by Trevor Hopkins

I woke up early after a broken night's sleep which left my mind unrested and my head buzzing with unasked questions and potentially useful snippets of information, if only I could bring their precise details into focus. I showered and dressed in a daze. I was out of coffee at home - an occurrence so unusual that I couldn't remember the last time it had happened - so I struggled out without it, remembering to drop in to David's Diner to get a take-out coffee on the way.

I like to use the office as a base for these investigations. It's usually very quiet, as well as convenient for coffee or beer or dinner from the diner on the corner. I can pick up phone messages, or mull over a case assisted by the medicinal whiskey in the desk drawer, and of course, I store a few useful items around the place - mostly in rather less conventional storage locations rather than, say, the desk drawers or the filing cabinets.

This time, though, there was a Goblin waiting quietly in my office for me. He had been sitting unmoving and silent in my guest chair, so that I hadn't noticed him until I actually entered. He stood politely as I barged in through the door clutching my coffee cup, slightly startling me with his movement. I'd like to think I recovered quickly from my surprise, although the stranger may not have been particularly impressed. I plonked the coffee on the desk, tossed my hat beside it and threw myself into the swivel chair.

"So who are you, then?" I said gruffly.

"My name is Duncrub," he answered without inflection, smoothly returning to his seat.

Duncrub was a tall blocky Goblin, probably more massive than me. We wore a well-cut business suit and a dark overcoat, which nevertheless left plenty of space under the armpits, I noticed. His face was serene and unlined, and calm grey eyes which were somehow never quite still watched me and kept the rest of the office under surveillance at the same time.

"Okay. And how may I assist you, Mister Duncrub?" I asked, leaning forward over the desk to grab my coffee cup.

"I work for..."

Here he mentioned the name of a government agency. It was a title I recognised, mainly from the strong and repeated denials of its existence that I had read in the newspapers. The name of this mythical agency is, I think, effectively untranslatable. Think of them as the Feds, the Secret Service, the Men in Black of the Lower Realms. They are the ones who enforce the real government policies, the ones which actually matter - as opposed to whatever random platitudes and mealy-mouthed promises are being espoused this month by the buffoons who run for election to public office.

Now, I've met more than my share of slippery customers, hardened villains and murderous thugs in my time, out and about on the streets. I've also come across a fair number of supposedly respectable business people, career politicians and captains of industry. None of them - none - managed to radiate the level of authority and calm menace that this guy did.

"I can believe that," I said, "Since I don't suppose you have anything resembling ID on you?"

He reached - with just two fingers, I noticed, so I wasn't alarmed - into his pocket and pulled out an identity card. It was glossy black, with the name "Duncrub" in large gold letters in the centre, with additional writing top and bottom, and flanked by a photo - fairly flattering, I thought - and a silver seal glittering with an established glamour which would make such an ID extremely hard to forge.

"Okay, thanks," I said, sipping from my cup, "And your reason for being here is?"

The ID card disappeared into his pocket again.

"This is to do with your investigations at the Stalactite Saloon," he said, "Your cooperation would be appreciated."

"I have a bit of a problem with that," I said carefully, "Client confidentiality and so on."

Agent Duncrub snorted, the ghost of a smile breaking his otherwise imperturbable features.

"It's not your client we're interested in," he said, "We want to know about Machany Fordun."

Part 32 Part 34