by Trevor Hopkins

Back outside, my first smoke already halfway down to the filter, I sorted through the coins for enough silver to satisfy the phone company while I tried desperately to recall the number of the local contact point, the intermediary service who would forward a call to my client - for a fee, naturally enough. This was one of half a dozen numbers I thought I had committed to memory some time ago but now seemed to be eluding me. Perhaps that bump on the head was affecting me more than I realised.

The phone service was busy the first four times I dialled, enough to make me wonder if I had recalled it correctly. I slammed the receiver back on its rest in frustration and stepped outside fuming to light another cigarette. Thirty-five seconds of blowing smoke and I had calmed down a little and was back into the kiosk to make another attempt. This time the call went through, and I gave the operator Clunie's name and her home cavern. After what seemed like an interminable delay, there were a series of clicks and the ring tone sounded out again.

I hoped that Clunie was at home, although I had no idea what time it was in that part of the Lower Realms. The phone rang and rang, then a sleepy voice answered: "Hello-oo?"

"It's Gask. Listen carefully."

"Findo!" she exclaimed, sounding suddenly much more alert, "Where are you? The police have been looking for you."

"Kincardy been sniffing around, has she?" I snarled.

"The police inspector? Skinny bitch," she sniffed, "Strolled in here as if owned the place. Asked me all sorts of questions which were none of her business. But mainly she asked where you were."

She waited for me to say something but I was still fumbling for another cigarette.

"So, where are you, exactly?" she added plaintively.

"On the surface," I said.

There was an audible gasp. So many Goblins are terrified of being in the open, with no ceiling over their heads, just empty space all the way to the stars.

"The surface! What are you doing there?" she squeaked, sounding alternately terrified and intrigued.

"Nursing an aching head," I answered, "Someone tried to split my skull open last night. Dumped me in a field."

There was another gasp, accompanied by some suspicious clicks that I did my best to ignore.

"Now, just listen, will you?"

I rushed to convey everything I had to say before my credit vanished into the ether. I advised her to stay calm and tell everything she knew to the police. Not that she knew very much. Nor did I, but I had a truck-load of suspicions that I couldn't prove and in some cases barely articulate. And in case someone else was in fact listening on the line, no-one could say that I wasn't cooperating fully with the cops.

My last few coins I retained for the second call, the one that would at least get me below ground again, although probably not so very comfortable once I got there. But at least it would be a public return. No way did I want Kincardy or anyone else spiriting me away, never to be seen again.

Up here, there's a number - several numbers, in fact - which all connect through to the lower realms cops, and it was this one that I dialled now. The police telephone operator must have received special training for talking in unintelligible monosyllables, but I managed to convey the urgency of my situation and the details of my location. The phone beeped and swallowed the last of the coins, then it went dead with the subtle finality of a Telco determined to extract the last penny of profit from their investments and their customers.

I took yet another cigarette from the fast-depleting pack. Perhaps I should have bought a larger packet, but I didn't have very much local currency left, and I might yet need the money. I leant nonchalantly against the phone box watching the ducks exploring the shallow muddy puddle that no doubt some people thought of as a picturesque feature. Otherwise the village was still and quiet, the human population still clinging to their duvets and dreaming of cafe latte in bed.

I didn't have long to wait. A yellow Mini Traveller with blacked-out windows screeched to a halt in the pub car park twenty minutes later. It contained two people, obviously Goblins both to the trained eye, who emerged from the car in a low roll that said they expected to be shot at.

I recognised the smaller of the two as he picked himself cautiously from the ground. He was a snaggle-toothed veteran who had been doing this job for forty years He had the notched ears and scarred face of one who had had more than his fair share of narrow escapes in the line of duty. I guess I was responsible for at least one of his narrower escapes and quite possibly one of the scars as well.

"Hi, Tarsapple," I said.

"Gask! I should have known," he snarled. "Dragged from my bed at this hour to recover somebody who should know better. Typical!"

I didn't say he was a friend, mind you.

"It's good to see you too," I said, in as care-free a manner as I could manage.

The driver of the Mini was a big Goblin but still self-evidently wet behind his expansive ears. He followed this exchange with his mouth open, his head turning back and forth as if watching a ball game from the sidelines. These special corps cops specialise in the recovery of Goblins from the surface and they claim to have a good return rate. I'd say that they were generally only effective when the Goblin in question, like me, actually wanted to get below. After all, we occasional bounty hunters wouldn't turn a profit if it was that easy to track down a skilful Goblin hidden in surface society.

Tarsapple turned to the junior.

"Glenshee, this is Findo Gask, a private dick and bounty hunter," he said with mock formality, "Also general pain in the ass. Watch out for him. He's trouble."

I stubbed out my cigarette under my heel and stood up straight, carefully showing my hands to the jittery policemen. Tarsapple opened the rear door of the vehicle he had arrived in and jerked his head to indicate his expectation.

"Get in," he said with his customary lack of civility.

I needed to duck a bit to fit through the Mini door but I soon settled myself reasonably comfortably in the back seat. Tarsapple scowled at me as he slammed the door shut before clambering into the passenger seat and bellowing through the window at Glenshee to get a move on. His junior scurried to the driver's side and got in, twisting the key in the ignition even before he shut the door. The engine roared to life and I was slammed back in my seat as the car jerked into motion.

Part 30 Part 32