17 February 2013

...is 20/20

(Warning: spleen-venting ahead.)

Dear 2006 Me,

A few weeks ago, you finished sending out your three applications to PhD programs. You are fed up with living in Bowling Green, Ohio. Your wife is very nearly done with both her master’s degree and the courses she needs to take her certification exam. (You don’t know it yet, but she’s going to be pregnant in a few months.) Mostly, you are in your middle twenties and want something more from your life. You consciously chose to apply to doctoral programs only in the places you’d like to live (Minnesota, Texas, California). You’re not entirely convinced that more school is what you need.

Trust your doubts. Don’t go to graduate school. (Don’t take your guns to town, Bill, leave your guns at home, son, don’t take your guns to town.)

Seven years later, you’ll have two kids. The older one is brilliant and a lot like you, but he’s got special needs. The younger one is somehow an extrovert and unbelievably full of joy when she’s not pleading for attention. You’ll finally be finished with your degree, and you’ll be applying for jobs with about the same enthusiasm you had for your PhD applications. You don’t get to pick and choose where you apply, though, because the job market for junior academics is absolutely horrid and you have to apply for every thing you think you might have a shot at. Also, the hiring cycle is really slow. Also also, you took a job last summer with an odd calendar and inadvertently locked yourself out of an unusual and very good adjunct opportunity. You spend your days taking care of your three-year old daughter, taking your son to appointments, and occasionally making it to the gym to try and work off the five or ten pounds you have gained from fatherhood and turning 30.

You won’t miss teaching. You won’t miss being in classes. You’ll miss having a life. Talking to adults who aren’t your wife or service providers.

Your graduate program will let you down. You will finish in part to spite the people who made the process so much more difficult than it ought to have been. You’ll have your dissertation and some more letters after your name and roughly the same job prospects as you do right now. You will be thinking very hard about getting a job outside of academia because you’d like to have some say on where you raise your family, and because you haven’t read a positive story about education in (literally) years. “Mid-thirties” will be staring you in the face as you try to start a career.

So don’t go to graduate school. Get started on that career now. Think about hanging around another year or two in Ohio, even though you hate it, because the woman you love is going to get just as fed up with Minnesota after a few years, and resent having to be the fully-employed breadwinner while her children change from babies to kids. (She won’t be cruel about it, and she won’t be vindictive, but you’ll hear it in her voice every time the subject comes up. And there’s nothing either of you will be able to do to change it.)

Hell, maybe it’s even time to take the risk of pursuing your writing in a serious way. It’s the one constant that’s held up all the way through school. Maybe music was a detour. Because I can tell you now, from 2013, that you don’t spend a lot of time listening to the music you write and teach about. Enough, perhaps, but you’re not in love with it. You do, in fact, spend a lot of time wondering why this kind of music is still being made, what people are trying to say, and who they think might be listening.

Just don’t go to graduate school, because you’re not really going to get what you’re expecting to get out of it.

15 September 2009

...locked my leg to thirty-five pounds of Blackjack County chain...

Cheery image, naja? What kind of threshold do you cross with a blog post titled via Willie Nelson lyrics?

Imagine, if you will, a game of Tetris. In a rush or out of distraction, you leave a few gaps at the bottom of your brickwell. Instead of working especially hard to get down to those flawed lines and remove them, you just play around on top of them. You make some tetrises. You get distracted and a few more gaps sneak in. Only now the bricks are coming faster, and it takes furious concentration to get the more recent gaps cleared up, let alone the ones you’ve left at the bottom of the well. Add to this the fact that you’ve been playing Tetris for most of a decade, and you get a tidy (if not compact) analogy for the state of my graduate studies.

This is not—or at least isn’t planned to be—a rant about how behind I am on soul-killing research and writing, with a malevolent advisor breathing down my neck. Nor is it even really a rant about how complicated the mixture of family (including two small children) and school can get. It’s about how…vague…things have gotten for me.

Fall is my favorite time of year. “Most of all he loved the fall/The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods/Leaves floating in the trout streams/And above the hills, the high, blue, windless skies.” (Sorry, Mr. Hemingway, but I’m cutting out the last line because, to answer a quote with another quote “I’m not dead yet.”) (There. Do we all feel sufficiently knowing?) Ahem. (Ahem!) Fall is my favorite time of year. When I was a kid, part of that fun was the fun of going back to school. Yeah. I was one of those kids who liked school, which is a partial explanation why I’m still in school with my thirtieth birthday just around the corner. This year, I’m not technically going back to school. I’m forking over a chunk of money for a paltry credit that doesn’t require anything except that my advisor signs off on it at the end of the semester. Classes started last week, and they started without me either in front of or in a class. The first week of September wasn’t any different, in terms of daily obligations, than the last week of August. The only things that really clue me into school having started are Facebook status updates and a suspicious increase in yellow buses on the road.

Add to this the weather. Yes, we love to talk about weather in Minnesota, but we also happen to be eight days into a string of eighty-degree days—tied for the longest such string of the year. Aside from drought-choked trees turning yellow, there’s not much environmental clue that it’s fall. The days are getting short, but that doesn’t hit me quite like the first nip of cold air. I want some fifty-degree days and some sub-freezing nights. The colder weather lends a solidity that, in the fall, doesn’t lead to immobility. It’s good weather for being out and about, cool enough that you can exercise without bathing in your own sweat. The beautiful clutter of summer leaves falls away and bare branches make a mosaic of the sky. It’s good to be where you’re at, inside or out.

Even under a grey sky, there’s a clarity to fall weather. That’s what I’m waiting for.

P.S. If you’re interested in more family goings-on, go check out my wife's blog. I contribute occasionally, and there are lots of pictures and some videos.

10 September 2009

Dinadan Noir XVI: Concluded

Gilgal drummed his fingers on the stack of papers sitting in the middle of his desk. He thumbed through them, then looked up at the satyr sitting across from him. “Who’d you bribe to do the paperwork for you?”

I resisted the urge to smile. “Did them myself, sir. Although Carnely gave me some pointers and thought it’d be funny if I tried to copy his ‘handwriting.’”

Gilgal wasn’t amused. “Krysospas did some of these himself. Your imitations are decent. Might fool a junior officer into doing a donut run. But not me.”

“Carnely played a major part in sorting things out, sir. I didn’t see anything wrong with letting him contribute to those parts of the paperwork. There was a lot to write-up.”

“Indeed. Twelve, no, thirteen corpses. A pair of fires, one of which consumed over a hundred thousand gold’s worth of mushroom spirits. Breaking and entering, assault, disturbing the peace…and you didn’t report any of it until you dragged Krysospas into your hare-brained project.”

“You’re the one who said you didn’t want to see me back here.”

“I also told you to stay out of sentinel business, that you were removed from active duty, and that it would mean your badge if you got yourself into trouble again.”

“Come on, sir. I got you Whale Oil McKay and Upal Toth, solid on murder and extortion. And resisting arrest. Never mind the fallout in Borales.”

Gilgal grunted. “That’s something, but not much compared to the trouble you’ve made.”

“There’s this, too.” I pulled something of my satchel. The jade monkey was the only tangible gain I had managed in the whole affair.

“You should know better than to talk to me about selling evidence to raise funds.”

“Not for selling.” I looked in vain for a bit of clear space on Gilgal’s desk. Shrugging with a nonchalance I didn’t entirely feel, I hefted the ugly chunk of jade…and threw it straight at the floor. It shattered, revealing a set of tightly-bound scrolls. I hid my relief, plucked them from the wreckage, and passed them over to the chief. “Have a look. It’s about the Igneous operations, isn’t it.”

Gilgal unrolled the first scroll, revealing tiny, careful script. His eyes darted back forth across the page. “Yes. Smuggler’s routes, safe houses, gambling dens, reports on personnel…”

“Aagren was getting ready to make a power play, go over to the Borales wing. I suspect this was going to be his admission fee. He must have been nervous, to give this to Arbonne. I don’t think she knew what it was. She was going to pay me with it. Showed it to Schrau. Took him about two seconds to figure out it was a fake, and only a third to guess it was hollow.”

“And you’ve waited until now to open it because…?”

“Because I didn’t figure out what was in it until last night. Something McKay said about Aagren not holding up his end of the deal. I’d already figured that Aagren had hit the ceiling in the Igneous wing, so he either had to knock off his boss—and who likes their chances against somebody like Gero—or grab a spot in a more dynamic environment. Even before I got caught up in it, the Family set-up in Borales was a mess. Coming in with a bunch of information and some muscle would have set Aagren right up near the top, made him an uncle for sure, maybe given him enough heft to take over as grandfather. But he would’ve needed somebody inside in Borales, somebody who’d give him some protection from Gero. Toth and McKay fit the bill, although I think he over-estimated their abilities and their desire to play nice with him.”

Gilgal was still poring over the scrolls. “We’d need half the thief-takers in the Retroverse, but we could shut the Family down in Igneous. Set them back years.”

I nodded. “That’s worth the trouble, yeah?”

“Look, Whistler. You’re not a detective. You’ve already proven that you can’t do undercover work, and with you leading the bard guild, that’ll be even less feasible. Everything you get involved with seems to end in a pile of bodies, a mess of reports and reparations, and a headache for me. I’m not going to take your badge. I’d like to, but I’m not. I’m not even going to heap more warnings on you, because you’ve proven deaf to them. If you ever decide to make a career in this guild, there’s a place for you. For now, I want you in here once a ten-day. If a deputy asks for your help, you give it. You take no cases for yourself without my permission or Foil’s. Anything you do out in the field, you take a fully-trained sentinel with you. Clear?”

“Limpid as an elf-maid’s eyes.”

“I asked you a question.”

“Aye, Gilgal. It’s clear.”

“Then sweep up your mess and get the hell out of my office.”


04 September 2009

Dinadan Noir XV: Easy Come...

Tiny bells tinkled.

Damini’s new shop was smaller than her old one. Everything in Borales was smaller. It was posh, though. Cushioned chairs for clients to try on their purchases. Real crystal in the lamps. Magic to dampen the smell of tanning chemicals. Incongruously, a mural of Welstar’s sky decorated the ceiling. Real nice place. I hoped she appreciated what I’d gone through to make it happen.

She’d swapped linen for silk, a deep red that pushed her already-lily skin into competition with fresh-fallen snow. Her black hair was bound up simply with a matching ribbon. That fey, angular face looked as lovely as ever.

“Life seems to be treating you well, Damini.”

Her smile was crooked, but it was a smile. “Yeah. Done alright. Seems some favors fell into my lap.”

“I’m glad. I mean that.”

She sighed and ducked into the back room, emerging with a suspiciously familiar bottle and two stone cups.

“So now you’re going to serve me my own firewine?”

She shrugged and poured, handed me a cup.

“It never would have worked out, you know. You Gifted, you ain’t got the right attention span for the rest of us.”

“Maybe.” I thought about Avren, gone in a flash of teeth, about other women who’d climbed my ladder once, twice, a dozen times. They were gone, too…at least for me. I could wish all I wanted for settling down, but it wasn’t going to happen. There’d always be an elf-queen with a mutinous niece, a homarid hooker, a mysterious artifact…or a Gifted friend with a problem he couldn’t solve alone. We could hide from the world, but if we walked out the door, we walked into trouble. One way or another. I sipped the firewine. It was good. “But it would’ve been fun while it lasted.”

“Prob’ly, yeah. You got good taste in liquor, at least. An’ yer prob’ly good in bed.”

“So I’ve been told.”

She laughed, and my maudlin lifted a bit.

“We could give it a try…”

“No. You were right, it wouldn’t work out. And I don’t think I could manage to get your shop replaced again. Not without moving you offworld.”

“How -did- you manage all this, anyway?”

“Perhaps I’m not as bad a detective as you thought.”

She snorted. “How many lies’d you have t’tell?”

“Surprisingly few. And most of those were in the Sentinel paperwork.”

“You make a habit of messing up food chains?”

I thought about that for a moment, too. “Seems like it, yeah. But at least I got Borales settled without a war. Z’brzzt is at least more subtle than Toth and McKay would’ve been.”

“I still can’t believe you got the argus to bankroll my shop.”

“He didn’t. Not exactly.” I looked away. “Took care of the property rights, which was the hard part.”

“Oh Dinadan, really? For me? After a kiss on the cheek and puking on yer feet?” She sounded mildly horrified.

I mumbled something.


“I said ‘I felt guilty.’ And it wasn’t that much gold, really. Not for me.”

“Goat, you are a sucker for a pretty face.”

“Been called worse, Damini. And I like what you’ve done with the place.”

“Thanks. Got some tips from Lisl…over at the ‘Phile. Tips and plenty of orders. Can’t remember the last time I had so many silk slippers and thigh-highs to make. An’, for some reason, hob-nailed boots.”

“Probably better you don’t ask. They’ve got some strange customers.”

Her eyes narrowed. “That was you too, wasn’t it. See? This is why it’d never work. You’re such a,” she looked for the right word, “a meddler! What gave you the right?”

“Look, they were getting in all their shoes from Wysoom.” I raised my hands defensively. “I just let them know that there was a perfectly fine cobbler here on Crypt, and that she’d be setting up shop in Borales soon.”

Maybe it was the firewine, and maybe it was the anger, but Damini’s cheeks were pleasantly flushed. She made a point of busying herself with the drinks for a bit…but all in my sight this time. At length, she asked, “So what’s next?”


“You can’t mean t’take on Gero? Yer mad, but not that addled.” Damini said. “Are you?”

I grinned. Mysteriously. “Not exactly. I might be an idiot samaritan, but I’m not that stupid. Unless there’s a pretty face, and you seem well set here.”

“Then how--know what? Don’t tell me.”

“You, Damini, are getting wise in your old age.”

She punched me in the shoulder. Hard. “Don’t make me take you over my knee!”

“Oh? We’re back to taking each other? I thought we agreed that wouldn’t work out.”

She hit me again, but not as hard. “Get out of here before I get drunk enough fer bad ideas t’start looking good.”

I stood, kissed her on the cheek before she could get out of the way, and made for the door. “Like I said, you’re wising up.”

She threw a shoe at me. Good thing it was just a slipper, because the firewine hadn’t much affected her aim. “Dinadan!” I paused on the threshhold. “Thanks. For everything.”
“You’re welcome, Damini.”

Tiny bells tinkled.

I tried to cheat my sigh by making it melodramatic, but it didn’t help. There was time
to drown it later. I had one more stop to make to wrap this thing up.

02 September 2009

Dinadan Noir XIV: The Play's the Thing

Now, let me tell you something about reading people. Career sentinels, they learn to read criminals. Damn good at it. They can pick a crook out of a crowd and guess how he’s going to fight, and whether he’ll fight or run. Schrau Cadnos, for one, can take a look at a perp and tell you pretty much anything you’d care to know. Useful skills to have, especially when you’re waist deep in an investigation and trying to get yourself clear.

Bards have different ways of reading people. Me, I can poke my head through a barroom door and tell you within a couple coppers how much I could net playing there for an hour. I can look you over and figure out which things you want to hear about yourself. We chat for a few, and I can start convincing you of things, even without putting magic behind it. But there’s not much call to read criminals. Like just about everything else, bards are generalists at the people reading game.

Everything I read on the Borales uncles as they filtered in was bad. They weren’t happy, not with each other, not with me. Glares sufficed for eye contact. I’m surprised none of the bodyguards popped a lung puffing themselves up. McKay had brought Guido, who seemed to reserve most of his menace for yours truly. The skinny one pretending to be Upal Toth’s shadow actually was a shadow, and I caught traces of magic all over him. Z’brzzt came in with a dwarf who made the bartender at the Worm’s Abode look like a runt. The other two uncles—undead named Bookman and Loftis—came with patchwork golems. Plenty of bad juju to go around, and every one of ‘em ready to point it at me.

I reminded myself that death was temporary, and took some solace in the fat folder sitting in Carnely’s desk at headquarters. There was enough in there to hang murder charges on Toth and McKay, and enough to make life hot for the others. It wasn’t as much as I’d hoped for, though, not enough to shut down Borales completely. And not enough to do anything at all for Damini. And I hated losing. Which was why I was going ahead with the plan.

Carnely banged a small gong whose origin I didn’t care to guess. He’d dressed for his part, all in black…or at least black dye. I could already tell where it was fading; magical threads weren’t much for holding colors not their own. There wasn’t a proper stage, let alone a backstage, but he had his weapons stashed behind the screen we’d set up. I wasn’t carrying anything obvious, but I had my lute and some of my better bits of enchanted jewelry. And, naturally, my silver tongue.

“Esteemed gentlemen of Borales,” I began, nodding to each in turn with a smile we all knew was fake. “Thank you for coming. I have a special story for you today, one you might not know, but one you’ll surely recognize. It is a tale of my homeland, of bright and distant Welstar. It is a tale of intrigue, of war, of danger and daring.

“Once, long before the war with the Darklord, there were two kingdoms, neighbors who had long eyed each others’ borders with greedy caution. Alike in dignity, the storm kingdom and the river kingdom squabbled, but always stopped short of war. One winter, though, the king of the river kingdom had a hunting accident. A fatal one. In the river kingdom, the princes—trueborn and bastard alike—turned their eyes and knives from the storm kingdom to one another.

“None wished to strike first, for fear of upsetting the careful balance that ruled the river palace. None wished to speak forthrightly, for fear of betraying a weakness. None wished to remain silent, for fear of betraying a strength. So they postured and lied and gathered and dispersed, and the throne remained vacant for want of courage rather than want of ambition.

“For there was ambition, much ambition. And not only in the river kingdom. In their desire for the throne, two princes sent agents to the storm kingdom, and found there a prince who might aid them. Promises were made, gifts exchanged, and plans prepared.

“Alas for the river kingdom that the storm king had plans of his own, and little patience for scheming among his princes. The traitor was slain by the storm king’s own hand. The storm king’s fury tightened the ranks of his vassals—and thinned them, for he had little patience for dissent.

“In the river kingdom, the princes were drawing up their own battle lines, little heeding the rumbles from across the border. Having lost their foreign ally, the two princes increased their posturing, and swayed many of the lesser nobles to their cause. Indeed, all but one of the princes were ready to throw their lot in with these two. The remaining prince, of keen eye, prepared to make the fight difficult.

“While the river kingdom prepared for nights of long knives, the storm king raised armies, ready to swoop in as soon as the fighting began. With their greedy eyes on the throne, the two princes were oblivious to the threat…”

I paused, plucking out a few more arpeggios. “This is where the tale truly becomes interesting. For the two princes had committed crimes. Numerous crimes. And evidence had reached the high king’s agents. The high king, though a believer in justice, also wished to avoid a war between the river and storm kingdoms. So he turned to the keen-eyed prince, and offered him the river kingdom’s throne, provided he would assist in the arrest of his rivals and fortify the river kingdom sufficiently to discourage the storm king’s advances…”

I knew many subtle stories, and subtler songs, but this particular tale hadn’t called for such. Carnely picked that moment to emerge from behind the screen, his badge obvious, a flickering blade and clawed net in his hands. McKay kicked the table up and rolled away in a hurry. Guido had his chain out and spinning. Toth’s shadow did something and a Fellblade appeared in its hands. Bookman tried the door, barred from the other side. Toth worked his tentacles and appeared frustrated when his spell failed. I was already throwing spells of my own. The same magic that kept Toth stuck there was keeping me stuck there too, and even if I’d wanted to bail, I would have had to get through the people I’d just condemned to prison.

This is where it got touch and go. Bookman threw in with Toth. Alone, that made things complicated. Loftis, though, decided to sit out altogether. The numbers looked like they’d tell. I took a hard knock to the head that left me on the floor. I continued, weakly, keeping McKay more or less distracted. But my voice wouldn’t hold out forever. Carnely had his hands full holding off Guido and the shadow. Z’brzzt’s dwarf was dealing with Bookman’s golem while Bookman and Toth kept throwing dangerous shimmers our direction.

Z’brzzt was the trump card, though I’d had no idea he had the skills he did. I’d figured him for a mage, and the lightning certainly validated that guess. But he’d studied biomancy, too. Enough to prop the rest of us up while we dropped Bookman and his golem, then the shadow, then Guido. When Guido crumpled, Loftis decided the die was cast and sent his golem into the fray on our side. Toth didn’t give up until we’d broken both of McKay’s arms and one of his legs. And McKay still managed to crack Carn’s ribs before we got the shackles on. The dwarf swore up and down by gods even I’d never heard of that we hadn’t heard the end of this.

“If that whore-smitten Aagren’d held up his end, it wouldn’t’ve come t’this! Pox on you, goat! Baal-Lujuur wither your balls!”

Interesting. McKay went on in that vein for a while, not that it helped him. We passed him off to the thief-takers Carnely had waiting upstairs, along with Toth, who’d done nothing but glare. And bleed. The corpses we left for the locals to deal with.

“One or the other will turn, once we get them in the cells and on the dock.” Carnely said. “You got enough evidence to pin at least Arbonne on them. Never mind the extortion and racketeering stuff. You did good.” The rat looked a little worse for the wear, but he was tougher than he looked, and managed a rodent smile.

“Thanks for the assist, Carn. Gilgal would’ve had my head if I’d tried to bring them in myself.”

Carnely put on his serious face. “He might have your head anyway, Dinadan. You’d better write a damn fine report.”

It was my turn to smile. “You’re right. We’d better write a damn fine report.”


“You didn’t think I’d forgotten that time I had to come rescue you from the Stewhouse? The ettin who wasn’t really a dominatrix, who was really just beating you up?”

Carnely groaned. “This is the last you get for that, Dinadan.You hear me?”

“Yeah, Carn. Why don’t you head over to the Barnacle and get started. I’ll catch you up shortly.” I jerked my head at Z’brzzt, who’d been hovering patiently, quietly discussing things with Loftis.

“Alright. You’re buying the drinks, though.”

“Sure. Get going.” I gave him a not-so-subtle shove. “You don’t need to hear this next part.”

Z’brzzt bobbed in acknowledgment as I approached. Loftis did an admirable job of disappearing into the scenery. “You have come to discuss the strings, yes, Master Whistler?”

I put on my widest business smile. “Something like that, yeah. Something like that.”


19 February 2009

Dinadan Noir XIII: Word on the Street Redux

I headed back to Crypt with a fresh well of energy. It’s good to have friends in Gydnia. In the long run, magic’s no substitute for sleep, but a quick boost worked wonders. The running of my brain at its usual speed was a mixed blessing. On the right, I felt much less likely to blunder into accidental death. On the left, I actually had to think about the things Damini had said. On some level, she was right. I kept my hand in the detective business because it wasn’t like anything else, because there was more to it than just outfighting the other guy. Gilgal had asked me, before he gave me my badge, why I was joining. “I like it,” I’d told him, “the finding things out.” And I still did. But there was more to it than that. At least now. I was a long way from the wilder who’d fought off a necromancer with his dad. Now, I could make a difference. Or at least I thought I could. And that was the other thing Damini had been right about—taking down a couple of Family heavies wasn’t going to help. Much. But maybe, maybe, I could do more than take down a few heavies. If I could hit them hard enough, maybe the shake-up might do more good than harm. But I was a long way from being able to hit them that hard, and I wasn’t exactly swimming in time to wind up for a haymaker.

So I went to Borales and improvised, which for me nearly always meant chatting up strangers. I spent the next dozen hours as half a dozen different people—Lucky the stevedore (who quickly learned that zombies rather had that market cornered), Elem the collector of antiquities (who “discovered” a number of pieces of dwarf work, some of them authentic), Jhim the beggar (who nearly got killed), Artan the gentleman adventurer (who could have pleasantly spent a good deal of gold in the theater district), Fank the odd jobs man (who got offers nearly as strange as Artan did), and, most productively, Othar the aspiring assassin. It turned out that Borales was full of opportunity if you were willing to make somebody phoenix food. Not that they’d mention the important jobs to some off-worlder with no real connections (not that I didn’t make up a few), but enough of the heavies were throwing coin around to make life -very- interesting for the folks who’d take it.

Better still, some of the same names kept cropping up. McKay was apparently hiring. Most of the muscle I talked to, even the ones who clearly worked for somebody else, pointed me to the dwarf, or directly to Upal Toth. A few other names came up, people who were looking for muscle, but folks were picking Toth’s horse to win. Most everybody who pointed me towards Toth warned me against signing on with some argus called Z’brzzt. So of course he was the one I tried to follow up with. This was easier said than done. I plied my charms with a will, but only managed to get one rung higher than his secretary. The lieutenant I chatted with (a thuul who looked like he could’ve been built right alongside Guido and Nunzio) was tight-lipped, but his his body language screamed wary interest. He wanted references, background, proof that I could get jobs done. I’m sure I tripped some of his alarms, but I walked out of his office with a follow-up appointment I had no intention of keeping. More importantly, I walked out of there pretty confident about the lay of the land in Borales. It was messy, but battle lines were forming. Fast.

When I went through the same rigamarole in Igneous, names were not so easy to get, and only Jhim managed to get them. Everything was as shook up as Vinnie had said, if not moreso. (I refrained from paying that particular worthy a visit.) Everybody was chattering about Aagren, and who might have done for him. Gero’s name never came up in those conversations, but it otherwise came up more often than I expected. There were others—lieutenants, mostly—who’d shown up dead, with holes blasted in their chests or the more usual stiletto in the eye. Some of the people on the sidelines had stories about an off-world vigilante with a grudge. Most of the insiders, though, they were looking up the ladder. Gero was angry, and his uncles were jumpy, and anybody who so much as whispered disloyalty was getting croaked. Everyone was paranoid. Everyone was toeing the line. And everybody in Igneous thought the trouble was part of some scheme from Borales. I wanted to know more, but lips got tight and I made myself scarce as soon as I realized just how pitched the climate was against outsiders.

Back in my own clothes and body language, I returned to Borales for a few drinks at the ‘Phile. I tipped well, avoided talking to other patrons, and bugged a few of the employees about Arbonne, and about Aagren. They were commendably discreet, and I ended up talking to the hostess once more. She wasn’t happy with it, but she answered a few more of my questions. This time I actually took notes. I found out some interesting things about where her girls (and boys) got their shoes, about the Borales real estate market, and about the latest in popular tunes. I made a few other stops, took a few more notes, then headed home to my boards and papers. It was time to start filling some of those gaps.

Because one way or another, there was a war brewing, and if I was serious about keeping innocents from getting caught up in it, I was going to have to come up with one hell of a story.


08 February 2009

Dinadan Noir XII: Jeopardy

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I like to bluff. It takes longer than you’d think for folks to pick up on it at the table, but once they do, my pile of chips starts shrinking. I was hoping that the Family wasn’t thinking too hard about my stories. I didn’t have the fat, incriminating folder I’d verbally waved at the assassin. Not yet. What notes I had were sprinkled in amongst a melange of dirty limericks, saccharine ballads, and drinking songs. So, even before I got to work figuring how I was going to walk out of a room of Family heavies with my body and mind in one piece, I had to get that folder put together. And as much as I wanted to toast my momentary victory with something fermented, I settled for tea. Strong tea, and plenty of it, because it was going to be a while before I got around to sleeping.

My hand started to cramp an hour in. Never mind that I can play a lute or pipes all night. I sighed, drank some tea, massaged my hands, and got back to writing. If they can’t kill you with poison, they’ll kill you with paperwork. I had half a dozen stacks going, one on each murder, one on the warehouse, and a few on bits and pieces that threatened to become a single superstack. I stared at them for a while, then wandered down to the basement. I kept a couple of big planks down there to throw knives at. For a while, that’s what I did, mostly to try and loosen myself up. Once boredom and fatigue got a fresh conspiracy going, I made a new pot of tea and started stapling names and events to the planks. I threw some more knives. I noodled on my pipes. I stared at the scraps of paper, moved some around. Gero. Toth. McKay. Aagren. A small zoo of nicknamed lieutenants: Shark, Rock Wolf, Eel, Shembler...

Isn’t detective work thrilling? I sat and stared at the facts, trying to make them into a pattern that worked. I knew there were answers there. But I wasn’t even seeing the gaps I needed to pick the next question. So I did what any right-thinking bard would do: I went to talk somebody else into doing it for me.


“You what?”

“I need you to hire me.”

Damini shook her head. “You’ve lost it.”

“Not exactly.”

“Where’ve you been, anyway? You look like hell.”

“I’ve been awake for…a while.” I pushed on. “Don’t you even care why I want you to hire me?”

“No. No, I don’t. You’re the one what got my shop wrecked, drug me to this airy green place, and are probably goin’ t’get me killed. That don’t incline me to hire you. Never mind that I scarce got enough gold to keep flesh and spirit t’gether.”

“Look, things are coming together for me. But I need an audience.”

“An audience? Really.”

“Just listen. I’ve almost got this mess under my fingers. Almost. But I’m missing something. I’m not exactly your usual detective—”

“Tell me somethin’ I don’t know, goat.”

“You’re prettier when you’re not glaring at me.”

The glare in question deepened. Considerably. I sighed, took a deep breath, tried again. “I’ve got a lot of information. More than I thought I did really. The answer is lurking somewhere in that information, but I don’t have the right question. Hire me. Give me one.”

“Make something up. Isn’t that what you’re good at?”

“I need an audience.”

“Bullshit. You wanted an excuse to come see me and somebody to complain to about how stuck you are, and you didn’t even have the decency t’bring booze. Your courtship could use some work.”

If I’d been less tired and her eyes less black, I would have stormed out of the room. But I stayed. “Did you ever think that this might not be about you? That I’m actually trying to solve a murder?”

“It ain’t about a murder.”

“The hell it isn’t! You know how hard it is to bring Family up on charges anywhere? You get one charge to stick, you can start pulling, maybe bring in more. I get enough to hang Arbonne’s murder on somebody, we can start going after others.”

“An’ why, Mr. Greencoat, is that a good thing? Crypt ain’t this soft ball of dirt you grew up on. You pull the Family down, things ain’t going to get any better. Only things what prop up the cities are the Family and the Necromancers Guild, and with the guild gone t’ground, there ain’t a lot of options. You think Ickipus is goin’ to clap you on the back when yer done? Even if you haul in Gero, ain’t going to help the livin’ or the dead overmuch. You walk th’seedy side of the street often enough t’know that. Nothin’ changes but the badge numbers and th’size of the jackboots.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“I don’t know what to believe, Dinadan. You’re Gifted, an’ everything you do gets all crooked from that. You think you’re achievin’ something by hauling Family in, you go ahead. I ain’t got the time for Crusades. Not when I only die once.”

“You think it’s any better to die as often as the gods see fit? One shot for you, one moment of having your soul ripped out of your body, and it’s done. No having to put it back together, to come back too weak even to sit, wondering what you’ve forgotten. So yeah, I suppose that messes with your perspective a bit.”

“Go home, Dinadan Whistler. Go play your pipes and sing your songs and save your stories for somebody who cares. Quit concoctin’ messes just so you can leave off bein’ bored.”

Mom and dad drilled it into me that you never hit a woman unless she’s pointing a blade or a spell at you, but my hand still came up. She held my eyes as I lowered it. “This isn’t a game. It hasn’t been a game for years. This is about people—whether they’re Gifted or not—and whether they can get away with pushing other folks around. Arbonne didn’t ask to get killed any more than you asked to get your shop wrecked. I can’t let them just get away with it. Not when I know what it’s like to die, what it’s like to be pushed around on a bigger scale than any city on Crypt.”

Her sigh was somewhere between wistful and exasperated. “I liked you better when you were just a pretty boy buying me drinks, goat.” The fire’d gone out of her. “You really think you can change things.”

“Not really. Not for everybody. But I can try.”

“Then leave off talking to me and go try. You got no reason to hang ‘round here. Not if you’re really buying into your own stories. You want a job? Fine. Figure yourself out. I’ll pay you in shoes.”

She walked over, kissed me on the cheek, and gave me a gentle shove toward the door. It speaks to the depth of my confusion and my fatigue that I let her close it behind me.