I was on my way to visit a client; indeed, a very nearly ex-client, assuming that he didn't come up with a further surprise assignment for me. He was one which here must remain nameless - I have no desire to risk unnecessary entanglements with lawyers - although, for those of you read the gossip columns of the trashier newspapers, his identity would not come as a complete surprise.
It had been a high-profile divorce case: dirty work, but somebody's got to do it. Besides, it paid well enough. I had spent several weeks tailing his wife - armed only with a camera with a powerful zoom lens - who was, as it turned out, enjoying the most intimate company of another while his back was turned. It was just a pity that the one whose company she preferred turned out to be his most recent mistress but one.
Anyway, the client had got what he wanted - or at least what he said he wanted - a quickie divorce with a minimal settlement, keeping his millions intact for his own enjoyment, or at least ready for the taking by the next unscrupulous gold-digger he happened across.
I too was seeking money for favours advanced, although in this case it was extracting payment for a bill for investigative services. I had done my job well, feeding the lawyers with what they needed, and I saw no cause for delay in payment. Not that he necessarily saw it that way, of course; once the pressure is off, clients do have a habit of suddenly resisting handing over hard cash for services rendered.
We had arranged to meet in a seedy bar I knew only by reputation. He didn't want me to be seen visiting his office, or any of his homes, and certainly not anyplace that I might be spotted by his country club friends. Or maybe he just needed a stiff drink. Or two.
The joint in question was called the Deepest Joy. It took me twenty minutes to track it down when I arrived in the vicinity, even though I was probably less than a hundred feet from the entrance the entire time. The door, marked only with a single small sign, was on an alley off a thronging main street in the lower levels. The area was notorious as a meeting place between mainstream Goblin society and those who elect to live on the fringe, or beyond it. It was, quite literally, an Underworld bar.
When I finally entered, the lights were turned down low - even by the standards of Goblins, who can see perfectly well in conditions that humans would refer to as darkness. I blinked and looked around, my large eyes instinctively opened to their fullest extent in the gloom. I took off my hat and toyed with it in my hands; I should have known better than to expect a hat-check in a place like this.
After a few moments, I spotted him sat at the bar, already toying with a murky green cocktail whose content I wasn't keen on discovering. He was dressed in a well-cut business suit in a dark fabric which probably cost more than the bill for my entire investigation. Underneath, he wore a crisp white shirt patterned with fine blue stripes which de-emphasised his bulk, set off by understated silver cufflinks and a tie which probably announced him to be a member of some club I had never heard of.
I tossed my hat on the bar next to him and spoke his name politely. He turned on the stool to face me.
"Gask," he said coolly, "You made it."
Before a witty rejoinder could form on my lips, the barkeeper, a wiry and frenetic little Goblin in a waistcoat, bounced up and wanted to know my drinks order.
"Scotch on the Rocks," I said, "Make it a double."
The barkeep scurried off. I sat on the next stool, leaned an elbow on the bar and looked levelly at my client.
"I've been looking at your reports," he began, adopting a managerial style that sounded like it had come straight from the pages of one of those How to Deal With Difficult People handbooks, "They're very thin. I don't see the value. You're charging too much."
I sighed resignedly, then took a slug of the whiskey the bartender had positioned in front of me. Twenty-five dollars a day, that's all I ask, plus some pretty reasonable expenses. Cheaper - much cheaper - than fancy lawyers.
"Look," I explained patiently, "There's long hours of surveillance work behind those reports, day and night stake-outs. When there's nothing to report, of course I report nothing. That's the risk you take."
My bill lay on the bar next to his cocktail coaster, a few sheets of badly typewritten paper bearing my letterhead. He picked it up and waved it under my nose.
"Frankly, this is a rip-off. I don't agree with the days you've billed, you're not worth your rates and I'm not paying this."
He slammed the invoice back down on the bar. I shook my head sadly. The bill was honest enough, with almost no padding, and my expenses - mainly photographic film - were very modest indeed. This kind of thing happens all too often, and certainly often enough for me to take out an insurance policy.
"Long hours," I re-iterated, "I know a lot about your wife..."
"Ex-wife," he interjected.
"Ex-wife," I agreed, shrugging, "I also know a lot about you. I've got lots of pictures featuring your good self - and a variety of other people - and you will have seen how good the lens on my camera is."
There was a sudden moment of stillness, amplified rather than masked by the piped Muzac which permeated the bar, filling the gaps like industrial-strength decorator's paste. I didn't elaborate on what I might have captured on film. I didn't need to.
"Okay, Gask," he said eventually, "You'll get your dough."
He reached into his jacket pocket. I stiffened instinctively, then forced myself to relax. He wasn't the type to pull a heater from its holster just to avoid paying a bill. Even a private dick's bill. After a few seconds rummaging, my ex-client produced a chequebook in a leather cover with shiny silver corners. He then dug out an expensive fountain pen, which I recognised as being a well-known brand made doubly prestigious by the fact it had been manufactured on the surface. He wrote for a few moments, finishing with a flourish over the signature.
"There you are," he muttered, handing me the torn slip, the ink still wet, "Just don't expect a reference."
I inspected the cheque carefully. It would probably not bounce. He certainly had the money and could have just given it to be without quibbling. It's just that the rich tend to be careful with their cash - that's how they got to be rich in the first place, of course. Later, I would pay it into the bank. The amount would just about cover my current overdraft, so that the bank manager might be forced to smile at me, at least for a few months. In the money again, Gask.