Authors: Terry Newman
an imprint of
77–85 Fulham Palace Road
Hammersmith, London W6 8JB
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollins
Copyright © Terry Newman 2014
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Terry Newman asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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Ebook Edition © October 2014 ISBN: 9780008101206
Table of Contents
The arrow hit Alderman Castleview in the middle of his right eye socket. A promising start. I took careful aim and let fly again.
The second arrow caught him just below the temple.
The final arrow buried itself plumb centre of that famous winning smile. I smirked and awarded myself a bonus point before retrieving my darts.
The picture of Alderman Castleview had occupied pride of place on my dartboard ever since he had announced his intent, the previous spring, to redevelop the Third Level and cause yet more traffic nightmares. I sat and tilted back my chair before taking aim again – but, to be honest, my heart wasn’t in it. This time I left the darts abandoned in the wood and walked over to the window instead. I leant against the ledge and took in the view.
On a good day the sixteenth floor of the Two Fingers building just poked clear of the smog that wound round the High Summer Citadel. This was a good day and I watched it from my office on the sixteenth floor.
I have never found anyone who could adequately explain why this office block was called the Two Fingers, as there was, in fact, only one. Some said the answer lay wreathed in legends, others said that the first block had simply been pulled down. Perhaps the stonemason did have bigger plans, but had forgotten his kickback to the Dwarfs Construction Guild. Nobody knew and nobody really cared, apart from me, but then again I cared about
a lot of outdated edifices – like law, justice and good government. Down below I followed the various people going about their late-afternoon Citadel business. The Citadel, the city on a mountain: actually a giant granite extrusion located near where the River Everflow meets the sea. One last, remaining lonely outcrop of a mountain range, lost on the horizon like a melody in a dream. A city gift-wrapped by five towering walls, with gates that have not been closed since the songs were fresh, and you could still tell who the heroes were by their shiny swords and better complexions.
With characteristic humour, most of the population referred to the place simply as ‘The Hill’. And today The Hill was sweaty and irritable.
A nasty undercurrent of violence had been evident throughout this, the hottest summer on record.
The Citadel Press
, the Hill’s main news scroll, was working itself up into a lather of indignation and turning umbrage into an art form. Elections were scheduled for the autumn and all sorts of worms were crawling out of their holes. But today the heat had defeated even them. The sun was raising bubbles in the road-coat like the boils on a goblin’s back, and the parchment pushers, the slogan shouters – all the ranters and ravers – seemed content to give the rest of the population some time off and sulk in whatever shade they could find. The sun was beginning to go down; nevertheless humidity was still in the nineties, which meant I was as cool as a goblin on a twenty-league route march.
I pushed my chair back from the window and sighed. It was the time of day for important decisions – more coffee or the office bottle – in the end coffee won out. I would twitch ’till midwatch; but I already knew there was little chance of sleep on a night like this. I got out of the chair and stretched, marking how the muscles in my back creaked and moaned a bit. They take to inactivity like a dragon to gargling extinguisher foam.
In common with other dwarfs, I was born to wield an axe of some variety, whether it be pick or battle. Although not particularly conceited, I am quite at home with my physique. I am tall for a dwarf, which makes me about the height of a short man – but then again we all know dwarf heights have been increasing in recent years. My mother says it’s the free school milk. Musculature? Well, my current ‘party piece’ is cracking nuts in the crook of my elbow, an activity that always impresses the ladies, be they of the dwarf variety or otherwise. And, furthermore, like the rest of my kin, I have a wrestler’s shoulders; the dwarf that needs shoulder pads in his suit jacket has yet to be born. A lot of men, particularly those more used to the company of gnomes, often forget that dwarfs and gnomes do not frequent the same tailors. Not that I have anything against gnomes; we dwarfs are simply just not built to the same scale. This has come as an unwelcome surprise to more than one would-be assailant, on a dark gloomy winter Citadel night.
I picked up the bones and walked over to the mirror, re-tied my plait in the family knots and ran a hand over my chin. I could do with my evening shave – us dwarfs have that sort of make-up. I pumped some water into the small basin and splashed my face. I do not keep much in the way of furniture in the office – some might call it sparse, I like to think of it as minimalist. The small hand basin is the only amenity, and for the rest I have to walk along the corridor.
The room is somewhat dominated by my desk, which came with the room and looks as if it was poured out of the same mould as the rest of the building. ‘Monumental’ is an understatement. Its legs are enough to qualify as a tourist attraction in themselves. The desktop is inlaid with a green leather that might have been taken from the butt of the worm that won the Battle of the Forgotten Mountain. Fortunately the desk has two chairs; both similarly worked, as finding a good match would have been impossible on this side of the Big Sea. I had added a chest and a small cupboard. The chest I used for papers and the cupboard contained a change of clothes, my little stove and, most importantly, all I needed for the preparation of coffee. The grinder was a new electric model. I still preferred my old mechanical one and the comforting ritual that went with it. However, far be it from me to spit in the face of progress, as it had actually been a present from a rather special lady. It’s a noisy business though, and with the grinder on full, I almost missed the knock on the reception door and the whole economy-sized parcel of grief that came along with it.
I shouted a simple ‘Come-In!’ I know … I know … over-familiar, but it was out of regular office hours, and I was feeling kind of wild.
The face that peered round my inner door was pretty, but in a world where ‘pretty’ tends to be a rather over-subscribed commodity, you might not think to look at it twice. If you did, however, there was a certain something around the eyes that could come back to haunt you at the most inappropriate times.
With the face there also came a mass of sandy-coloured hair, back-combed in the style that was everywhere that year. Her frame was not large but quite compact, and she radiated an air of both vulnerability and independence: an intriguing combination. She could look me straight in the eye, which, although as I mentioned I am tall for a dwarf, made her quite short for a woman. I recognised her as a receptionist from an office along the corridor.
‘Are you busy, Detective Strongoak?’ she asked.
‘No, come in, take a seat.’ I waved vaguely with the grinder.
This was the first time I had seen her out of work-wear. She had on shorts and an oversized tabard-shirt sporting the legend: ‘Surf Elves – Really Out of Their Trees!’ Surfing, I knew, was the unicorn’s horn as far as the elfin elite were concerned: bronzed, blue-eyed young lords and ladies with enchanted boards that seemed to float forever above the waves. Like most elfin activities, it had now caught on with the Citadel men and women too. It was a trend I did not subscribe to. We dwarfs have an affinity with water a rain-wear manufacturer would hock his treasure trove to patent.
‘The name’s Liza, isn’t it?’ I said, casually, after she had settled.
‘That’s right, Detective Strongoak, Liza Springwater.’
‘Well, would you like some coffee, Liza?’ I paused with the scoop held over the percolator, pleased to have gained an attractive drinking companion.
‘What I really would like is some help.’
‘Sure,’ I said, thinking that there was probably a chest or two that needed the application of some dwarf muscle. The sort of job I’m only too willing to help out with, especially if the grateful party has been blessed with extra helpings of cutes. Liza certainly had plenty to spare. In fact, she could probably have started a market stall and made a good living supplying cutes to women who think that men just go for the physical attributes that are easier to record with paint and brush. Not that I’ve anything against them either; far be it for me to play favourites.
‘Can it wait until after some coffee, Liza?’
‘I don’t know, Detective Strongoak,’ she said, very seriously.
I added an extra scoop to the percolator anyway, and set it on the small stove, which I lit with a flint. I adjusted the flame before we both passed out from heat exhaustion.
‘They can never get the temperature right in this building,’ I added, rather unnecessarily.
‘I know, too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. Our office is freezing from the moment the first snow starts to fall.’
‘What is it you do there, Liza?’
‘Nothing very exciting: take messages, scrollwork and some dictation. Occasionally I get a trip out if the boss wants a smiling face. Hers only being suited for scaring off ogres.’
‘I’ll remember that. Just might come in handy one day, in my line of business.’
The water was finally warming to my satisfaction, so I sat down on the business side of the desk and put on the understanding face I usually reserve for widows and orphans.
‘Now, perhaps you had better tell me all about it.’
For a moment I thought she was going to cave in on me, but she had come this far and did not intend to back down now. I sort of admired that. ‘It’s about this boy I’ve been seeing, Perry Goodfellow.’
She paused, as if expecting some comment from me. If so, she was disappointed; all she got was that same old noncommittal look and the background music of the bubbling percolator. This must have been good enough, as she continued:
‘He’s disappeared. We were due to meet last week, but he never turned up. When I still hadn’t heard anything from him the next day, I called the inn in Old Town where he worked. They said he had collected his pay and cleared out. They didn’t know where he went, unfortunately. A week’s gone by and I’ve yet to hear a word. I’m concerned, no … actually I’m worried sick.’
She stopped and we sort of stared at each other for a while. I got up deliberately and took my time pouring the coffee. ‘No milk, I’m afraid, but I could probably find some sugar.’
‘No, thank you. Black, without, will be fine.’ I passed her a mug and we both sipped through the, almost, too prolonged silence. Finally I said: ‘You know what I have to ask?’
She shrugged. ‘Sure, I wouldn’t be the first girl to be kicked off the unicorn, and I’m not saying that Perry is any sort of hero. There have been other women in his past and there might well be other women in the future, I can’t say; but I know Perry, Master Strongoak. And I can tell you this, whatever the reason, whatever the cause, there is one thing he would never have done, and that is leave without saying goodbye.’
It was a pretty speech, verbs and everything – the full fellowship. If Perry had run off with some other woman, I, for one, was willing to bet that he had made the mistake of his life. When the wolves come howling round my tree, this is one lady I would not mind being up there with me.
What could I say, though? The heart is a strange sorcerer, which casts its spell in the unlikeliest places and kills them on a whim. Something like that, anyway. The Lizas of this world are being lied to every day and crying their eyes out every night, unlike tough hard-bitten dwarf master detectives. They are far too canny to have trod those dangerous paths – ah, sweet Elester, where are you now with your coal-black hair, ruby-red lips and pilfering fingers in the Old Town Pension Trust? Oh yes, serving five years for fraud after I found the evidence in the false bottom of your bedside bridal hope chest. After all, dwarf, elf, human or gnome, none of us are immune. Shoot, I even saw a goblin once get mushy over a piece of skirt he picked up in a bar – and he wasn’t even trying to eat her.
So it was my turn to shrug. ‘Some people just don’t like goodbyes.’ After all, I’d had more than my fair share and I’d never got exactly fond of them. Taking another jolt of coffee, I put down the mug and reached for the security of my pipe resting in the ashcup. Something was making me edgy. Painful Memories or was the coffee simply too strong?
Just put it down to the weather and move on, Nicely. ‘I can afford to pay you, Detective Strongoak. I have some savings.’
‘We can talk money later,’ I replied, convincingly dismissive. ‘I offer special good-neighbour rates.’ I paused for a moment, hoping that didn’t sound suspect and scratched my chin.
‘Thank you, Master Strongoak.’
I got up, decision made and topped up our cups. ‘One thing I insist upon, call me “Nicely”. All that “master” business went out when my forefathers traded in their pickaxes for steam hammers.’
‘Nicely. I like that. It suits you. Is it your proper name?’
‘My proper name has rather more consonants than folk, other than dwarfs, can get their tongues round.’
‘So, why ‘Nicely’?’
‘Well, I could tell you, but then I’d only have to go and make you swear a blood oath with your lips sewn by spider silk under a sickle moon … and we all know how tiresome that can get!’
‘I think we’d better leave it then, thank you, Nicely.’ She relaxed a little and laughed for the first time. It was an attractive laugh, like water falling in a cave lit by magic torches.
I needed to lay off the weed and find me a lead. It didn’t pay to get too sentimental.
First I reached in the drawer to get out the papers that made it all legal – next I would concentrate on obtaining the necessary background concerning young Perry Goodfellow.
Magic torches, bah!
The sun was dropping over the Third Level wall by the time Liza had left. I poured the last of the coffee into my mug and went to the window, watching the sightseers and lovers making shadows on the battlements. I bit the brew – the coffee was too strong and too stewed. I poured it into the basin, watching it drain down the hole and begin its long journey to the bay. Tonight there would be a few fishes sharing my insomnia.