Abney was late.  Krizner stood on the grassy mall outside of sheriff headquarters, smoking his third cigarette in five minutes.  Checking the cheap pocketwatch he carried without a chain, he stubbed out the butt and lit another.  Fucking idiot’s probably gone and choked to death on his lunch.  Even for Abney, this was pushing it.  He tried to give the boy the benefit of the doubt, but of late he was starting to share Thijis’ opinion of his merits—or lack thereof.  It was almost teatime, and he’d told Abney to meet him on the Mall no later than three o’clock.  The hour hand, its black paint flaking off at the axis, was almost to the four.

Sucking smoke into his lungs, Krizner tried to ignore the crawling anxiety in his stomach and enjoy the view.  He rarely had a reason to come downtown these days, and the Horn near sunset was a sight not to be missed.  The Mall’s green sward ran down the center of the government district, starting at the massive edifice of the Protector’s Palace and sweeping straight down to the ruins of the Derukammer.  Beyond the council hall’s foundations, out on the very point itself, he could see the crumbled ruin of the Prosekhal, and the open air beyond it.  The suns were low in the east, shining amber light onto the righthand side of the tumbled walls and towers.

Across from him the ancient bloodgood trees stood tall and aloof, black bark shimmering slightly in the way it did when the light hit it just right.  The southern end of the Mall, near the ruins, was all but deserted, but for a few strollers and a young man who seemed to be trying to coax a stubborn terrier into a miniature version of one of the hot air balloons the University had unveiled two seasons past.  A block distant, the empty channel of the old Grand Canal cut through the Mall.  A small flock of tiny sparrows flitted in and out of the flowering bushes that adorned the edges of the canal gardens.

All around him calmness reigned, and Krizner felt more and more like a quivering shell.  It’s your pension.  They’re out to take your pension.  Or worse.  The thought came unbidden, and not for the first time.  After Tolvaj’s dire, prickish announcement at Helg’s that Gebbing wanted to see him, Krizner had prepared for the worst.  A chewing out, certainly.  A suspension, maybe.  Reassignment or demotion?  A worst-case scenario.  Nevermind the fact that I’ve not done a damned fucking thing wrong, he thought.

But when a runner had come from headquarters to tell him that his meeting with Gebbing had been moved downtown, and Orban himself would be in attendance, the real nerves had started boiling in his gut, and they hadn’t dropped past a simmer since.  Add to that the fact that his usual teatime ritual involved a meat pasty from the cart outside the precinct washed down with a finger of whiskey, and his stomach was in a rare state.

The meeting with Orban was at four on the dot.  He could only afford to wait for Abney another few minutes, and then—he inhaled in sharp relief when he saw the boy’s lanky form loping down the boulevard toward him, resulting in an unintended gust of hot smoke entering his lungs.  He coughed and choked, face red by the time Abney came to a stop before him.  The boy was sweating, mopping his face with his shirtsleeve.

Krizner spit, ground out his cigarette in the dry grass, and collected himself.

“You alright, Inspector?” asked Abney.  Krizner swallowed, nodding.

“Get on with it then,” he snapped.  “You’re the best part of an hour late.”  It came out harsher than he’d intended, but he didn’t have time for anything else.

“Yessir,” said Abney, standing up straighter in a ludicrous attempt at military attention.  “No sign of him, sir.  Checked all the usuals.”

“You checked The Fourth Tribe?”  Abney nodded.  “And the pothek on Eb Way?”  Another nod.  “What did Lord Pangram have to say?”  The old man was Thijis’ landlord, and Krizner knew him to play chess over brandies with the fellow from time to time.  “Seemed a bit drunk, sir, but he didn’t know where he was either.”  Krizner frowned.

He hadn’t really expected to find Irik at any of his usual haunts.  The man was too smart for that.  Smart enough to get in and out of his own flat while you had a dozen men on it.  He’d kept that tidbit to himself, along with the fact that when he got there he’d ordered a more thorough search of the place and found the chest with the false bottom.  It was obvious enough what Thijis must have kept in it, and the fact that it was empty made Krizner pretty sure he knew why he’d come back to his apartment despite the risk.  He was gearing up for war.

It hadn’t taken much convincing to keep Abney quiet.  “How’s the head?” he asked.  Abney rubbed at it, grimacing.

“’S’alright, I suppose.”  Krizner hid his smile.  Thijis must have enjoyed that.

“Good then,” he announced.  “Back to the precinct with you.”

“You don’t want me to keep looking?” Abney asked.

“No,” said Krizner.  “I didn’t really expect you to find him anyway.  But we’ve got to make the effort, don’t we?”  In truth, he’d hoped that wherever Thijis was, he’d get word that a constable from Krizner’s precinct was asking after him.  Thijis would know that the fact that Abney was looking for him by himself was a sign Krizner wanted to talk.  It was too much to hope, of course, that Thijis would pop out and grab Abney and force a meeting with Krizner before he had to report to Orban, but the thought had crossed his mind.  He didn’t know exactly what Irik was up to, nor whether they were even on the same side, strictly speaking, but exchanging information could only help them both.

Presuming he still trusts you.  There was a distinct possibility Irik did not.  Krizner hadn’t exactly helped him out.  He sighed, looking at his watch again.  Ten till.

“I’ve got to go,” he told Abney, who was squinting in thought.

“Sir,” Abney said, “why send me after Thijis?  Especially if you didn’t think I’d find him?  Why not send a full squad?  After the apartment, there wasn’t any more searching.”

Krizner considered him, pursing his lips.  “Because I want to get to him before they do, Abney.  It’ll be best all around.  Better that he ends up in a cell than in the grave.”

It was a half-truth, at best.  The real truth was he was worried about his friend.  There were sides in whatever this thing was, and Krizner was starting to feel like he was on the wrong one.

* * *

            The headquarters of the Sheriff of Oridos was one of the few buildings in the city that was still used for its original purpose.  It’s triple-arched front entrance, which faced roughly east across the Mall, led into a columned vestibule open to the air.  Fifty feet or more inside, the main doors themselves were propped open, guarded by two constables armed with rifles and heavy sabers.  The lobby, as it was known, was usually a busy place: at the change of shifts, constables and undersheriffs would gather to smoke and gossip, while on-duty patrol officers came and went with prisoners, witnesses, and evidence.  This afternoon it was quiet.  Krizner waved politely to an old constable he knew from his days downtown, nodded to an Inspector he knew from the smaller Ebsea precinct, and resisted the urge to smoke another cigarette before going inside.

The inner lobby was dominated by an elliptical reception desk behind which perched a man and woman who might have been siblings, if the latter didn’t have same warm brown skin as Krizner did.  Both were rail thin and tidy as freshly pressed linens.  Punctilious, Thijis would’ve called them, or some such word.

The woman, Danja, might have been pretty if she ever smiled.  Krizner had tried to chat her up more than once, on his way through headquarters, but she’d never responded with anything more than polite disinterest.  Her coworker was Edred, who looked like he put himself away in a broom closet every night.

This time he only nodded, and Danja waved him through.

The climb to Orban’s office gave him time to consider the fact that his career as an Inspector might be over.  He’d always been a good cop, at least as good a one as he’d known how to be.  Done the right thing, mostly.  Looked out for himself, but looked out for other people too, or tried to.  He’d come on the sheriffs under old Chief Burgden, a grumbling, drooping hulk of a man who must have been a fighter in his day—at least so it looked from his sunken knuckles and the way his face seemed to have been rearranged.  But the old man had liked Krizner from the start, had taken him under his wing, back when he was just a young patrol constable who looked like he might be promising.

Part of it was Burgden had a hard-on for racists, and he wasn’t shy about announcing how much he liked to see young brown men making a name for themselves in civil service.  Not too many like him, especially back then.  Being sheriff, the Sheriff, didn’t leave too much time for grooming young recruits, but Burgden made it work.  He never passed by Krizner without saying hello to him, asking him about things, and he somehow managed to convey his approval to Krizner’s immediate superiors without making him seem like his pet.  When there was an opening in Inspection, he’d given Krizner a gold badge.  He’d been the first brown Inspector in the city.  That was twenty-five years ago.  Burgden had been a good man.  Krizner wondered what he’d think of the department now.

Oskar, he’d said to him once, pulling him close, don’t ever presume there’s somebody knows better than you.  Do your duty, do as you’re ordered, but don’t do it dumb: you’ve got a good mind.  Use it.  Krizner didn’t feel like he’d been using it much lately.

With a heavy feeling in his chest, Krizner sighed and pulled open the huge double doors that led into Orban’s office suite.  The sheriff’s secretary, a mousy girl with a closed face, saw him right in, past the outer office and into Orban’s inner sanctum.  They were already waiting for him.  Not a good sign.

Tolvaj was standing behind the sheriff’s massive desk, straight and narrow, his eyes glittering dangerously.  Orban was slumped in his chair, small dark eyes leering out of a face like pastry dough.  He reminded Krizner of a basking lizard: he sat, completely still, his obese bulk so still your eyes wanted to pass right over him.  But God forbid you stepped on him.

“Good afternoon, Inspector Krizner,” said the sheriff, his voice surprisingly energetic.  “Please sit down.”  Krizner took one of the leather armchairs set out before Orban’s desk.            “If you’d like to smoke, there are cigars in the box there.”  Tolvaj remained silent, offering no word of greeting.

“No, thank you, sir,” said Krizner, even as his right hand twitched toward his coat pocket for a cigarette.  He took it in his left and held it.

“Well then,” said Orban, smacking his lips.  He already had a cigar of his own, which he lit with a fancy silver lighter set into a marble orb on his desk.  “I’m sure you’re wondering why we called you in here, Oskar.”

“Yes, sir,” said Krizner.  Always better to give simple answers.  Superiors valued listening, not talking.  Krizner knew that, because that was how he liked his own men.   And then there were men like Orban, men who liked having both sides of the conversation for you.

Orban puffed his cigar until he had a good coal going and leaned back in his chair.  “Gerod tells me you’ve been having a spot of trouble over in Kammerend, Oskar.”

Gerod?  Tolvaj.  He meant Tolvaj.  Krizner realized he had never heard the man’s given name before.  “I suppose you could say that, sir,” he said.

“Oh?  And would you put it differently, Oskar?” Orban smiled gently.  Krizner started to respond, but the sheriff held up one fat hand to stop him.  “Don’t speak yet.  I’ve more to say before you answer.”  Orban rotated his cigar in his wet lips, tasting the wrapper before speaking.  The man made Krizner feel slightly sick to his stomach—he always had.  It wasn’t just the fact that he felt like he was about to get canned or worse.

“You understand that Gerod’s department—Special Investigations, that is—has a very…unique mandate, don’t you?  That Special operates, out of necessity, in a more clandestine manner than Inspection, certainly than the Constabulary.  Here Orban paused, his small eyes pointed upwards as if receiving divine assistance.  “That the requirements of the service sometimes necessitate…unorthodox methods?”  He waited for a response, and Krizner nodded.  Orban continued.

“Then since you understand that, I’m sure you also understand that there are times when, from the perspective of someone not privy to the fullness of the intelligence upon which Undersheriff Tolvaj bases his orders, that those methods might seem, shall we say, a bit extraordinary?”

“That’s one way of putting it, sir,” said Krizner.  Another way of putting it is 70 deaths swept under the fucking rug.

“I sense you disapprove, Inspector,” said Orban, puffing his cigar, “and I can hardly say I blame you, given the nature of the incident at the Helg mansion.  Disturbing stuff, from what I’m told.  That being said, I need you to trust me when I say that we have the situation well in hand.  Well in hand.”  Orban sat back, as if that settled the matter.

“Yes, sir,” said Krizner.

“You’ve never married, have you Oskar?” the sheriff asked.  The question caught Krizner off guard.

“No sir,” he said.  Tolvaj remained silent and still.  He hadn’t moved or spoken since Krizner entered the room.

“You’ve been an asset to the department, Oskar, a real asset,” continued Orban, changing the subject again with hardly a breath.  “If I’m not mistaken, Gerod has some questions for you as well.”  With this, the sheriff shot a lazy glance over his shoulder at Tolvaj, then leaned back in his chair and appeared to become completely absorbed by his cigar.

“Two nights I go placed Irik Thijis into custody at your precinct,” Tolvaj said bluntly.  “What is his current location?”

“I wouldn’t know, sir,” said Krizner.  “Last I saw, he’d gone haring off after Helg.”

“We’ll get to that.  Your slip-ups are legion.  Under whose authority did you release Thijis from custody?  Certainly no one in this room.”

“Under my own, sir,” said Krizner.  Tolvaj’s lips thinned, his face tight but unreadable; Krizner couldn’t tell if he was apathetic or on the brink of violence.

“Explain that statement, Inspector.”

“Explain it, sir?”

“Need I be clearer?  I, your superior officer, placed a man under arrest and locked him in a holding cell in your precinct.  He was released without my knowledge or permission.”

Krizner cleared his throat.  He’d known this part was coming, of course, but he’d hoped they’d be too worried about covering up the bodies at Helg’s to make too big of a deal about it.  “You and your men left him in my care, Undersheriff,” Krizner explained.  “Without any orders about what I was to do with him.  Under the circumstances I thought he’d gotten mouthy with you—Irik has a tendency to do that—and maybe you thought a night in a cell’d help him cool off.  I’ve thought the same thing myself, sir.”

“Mouthy?” Tolvaj repeated, testing the word.  “You think I locked a man up for being ‘mouthy’?”  Krizner spread his hands innocently.

“I was called downtown, Inspector,” Tolvaj continued after a long, awkward moment.  “I didn’t have the time to hold your hand.  I presumed that you would know he was to be kept in custody until I informed you otherwise.”  Which Krizner had known, of course.  And Tolvaj knew he’d known.  The only question was, how was Krizner going to spin it?

“That would likely have been exactly what I’d have done, sir, but when the doktor escaped…well, Detective Thijis has proven adept at cases like these, over the years, sir.”

“Cases like these?”

“Erm…unusual cases, sir.”

“So you released one criminal to chase another—”

“Can’t say as I see how Irik’s a criminal, sir…”

“He’s a criminal because I arrested him, Inspector Krizner.  That should be enough for you.”  Tolvaj actually appeared to be getting a bit miffed.  Krizner couldn’t help but feel a little pleased with himself at cracking the man’s icy shell.

“You released one criminal to chase another criminal, the latter of which escaped from your own lock-up while under guard.”

Krizner shook his head.  “The man’s crazed, sir.  Snapped his restrains like they were paper, then jumped out the window.  Detective Thijis followed soon after.”

“And why didn’t you follow Detective Thijis?”  Tolvaj’s eyes were fire.

“We did, sir.  Irik’d followed a blood trail, you see, and he went off first, but we did follow.”  Tolvaj leaned forward, placing his palms on the sheriff’s desk.  Orban, for his part, smoked on, glancing occasionally at Oskar when he answered but otherwise not seeming particularly interested.

“And what did you find?” Each word was clipped, over-pronounced.

“A cellar,” said Krizner.  “A cellar with nothing in it.”

“You found a cellar,” Tolvaj repeated.  Krizner nodded.  “And you’ve not heard from Thijis since.”

“No sir,” said Krizner.  Tolvaj pinned him down with those cold blue eyes for what felt like an eternity.  When he finally stood up straight, and broke off eye contact, it was with a disgusted scoff.

“Pitiful police work, sheriff,” said Tolvaj.  Apparently the interrogation was at an end.

“Now, now, Gerod,” said Orban, around his cigar, “Oskar’s an old hand at this.  I’m sure he did the best job that could be done.  Let’s cut him some slack, shall we?”

Tolvaj looked at Krizner again before responding.  “Yes, sir.”

“Good, good,” said Orban.  “You see, Gerod?  We can all get along.  No need for dissension.  Oskar wouldn’t intentionally disobey an order, would you Oskar?”  The old man looked at him then, his easy manner suddenly gone, his eyes as cutting as Tolvaj’s but knowing where the other man’s were uncaring.

“Of course not, Sheriff,” said Krizner.

“No, of course not,” Orban repeated, falling back into the kindly old man charade.  “Of course not.  What Gerod’s trying to say, Oskar, is that there’s more at stake here than you know.  You see, his department has been investigating a corruption case that could…well, let’s just say it will have some very serious repercussions for some very powerful people in this city before it’s done.  And we can’t afford any mistakes right now.”

“I understand, sir,” Krizner said.  Corruption?  It was the first he’d heard of any corruption case.  It sounded like bullshit.  It was bullshit, as far as Krizner was concerned: ironic bullshit.  Hypocritical bullshit.  The corruption was sitting right in this room.

“Now that’s not all, Oskar,” said Orban.  “We didn’t bring you here just to grill you on some point of order.”  Now it was a point of order?  A moment ago it had seemed like his ass.  “Gerod told me about your part in the Helg affair, and that’s when it occurred to me that you’d be the perfect man to bring in on this case.  We need some help, you see, and as you’re already involved…”  Now it was Orban’s turn to spread his hands.

“Serendipity,” the old man said, smiling a greasy smile.

“Indeed,” said Tolvaj.

Indeed, thought Krizner.  “I’m at your disposal, sir,” he said.

“Good.  Good.  Now.  I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that nothing I’m about to tell you leaves this room,” Orban said, looking at Krizner pedantically.

“Of course not, sir.”

“Good then.  Well.  For the last year, Oskar, Special Investigations, under Undersheriff Tolvaj’s able guidance, has been investigating none other than the Lord Protector himself.”  Orban paused to let the news sink in.

“Lord Aust?” asked Krizner.

“Lord Felix Aust, yes,” confirmed Orban.  The idea that the titular head of the city-state of Oridos was somehow corrupt wasn’t surprising—in a city like Oridos, you’d have to be fresh from your mother’s breast to be that innocent.  What was surprising was the particular man in question: Lord Aust was old aristocracy, as clueless as he was inbred.  He was rarely seen in public, except for the most important holidays and announcements, and the current rumor was that he’d lost his mind some years before.  Or at least that he devolved into a life of such sauma-infused debauchery that the effect was the same.

In his absence, Oridos was governed by a privy council, a weak facsimile of the old Derukammer, the imperial legislature.  Of which Sheriff Orban himself, of course, was a prominent member.  Other members that Krizner could remember off hand included a number of industrialists drawn from the Forge district—self-appointed might be more like it, actually—the dean of the University, the Grand Master of the Knights Prosecutor, old Margravine Hevrany.  No, the old lady had died, if he remembered right.  Her daughter was Margravine now.

Officially, the sovereign power to govern Oridos rested entirely with the Lord Protector, but at least since the Rehabitation the council had always been there, influencing things from behind the scenes.  The council’s true power waxed and waned, depending upon how strong-willed or politically gifted each Lord Protector was.  The title was given for life, and Aust had held it for most of Krizner’s, at this point.  Krizner rarely heard his name spoken but once a year, when he descended from his palace to ring the bells for Rehabitation Day.

“And, er, if I might ask sir—what does this have to do with Doktor Helg?  And the people he murdered?”  The words were blunt, but he said them innocently.

“Murder?  Why, Oskar, who said anything about murder?  We’ve got no reason to believe this is anything but a regulatory violation.  Dead bodies are regularly used for study at the University, you know, and Gerod tells me the scene at the doktor’s mansion was far more indicative of a situation like that than anything so lurid.”

“But, sir—”

“Inspector Krizner,” interjected Tolvaj.  “I’ve had quite enough of your insubordination.  You’re dealing with matters far above your pay grade.  As it is, I’ll be speaking to Chief Inspector Gebbing about your conduct throughout this matter.  If Sheriff Orban weren’t convinced that you deserved leniency—”

“Now, now, Gerod,” said Orban.  “Leave Gebbing out of this.  Oskar’s on board, aren’t you, Oskar?”

“On board, sir?” asked Krizner.  He wasn’t precisely sure what they were asking him to agree to, but he got the distinct sensation that he was being herded.

“We need you on this, Oskar,” said Orban.  “I need someone I can trust.  I have information that Lord Aust may be conspiring with the Warrens crime syndicate.”

“With Mother, sir?”  Orban nodded.

“If that’s true, than we can’t afford to let this slip by.  The man’s a louche, but if he’s working with her, then he’s working to undermine the governance of this city.  Wouldn’t you agree?”

“I…suppose so, sir.”

“Special Investigations will officially be taking over command of all patrol precincts, including Inspection,” said Tolvaj, who had returned to parade rest, towering like a silent guardian over the sheriff’s chair.  “The Sheriff trusts you, Inspector Krizner, and he has persuaded me, over my better judgment, to trust you as well.  Don’t let me down.”

“Let you down?” Krizner echoed, beginning to feel a bit faint.  “What…is it you’d like me to do, sirs?”  He couldn’t keep up with this.  He had to sit down, think it through, and they weren’t giving him the chance.  Krizner gripped the carved wooden arms of his chair, his palms sweaty.  His instincts were screaming that he was being played, but he couldn’t ferret out exactly how yet.

“You’re going to do what no Oridosi policeman has ever managed to, Inspector Krizner,” said Tolvaj, as Orban sat back with a satisfied smile on his face.  “You’re going to clean up the Warrens.”

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