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.

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