about, don’t you?
“You know, at first I felt bad about the killing. Even poor old Professor Bones gave me a little twinge.” Her heels click-clicked. “But after the first two or three it got easier. Hell, I even started to enjoy it. Although, not nearly as much as I’m going to enjoy what I’m going to do to you, dear.” She laughed to herself. A deep, rich sound from the belly, and Lyfantod shivered. How could I not have seen that she was… this? He nudged Horse, shaking his chin impatiently at the open door when she glanced at him. She only shrugged. Apparently she was leaving this one up to her partner.
“I knew that the school would be the final straw—pardon the pun. Imagine my surprise when, just as my plan was coming to fruition, your boy shows up at my door to take me downtown.” Lyfantod imagined her spreading her arms to indicate the Hall.
“Clearly a higher power was at work here!” She was silent for a moment, and they heard the rustle of cloth. “He’s dead, by the way,” she murmured softly, a smile in her voice.
Small snarled wordlessly, and they heard him struggling, but it seemed he was powerless. Mus laughed.
“And now,” she said, “I have you all to myself. I want you to know that I’ve dreamed of this moment for many, many years. But in all of my wildest fantasies, it never went as perfectly as this.”
Apparently that was enough for Flint, because he chose that moment to tap lightly on Horse’s knee and gesture toward the door.
“That’s quite the story,” he announced, stepping into the room, sword drawn, followed by Horse, and—embarrassingly unarmed—Lyfantod.
Mus kept her cool. “Detectives,” she nodded, “Mr. Lyfantod. Congratulations. You’ve arrived just in time to witness the timely end of your fearless leader.”
Lyfantod, last into the room, couldn’t help but feel that the arrangement did indeed fail to inspire confidence in their rescue mission. Cornelia Mus was holding a small-caliber pistol pointed at Flint. On her trigger finger a heavy golden ring; a snarling wolf biting its own tail, and another detail that Vodorov failed to mention: its vertebrae were clearly visible, picked out in some darker metal around the band. Zombie Reggie, dressed in mouldering rags, lowered over Small, forcing him to kneel with the rotten fingers of one bony hand woven through his silvery hair. His other hand hung loose at his side, but it was clear to everyone in the room—including Small—that it wouldn’t take much for him to reach down and snap the man's neck.
“Let him go,” said Flint, apparently willing to ignore the gun pointed at his stomach.
“I don’t think so,” said Mus. “If you really were listening—and shame on you for eavesdropping,” she shook her head slightly, “then you know that this man is responsible for the death of my brother. He doesn’t get to walk away from that. The past thirty years have simply been a stay of punishment.”
“You realize that if you kill him, you don’t walk out of here alive,” said Horse.
“We’ll see, darling,” she said, with a gravity and a confidence that, as always, were more than her youthful face should have allowed. “But let’s consider the alternatives, for the sake of conversation. Say I let him live. You have me outnumbered two to one, and I doubt,” she tilted her head forward, to look at Horse through her heavy eyelashes, brow pointedly raised, “that you are just going to let me walk out of here.”
“Just kill her, Flint!” growled Small. Reggie twisted his head violently, so that he was cut off with an ugly grunt.
Mus smiled and shrugged with the hand not holding the gun. “You see? He’s barbaric! No. This ends only one way. With the three of us—“ she nodded in turn to Small, Flint, and then herself, “dead. And you two,” she looked at Horse, then Lyfantod, “will be the witnesses to my revenge.” She shrugged again. “I would have liked to have had more time with my brother, but we can’t have everything. I learned that years ago.”
“Damn it Cornelia,” said Lyfantod. “Don’t do this! If you kill him, you’re no better than he is. Is that what you want? To be the same as the men that ruined you?”
For a moment, Cornelia Mus’s eyes actually softened. “Mr. Lyfantod. You really are adorable. But try not to be so naïve. The only way I leave this room is dead, dying, or in chains. Isn’t that right, Garrick?”
“Damned right,” he agreed stubbornly.
Mus nodded as though she hadn’t expected any other answer.
And then Flint surprised everyone, except maybe his partner. “There’s one more way,” he said simply, and stepped into the barrel of Mus’s gun, making no move to shield himself. Her eyes widened in surprise, and then a lot of things happened all at once.
First, the deafening sound of a gun being fired in close quarters. Then Flint’s muffled grunt of pain. Lyfantod didn’t have time to react. He simply stared, wearing much the same expression as Cornelia Mus; as Small and Horse burst into motion simultaneously.
In a fluid movement that bespoke years of practice, Horse brought up her sword and sent it arcing down again to slice neatly through Cornelia Mus’s wrist. Mus began to scream. Meanwhile, Small rocketed up and back, smashing the taller but significantly lighter Reggie against the wall, before reaching over his shoulder to grab a decaying wrist and flip the zombie in a powerful overhead throw that sent him crashing to the other side of the room.
Flint, now sporting a smoking hole in the small of his back, slumped to the floor, preceded by Mus’s severed hand, still holding the gun. Mus, meanwhile, was undergoing a horrifying transformation. As she fell to her knees clutching at her wrist, blood spurting in a ghastly red spray, she began to change.
Her soft cheeks withered and grew drawn. Her skin paled to the color of snow. Her luscious red lips thinned and faded. Her hair grew longer, now twisted about her head like a black bramble. Only her eyes remained the same—full of hate, and real pain, and madness—and finally, Lyfantod realized with poignant sorrow, they seemed to match her face.
Moving with inhuman speed, Reggie righted himself, crouching in a corner for a brief instant with all-too-human fear painted on his gruesome visage. Milky eyes darted this way and that before they came to rest on his sister’s fallen hand, still sporting the terrible ring. He threw himself at it in the same moment that Small came up holding Flint’s sword. Small swung, but he wasn’t quick enough. Gripping the hand, mouth spread in a rictus, Zombie Reggie launched himself across the room at a diamond-paned window and disappeared with a crash into the night.
Horse made quick work of the ghastly Cornelia Mus, granting her oblivion with a single, well-aimed fist. She went immediately to her partner, who was lying on his stomach in a pool of blood. “You’re a fool, Laird Flint,” she said with gentle anger as she flipped him onto his back.
He coughed wetly, and his lips were flecked with blood, but he was smiling.
“I don’t have any more potions,” said Horse, “you used up my last one with that little stunt at the school.”
“Desk. Bottom drawer,” burbled Flint, and before he had finished speaking, Horse had dug through his coat pockets, produced an old iron key, and run from the room, booted feet echoing on the cold stone floor.
Lyfantod was still playing mental catch up. Everything had happened so fast. He hadn’t had the chance to do anything.
Small was standing at the shattered window, gazing into the darkness for some sign of Reggie down below. He turned and looked down at Flint and Mus, both lying on the floor in their own blood. Then, for the briefest moment, he fixed Lyfantod his usual, steely-eyed stare.
“Don’t just stand there,” he commanded in that gravelly voice of his, “put some pressure on the wound.” As he said it, he walked to a cabinet and retrieved a long roll of white bandages. As much as Lyfantod was loath to take orders from the man, he still hurried to comply. Small knelt next to Mus and began methodically wrapping her bloody wrist.
“I didn’t think you cared if she lived or died,” said Lyfantod as his hands turned red with Flint's blood, and he didn’t bother trying to keep the accusation out of his voice.
Small looked over at him, continuing to wind the bandage around the stump with smooth, detached efficiency. “Despite what you, or she may think of me, I’m not a monster.”
When Lyfantod failed to reply, he added, “We don’t kill when we don’t have to.”
Lyfantod scoffed. “Besides, if you let her die, there’d be an empty cell in your dungeon.”
“There is that,” Small agreed, and Lyfantod honestly couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic. “You can’t tell me you don’t think she deserves it.”
“No,” said Lyfantod. “She does. She’s killed too many people. But—and I want you to consider this—do you think any of this would have happened if you hadn’t killed her brother twenty-seven years ago? Or if you had figured out that Bones was the one you should have locked up in the first place?”
Small’s expression didn’t change. “We can’t change the past, detective. We can only play the cards we’ve been dealt. Some of us get worse hands than others.”
Lyfantod opened his mouth to respond, but at that moment Horse returned, carrying Flint’s potion. He leaned aside as she knelt and administered the life-saving draught. The color began to slowly return to Flint’s cheeks, and he quickly fell into a painless, restorative sleep.
“You’re going to have to give me that recipe,” Lyfantod told Horse, and then he went to find a place where he could wash the blood from his hands.