The Case of the Tiny Man

by Richard Wolkomir

 

So I’m hearing two-ton feet clomp up the stairs to my office, and I’m smelling landfill, and I’m thinking: “Uh-oh.” I pull the .45 out of my drawer and lay it on the desk, my way of saying, “Howdy.”

Sure enough, the door opens—no knock, thank you—and it’s a troll. Big buster, too. He’s got to duck through the doorway. He’s wearing blue sunglasses. He’s also toting a jumbo rolled-up white parasol, which you can bet he carried opened outside, because if sunshine hits him, you’ve got a troll statue. He lowers himself into my client chair, and I’m thinking, you break it, you buy it. But it just creaks, and he sits glaring at me and reeking.

I’d open a window, except my office doesn’t have one.

To kill the aroma, I finger a smoke out of the pack on my desk and stick it in my kisser and butane it with my .45. Then I lean back, blow a smoke ring, give him the raised-eyebrows look.

“Need a shamus,” he grunts.

“Get an elf shamus,” I tell him.

“No,” he says. “You.”

He’s glaring at me with those cape-buffalo eyes, and I’m thinking, maybe—in demonstrating that my .45 merely ignites coffin nails—I erred. A real pea shooter would be helpful. But just now I’m short the kale.

“I don’t do magicals,” I tell him.

“Need a human,” he says. “You.”

“I don’t work over in Magictown,” I tell him.

“She says, this young man, he could sniff out a lost pickle in a pickle factory,” Big Stinky tells me.

“Who says?” I say, cracking wise. “My mother?”

“Yes,” he says. “Your mother.”

I’m thinking, Damn it, Mom!

She’s got this shop over where our half of the city nudges Magictown, and she sells everything organic and herby in there, from dried St. John’s wort to genuine fairy dust, flown in fresh every Friday from wee factories in Europe. She’s got human customers, from right here in Folkcity, plus all sorts creeping in from Magictown, a regular little shop of horrors.

“She says you need money,” says the troll. “Boss will pay $50,000.”

He had me at “need money.” At “$50,000” I felt faint.

But I play it cool—lean back, blow smoke rings at the tin ceiling. Big Stinky doesn’t need to know I’m three months into the shamus business, and so far my only case was a granny a-twitter because her heirloom earrings got heisted, and it turned out she’d absent-mindedly stashed them in the drawer with her undies. Twenty-five bucks for that. And the office rent due.

Big Stinky doesn’t say anything. Just watches me blow smoke rings. No expression except ugly.

“What’s the job?” I finally ask, faking a yawn, to indicate I sometimes do lower myself to accept a $50,000 case, but only if it offers both edification and spiritual development.

“You find the homunculus,” he says.

Okay, it’s edifying.

“Bring homunculus back,” he says.

Spiritual? You betcha!

“I’ll need a third up front, for expenses,” I say, like that’s my policy with these minor cases. “Also, I need facts, like what’s up?”

You can see he’s struggling to marshal his mosquito brain’s three neurons. But his strong suit is muscle. I figure he’s bodyguard for some Mr. Big, which is a bull’s-eye.

“I work in the Magictown Mayoral Personal Protection Division,” Big Stinky divulges. And then he whispers, as if invoking the deity: “Mayor Duskowl.”

“Ah,” I say, and blow another ring at the ceiling. “Wulf Duskowl won two gold medals in the Sorcery Olympics, then got elected Magictown’s mayor, slogan being ‘Let’s Have a Spell of Progress,’ and he gets kudos in the Magictown Monitorfor providing benefits to aging gnomes and boggarts, and orphaned pixies, and going after Saturday-night-special wands.”

I’m showing Big Stinky I’m up on his bailiwick’s news. I’m keeping it to myself that his ilk—Magictown’s citizenry—gives me the creeps.

“Election coming,” he says. “And the ogres…”

Turns out Mayor Duskowl’s up against the Ogre-Goblin Alliance in the next go-round, and they’re running on the platform, “Is It Dark Enough For You?” Wulf Duskowl and his Go-To-The-Light Party should be a shoo-in, but the ogres and goblins play dirty, zinging in well-placed spells, a hex where it hurts…

“Mayor needed a homunculus,” Big Stinky confides.

Duskowl, he says, contracted with Amalgamated Alchemical Laboratories, Inc., to brew a homunculus, which Big Stinky says is “a little guy, grows in a flask.”

I glean that a homunculus will magnify the mayor’s sorcery, double his whammy. And that will offset the ogre-goblin mud-balls.

But now the homunculus has gone missing. And a homunculus in bad hands…

“Went up in smoke?” I ask.

And I think Big Stinky’s going to cry.

“Long day—meetings and meetings,” he says. “Then a speech, then a soiree, and I’ve got to be watching because, well, you know how goblins are, and then it’s night, and I’m in the mayor’s office guarding the homunculus and…”

He looks, believe it or not, pathetic. The big lug.

“Hey, spill it,” I say. “I’m feeling your pain.”

“I fell asleep,” he moans. “On the mayor’s sofa.”

When he woke up, the next morning, no homunculus. He tells me nobody can get into the office but trusted aids, like him. Big Stinky’s convinced the homunculus went AWOL.

“Bugger!” he says.

He holds up his thumb, which is the size of my head: at the tip, it’s got a nasty bite mark.

“Homunculus, he’s a lemon,” Big Stinky says.

He tells me that Amalgamated Alchemical cut corners. For one thing, homunculus brewing’s main ingredient is a mandrake root dug up under a gallows. But the Magictown Fair-Trade Commission investigated—turns out Amalgamated got their mandrake root from a low-bid supplier, who claimed it was gallows certified, when it actually came from his backyard. Also, the Alchemical Regulatory Act stipulates a black dog must dig up the root before dawn on a Friday. But the supplier deployed his aged golden retriever, who slept in Friday, finally dug up the root on Saturday afternoon, then went back to sleep exhausted.

Net result: a malfunctioning homunculus.

“Why hire me?” I ask. “You’ve got plenty of elf shamuses over there.”

“Homunculus only talks to humans, the bugger,” says Big Stinky. “And he’s probably hiding over here in Folkcity, so we need a human shamus.”

“Okay,” I say. “I’m on it, just send my check—I’ll keep you informed.”

He picks up his parasol. He shambles to the door, taking his reek with him. Just as he’s about to duck out, I say, “Hey, one more question.”

He turns, stooped over, half in, half out.

“Who cleans the mayor’s office?” I ask.

“That would be Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services,” he says.

“Maybe I’ll give them a try,” I tell him. “Dust in here inflames my sinuses.”

I hear those two-ton footsteps clomping down the stairs and I’m feeling queasy. I’d vowed, no cases involving magicals. That their whole tribe has negative appeal, like a wart on your nose, that much I know. Otherwise, it’s all don’t knows.

I pocket my trusty .45—who knows?—and head for the obvious place.

Except, when I exit my edifice, across the street a twosome eyes me, a butterball of a guy and a woman with carrot-colored hair sticking up in that chic stuck-my-finger-in-a-light-socket look. He’s got a cast on one leg and a crutch and she’s got her arm in a sling, and they’re both peppered all over with Band-Aids. They pretend to check out omelet pans in the window of a used kitchenware store over there, but I’m not buying it. On the other hand, I don’t know what to do about it, either.

So off I go on my mission.

* * * * *

“Hey, Mom?” I say.

It’s a busy day at Piffin’s Naturals. Mom’s handing over a biodegradable corn-based plastic baggie, tied with a twisty and filled with yellow stuff, to a guy with pimples and a pallor who could probably benefit from just about anything. Meanwhile, a young woman is waiting to pay for three sticks of cinnamon, and behind her stands a gray-faced gnome with a bottle of Nature’s Glue.

I join the lineup, behind the gnome, and shout, “Mom—you know a big troll, wears blue sunglasses, smells like garbage?”

“Arlo,” Mom mouths at me. “Be polite.”

Now she’s ringing up the cinnamon sticks.

“That’s my son, Arlo,” she tells the young woman. “He wasted his childhood reading thousands of private-eye novels, and now he’s a shamus, when he could be helping the planet, like being an organic farmer, and that will be $6.57 for the cinnamon sticks, with tax, Janie—they’re particularly efficacious for your affliction if you brew them with jasmine tea.”

Janie stares at her purchase.

“You don’t think with rain-forest-friendly organic cocoa, Mrs. Piffin?” she asks.

“It’s your itch, not mine, dear, but I do think jasmine tea…”

Janie goes off to fetch jasmine tea. Now the gnome’s forking over a fiver for his Nature’s Glue.

“Mom,” I say. “About the troll…”

Mom sighs.

Addressing the gnome, she says: “I thought, since he’s a genius, he might get an exchange-student scholarship to Thaumaturgy U. in Magictown—he couldn’t be a clinical wizard, of course, but I thought maybe on the theoretical side…”

“Theoreticians are important, certainly,” says the gnome, pocketing his change. “Where else would the new spells come from?”

Mom sighs again, displaying her sad, disappointed look. Me, I’ve got my own disappointments. Like, since Dad took off for Nepal with a Starbuck’s barista, when I was three, Mom’s worn only black Victorian-era widow’s gowns, with little black bonnets, and who wants to bring fellow students home from the Folkcity Institute of Criminal Investigation to see that?

“Remember, don’t use too much glue, Edlok,” she tells the gnome. “And press the two pieces of bat’s wing together for at least five minutes, so it seals nicely.”

Exeunt gnome.

“Mom,” I say. “About the troll…”

“It was Grunlie,” she tells me. “He needed a human shamus, and guess who I said? Grunlie stops in for persimmon juice, for his digestion, and… Arlo, are you getting enough to eat?”

Now some guy in a gray suit comes over to pay for a broccoli-sprouts-and-organic-portabella-mushroom sandwich, with soy cheese, on organic spelt bread, in a biodegradable container made from compressed organically grown peanut shells. He’s looking at me, critical.

“This boy’s too skinny for a shamus,” he tells Mom.

He hands over his money, still eyeing me.

“Awfully young for a shamus, too—what, just out of college?” he tells Mom. “And he ought to lose that skimpy little mustache because it gives the impression he’s trying to look more mature.”

Mom, ringing up the transaction, sighs.

“Mr. Bridges,” she says. “You have no idea how many times I’ve told him to strengthen his chakras…”

She sighs again. Mr. Bridges shakes his head in sympathy with my mother’s burdens.

Exeunt Mr. Bridges.

By now Janie’s back with jasmine tea, which works well with cinnamon sticks versus the itch.

“Mom,” I say, “I’m on a big case here, and I’m wondering if any of your customers mentioned seeing a little guy around, small enough to take a nap in an orange-juice carton?”

Mom rings up Janie’s cinnamon sticks and jasmine tea.

“Well, somebody mentioned a human-headed pigeon perched up over the subway entrance at…”

But now Janie turns around and gives me a look.

“Funny you should mention that,” she says.

It turns out her boyfriend, just an hour ago, stopped for a brew at Sneaky Pete’s Tavern, three blocks from Piffin’s Naturals, and sitting in there on a bar-stool is a one-foot midget, wearing a Roman toga, totally skunked, buying beers all around, and regaling everyone in the establishment with a stream of invective targeting Magictown’s mayor, his assistants, and all the various races of magicals in general. So, like a slug from a revolver, I shoot out of there.

Then I shoot back.

“One question, Mom,” I say. “Ever hear of Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services?”

“No,” she says. “Have you tried the phone book?”

I give her look. And then I do shoot off to that tavern.

* * * * *

He’s there all right.

If he stood up real tall he’d be halfway to your knee. But, in fact, he’s lying on the bar on his back, snoring. His toga’s got a beer stain on it, but he’s got the face of a cherub. To me, though, he looks like $50,000. I just need to whisk him off to his rightful home.

Sneaky Pete, a bald beefalo with a seen-it-all look in his squinty eyes, is standing behind the bar wiping just-washed steins with a towel and clinking them onto a shelf. I give him a friendly wink.

“If you’re done with my Uncle Maynard here,” I say, nodding at the supine homunculus, “I believe Auntie Bridgett wants him home to help polish the silver.”

He gives me an “oh, yeah” look.

“Haul him out of here,” he says. “But not until—as his beloved nephew—you pay the thirty-two-bucks he owes, buying rounds.”

“Let me start a tab,” I say.

“Cash,” he says.

I’m thinking of snatching the little fellow and running like hell. But then I hear a woman’s voice behind me.

“Such a dear, cute teeny man, and that toga’s to die for,” she says. “Oscar, let’s pay his bill, as a charity.”

I turn, and it’s the woman I saw across the street from my office, with electrified red hair. Standing beside her is Mr. Butterball, and they’ve both still got their assorted casts, crutches, slings, and Band-Aids.

“We insist,” she says, snapping open her purse.

She extracts a Jackson, a Hamilton, and two Washingtons and slaps them onto the bar.

“Accept our family’s gratitude,” I say, scooping up the $50,000 homunculus before she gets her blue-enameled talons into him. “When Uncle Maynard wakes up, I know he’ll love you for it.”

“Our pleasure,” she says. “We’ll say our goodbyes outside, won’t we, Oscar.”

Her partner gives her a wink. I’m not liking this. But I’ve got the homunculus in my mitts, and I’m headed for the door, and I don’t see what these two bandaged-up semi- cripples can do about it.

Outside the bar, I feel something hard pushed into my back.

“That’s a .45,” says Oscar. “Hand over our little friend.”

“What you’ve got there,” I say, wry, “is a butane lighter shaped like a .45, examples of which I’ve seen.”

I feel the pistol withdrawn from my back. I turn, and Oscar’s holding the thing, looking at it.

“Why would you say that?” he says. “I paid a lot for this weapon in a gun shop this morning, and I’ve already test fired it in the alley in back of our apartment, and if you’re implying that I’m no good as a shopper…”

Clearly he’s got the nervous twitchies. Which bodes ill in a fellow waving a loaded Smith and Wesson. Especially since I notice we’ve got the street to ourselves.

“Look,” I tell him. “What I’m saying is, murder somebody for a midget, you sit on Old Sparky.”

“I’ll just shoot off your kneecap,” he says.

“Gimme,” says Carrot Top.

And she takes.

So now she’s holding the little darling, who’s still snoring. And I’m standing there with Oscar shakily pointing his popper at me. And I’m thinking, so what’s wrong with being an organic farmer?

“Turn around,” Oscar says.

When I do that, my head explodes, from getting hammered with Oscar’s pistol’s hilt. Next, I’m sitting on the sidewalk watching shooting stars. And when the fireworks end, I’m sitting there all alone, sans the $50,000 homunculus, but with a headache.

Which gets my gumption up. So I moan my way to a telephone booth and check the book.

* * * * *

I find the place squeezed between a plumbing equipment wholesaler and a glass-repair shop. Its faded window sign says: “Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services—We’ll Come Clean.” Smaller letters spell out “Oscar and Nadine Slocum, Proprietors.” It’s closed-up tight, nobody home.

At the glass shop next door, I check their phone book for Slocum. Then I’m on my way. But, en route, I duck into a pet store and purchase a kitty carrier, using the last of my fortune. So I’m toting that when I walk up the front steps of their grimy brick tenement, where a muscle-bound bearded guy in a black suit and a black fedora leans against the balustrade, smoking something black and acrid. He gives me a yellow-eyed look.

I check the foyer mailboxes, then slog up three flights, smelling various residents’ cuisine, mostly hotdogs. I fetch up at 3C, from which emanate thumps and thuds.

I’d guess the Slocums are practicing their free-style dance routine, except I also hear an “Ouch!” I can’t see anything through the keyhole. But I have in my pocket a wire for jimmying locks, which is illegal. But $50,000 trumps scruples.

I get the door open an inch, peep inside, and see Oscar on his keister beside an overturned lamp. He’s rolled up one trouser leg to examine a gash in his shin, and Nadine’s brandishing a kitchen chair, lion-tamer style, to ward off the homunculus, who’s waving a fork at her, yelling in a high squeak: “Fraternizes with the enemy!” Off to one side I see a chicken-wire cage, where I suppose they were keeping him, with the door busted open. I’m betting Oscar doesn’t have his automatic handy.

So I step right on in with my kitty carrier.

All three stop their mayhem and look at me. I pull out my own .45 and wave it at Oscar, then at Nadine, and forget to mention it’s only a smokes lighter. Then I turn my attention to the little fellow in the toga, still holding his fork and eyeing me, undecided.

“Hey there, Mr. Homunculus,” I say. “I’m with the Folkcity Anti-Kidnapping Squad—have you been abducted?”

“Hah,” he says, in that squeaker of a voice.

He peers at me, looking like an infant. Except that he’s a perfectly formed man the size of a squirrel.

“Don’t listen to him,” says Nadine. “He’s a shamus working for Wulf Duskowl and…”

I show her my .45, wordlessly threatening her with the wrath of butane. So she zips it and I give the homunculus a warm smile.

“Let’s get you out of here,” I tell him.

He narrows his eyes, expressing distrust.

“What’s Duskowl paying you?” Oscar says, from the floor.

“Our people will double it,” says Nadine.

“Trust ogres and goblins?” I say.

Now the homunculus puts down his fork and applauds.

“Ogres and goblins are slime,” he squeaks. “Wizards and sorcerers are puke, and elves, kobolds, pixies, kelpies, and imps are goat spit, and…”

Such thoughts have occurred to me. But squeaked out loud, they sound bigoted.

“Just because a few bad apples,” I start to say, “act in ways we might disapprove…”

But the homunculus sticks out his tongue at me and utters a Bronx cheer.

So I grab the little bugger by his toga and toss him into my kitty carrier and lock its door. He’s screaming curses at me and kicking the wires with his perfectly formed tiny foot.

“Toodle-oo,” I tell Oscar and Nadine, on my way out the door.

But then I back into the room again, because charging down the hall is the yellow-eyed creep in black who was hanging around the apartment house’s front stoop. And as he comes he’s transforming into a gangster-clothes-wearing wolf. I have a really bad feeling about this.

In his kitty carrier, where he is now sitting cross-armed and cross-legged, like a pipsqueak yogi, the homunculus proclaims: “Werewolves eat donkey dung!”

I’ve got my .45 out, pointed at the wolf’s drooling snout.

“Hold it right there, Rin-Tin-Tin,” I say.

I mean it to sound tough, but it comes out a shriek. Upon which the werewolf sits down on his hairy butt and starts silently laughing, shoulders shaking. He wolfishly grins, showing off his fangs.

“You took your time getting up here,” Nadine tells the werewolf. “And you people never told us the homunculus is a little jerk who bites and kicks and scratches and that he might bust free and go on a toot, and…”

A growl shuts her up. Wolfie gives them a yellow-eyed glare, then turns those yellow eyes on me. He crouches for a spring, planning a dinner of shamus tartare.

I’m thinking, maybe I can butane him, and then he’ll stop to hold his burnt nose. So I’m aiming my .45, except I’ve got my eyes closed, yearning for magical powers of my own, like the ability to change a werewolf into a werecanary, waiting for that hairy body to hit me, and the teeth…

But nothing happens.

I open my eyes and there on the floor at my feet stands a confused-looking canary.

So I hoist up the kitty carrier and evacuate the joint, drunk-lurching on rubber legs. I wobble down the stairs, and only after I’ve put a couple of blocks between me and Chez Slocum do I realize the homunculus shot out a little magic on my behalf.

I peer into the kitty carrier.

He’s sitting in his yogi position, arms and legs folded, scowling.

“Thanks,” I say.

He looks away, making it clear we’re not on speaking terms.

“Hey,” I say. “You’re the magical, not me!”

He won’t look at me.

But I’m looking at $50,000. It’ll almost make up for losing his friendship. Now I need to get him to Magictown’s City Hall without getting hexed. I figure they’ll be watching my office.

So I go to the obvious place.

* * * * *

“Hey, Mom,” I say. “My cell phone’s getting zero bars—can I use your landline?”

We’re sitting in her office cubicle, just off the shop, and she’s counting the day’s take. She looks up at me over her octagonal rimless reading specs.

“But I always get lots of bars here,” she says.

“Uh-oh,” I say.

I try the landline phone. It’s dead.

So I won’t be calling Big Stinky at the Magictown Mayor’s office, saying come collect the merchandise. I inch back the window curtain to peep at the street. Two goblins lean against separate telephone poles. Two more skulk in a doorway, smoking. They’re all wearing black fedoras. One wears a Miley Cyrus backpack. And they’ve all got their beady reds fixed on Piffin’s Naturals’ front door, which is its only door.

“They’ve blanked the phones,” I tell the homunculus, who’s sulking in his kitty carrier. “So you choose—Mayor Duskowl? Or those goblins out there?”

He gives me a raspberry.

“Look, give me some support here,” I say. “Pop some more magic—do it for the Gipper.”

He turns his back.

“Arlo, homunculi don’t do magic on their own,” Mom tells me.

“He just turned a werewolf into a werecanary,” I say.

“Oh, dear,” Mom says, giving me a wide-eyed look.

A bang on the door.

We’re disinclined to open it. So now the door gets the full running four-shoulder whamo. That busts its puny lock. It careens open, and I’m looking at four sets of red eyes.

“Arlo,” my mother says. “We have to talk.”

“Not a good time,” I say, pulling out my .45 and showing it to the goblins.

One of them lazily points a finger and the gun sears my hand. I drop it, trying to shake away the burn, which gives the goblins the giggles. Now they spot the homunculus in his kitty carrier, and my question is, do we get out of this still breathing?

I see my mother take a deep breath and sigh.

“Arlo, you should know your dad’s mother was an undine,” she tells me. “His father—your grandpa—met her at an inter-university mixer.”

Now the goblins start toward the kitty carrier, on a collision course with me. Because in this little cubicle I’ve got nowhere to duck.

“I thought you should know,” Mom says.

I get whammed onto the floor. I see goblin hiking boots pass over my prostrate form. I see a hairy goblin hand, claws badly needing a clipping, reach for the kitty carrier. I see the homunculus looking from me to the goblins.

I find myself longing—a deep, aching yen—for Big Stinky’s companionship.

The goblin holds up the kitty carrier, peering at the homunculus inside. The homunculus glares back.

“Goblins,” the homunculus declares, “are bat guano.”

Which causes the goblin to shriek and shake the cage, proving goblins are so sensitive it’s a wonder they get through their days. And do they always stash rope in their backpacks?

Because now Mom and I are sitting on the floor, each with our ankles tied together, and our wrists tied behind our backs. And the goblins are holding a meeting, of which I hear snatches.

“…witnesses…”

“…yeah, and the Elections Commission would…”

“Burn the place down, with them in it?”

Goblin giggling.

Out of the backpack comes a can of lighter fluid. A goblin pours the stuff around on the floor, whistling while he works. Meanwhile, another goblin digs in his pocket for matches.

“So, because of your paternal grandmother being an undine, Arlo, you’re one-quarter magical,” Mom whispers. “Which opens up the possibility…”

“Magicals disgust me,” I moan. “I’ve always despised them.”

“Arlo, that’s because of a suppressed childhood memory,” Mom says.

I’m watching the goblin finally strike a match. He stares at the flame, giggling.

“It’s my fault,” Mom whispers. “Because your father didn’t actually run off to Nepal with a Starbucks barista, which I told you because I was so mad at the hussy.”

She sighs.

“Actually, he ran off to Nepal with a succubus, whom I thought was sort of my friend and… I think you knew the truth, though, and it left you with this sad prejudice, as if one depraved, sex-addicted, toxic-waste-super-site of a succubus means the whole race of magicals is…”

I glumly watch the goblin lean down to ignite the puddle of lighter fluid on the floor.

“I’m only a quarter magical,” I tell Mom. “It’s not enough.”

“This homunculus is a magic magnifier,” Mom says.

I squint my eyes shut and think: snuff the match!

I open my eyes and the goblin is staring with irritated red eyes at a snuffed match. He reaches for another.

How big can I go with this, I wonder. Fill the room with pink fog that puts goblins—and only goblins—into a deep snooze? Probably beyond me. Also, I see the homunculus glaring at me from the kitty carrier. He hates goblins, he hates me. If he’s not a willing magic magnifier, does the enterprise fizzle? Now the goblin has match number two lit. I’m about to snuff it, when I notice that all four goblins hold lit matches. Which they throw onto the lighter fluid on the floor before I can say presto, and giggle around the resulting campfires, pretending to warm their hands.

One of them gives me an ironic salute, clawed forefinger to his forehead, and they start out the door with the homunculus in his carrier. And I’m thinking, there goes the magic.

“Arlo, do something,” Mom says.

And I’m really, really wanting to. But all I can think of is “rabid canary,” remembering my werewolf triumph.

Next, all four goblins back into the cubicle again, where the fire is crackling and it’s getting smoky—a werecanary is flying at them and pecking, while they try to swat it away. I squint my eyes again and wish real hard and when I open them the fires on the floor are snuffed.

But now, while two goblins swat at the attacking canary, which is executing barrel rolls and nosedives, the other two gaze at the homunculus, then at me, with wild surmise. They start toward me with a red glare in their eyes.

I squint my eyes shut and wish away my ropes. Which works. I stand, retrieve my .45 from the floor, squint again, wish again, and voila! I am now holding a genuine automatic, which I point at the goblins, figuring that if they point at my hand to give me the burns, the trigger gets pulled.

So we’re all glaring at each other when something big and smelly, wearing blue sunglasses, shoulders through the doorway.

“Hey, what took you so long?” I say.

“Your message comes, all funny and hard to understand,” he says, one-handedly grabbing two goblins by their shirt fronts and with his other paw grabbing two more, and holding them up like chickens he just bought at the Chinese market.

Coming in behind him is a skinny guy, not much older than me, wearing a wizard’s robe.

“I’m Wulf Duskowl,” he says, taking in the scene.

“I’m Arlo Piffin,” I say. “And in that kitty carrier is your homunculus, and you’re welcome to him.”

“Did you know we’re distant cousins?” Duskowl says.

Turns out my paternal grandmother, the undine, was his maternal grandfather’s sister. Are we all family, or what?

“How do you feel about nepotism?” he asks.

* * * * *

So that’s how I come to be sitting in my new office, over here in Magictown. Sign on the door says: “Mayoral Bureau of Special Investigations, Arlo Piffin, Director.”

Salary? Substantial.

Benefits? Cool.

Satisfaction? Not bad, except for the reek—Big Stinky’s got the office next door. And the homunculus has his tiny desk beside mine, and we don’t get along.

 

Justice Is Served

by Angela P. Wade

 

“Flesh and blood, what kind of place does she think I’m running here!”

My landlady’s words, uttered in a scandalized hiss I suppose she thought was a whisper, were directed at the woman who had just walked in the front door of the Snake and Egg tavern. I frowned, trying to get a better look at her. I’d assumed she was an elf. She was dressed like an elf: all bright patterns, flashy tassels, and fringes, with every hem and corner of her clothing hung with coins and beads until she jingled when she moved. Her necklaces alone must have weighed nearly twenty pounds. But she didn’t look like an elf. A scarf (also hemmed in coins), covered most of her features, but from what I could see of her face, and her ring-encrusted hands, her skin was nearly as pale as mine.

She was still trying to adjust to the dim light inside the tavern when a couple of drunks, holdovers from the night before, saw her and jumped to the same conclusion Sadie Brewer had.

“Lookit there!”

“Well, it’s a bit early for the likes of her to be going to work!”

“Most likely she’d done working, and looking for a place to rest!”

“She’s a fat ’un—for an elf, leastways.”

“Didja know they eat pig feed? Here, piggy, piggy! Come pig, pig, pig! We’d like a taste of pork over here, we would!”

She held her head up proudly and ignored them. They continued making animal noises at the woman, and even louder and less-savory comments. I felt my face flush in indignation. No one should be oinked at, I thought, not even a whore. I got up from my breakfast and crossed the hall in a few swift strides.

“May I be of assistance, ma’am?” I asked.

She looked me up and down, taking in, I presume, my unusual height, the elaborate nature of my clothing, and my fiery red hair. “You are the man I’ve been looking for,” she said bluntly. The drunks collapsed in giggles. I blushed furiously, despite the suspicion that she was referring to my professional services.

“You are the one they call the Red Mage, yes?” she continued.

“Yes I am. Edward Red Mage. How may I be of service?”

“I have heard that you are a great sorcerer, that you find truth wherever it lies, and that you are a friend to elves,” she said. “I believe a murder has been done. I need proof. Can you tell if a man has been poisoned?”

I was a little surprised by the “great sorcerer” bit—I thought of myself as a fairly competent wizard-for-hire, but that was all. Obviously the stories going around about my activities the previous summer were getting better in the telling.

“Can you tell if a man has been poisoned?” she repeated. “I rode two hours from Portsmouth to find you.”

“Yes, ma’am, I can,” I said. “I can detect the presence of poison, at any rate. It’s quite simple…”

“Then return with me at once. My carriage is waiting outside.”

“Let me get my tools,” I said. I threw one last, longing glance at my porridge, now congealing into a gray clot in my bowl, and bounded up the stairs, two at a time, to fetch my bag and a cloak.

* * * * *

The woman was waiting by the door, an impatient frown creasing her dark eyebrows. We stepped outside into the winter dawn. It was cold. My breath fogged the air, the walls of the tavern were laced with frost, and even the muck of the street was frozen solid. And it was still nearly dark. Normally, I wouldn’t have been awake so early, but it had simply been too damned cold to stay in my cot, and I’d come down for an early breakfast, hoping that warmth in my belly would eventually spread to my hands and feet. No chance of that now, I thought ruefully. Who is this woman? I wondered, as I helped her into her carriage and climbed in behind her, and who has died that she’d have her coachman take her out looking for a wizard two hours before dawn?

She was one of the more attractive women I’d seen, I decided as the light increased. The drunks’ comments notwithstanding, she was not particularly large. She did have, however, a spectacular bosom. The low roof of the carriage caused me to stoop, and, since I was seated across from her, I had a very good view of what cleavage was still visible under the mass of her jewelry. Large breasts and fair skin were not features generally associated with the dark complected, slightly built elves. The shape of her eyes and ears, though, were definitely elven, giving her an exotic glamour. I wondered if she was of mixed race. When she finally spoke to me, as the carriage clattered over the South Gate Bridge out of Belcamp, she confirmed my suspicion.

“My name is Zora,” she began, looking through a gap in the carriage’s window-curtains at the hovels of the elves, which clustered at the foot of the bridge. “My grandmother, widowed and childless at an early age, joined the other elf women who work the South Gate. My grandfather was one of her clients, she never knew whom. My mother, wanting more from life but unable to seek a better trade, gave herself as a virgin to a nobleman who desired a mistress. My father was a Lord among your people, though your law does not recognize me as even existing. I followed my mother’s path, and until last night, I was the mistress of Baron Hubert of Portsmouth.”

“What happened last night?” I asked.

She smiled ruefully. “Hubert got married. And then he died. When I came to him, several years ago, he was a widower with no heirs. I always understood he intended to marry again. I had no quarrel with young Agnes Glazier. Hubert had promised to rent a home in Belcamp for me, and support me until…” She paused. “He owed me nothing according to the laws of your people, but he was a fair man, and he did love me.”

“Did you love him?”

Zora shrugged. “He was good to me. I was grateful.”

“What makes you think he was poisoned?”

The courtesan laughed, a bitter, barking sound. “The servants say he ate himself to death. Now I ask you, does that make sense? That a man would willingly eat until it killed him?”

A couple of my sisters had often avowed that that would be my fate, but I had tried not to take them too seriously. “No, Mistress Zora, it does not. I think you had better tell me everything that happened last night. Don’t leave anything out. Sometimes the smallest details can be the most important.”

As we rode, she told me her story. The marriage of old Baron Hubert to Agnes Glazier had been arranged for some time, and had only been postponed until she came of age. Her father, Arnold Glazier, was common-born but wealthy, the head of the glass-workers guild. I had encountered him before. He was cold, brusque, and businesslike. I could believe he could marry a sixteen-year-old girl to a sixty-year-old widower, if it meant combining his money with a title and control of a prosperous city. I was not sure I believed he could murder. In my opinion he was too much of a stickler for rules.

Zora had been no secret to anyone in the Baron’s court, and although he had agreed to give up her company as a condition of the marriage, Hubert had insisted she still remain part of his household and had even gone so far as to insist she be present at the wedding feast, though seated at the far end of the table.

“I think Arnold Glazier poisoned the truffles,” Zora told me. “He presented Hubert with a gift of rare truffles—to ensure the birth of a male heir, he said.” Zora sniffed. “They were served in a dish with oysters. I remember Hubert saying they didn’t taste right.”

“So he didn’t eat more than a taste of them?”

“Oh, he ate them all right. He would eat anything. But I remember he said he didn’t think the oysters had been cleaned properly. Personally, I think it was the truffles. I think Glazier poisoned Hubert, so that Agnes would become sole Baroness. Then Glazier could control all of Portsmouth through her, and not just Glass Island.

“I was not there when he died,” she continued. “One of the maid servants, who has been a friend to me, came and woke me and told me what had happened. Hubert had gone to his bedchamber with his wife, complaining of pains in his belly. Not ten minutes had passed before Agnes came calling for help, saying Hubert was dying. He was vomiting blood, and as the servants watched, he went into convulsions and died.”

The more I heard about this case, the gladder I was I’d missed breakfast.

“He could very well have been poisoned,” I said. “As head of the glass guild, Arnold Glazier would have access to any number of deadly pigments—the substances used to give glass color. I know as little about the process as anyone outside the guild, but my grandfather is a book-copyist, and he taught us all very early never to get any of the ink or paint in our mouths. I’m sure the glass-makers’ colors are made of the same stuff, and just as deadly when swallowed.”

“So you believe that Glazier murdered him?”

I paused. “I have met Arnold Glazier before. He was serving as a King’s Judge at the time. I thought him to be a man who revered and obeyed the law, if a bit cold. But the thought of ruling a city would be enough to tempt many men.”

Zora looked earnestly into my eyes. “It means everything to me that Glazier not be allowed to take control of Hubert’s household. He will cast me out penniless, I know it. I am too old to seek another place, and besides…” She paused. “I have other considerations. I will pay you whatever you ask if you can prove Hubert was poisoned. I have jewels that are my own,” she said, indicating her necklaces, “gifts from Hubert, and, if they are not enough…” She smiled meltingly at me. “I belong to no man now.”

I’m sure even in the dim light inside the carriage Zora could see my face redden. “Ah… I… um… ah… I would never, um, presume to, ah, take advantage of a woman in her time of bereavement.”

* * * * *

Glazier seemed to have things well in hand by the time we entered the great hall of Castle Portsmouth. His daughter Agnes, a tiny, simpering child-woman, was seated at the head of a large table, as befitted her new rank, surrounded on both sides by nobles and clergy, no doubt dispatched by the King to oversee her succession as Baroness. A sea of parchment washed the table before her, and she was industriously signing everything in sight. But it was Arnold Glazier, standing at Agnes’ right hand, who was reading the documents and showing the girl where to sign. No doubt remained in my mind as to who the new ruler of Portsmouth really was.

Everyone looked up as we came in. It would be impossible for Zora to make a subtle arrival; her coin-spangled clothing made a sound that echoed the length of the hall. Glazier appeared truly surprised to see her.

“You’ve come back?” he said.

“Of course I have,” said Zora. “Did you think I wouldn’t?”

Glazier raised his eyebrows at the woman. “I had assumed you had seduced the coachman and fled with him. You had taken all your wealth…”

“All my wealth?” Zora cried, striding across the hall toward the table. “You meant these?” she said, clutching at her necklaces. “They are nothing! They are trash!” She pulled one from her neck and threw it to the ground, snapping the cord and scattering beads the length of the hall. “How could you think I would leave when my greatest treasure lies here?” She turned to a mass of servants who stood huddled at one side of the hall. I noticed that a large number of them seemed to be elves.

“Evan!” she cried. “Where is Evan?”

A small boy, no more than six or seven, burst loose from a knot of elven servants and ran to Zora, who fell to her knees to embrace him.

“Here I am, Mama!” he said. So, I thought, this is her “other consideration”.

A balding, middle-aged cleric, a priest of Saint Gabriel by his white robes, plucked nervously at Arnold Glazier’s sleeve. “Master Arnold,” he said, “who is this, ah, person?”

“I apologize for the intrusion, Father Reynard. That person,” said Glazier, not bothering to hide his distaste, “was the late Baron’s lover. He had agreed to send her away. You will find it in the marriage contract. The boy is hers. Doubtless she has come to claim he is Hubert’s heir.”

“Evan is Hubert’s son,” said Zora, dark eyes flashing, “but I know the laws of your people well, and I know he can not be his heir. I am not here to try and claim Portsmouth for him. I am only here to protect him, and to seek justice for his father, whom I know was poisoned!”

The crowd began to buzz at this, and a tall, gaunt priest, this one in the robes of Saint Tannis the Healer, stepped forward.

“Please, please, everyone, be silent,” he said. “The last thing the Temple or the Crown wants to see is the spreading of vicious rumors. Mistress, I am certain you are deeply distressed at the sudden death of your, ahem, benefactor, but I can assure you his passing, though regrettable, was natural. I myself have examined his body, and have determined that he died of a sudden seizure of either the heart or the brain. Such deaths are not uncommon among men of his years and, ah, great physical stature.”

“Holy brother,” I said, stepping forward at last, “I agree with you that the last thing Portsmouth needs is a flood of rumors. My name is Edward Red Mage, and I have come equipped to prove or disprove the woman Zora’s accusation with a simple test.” I turned to Glazier, the real authority in the room. “Surely you will allow me to lay her suspicions to rest, for the sake of your daughter’s reputation and future rule of this city.”

“I should have known you would show up here,” said Glazier, looking me up and down. “Edward Red Mage, champion of the downtrodden, self-proclaimed savior of helpless elves.”

“Master Arnold, I proclaim myself savior of nothing. I simply want to see the truth known here. May I perform my tests? This worthy Brother of Saint Tannis may observe me.”

“Be my guest,” said Glazier. “I have nothing to hide.”

* * * * *

The test for poison is simple enough. A curl shaved from a bit of unicorn’s horn is dropped in the matter to be tested, in this case the dregs and ends of the Baron’s last meal, and spittle from the corpse itself. If the horn turns black, there is poison present. If it stays blue, there is none.

The horn stayed blue. Even in the drippings of sauce from the dish of truffles and oysters, which had been carefully preserved by the servants (probably friends of Zora’s).

The priest of Tannis and I returned to the hall, where the household was still assembled, with our findings.

“We are pleased to report that the Baron was not poisoned,” said the priest. I wisely remained silent. “The wizard concurs with me. Hubert of Portsmouth died of natural causes.”

Zora, standing near the servants with Evan still clutched protectively to her side, appeared shocked. Baroness Agnes smirked. Master Arnold looked at me in mild surprise.

“You are not going to insist upon your accusation, Master Wizard?” he asked.

“I only insist upon truth,” I said. “I found no trace of poison, either upon the Baron or in the remains of the wedding feast. Mistress Zora,” I said, turning to her, “please lay your suspicions to rest. Your patron was not murdered.”

For the first time that morning, I heard Agnes speak. “The presence of that woman offends us,” she said in the voice of a little girl. “My husband promised me she would leave the household,” she said, standing up from her chair. She was hardly taller. “Get rid of her.”

The servants stood frozen, looking at one another. Obviously Zora had been popular.

“You heard the Baroness,” said Glazier. “Throw the whore out! And take back all that she has stolen.”

“Stolen?” cried Zora in righteous fury. “I have stolen nothing! All that I have Hubert gave me out of love. But if you must stoop to calling me a thief, then I will leave with nothing more than I came with—my flesh and blood.” With that she began throwing her jewels and clothes to the ground in a pile, her necklaces and bracelets, her gold-fringed cape and embroidered robe, her scarves and spangled gown.

“Stop right there!” commanded Glazier before she could pull off her last shift. “Let it not be said that I cast you out naked. Go as you are. And take your bastard with you.”

“I intend to,” said Zora, clutching her wide-eyed child to her with bare, tattooed arms. She turned as if to leave the hall.

“Master Arnold,” I cried. “I beg a favor of her Excellency. May I borrow her coach to return to Belcamp?”

“Certainly,” said Baroness Agnes. “Take that woman with you if you like. I care not where she goes, so long as she is gone.”

On our way to the carriage, I gave Zora my cloak. “You have been most ill-used,” I said to her. “I would not have you take cold and die as well.”

* * * * *

Zora said nothing to me on the long ride back. She sat wrapped in my cloak, looking out at the passing landscape from behind the edge of the window curtain, lost in her own thoughts. Her son sat in her lap and peered out of the cloak at me with huge and wondering eyes. Finally I spoke.

“Mistress Zora, my landlady Sadie Brewer, mistress of the Snake and Egg, will be happy to find a place for you.”

The courtesan looked at me in mild amusement. “As a tavern servant? Waiting tables and scrubbing pots? I, who shared the bed of a Baron and bore him his only son?” She shook her head. “Leave me at the foot of the bridge,” she said. “I still have friends at the South Gate, friends who owe me favors.”

* * * * *

I returned to the smell of bacon grease and a minor disaster at the Snake and Egg. Sadie was back in the kitchen, bellowing at Dick, the youngest and clumsiest of the cooks.

“What’d you have to go and drop that bottle there for?” she wailed. “You’ve probably got shards of glass all in my cookpot now—I’ll have to throw out a dozen chickens, I will, and me with all the pastry ready for pies!”

I was famished, but I knew better than to enter that kitchen.

“Now Sadie,” her husband Nat was soothing, “the boy didn’t mean it. And the chickens are fine. Look—all the glass is down in the floor. Now you tell me how is any of it going to have got way up there in your pot?”

Sadie hrumphed something I couldn’t make out.

“The chicken’s fine. Go ahead and make your pies.”

“Well, all right,” Sadie said, “but it’ll be on you and Dick if I find myself serving broken glass to the good people of Belcamp…”

* * * * *

Some time later I was holed up in my private corner of the beer cellar, quietly enveloping one of Sadie’s chicken pies. I tried, and failed, not to think about the possibility of glass in the filling. I wondered what broken glass in a dish would taste like, if it were too fine to be seen. Gritty, I supposed. Like sand.

Like sand in dirty oysters.

Sadie’s dog was thrilled to receive the leavings of my pie as I dropped it to dart up the stairs out of the cellar and into the street. Baron Hubert’s funeral was scheduled for sunset, and I had barely enough time before that to confirm my suspicions.

Before going to Portsmouth, though, I went to the Great Temple of Belcamp to beg the aid of the Order of Saint Morganna. The Morganites are responsible for the proper treatment of the dead, and I had learned in the past not to go poking too closely at a corpse without their consent. Mother Lillian, the elderly head of the order, was so shocked by what I had to tell her, she not only loaned me her right-hand priestess, Sister Viola, but also a carriage to take us to Portsmouth.

* * * * *

“What are you doing back here?” Arnold Glazier demanded as I burst back into the hall, followed by the black-robed Sister Viola.

“Some doubt still remains regarding the death of the Baron,” I said.

“But you said he died of natural causes!” squeaked Agnes indignantly. “His funeral is to begin in less than half an hour!”

“I have here,” I said, holding out a parchment, “an order bearing the seal and signature of Mother Lillian of the Order of Saint Morganna of the Great Rose Temple of Belcamp to examine the body and do whatever I feel necessary to prove or disprove that the Baron was murdered. The funeral can wait until I am finished. Sister Viola here and Brother Davyth of the Order of Saint Tannis can witness.”

“Father, this is intolerable!” Agnes protested. “Make them go away!”

Glazier, however, had taken the scroll from my hands and was reading it over. “I say, this is preposterous!” he said, rolling his eyes in disbelief. “You and that elf woman are grasping at straws—I swear I’ll find the whore and have her horsewhipped!”

“Zora has nothing to do with this,” I said. “This was my idea. If I am wrong, you can have me horsewhipped!”

“Whip him now, Father,” said Agnes. “He insults our court!”

Glazier shook his head. “I don’t know how he got the clergy to go along with this, but a command from the Temple must be obeyed. Examine the body,” he said to me. “It is lying in the chapel. Do whatever appalling, disgusting thing you must, but you’d better have that body presentable for the funeral when you’re done. Sister Viola, Brother Davyth, and Father Reynard here can all watch you. But I assure you, no one here did anything to harm the Baron, and when you’re finished, I hope you’re prepared for me to bring you up on charges of slander and the sacrilegious mutilation of a corpse!”

* * * * *

In my experience, there are two types of noblemen, active and passive. The active types are obsessed with fighting, riding and hunting, and their vices tend to dueling and promiscuous lechery. The passive sort is preoccupied with money and luxury, is prone to gluttony and drunkenness, and is usually uncommonly fat. Baron Hubert had fallen into the latter category. Cutting into his corpse reminded me of the time I had once seen fishermen butchering a whale. I had to borrow a large knife from the kitchen, as my brass athame was wholly inadequate to the task. It was a bloody, slimy, wretched job, not to speak of foul-smelling, and both Brother Davyth and I found ourselves up to our elbows in the Baron’s bowels before I found what I was looking for. But I did find it.

I decided against cleaning up before returning to the court. I figured the gore would make my evidence more credible. The clerics and I were met with audible gasps as we entered. Both Davyth and I were smeared liberally with blood, and the priest carried a bowl full of some loathsome substance.

“Bring us a large bowl, a pitcher of water, and a white cloth,” I commanded, my usual shyness dissolving under the weight of my discovery. Glazier was simply too appalled to protest, and Agnes had gone pale. After an awkward pause, several servants scurried to obey me. When they returned, and the clean bowl was placed on the table, I had one of the servants stretch the cloth out over it. Davyth emptied his bowl out onto the cloth.

“Now,” I said, taking the pitcher of water from the third servant, “these clerics will all testify that this here,” I said, indicating the noxious mass Davyth had dumped out, “was taken from the stomach of the corpse, and nothing has been added to it.” I slowly poured the water over it. “Mixed with the food he had eaten, we discovered…” I began mucking, very carefully, through the slop with my fingers. “Ground glass.” I poured a little more water, using the cloth as a filter, until a small pile of glittering grains stood out against the fabric. “Someone had put ground glass into his Excellency’s food, probably in with the oysters where it might be mistaken for sand. It irritated his stomach until he went into a violent spell of vomiting, which brought on his fatal fit. I am sorry,” I said, looking around the room at my nauseated listeners, “to have to present the case so graphically, but Father Reynard, Brother Davyth, Sister Viola, and myself no longer have any doubt but that Baron Hubert was murdered.”

Arnold Glazier stood blinking for a few moments, apparently in a state of shock. “And… And I suppose you all assume I did it? Because I work in glass? Has it occurred to you that anyone could have crushed a bottle or jar and put a few shards in his Excellency’s food?”

“I do not pretend to be familiar with the workings of your guild, Master Glazier,” I said, “but Father Reynard, who has the clerical oversight of all the artisans in the kingdom, is of the opinion that the glass is fine enough to be the sort used in enameling figured window panes.”

Glazier’s shock gave way to cold fury. “And don’t you think it’s possible that someone could have chosen this means of murder to implicate me? It’s obvious what’s happened here! That Zora woman did it, so her son could inherit the coronet.”

Father Reynard stepped forward at this point. “Mistress Zora would have found it difficult to steal enameling powders from Glass Island,” he said, “as only guild members and their families are even allowed to set foot on it. It is my opinion that you, Master Arnold Glazier, have murdered your son-in-law, in order to gain control of Portsmouth.”

“That is obscene!” Glazier shouted. “How can you possibly believe…”

“We have already sent a servant with a message to the King,” began Father Reynard. I was just wondering how long it would take the King top get the message and dispatch a troop of soldiers to arrest Glazier, and whether or not Glazier would have ordered his own servants to kill us all before then, when, without warning, Agnes began screaming.

“I don’t care!” she shrieked. “I don’t care! I don’t care!”

Everyone in the hall, who had previously been mesmerized by the argument between Glazier and the priest, turned to look at the girl.

“I don’t care! I don’t care if I die, I don’t care if I hang, I couldn’t do it! I just couldn’t do it!”

Her face was blotchy, her eyes were stark and staring, and her breath came in the ragged gasps of hysteria.

“Agnes, what in God’s name are you talking about?” demanded Glazier. “Pull yourself together!”

But the girl was beyond reason. “This is all your fault!” she shrieked. “You were going to make me, and I couldn’t! I couldn’t!” She was sobbing now. “I couldn’t be the wife of that gross, disgusting old man! I’d rather have died! I couldn’t, couldn’t… He was horrible! I hated him! He made me sick! I’d rather die…”

Glazier stared at his daughter, dumfounded. “Agnes,” he said softly, “what are you saying?”

“I did it! I killed him! I watched him die and I’m glad! I’d rather hang than have let him touch me!”

* * * * *

As the Baroness of Portsmouth, however, Agnes was entitled to beheading. Out of consideration for her age and obvious madness, she was drugged beforehand. Her end was much more merciful than her husband’s had been. Of course her execution left the city of Portsmouth without a ruler. The King’s advisers, after much deliberation and delay, admitted that in cases where a man dies without legitimate heirs, a bastard may inherit. The son of a courtesan became the Baron of Portsmouth.

Zora might not have known as much about kingdom law as she had thought—but as Baron Evan’s guardian, she learned quickly enough.


Author’s note:

Although the memoirs of Edward Red Mage are based in a world wholly fictitious, this particular story was inspired by historical fact, or at least legend. Reay Tannahill, on pages 238-239 of Food in History, recounts that in 1368 the Duke of Clarence was reported to have died of a surfeit of truffles at his marriage feast.

I smell a rat.