by Trevor Hopkins

I stood up, put my glass gently on the blotter, retrieved my hat from its perch on the edge of the desk and then stuck out my elbow for her to take. These gentlemanly urges will be the death of me one day, I suppose. Tillyfor glanced up at me, put her own glass next to mine tidily, then unfolded herself from the chair in one smooth movement. She was quite a girl, poised and elegant, not in the least bit ungainly even on those teetering high heels. And seemingly unaffected by the large-ish shot of strong drink she had just put away. Even so, she took my offer of a supporting arm gratefully.

I guided her down the stairs - tugging the rather badly-fitting door closed behind us - and out through the rather unprepossessing lobby of the office building onto the pavement. We strolled the five blocks to the closest transit tube entrance, jostled for a few minutes from one connection to another and finally emerged in Thwarthammer cavern.

The whiskey seemed to have loosened Tillyfor's tongue, even if it had not unsteadied her gait, and she chatted almost cheerily as I guided her along the street. She didn't add anything to the information she had imparted earlier, but gossiped merily about this neighbour keeping an unsanctioned pet, the noisy arguments of that old couple, and the mystery of the brother and sister who had long shared the other apartment but were never seen together outside.

This cavern was an old-fashioned suburb built long before the fashion of mimicing human buildings had really caught on. It was a veritable warren of stairs and platforms forming a gently sloping terrace, with the residences - all low-rent, but mostly kept as well as one could on a very modest budget - set into the natural rock itself. Goblins like the security of caves, the sense of protection from the outside; my grandmother would have felt entirely at home here, five hundred years ago.

I showed Tillyfor to her door and politely declined the offer to come inside. This was more for self-protection than gentlemanly conduct: I wanted to make sure she understood both our roles in this particular drama. She didn't seem particularly upset about this. I also declined the offer of a cash advance, even when she extracted a few bills from inside her expensive fur coat and waved them under my nose.

"I'll write you an invoice," I promised wryly, "Send it to you. I know where you live."

She seemed more surprised at this refusal than the other one.

"Good night, Mister Gask," she said, turning to face me as she stepped over her threshold, "And thank you again for helping me."

"Yeah, I'll be in touch," I replied gruffly. I didn't specify when.

I spent a few minutes poking around the area where Tillyfor claimed she had sighted Balloch. The place was a natural warren, with narrow streets and steps and alleyways everywhere. I could disappear in a dozen directions from this spot, even without the aid of an expensive glamour. So Balloch could have been here - or at least somebody who looked like him - and whoever it was might have had something to do with the disappearance of Tillykerie. Or it could have been a coincidence. Tillyfor's sister could have run off on her own, if she'd wanted to, and nobody would be the wiser.

I was wasting my shoe-leather here. It was time to look up on an old friend, one who once made a promise I could call upon, an old favour I had thought I would never need to use.

I tugged my hat down further over my eyes, turned on my hell and strode briskly off in the direction of the transit tube entrance. Nobody tried to follow me.

Part 8 Part 10