by Trevor Hopkins

Chapter 1: Deadly Encounter
      Part 1
      Part 2
      Part 3
      Part 4
Chapter 2: Unexpected Call

The police cordon was working at its usual efficiency. Which was to say, it was barely up to the task of keeping out the rubbernecking sightseers and curious passers-by, and entirely unable to keep out a determined intruder. The intruder in question would be me, in this case. I don't make a habit of barging my way into crime scenes, by the way, but today I needed make an exception. Mainly because the victim, or at least the corpse, was somebody known to me; somebody I had been asked to track down; somebody a paying client had wanted me to talk to without delay.

From afar, I could just make out the body lying in a chalk outline in the area separated from the rest of the universe by the yellow-and-puce striped "Do Not Cross" tape which was strung raggedly across the street furniture. He looked relaxed, almost like he was taking a well-deserved nap in the middle of the busy shopping arcade. I could see him well enough to be certain of my identification but not enough to be sure in determining exactly how he had died.

Looking up, I could make out the bag-and-tag crew with their stretcher approaching from the opposite direction, preceded by the sharp aroma of formaldehyde that was instantly identifiable to the highly sensitive Goblin nose. They would be on the scene in a few moments. If I wanted to have a closer look before the body was disturbed by the official agencies, then I had to move quickly.

Sure, the police had already had a sniff around, flashing their cameras indiscriminately and trampling the cobblestones with their heavy boots. But experience has taught me that the average flatfoot copper generally misses all but a quarter of the clues and obliterates half of those that remain before somebody with more observational skills gets to inspect the scene-of-crime. There was no time to waste.

Getting through the few huddles of worried citizens and general hangers-on would not be a problem. I'm notably big and strong for a Goblin, and people usually shift themselves out of my way when they find me coming up from behind. They would just melt out of the way when I made my move. The official representatives of the law might be slightly more tricky, however.

I toyed for a moment with the idea of deploying a concealment or distraction glamour; I had several of each stashed away in the many capacious pockets of the overcoat I habitually wore. But those glamours cost money, and many of them are more than a little difficult to come by anyway - in some cases, requiring a visit to the kind of back-street emporium which are never to be found in the same place twice. Putting myself even more out of pocket without some prospect of recovering the expense from a paying client was something I did not need just at the moment.

The uniforms on the job were bored by now and distracted by the approach of the crew from the coroner's office. I decided I didn't need magic, I just needed attitude. I tugged down the brim of my hat into an even more rakish angle and stepped deftly under the police marker tape as if I had every right to be there.

A half-dozen measured paces took me to the corpse on the ground. There was no blood, no obvious signs of violence on the body. He could have died from natural causes, maybe a heart attack or sudden stroke, except for the fact that he collapsed in silence, clutching his throat but quite unable to cry out, surrounded by early afternoon shoppers and school-kids finding excuses to avoid going home.

The marks on his throat were clear; not finger marks, not the marks made by a rope or a garrotte, but the precisely spaced and delineated ovals of a constriction glamour. An outlawed magic, of course; a highly-illegal assassination weapon, and one which has been around in the Lower Realms for thousands of years. Difficult to get - especially nowadays, when people are afraid to even think about assembling such a magic - very expensive, and extremely difficult to counter. Somebody really wanted this guy reliably dead.

I knew what I was looking for, of course. My client - a moderately high-powered businessman and respectable collector of antiquities who deserves to remain nameless in these chronicles - had suspected that the dead Goblin - an erstwhile business partner - had stolen a small but valuable item from the shelves of his collection. My client wanted his property back, but without fuss: without the attentions of the cops, who might ask the wrong kind of question. The kind of question which inquired exactly how the item in question came to be in my client's possession. I don't ask these kinds of question - not often, anyway.

My client was prepared to strike a bargain, to pay money to have his own property returned to him. It was an odds-on gamble that the thief anticipated this: these rare artefacts are difficult to fence unless you have the right kind of contacts, so this was the best way of getting a stash at low risk, and then disappear afterwards. So my client made the offer over the phone, which was accepted with the minimum of negotiation, but when it came to the drop, the money went uncollected and the item remained absent.

So he had called me in. I had been on the thief's trail for several days, getting closer but somehow just missing catching up. Somebody else beat me to him, evidently.

The perp wasn't the kind of fool who would carry a valuable item around on his person. He would have stashed it, hidden it somewhere where it was protected by the force of law and custom, and the anonymity afforded by the even more formidable forces of the banking industry.

Three business cards were scattered on the ground, as if the perp had been holding them before he was struck down. I picked them up and inspected them closely. The first was from a bar, in a mid-town business area, the kind of place that respectable office workers would partake of a small one before sidling off home. There were some smudged marks around the last five digits of the telephone number, marks which could have been just random smuts. They weren't; this guy had been cautious.

The second card was from a restaurant in the same cavern as the bar. The kind of place one might go if the missus was out for the night with the girls, or whatever; a place to grab a convivial pizza and a glass of wine before home to a cold and lonely bed. No visible marks, just pristine cardboard and cheap printing.

The third card was a more elaborate affair, gilt-edged and embossed with crests and insignia. It looked more like real money than actual banknotes ever did. The card presented a minor bank, one with few branches and even fewer smuts on its reputation. A place where valuables could be deposited and retrieved with the minimum of fuss.

The message was clear. I stared at the cardboard scraps for a few moments, then let them flutter to the cobbles.

Part 2