by Trevor Hopkins

I held my automatic at the ready and cautiously explored the first few of the cross-passages. Nothing doing, as I was rapidly coming to expect.

Away from the plaza and its cordon of civic buildings, the area was a maze of well-kept stone-built townhouses a few stories high, with tall windows of many small panes and glossily-painted front doors decorated with polished brass fittings. The quarter was laid out on a rectangular grid - as some human cities are - but the lines of buildings were separated by no more than a walkway wide enough for two Goblins to pass without becoming uncomfortably intimate. Space down being here at a premium as it is, sweeping promenades and spacious boulevards are the preserve of the most fabulously wealthy neighbourhoods; for those merely well-to-do, a terraced house over several floors was highly aspirational accommodation. I could barely afford a tiny apartment in a run-down tower block. Not that I was jealous, of course.

I shrugged and returned the weapon to its holster under my coat. Plan B under these circumstances was to go and talk to the authorities, although not necessarily in the way everybody might expect.

I hurried back across the piazza and through the grand doors of the Court of Probate. The inevitable middle-aged receptionist had re-materialised at her desk and was now surrounded by a bevy of janitors, security guards and junior lawyers, all shouting at each other at cross-purposes. They would not have heard the gunshots, of course, the sounds having been suppressed by the privacy magic that Cairnie had deployed, but the sounds of running feet and the sight of two Goblins, one in hot pursuit of the other and both clutching firearms, would have been enough to alarm them.

Fortunately, none of the accumulated bystanders were in a position to intercept me at the entrance or to stop me from hurrying up the stairs. I can move quickly if I have to. I paused for a second to study the dust and marble chips on the landing area and glanced at the bullet holes just behind where I had been sheltering. A close call, I considered. It seemed I had been lucky, once again.

I ran on to the top of the flight, and then along the long echoing corridor set at decent intervals with heavy wooden doors, these too marked with engraved and highly-polished brass plates. Just like the town houses outside, I thought. At least the brass plaques led me straight to the correct place. There, I stopped, straightened my tie and took off my hat, and made a decent attempt to stand up straight and catch my breath. Then I knocked on the ancient wooden door and waited with such patience I could muster, resisting the temptation to burst in and shout out in alarm.

The door opened by one of the interchangeable and ancient legal clerks which, in my experience, seemed to attend Judge Kirkton at all times. Enumerating exactly their many functions was probably impossible, a cosmic mystery best not explored in any detail.

"Yes?" came the calm voice from under the lawyer's wig.

"Findo Gask, Private Investigator," I said clearly, "With an urgent message for Judge Kirkton."

The clerk opened his mouth to answer but, before he could utter a word, a second voice spoke, a voice brimming over with magisterial authority.

"Mister Gask? What are you doing here?"

The clerk stood aside, so that I could see the speaker. The Judge was seated in the centre of the far edge of a large square table, a table large enough to put plenty of space between potentially feuding parties on either side. Kirkton was flanked by another of the indistinguishable clerks, who was setting out folders and papers on the polished wooden surface.

Seated along one side of the table was Almon Methven looking as well-fed as ever, his expensive waistcoat wedged against the table edge by the bulk of his stomach underneath. Next to him was a skinny young Goblin with a sharp suit and an even sharper face - this is saying something for a Goblin - equipped with his own fat folder of documents and with "junior but ambitious lawyer" written all over him.

The opposite side of the table was presently unoccupied, although the positioning of coasters and water glasses suggested that at least two others were expected.

"A message," I repeated urgently, "From Miss Mayfield Westwood."

"And the message is...?"

"She apologises for being late," I replied, "She's been shot at, in this very building. A few minutes ago."

"Ah," said Judge Kirkton, visibly unperturbed, "Perhaps you'd better come in and tell me about it."

Part 52 Part 54