He might have left the Hevrany mansion feeling confused, if he didn’t feel quite so flush with cash. The credit limit on the note the Margravine had given him was a long, round number that could easily have purchased the building Thijis lived in, and the building next door, with half again left over to furnish and staff them both. He didn’t feel entirely comfortable even thinking about it, if he were being honest with himself. It was the kind of sum that made even the most honest man feel the lick of larceny.

To know a person was rich was one thing; to have them hand you more money than you stood to make in a lifetime as casually as one might pay for groceries was something else entirely. The sudden, impossible image of the Margravine Hevrany paying for her own groceries made him laugh.

“Sir?” asked Jantis, over his shoulder.

“Nothing,” said Thijis. The butler was leading him out through the front doors, under the portico, and onto the paved courtyard. The Margravine’s lacquered coach already waited at the gates to take him home.

“I think I’ll walk, Jantis,” said Thijis, putting on his hat. “It’s a nice night for it.” It wasn’t a nice night for it, actually. It was hot and sticky, the kind of night when the sewer fumes got caught in the wet air and hovered like a fog.

“As you wish, sir,” the butler said. Thijis had half-expected him to argue, but Jantis only gave him a shallow bow, waved curtly to the coachman, and bid him goodbye. Irik tipped his hat at the coachman as he walked out, strolling the treed length of Lewsburg Court. It was a pleasant place to walk, if you were a guest and permitted to do so. Not so pleasant if you’re not. The Kammerend precinct—Krizner’s precinct—patrolled the area heavily, and those who didn’t belong quickly found themselves escorted out of the neighborhood or into a cell. That’s if you were lucky. The private guards who patrolled the grounds of the great manses were not so scrupulous.

The center of Lewsburg Court was a wide park dominated by ancient bloodgood trees, some with trunks the width of peasant cottages. The grass in between them turned crimson in the spring when the trees wept their gruesome pollen. The crushed gravel paths that crisscrossed it were wide and mostly empty, but for the occasional stroller. Thijis saw an old couple walking the constipated toddle of an after-dinner constitutional, and there, on a broad section of lawn, a young lady reading a book by lamplight, her skirts spread around her in a satin halo.

He didn’t see another living soul until he made it down the hill onto Kammerend Boulevard, where liveried coachmen whipped the bouncing conveyances of Oridos’ elite to dinner engagements around the city. The Margravine set a good table, but they’d made an early night of it: most of Kammerend would be socializing well into the wee hours. It had been a business dinner, through and through. Except perhaps for the flirting. Likely Mom has a number of meetings yet, tonight, and not just cocktails with fellow aristocrats.

Being let in on one of the city’s deepest secrets was a surreal feeling. He felt naughty and anxious and thrilled at the same time, like a rich boy who’d stolen a glimpse of his governess in her bath, but everything also seemed suddenly distant. A hidden mechanism had been uncovered, and no amount of surprised revelation could make up for the theft of mystery. Are you sad, Irik? Are you actually fucking let down by this?

Poor innocent Irik: the bogey man revealed as a hat rack’s shadow, and now our little man feels ashamed of his fear. Or is that you are still afraid, and you don’t know how to process the fact that you wish the fearsome lady’s bodice were cut lower?

The front of his dress breeches fitting a bit tighter than normal, Thijis continued down Kammerend Boulevard and made a conscious effort to think of something else entirely. Like the fact that he was approaching the part of Kammerend that included Helg’s mansion.

Lying to yourself is a multifaceted ability. Sometimes part of you knows it and plays along. Thijis had known on some level that he would depart his meeting with Mother and head directly to the doktor’s house, but the part of his mind that would have insisted he reconsider such an undeniably bad idea, the part mind concerned with self-preservation, needed to be lied to. So he’d told Jantis he wanted a walk, and set off to find trouble.

There was a narrow alleyway between two smaller (by Kammerend standards) residences two blocks from the Helg mansion. Thijis took it, keeping to the shadows out of the rutted center of the lane. He hadn’t spoken to Krizner since leaving him the morning before, but he could only presume that the Inspector had been shut down as expected. Which meant that the house was locked down and under guard by a number of Gebbing’s trusted goons. But there were other ways into a building, and he needed to see it again. He needed to know who Keynish Helg was, and the only way to do that, the only way to get started, was to inspect where the man lived. To rifle his drawers and read his letters; to see the private things that one could find in wardrobe drawers and storage chests. A trinket forgotten at the back of a desk drawer, perhaps, or a painful letter too precious to be given to the fire.

Helg himself was certainly under lock and key in a precinct or, more likely, sheriff’s headquarters by now, and it was just as likely that they’d removed anything directly of value as evidence. Not that they’d know the difference. He wondered if they’d managed to move the bodies yet, or if they’d even bother: they’d been safe enough until now without discovery, and hiding the transport of dozens of cadavers would be difficult even in Kammerend. Better to simply dig up the floor and bury them. Or seize the property permanently and let them rot.

The alley sloped downward, southerly toward the city center. He followed it until he found a gated run leading between two walled gardens: a pathway for caretakers and, perhaps, the occasional late night rendezvous. Checking his sightlines out of the corners of his eyes, Thijis slipped his lockpicks out of his coat pocket and fitted one into the lock. It was well oiled; he had it open in a moment. Slipping inside, he took advantage of the darkness between the garden walls to check his pistol. The current mode in evening wear was slim-fitting, so he’d had to opt for the smallest of his small collection, tucked inside his coat under his arm in a shoulder harness of his own design. It passed well enough, unless you knew what to look for, a trait he realized must be among the Margravine’s hidden plethora of benighted skills.

So she knew you were armed and didn’t care. He wasn’t sure why he found that surprising; Jantis probably had a cannon hidden somewhere under that black suit, for all he knew.

It was perhaps not the wisest time to be using one of these gardener’s runs, given that it was dinner time and dinner meant trash, which meant servants coming out to leave it for the refuse carts, but as the alternative was walking up to the front door, it would have to do. There were oil lamps hanging from the walls, but none had been lit. Thijis hurried down the narrow trench, trusting his feet and hands to guide him.

It ended at the alleyway on the left side of Helg’s house. This end was also gated, and he could see yet another gate across the way that led into the corresponding caretaker’s run behind Helg’s back garden. Back garden was a quaint term for what was essentially a small park, but it’s how Thijis thought of it nonetheless. He could also see that the lamps in the run behind Helg’s mansion had been lit. Not a good sign.

Using his lockpicks, Thijis slipped out of the first run and into the second alleyway. A tall hedge grew well over the walls of the garden he’d just snuck behind, and they cast a broad shadow over the alley below. He hid in the darkness and considered Helg’s own walled property, looming before him.

The walls were smooth stone, twenty feet high, the gardener’s run just wide enough to make straddling the gap and spider-climbing to the top impossible. Even if he got over the wall, his only way in, it seemed, was to chance the likely well lit back entrance and pick his way through two or three gates and at least a couple of doors. Thijis frowned. Burglars who broke in while the lamps were still lit didn’t have a terribly high success rate. Unless they were particularly bloodthirsty.

But fate was kind. Down the alley a short way from the gate into Helg’s garden run was an olive tree, an ancient, twisted thing twice the height of the wall. Its trunk was a gnarled spiral likely older than the houses around it. The curbstone had been laid in an arc around its base. Thijis silently thanked a God in whose existence he did not believe and chose not to question the convenient existence of such an ideal burgling tree adjacent to the walls of one of the richest homes in Oridos.

Tree-climbing was not a common pastime for most Oridosi children, as only the city’s tonier districts had any to speak of, but every Warrener boy and girl grew up sneaking amongst the sewers and culverts and subterranean catacombs of the Undercity. Climbing was a necessary skill. Thijis made it up the old olive with little effort, then scurried along the wall of Helg’s rear neighbor until he came to the gate and the trench of the caretaker’s run. It was not a simple jump for one so long out of practice, but he made it with adequate grace, his boots smacking on the stone cap of the wall.

The most dangerous part was the height of the wall itself: looking down into Helg’s overgrown back garden, the ground looked a long way away. The expanse of landscaped wilderness below was a pool of black ink: whoever had lit the lamps along the path below, they’d not done the same for the grounds themselves. There seemed to be no lamp lit at the back of the house.

He eased himself over the edge until he was hanging from it, and then with a slight push outward let himself fall. He landed on his backside in soft mulch beneath a flowering bush, only his breeches the worse for wear. The inside of the walls was lined with large old shrubberies, the better to conceal the urban nature of the environment. Thijis used them as a covered corridor to make his way around the perimeter and up to the mansion itself. The grounds were large—he couldn’t even make out the far wall in the darkness—though nothing to compare with the manses at Lewsburg Court.

There was no guard posted at the rear entrance, but that didn’t mean there were none patrolling the grounds, walking in darkness to preserve their night vision. He’d been remarkably lucky so far.

Five long minutes and several locked doors later, Thijis found himself back in Keynish Helg’s spacious kitchen. There was no covered dish to sample from this time, however, and the door to the wine cellar had been taped off with a green sheriff’s ribbon.

The place felt different now. The pregnant calm that pervaded a fresh crime scene had shattered, leaving only a rotting quiet. There was a sense of violation, too, the frozen moment in time of a fresh scene ruined by countless constables and bodymen tramping through the place.

Every crime of passion came down to one frozen moment in time, the one quintessential act that turned the engine of intent into realized action. It left its traces in the aftermath, if you knew where to look. That moment was not everything; it did not encompass the entire conduct of the criminal behavior. It was not the crime as a whole. But it was an element without which the transgression could not occur. The law professors at the University would say he oversimplified it, that Thijis had condensed elegant formulae founded on centuries of jurisprudence into one nebulous nugget of pseudoscience, no better than a cop’s hunch. But anyone who had ever seen the bloody tableau of fresh murder knew that violence could not be so easily quantified.

Call it evil, call it rage, call it the human condition: there was a detectable tipping point when blood overcame reason and consummated what had been only nascent sin.

However Gebbing or Sheriff Orban would spin it, they’d miss the point: Helg’s case was a crime of passion. The man oozed hate. His pores stunk of desperation and loss. Keynish Helg might have started out as a simple crony in some larger scheme, but in the end his intent was his own. The crime was his own. Whatever the doktor sought in his elekstone abyss, it was not the same ends as Mother Margravine and her shadowy cabal. There was more to this than money.

Thijis paused for a moment just outside the kitchen doors, listening. He heard nothing, not even the creak of settling wood. The house sounded empty. This part of it, anyway. There was no telling how paranoid Chief Inspector Gebbing was about the doktor’s grisly undertaking, how many men he’d dedicated to keeping the scene secure. The apparently unguarded grounds were promising but inconclusive. Any number of constables, or worse, could be lurking about.

He had a moment to consider how thunderously stupid he was being, how easily he might be caught, but he stuffed the thought down into the morass of anxiety that lay below the cogs of his professional mind. There was more to be found here, and no other way to get to it. Stepping back into the empty kitchen, Thijis took off his boots and carried them, stocking feet silent on the marble floor, into the front hall where the grand staircase swept up into the unexplored upper levels.

Reflecting that he’d come a long way to get to the same spot he’d started in, Thijis took the steps one at a time.

* * *

Keynish Helg was not a man who slept in his bedroom. Thijis knew that from the moment he set foot inside. He’d suspected as much after seeing the doktor’s state of affairs with Krizner when all this started. Obsession and a good night’s sleep do not make good bedfellows, literally or figuratively. No, a man like Helg, to the extent that he slept at all, slept in his workplace. There had been no cot in the lab downstairs, but the articulated chair they’d found Helg lying in looked perfectly comfortable.

None of which made looking into his bedroom a waste of time. A man’s bedchamber was a private place, a place where memories and secrets were stowed. A place to keep things close to the heart, the same things a woman might keep on her person or in a remembrance chest.

Helg’s was high-ceilinged and paneled in exotic, striated wood from Cor. The paneling looked in need of oil. He wondered again who kept Helg’s house for him, and whether Krizner or Gebbing or whoever was currently conducting what passed for an investigation had located her. Thijis still didn’t know if the anonymous “constable” who had tipped Krizner off had made up the maid entirely or not, but clearly Helg had someone sweeping the floors and making him supper. Finding her—or him; a manservant was just as likely—would be the next step.

There was little of interest in the bedroom proper, however: a few unguents in the bed table; several shirts, all white, hanging in a wardrobe. On a console table against the wall was a bronze sculpture of a rearing stallion with a bare-chested Eberai brave on its back.

It was in a small, adjacent room behind a set of louvered doors that Thijis found what he was looking for. A simple writing desk with a few drawers built in sat in a kind of enclosed balcony. The walls and ceiling were glass, set in tarnished bronze: a bedside greenhouse, built for some long dead Lady Helg, no doubt. Entering it felt like walking into the night itself. Beyond the windows was a sea of black peppered with the dim lights of the city, a poor mirror image of the bright white pinpricks of the stars above. Or is it an observatory? A single hexagonal pane of leaded glass made up the gathered center of the ceiling, an oculus to the night sky. Yes. He saw the grooves in the floor, now: an impressive device had once sat where the doktor’s desk now trespassed. A telescope, probably heavy and brass, mounted and balanced for stable viewing. Like the great dome at the University, but in miniature.

The desktop was clear aside from a cold lamp and an empty glass inkwell. In one drawer he found the usual things: a fountain pen, a stack of expensive writing paper, a few bottles of ink. In the deeper of the two side drawers were a few thick scientific texts: Advanced Phirotics, Physical Properties of Elekstone at the Microscopic Scale, The Motion of Iota in Nature, Natural Astronomy. Thijis smiled when he found a novel at the bottom of the stack, one of the newer soft-covered pulp books, with a drawing on the cover that appeared to be an elekstone ship traveling to the moon.

The center drawer was empty but for a stick of charcoal that rolled around noisily. Sticking his hand in, he felt around beneath the top of the desk and found it: cold metal, intricate—a key, resting on a hidden lip formed by the woodwork comprising the trim of the desk. He curled his fingers around it.

“Mr. Thijis, I presume,” said a deep, melodious voice. “I’m so glad you could join us.”

Irik’s shoulders tensed in panic but he didn’t jump. He palmed the key and managed to slip it up his sleeve before the truncheon came down at the base of his neck.

* * *

Someone was talking to him. The deep voice again. Thijis felt carpet beneath his cheek and a pounding in the base of his head. Someone was pressing him into the floor and fumbling for his hand. The jingle of metal. Manacles? He squirmed, worked his arm under him, making it seem like he was waking up, moved just enough to drop the key back down into his palm, squeezed. Just in time. Whoever was on top of him—male, heavy, grunting—found his wrist with a pincer like grip and twisted his arm behind his back. Moments later he was shackled, and they heaved him off the floor like a baker hefting a sack of flour. His brain sloshed in his head. The pain was so white hot for a moment he squeezed his eyes shut and just tried to breathe.

“Sit him there,” said the voice. Thijis felt himself guided, pushed really, across the deep pile carpet into a waiting armchair. It might even have been comfortable if they hadn’t cuffed him behind his back. He could already feel his arms going numb. He hoped he could hold onto the key.

“Whose acquaintance,” he said, cracking his eyes experimentally and regretting it immediately, “do I have the pleasure of making?”

“Should I hit him again?” asked a gruff voice.

“No,” said the melodious one. “Give him a moment. The poor man is in pain, Brauck, can’t you see that?”

“Aye, sir, a right good walloping’ll do that.” The other goon—for there were two of them, Thijis could see now, though he couldn’t make out their faces yet, laughed.

“Yes,” said the second, “nothing like a Special to the head.” More cackling, then the third man, the leader, spoke quietly.

“Enough.” The room was silent. Thijis coughed, tasted blood. Bit his tongue a little, he thought. That would hurt later.

“My name is Tolvaj,” the leader said.

“Tolvaj,” repeated Thijis, working his bloody mouth around the round syllables. “Undersheriff in Charge, Special Investigations. Tall, dark, and handsome. Penchant for the theatrical.”

“Droll. But tell me, what else do you know about me, Detective? Your investigative skills are well known throughout Oridos. I’ve never had the pleasure of testing them myself. And it’s not often someone of my stature gets the chance to hear his own reputation repeated back without varnish.”

“The Manicured Man,” said Thijis. “Likes to keep his hands clean, his face shaven, his hair oiled. Prefers to let others get their hands dirty.”

“Come now, Mr. Thijis,” said Tolvaj, stepping forward. One of the goons managed to get Helg’s lamp lit, and suddenly Thijis could see clearly. “Any back-alley Warrener slut could tell me that much. Give me the good stuff. What is it they say about me in that little haunt of yours? What’s the word around the Tribe, these days?”

Thijis considered Tolvaj in the amber lamplight and wondered whether he was about to be tortured. Better to stall a little longer, if that were the case, make them feel they’d worked hard enough to get what they were looking for. Wouldn’t want them thinking it’d been too easy. They weren’t ready to kill him outright or he’d be dead, not sore. But to talk, or not to talk? He might just piss him off. Oh, who the fuck are you kidding. You know there’s only one answer to that question. Talk. Put that bloody tongue to work.

“Well I’ve been a little busy of late,” he said, adjusting his arms so his full weight wasn’t directly on them, “so it won’t be the freshest gossip. But last I heard about you down the Tribe, they were saying you really put the special in Special Services.”

“Do tell,” said Tolvaj, smiling.

“We’ve got more than a few merchants in the place like to share stories of who they rubbed shoulders with at whose townhouse. One of them made you for a mollygobber. Said he heard you took it real easy, nice soft white ass. You know. Special.”

One of the thugs hit him and the dim golden light exploded into white stars. He felt his teeth cut into his inner cheek. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of so much as a groan. Thijis spat blood onto Helg’s carpet. Tolvaj was laughing quietly.

“Is that true? Or were you just trying to get a rise?”

“I’m not even sure,” said Thijis, shaking his head a bit. “You’ve got me all nervous now. I don’t remember things so good when I’m nervous. Could be he was talking about your fat slug of a boss.” He felt rather than saw the thug in the shadows next to him cock his fist to hit him again, but Tolvaj made a quick cutting gesture with one pale, aristocratic hand and the moment passed.

“Your tongue precedes you, Mr. Thijis,” said Tolvaj. “It seems to get you in trouble. You might consider exercising some self-control.” Thijis gave him a bloody smile.

“Shall we call that the pleasant chit-chat, then? Get down to business?”

“Please,” said Thijis, giving him a seated half-bow.

“Your involvement in this little incident is unfortunate, Mr. Thijis,” said Tolvaj. One of his men dragged the chair out from Helg’s desk and he sat down in it. “You’ve been an asset to the sheriff in the past.”

“Why not write me off as an asset this time and call it a day?” asked Thijis. “Why all the cloak and dagger?”

“Says the man who just snuck into a mansion like an assassin.”

“Seriously, Tolvaj, what’s the angle here? What’s next, you do me and Krizner both? Abney? You can’t hide this completely.”

“Inspector Krizner and Constable Abney are on the payroll. They’re known quantities. You’re something else.”

“Don’t tell me you’re thinking patsy. You wouldn’t be the first to put that jacket on me. What’d I do, put Helg in some kind of phirotic coma and then lure in dozens of kids for my own sadistic purposes? Use the place as my own personal hell and blame it all on the poor innocent doktor?”

“They are all young, aren’t they?” said Tolvaj, narrowing his eyes in thought. “An apt observation, detective. You might be good at this after all.” Thijis silently cursed himself for the slip. “But no. Don’t be so prosaic. Even a fall man must have a believable motive, particularly for a crime of this magnitude.”

“So you’re admitting it’s a crime?” Thijis snapped. “And here I was thinking I smelled something official about the whole thing.”

“Please,” said Tolvaj. “Gutter rats they may be, but Sheriff Orban does need their votes. And next year’s an election year. Hardly a good platform, the killing of your constituents’ sons and daughters, is it? I can’t imagine why you think the mass murder of young people to no apparent purpose is something the department would be interested in. No, we would never have approved this.”

As if Orban gets elected based on actual votes. “You fucking people,” said Thijis. “Approved it? It’s not a fucking municipal ordinance.”

“We really should thank you,” Tolvaj continued. “For bringing it to our attention.” Thijis scoffed. Did he really expect him to believe they had no idea what was going on? “Of course, you brought it to the attention of others as well, for which we cannot, unfortunately, thank you. Which brings me to my point.”

“Thank God,” said Thijis. “I’d started to think you didn’t have one.” Tolvaj favored him with a tight smile.

“I need to know who you’re working for, detective. I need to know who put you onto this.”

“Who I’m working for?” Could he already know about the Margravine? How long had Tolvaj been watching him? “I’m working for you, goddammit. Or I thought I was. Krizner called me in, said a constable—”

“Don’t give me the same bullshit story as that brown oaf,” Tolvaj snapped. It was the first time he’d displayed any real anger. “I’ll not be patronized.”

“But it’s the truth,” said Thijis. “I know that everyone says that, in my position, but it is.”

“You expect me to believe that you were hoodwinked by some minion wearing a stolen constable’s uniform? You, self-proclaimed consulting detective, former Prosecutor, the master of deduction?” Tolvaj barked a laugh. “Try again, detective.”

“Haven’t you ever had an off day?” he asked. “Besides, with me it was one of Gebbing’s runners. A new kid, to be sure, but when Krizner confirmed he’d gotten the same message I trusted him.”

“Your mistake,” said Tolvaj.

“Yes,” said Thijis.

“Well,” Tolvaj said, standing up. “This is all very unfortunate, detective.”

No shit, thought Thijis. Even you don’t know what’s going on.

“We’ll get to the bottom of this at headquarters. Bring him downtown.” Irik tried to speak again, but he was interrupted by another truncheon to the back of his head.

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