He's not so much noir as he is svart. And he's not so much smart as he is... street smart.
by Mike Reeves-McMillan
When the elf walks into my office, I know I am in trouble.
She has tight-clad legs that go all the way up and a tunic that does not go all the way down, and her hair is red, which is a bad sign in any dame, and an elf especially.
“Do I address Axe Stone?” she says, frowning so hard her forehead looks like shark-infested waters.
I drop my boots off the desk and stand, gesture her to a chair. “You do,” I confirm.
“Mister Stone,” she says, not sitting, “you have a problem.”
“Most times people come in here, they tell me that they have a problem,” I note. “And call me Axe.”
“Your problem, Mister Stone,” she says, “is that very soon a troll comes round here with a proposition for you, which I advise that you do not accept.”
“A troll does not like to hear the word ‘no’,” I say. “It is a word that is hard to explain to him, on account of it is too long.”
“And there,” she says, “you identify the problem. A dwarf with your skills, you could be a detective.”
I give this all the laughter it deserves. “Ha,” I say. “And who is it that tells me this valuable information at no cost?”
“Do I mention that there is no cost?” she says. “Do those words escape my mouth at any time? Come with me now, Mister Stone, before you must explain ‘no’ to Rocky the Face.”
At this I grab my axe and start for the door. Almost, I go back for the square bottle of mead in my bottom desk drawer, but whenever Rocky the Face is due someplace it is best to be elsewhere promptly, particularly if you plan to tell him ‘no’, and I do not wish to delay even somewhat.
“Where do we go?” I ask the elf, as we leg it through the alleyway.
“I have a place,” she says. “If you must address me,” she adds, “say Nina.”
I try to look at her hands, but she has them in the pockets of her coat. She gives me a look.
“The answer to your question,” she says, “is yes. Hurry up.”
Nine-fingers Nina is known to one and all as a lifter and second-story girl, and I begin to map out the dimensions of the trouble I am in. It is a spacious, roomy trouble, suitable for building a village in, or perhaps a small town. I swallow, and hurry up.
We enter Nina’s lodgings through the back, naturally, by means of a window, which from what I have heard around and about is Nina’s favored method of entering any dwelling. It is no palace, but since I currently sleep under the desk at my office, I do not look down my snoot at any room that is purpose-built for sleeping in. (There is a problem with the rent, and Pictish John, my landlord, is a man who has no patience concerning matters of cash flow.)
“So,” I say. “What does Rocky the Face wish from me, why do I not give it to him, and why do you tell me about it?”
“Rocky the Face,” says Nina, “wishes you to investigate a death.”
“Who is dead?” I ask.
“Nobody, yet,” she says. I lean on my axe and raise my eyebrows.
“Oracle Billy,” she says, “predicts the death of the Slab.”
At this I nearly drop the axe, a thing that does not happen in twenty years, even while drunk.
“When?” I say. “How?”
“Oracle Billy does not say. But Red Ruby the witch carries word to the Slab, and I am nearby when she tells him, and I hear him say ‘Get Axe Stone’ to Rocky the Face.”
It is not hard to move faster than Rocky the Face, and she is an elf. So far, her story checks out. “Why are you in the room at all?” I ask her. “And what is your stake in this?”
“I am not in the room,” she says. “I am outside the window, because Slow Slip Larry, who works for the Slab, has an item that one of my employers desires, and I am on my way back from obtaining it. This item,” she says, and produces a knife. To Slow Slip Larry, who is a troll the size of a hut, it is surely a knife of insignificant size, but in Nine-fingered Nina’s one-finger-lacking grasp it is large enough that I wonder where she conceals it.
“That is a very bejewelled item,” I mention.
“It is also a very bespelled item,” says Nina. “Furthermore, it is the weapon with which Oracle Billy says the Slab will be killed.”
I sag against the wall. This is trouble in which a guy could build a decent city, one with plenty of fields and a woodland and maybe a harbor.
“Wonderful,” I say weakly. “Why does the Slab not call for Slow Slip Larry, if he has this item?”
“The Slab does not know that Slow Slip Larry has the item,” she says, “and nor does Slow Slip Larry. Oracle Billy mentions its name in his prophecy, but they do not know that this item belongs to that name, which is the Bitter Talon Causing Bouts of Anguished Weeping.” As she speaks the name of the weapon it glitters, only in reverse: the light on it is shadowed in tiny spots which dance all over it, like blood pixies on a corpse. I shudder.
“So,” I say, “what do you have against the Slab? Or against continuing to live?”
“I have nothing against continuing to live,” says Nine-fingered Nina. “It is my greatest ambition to continue to live. This is why I come to your office.”
“Who hires you to obtain the item?” I ask.
Mines, I think. That city I could build inside the trouble? It has room for some mines. Deep ones, that go on a long way. I wish I am in a mine.
The difference between the Slab and Necromancer Nick is this: If the Slab is unhappy with you, he makes you dead. If Necromancer Nick is unhappy with you, he makes you dead, and then you work for Necromancer Nick.
“Why does he hire you?” I ask. “Does he not have enough servants?”
“The shamblers do not have the brains, and the spooks do not have the hands.”
This makes sense. “OK,” I say. “What do you wish me to do, and when and how do you pay me?”
“I wish you to help me get the item to Necromancer Nick so I am quit of it. I already pay you when I help you avoid Rocky the Face.”
“Nice try,” I say, “but no. You only wish me to avoid Rocky the Face so that I do not pursue you on behalf of the Slab. I do not expect that you do this job for Necromancer Nick because you like his ugly puss. I wish fifty percent of what he pays you.”
“Ten,” she says.
We settle on thirty, which is what we both expect, and she says, “Enough talk. Stick close. We use the ways which are too small for trolls.”
The problem with the ways which are too small for trolls is that they are sized just right for goblins. Also, it is difficult to swing an axe to full effect in such quarters. I know this beforehand, but I am reminded of it a few minutes into my journey, in a manner which ensures I am in no danger of forgetting at any future time.
We are in an alley back of Big Mouth Jerry’s. I know where we are because I hear the voice of Holy Joe the street preacher from the other side of the building, and he is always in front of Big Mouth Jerry’s, except when some citizen who wants an item blessed invites him into Jerry’s for a drink. We enter this alleyway, and next thing I know, little red eyes are gleaming at me all around.
I swing the axe and take the corner off a brick, then they are laying plenty of hooks on me and there is a general whirling accompanied by a drubbing, which concludes with me face-down in the street and my axe several feet away. I am unenthused as regards leaving my beard in contact with the pavement back of Big Mouth Jerry's, or anywhere else in the city, for that matter, but the goblins are not offering options at this time.
“Stone,” hisses one, next to my lughole.
“Cross-Eyed Charlie,” I say, this being his name. He spits at me through his jagged teeth, and misses, on account of his eyes.
“Mister Slab wishes to talk to you,” says another of the goblins. Cross-Eyed Charlie pops him one.
“I say the message!” he splutters. “Mister Slab…”
“Thanks, I hear already. I am sure I will enjoy a talk with Mister Slab,” I lie.
“Come,” mutter sundry gobs, and drag me to my feet.
“Hey!” I say, as they begin to haul me out of the alley. “My axe!”
“We are not your porters,” says Cross-Eyed Charlie.
“At least put it out of sight,” I plead, and Cross-Eyed Charlie gives me the dark eye but signals to three of the gobs, who stash the axe behind some old barrels next to Jerry's back door.
Nine-fingered Nina is in no wise in evidence. No doubt she has it away on her toes the moment the gobs show up.
The Slab looks like half a wall that someone starts to knock down and forgets to finish, probably because it eats him. “Mister Stone,” he mutters.
I nod in a manner that is not quite a bow. We have a saying in the mines that respect is cheap, but gold costs sweat. The Slab has enough gold, and enough hired muscle surrounding me with sharp iron, that I can pretend respect if he wishes it so bad.
He fills me in, and I am surprised to note that Nina gives me the straight dope. This prophecy thing of Oracle Billy’s is mentioned, and the meat slicer with the fancy moniker, though he does not let on that he is prophesied to be dead.
“Will you find this item for me, Mister Stone?” asks the Slab.
“I will,” I say. “As it happens, I hear a rumor about its whereabouts. My fee is…”
“Your fee,” says the Slab, “is that I do not set the gobs on to kick your dwarf face in.”
Now this is no way for a businessman to talk, and the Slab is always a businessman. I wonder if there is more wrong than just he is predicted to die, but I am surrounded by gobs, and not a few trolls, and I say, “Of course, Mister Slab.”
“Set him loose,” says the Slab.
I make my way back to the alley back of Big Mouth Jerry’s, and much to my gratification the axe is still there. Before I can finish giving it the once-over, Nine-fingers Nina drops down out of the shadows and joins me.
“What keeps you?” she wishes to know. I give her the dark eye and we head off towards Necromancer Nick’s joint. I feel twice as tall with the axe in my hand, which makes me eight feet six inches, boots to helmet.
Nick is bunked up in a cellar down near the docks. The first thing we notice as we get close is that no other citizens are on the street.Then we commence to feel the fear, and the chill.
Necromancer Nick has more spooks and corpses in that cellar than is healthy for anyone, and especially anyone who is alive and is not Necromancer Nick. Nina looks at me, and I look at her, and neither of us wishes to admit that we are more scared than the other, so we drag ourselves up to the door and knock. It feels like my beard will turn white at any moment, though given what is in it from the alley back of Big Mouth Jerry’s this is more desirable than otherwise. My axe, which is on my shoulder, shakes more than somewhat, what with the trembling of my mitts.
The door creaks in a manner that very nearly sends me hoofing it, but I see some stuff when I am in the war that, if I do not run from it, I do not run from much, and I clutch the axe and hold firm. I glance around the street, though, and as I do, I think I see a round head with long pointy ears vanish behind a chimney back the way we come.
“Nina,” I say, “The gobs…”
“GREETINGS,” booms a voice at this juncture, and I remind myself to visit Sally the Sud-Slinger after this is over, on account of I need some garments washed.
“ENTER,” goes the voice, and we tremble down the steps.
Necromancer Nick’s place is darker than the Slab’s, and instead of slumping on the floor in one corner like the Slab he has one of those big carved chairs covered in points. Everything is, naturally, painted black, and Nick wears black, and all his shamblers, who are standing round the walls, wear black, and there is not so much light, but what there is shines mostly on Necromancer Nick’s face. It is not a face I will shine on, if I am light and have any kind of choice in the matter, but naturally I do not express this thought to Necromancer Nick. The air is kind of busy, and after a moment I figure out that it is full of spooks swooping here and there.
“Nick,” says Nina.
He nods. “You have the item?” he asks. She walks across the creaky floor and hands it to him, and backs away. I see her shivering.
“Very well,” he says. “Your payment, as agreed.” He waves his hand, casual-like, and her shoulders drop, like a weight is lifted off them.
“Wait,” I say. “What is that?”
“My payment,” explains Nina, “is that Nick takes off a curse that I suffer under.”
“What?” I say. I am less than fully delighted by this development. “You promise me thirty percent.”
“I cannot help it,” she said, “if you are such a mug that you agree to thirty percent and do not ask thirty percent of what. Besides, you do nothing except get captured by gobs.”
“So why bring me?” I ask.
“The item requires a sacrifice to bond to its new owner,” says Nick's sinister voice, and I perceive that I am in a kingdom of trouble, perhaps so much as an empire.
Nick gestures again, and I feel something, like I wish to move towards him. After a moment, I take a step.
As I march forward at no pace to speak of, I leave the light from the door, and from the corner of my eye I note something that is of great interest to me at that moment.
I have the feeling that I will understand the whole sequence of events in another minute, in a different way than I understand them previously. It is a feeling I get on cases when I solve them. But there are other matters that require my more urgent attention, namely Necromancer Nick, who leaves his throne and raises the knife. It does the reverse glitter business again.
I swing the axe straight into Necromancer Nick's ugly puss.
Now, there are some things around and about that can shrug off an axe to the puss, and normally Necromancer Nick is one such, but what I note from the corner of my eye is that my axe glows. It is a kind of glow I see before, during the war, when our paladin, Righteous Reggie, blesses our weapons before we go in against a certain kind of enemy. This is why, when Nick puts the whammy on me, enough of me remains unwhammied to decide to axe him in the pan, and also why I figure that doing so is worth the attempt.
The axe strikes Necromancer Nick and ruins his nose, not that this is a thing that takes much doing, and carries on into his noggin, about half the width of the blade. Black smoke comes out of what is left of his face and is drawn into the knife, which falls from his mitt and sticks in the floor. It quivers.
I brace my boot against Nick and pull the axe free, expecting to have to deal with shamblers, but they drop to the floor also and commence to come apart. The spooks swoop in a circle, and I think they are about to attack, but they stay well clear of the axe (or maybe it is the knife) and then vanish all at once. I think I hear the words “thank you,” very faint.
I cut off Nick's head, to be safe, because very few things come back from having no head, and turn to the doorway.
“So, Nina,” I say. “Or is it Red Ruby?”
“It is true what they say,” she says. “You are a detective.”
“You lead me to that alley back of Big Mouth Jerry's,” I say, “where the Slab's gobs happen to find me, take away my axe, and leave it behind. Now, out front of Jerry's is the street preacher, Holy Joe, who will bless any object you shove at him if you stake him to a drink.”
“This is true,” says Red Ruby the witch.
“And Necromancer Nick,” I say, “is enough of a sorcerer to know if someone comes with the intention of rendering him an axe to the puss.”
“Yes,” she says. “But not if there is, forgive me, a patsy.”
I shoot her a scowl. “So tell me,” I say, “is there ever a prophecy from Oracle Billy?”
“Oracle Billy never says word one,” says Red Ruby. “The Slab owes me a favor, so he plays along with the scheme.”
“And the curse Necromancer Nick takes off you?”
“That is on the level. I decide it is time I am rid of it, as it hinders my social engagements.”
“But the main point of the scheme is to guzzle Necromancer Nick.”
She nods, and walks over to one of the former shamblers. “Help me carry him,” she says.
I look from the corpse’s face to hers. “My brother,” she says, as I pick him up. “Not that Necromancer Nick knows this. Now we burn this place, with that knife still in it.”
So that is my morning. I am not paid, I increase my marker with Sud-Slinger Sally and have to wash my beard, Cross-Eyed Charlie gets to push me around, and I am generally played for a sap by one and all. Red Ruby suggests that I take moral satisfaction from the caper, but I do not forgive her for risking my life in her schemes, and we part on terms that are less than amiable.
I hope you enjoyed that odd mix of Runyonesque, detective noir, and sword and sorcery. It was my first semiprofessional sale - to an anthology that's no longer available. (The publisher shut his publishing business down so that he could concentrate on dealing with a family crisis.) I like it, even if it's too peculiar for most editors, so I've put it up here where anyone who would enjoy it can do so.
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