In the blissful moments between sleep and waking, he almost convinced himself that he was in his own bed, coming out of the grog a late-night drunk into the sunny hours of mid-morning. Almost. But then he felt the rough burlap mattress his face was pressed into, smelled the moldering hay that filled it, and heard the quiet, ambient muttering that told him he was in a holding cell. He groaned, feeling the back of his head gently. Nothing felt broken, thank God, but his entire nape was one massive sore spot. His scalp felt pulpy, like a rotten orange. He doubted he’d be sleeping on his back for a while.

Panic overtook him suddenly, and Thijis rolled over and slapped at his rumpled dinner clothes, letting out a frantic breath when felt the outline of Helg’s key through the lining of his jacket sleeve, where he’d stowed it just before Tolvaj’s thugs had sapped him again.

The cell was dark but for the warm glow of oil lamps flickering through the barred door from the corridor outside. The place seemed somewhat familiar. Then he heard a jingling, and a moment later the door squealed open.

“Might have told you not to step on Tolvaj’s toes,” said Krizner. “Man’s rather particular. Likes ’em just where they are.”

Thijis managed to lever himself upright, one hand cradling his head like an egg. “Krizner? What the fuck are you doing here?”

“In my own precinct?” replied the inspector, offering Thijis a large brown hand. He took, and let himself be pulled to his feet.

“Your precinct?” By the One, you sound a fool. That explained the familiar surroundings; he’d been in Krizner’s lockup often enough to recognize the cells, even from the inside looking out. A pleasant surprise, as being on local turf was a hell of a lot better than being downtown, but Thijis was tired of being surprised, for good or for ill.

“Tolvaj and his boys brought you by on the way to headquarters. Wanted to check on that Doktor Helg. Got a little distracted?”

“Distracted?” Thijis asked, massaging his temples.

“Come on,” said Krizner, taking his arm and guiding him out of the cell.

“What—then I’m not…?”

Krizner laughed. “I do like to see you looking befuddled, my friend. I do like it. It’s a rare enough thing. To answer your question, as it were, no, you’re not.” Krizner waved lazily at the constable in charge of the small precinct cellblock and guided Thijis out into the main squadroom.

“You’re releasing me? Tolvaj’ll have your badge, Krizner. He brought me in himself.” If he doesn’t just have his “boys” make a stain of you in an alley somewhere.

“That palefaced wanker isn’t half as impressive as he thinks he is,” said Krizner, folding his hands and gazing out over his precinct. “And he doesn’t run things around here.”

“My thanks, my friend,” said Thijis.

“Don’t thank me too soon,” Krizner responded. “Can’t promise it’ll stick if he comes back. Truth is Undersheriff Tolvaj is a bit distracted at the moment, and it’s a good moment for me to take liberties.”

“How’s that?” asked Thijis, wondering where his pistol had gotten to. “Wait—Helg? You were holding him here?” Krizner nodded. “Why didn’t the bring him directly downtown?”

“Preparing something special for him, according to Tolvaj,” said Krizner. “Wasn’t ready yet. Wanted him held nearby. Some of the brain cases over at headquarters felt it might be better if we could move him back to his house right quick.”

“So what’s Tolvaj so busy with?” he asked.

“That’s what he’s busy with,” said Krizner. “Helg. He escaped.”

“Esca—” Thijis stopped himself before he asked another useless question. How the fuck does a three-quarters dead obsessive escape from sheriff’s custody?

“Somebody tell Abney,” Thijis said. “Stop him looking in a cemetery.”

* * *

Krizner got him sorted, handing him back his pistol with a smirk. “Might be time to start carrying something a little larger.”

“It’s all that fit under my dinner jacket,” said Thijis. He checked the chambers and slipped the revolver into its shoulder harness. The state of the dinner jacket in question was a sorry one: the grosgrain lapels were stained with his own blood and a layer of dust and grime, apparently collected while unconscious, marred the beautiful midnight blue wool of the coat’s body and tails. “I ought to send Tolvaj a bill, damn him.” Krizner grunted.

“Get in line,” he said.

“No love lost there, I see,” said Thijis, though of course he already knew that. Krizner’s eagerness to release him smacked of good old-fashioned police in-fighting, and it was unlikely that a dark-skinned Inspector got many chances to stick it to the head of Special Investigations. He excused himself a moment to go to the precinct’s water closet, which had even less charm than he might have imagined, and transferred Helg’s key to the more secure inside pocket of his coat.

Before leaving he turned on the flow of tepid water from the squeaking faucet and threw some on his face. The polished steel mirror above the basin was scratched and rather dull, but he could still see the spreading blotch of black that crept over the lower part of his face. He thought he might have the beginnings of a black eye, as well.

Fucking Tolvaj.

* * *

Krizner, as it turned out, had downplayed Helg’s escape quite a bit. A skinny constable with a wet-behind-the-ears look to him was just now sweeping up the mess of shattered glass on the cobblestones. The light of Firstsun glimmered in wavy orange off of the uneven shards.

“So let me get this straight,” said Thijis, probing absently at the mass of painful tissue at the back of his scalp. “You were holding him in an unsecured room on the second floor, and you left him alone long enough to wake up, orient himself, and defenestrate himself, most likely in that order?”

Krizner grunted. “All the cells were full. And he didn’t look like he was about to go running off. Besides, they wanted him taken care of. Tolvaj left his own man on the door.” Krizner’s brown face was deadpan, his smooth, unlined skin as relaxed as a babe’s.

“Ahh,” murmured Thijis. “I’m beginning to see now. And how did this intrepid Special pass the time whilst guarding the slumbering Doktor Helg?”

Krizner shrugged. “Might be he fell asleep. Might be Helg got the jump on him—crazy’s as good as muscles, sometimes. Might be a couple of constables were having a grand old time playing cards downstairs and our young Special got distracted. I don’t ask questions. Questions are dangerous.” A small smile, now.

“I’m impressed, Oskar,” said Thijis, reminding himself never to cross Krizner if he could help it. All joking aside, an agile brain hid within his big skull, and when he put it to use it was wise to step carefully. “Tolvaj gets the credit, but he gets the blame too. Nicely done.”

“It’s not just that. Lot of bodies in that basement. Lot of local kids. Likely I know some of them. And I don’t like these Kalan Park bastards coming in here and mucking things up. Hard enough to keep order around here as it is, without intrigue and high graft.” Kalan Park was a bulb of grassy turf outside of the sheriff’s central station, at the low end of the long mall that ran through Oridos’ center of government. It served as both eponym and epithet for Oridosi law enforcement, more often spat than spoken.

“Indeed,” said Thijis. “Low graft, on the other hand…”

“Shut up,” Krizner said. “You going to help me with this, or should I put you back in the box?”

Thijis spread his hands in a gesture of surrender. “At your service as always, Inspector. Let’s start upstairs.”

* * *

There wasn’t much to see. A room empty but for a wheeling cot where they’d put the doktor; the man-sized hole in the impressively thick glass and lead mullions of the single window overlooking the street. Tolvaj’s man, Krizner explained, had hared off downtown to report Helg’s escape, which he was undoubtedly blaming on Krizner and the Kammerend precinct.

“Tell that man down there to stop sweeping,” said Thijis. Krizner hollered at him through the broken window, and the tinkling of broken glass stopped. “No blood on the glass up here. Let’s go back downstairs.”

The constable had cleared up around half of the mess. It was full daylight now, both suns in the sky, and Thijis could see the ground more clearly. “Blood,” he said. “I figured there had to be. Nobody survives a fall like that, through glass, and walks away without a cut.” Wandering around the breakage, he found half a bloody footprint on a clean cobblestone. “Here’s our starting place. Have you canvassed the neighborhood yet?”

Krizner nodded. “Finishing it up now. Unlikely anyone saw much, though. Even this far down the hill, Kammerend’s Kammerend. Not too many people out in the street at this time. Maybe a servant saw something.”

“Too much to hope anyone noticed a half-naked, cirrhotic old man sprinting through the streets leaving a trail of blood behind him. Better focus on other avenues.” Thijis shook his head.

“Don’t suppose it’s possible I know my own beat, eh?” snapped Krizner. “Likely someone did catch a glimpse of him. Getting ’em to cop to it, that’s a different matter entirely. Kammerenders pay their help well. Part o’ that includes keepin’ your eyes shut and your lips sealed.”

“Fair enough,” said Thijis. “Has anyone seen my pipe?” Krizner shook his head while Thijis patted himself down. Where had it got to? “No matter. Give me one of those leaf shucks you smoke.” Krizner proffered a dull pewter case of cigarettes, neatly rolled, likely by Krizner himself, of course—even an Inspector didn’t pull the kind of income to have his smokes rolled custom—and Thijis helped himself to a handful of the thick yellow cylinders.

“Help your bloody self,” Krizner grumbled.

“My thoughts exactly,” said Thijis. His lighter was missing too, of course, forcing him to rely on Krizner’s indulgence with his own. The smoke was thick and dry and sweet, the polar opposite of crab, but his lungs craved something more challenging than air.

“We’d best get started before the neighborhood wakes up and mucks up the trail,” said Thijis. “You coming?”

“No,” said Krizner, “Better stay here. Tolvaj’ll be back soon, or he’ll send someone. Better I’m around when they arrive. I’ll send a couple of men with you.”

“Give me a head start,” said Thijis. “Easier to follow the trail if I’m alone. Have them tail me, but tell them to stay well back.”

Krizner grunted his assent and lit his own cigarette. “Don’t get killed.”

“Miss me, would you?”

“Not really,” said the inspector, “but I don’t want to have to be the one to explain to Dalia why I let you get offed by some mad scientist.”

“She might just kiss you for it,” Thijis said, her name bringing his mood, already lackluster, down a peg or two.

“I doubt that,” Krizner said. “Good luck. Two inspectors’ll be right behind you. And Thijis.”

“What?”

“You bring him back here when you get him. Got it?”

“Got it,” he said, giving Krizner a strange little bow. There was a dark humor bubbling somewhere just under the surface of his mind, today. Probably he’d been hit over the head too many times.

* * *

Three-quarters of an hour later, Thijis had hit a brick wall. Literally. The trail of bloody footprints had been easy enough to follow: the weather had been dry, and few people were out early enough to do significant damage to the prints. They dead-ended at a garden wall of red brick. Doktorsign, he thought to himself, smirking.

The obviousness of it all did not escape him. Following a trail of bloody footprints? It was like something out of a bad novel. Next he’d find the corpse of a beautiful woman, butchered and abandoned, which would lead to a death-defying chase of a brutal killer…except in real life there were dozens of corpses rotting in a basement, and the killer unlikely to be held accountable for any of them. Then why are you doing this?

Thijis shook his head sharply to focus himself, regretting it when he felt his brain swish around alarmingly inside his skull. Tolvaj’s love taps were still far too fresh for his liking. If he had any sense at all he’d be home in bed, but sense did not mix well with intelligence, in his experience. He had plenty of the latter and little enough of the former. Just ask his wife.

The wall wasn’t as high as the one enclosing Helg’s grounds. Within jumping height. It was capped in carved granite, and sure enough, just on the lip—there. A bloody smudge.

He could go around to the front door of the house, explain who he was, of course. See if the staff would let him in. Or he could find a gate and pick the lock. Both sounded like a lot of effort for a questionable reward. In the end he sighed and jumped up to grab the top of the wall just as Helg likely had. He scrambled against the bricks for a long moment until he was able to reach an arm over the top and get purchase with his slick boot soles. Then he was up and over.

It was an unexpected pleasure to dismount a resident’s wall and trespass in the light of day. The dark of night made for better storytelling but worse police work, he found. Thijis pulled his gun. If Helg had gone into a garden or a house, he’d gone in there to hide, and the first rule of detective work was that you never bearded a crazed scientist in his hiding spot without a loaded hand cannon. The little shoulder piece he’d taken to the Margravine’s house was no hand cannon, but it would have to do.

Dinner with Mariel Hevrany felt like it had been days ago, though only a short night had passed. Thijis momentarily wished he’d gone home first, at least to sort himself out and put on a real weapon, before chasing off after the doktor. The rifled magnum, perhaps, or the old blunderbuss. Why not wish for a cannon while you’re at it? Or one of those legendary elekstone guns the Prosecutors had before the Fulkawer.

A dull thud beside him; he whirled, aimed, and—an acorn, falling from a high branch of the oak at the back of the garden. A squirrel skittered down a branch and chucked at him from on high. Nerves, Irik. God he needed sleep.

The prints were harder to read in the dark, wiry grass behind the main house, so Thijis began sweeping the area for clues as to Helg’s path.

The house was small by Kammerend standards—though of course it would still be a mansion anywhere else in the city—and there was a door leading into the basements from the outside, a servants’ entrance to the cellar in a house without a servants’ staircase. It was here, on the worn granite threshold of the narrow doorway, that he found another crimson smudge, drying dark like the rest now. The door was shut to, but he could see cracking in the wood of the jamb—forced and then reinforced from within? Or just shut? Only one way to find out.

Readying the pistol, he took a breath and kicked in the door. It clattered against the wall inside, revealing a dark, apparently empty staircase. He needed light, but there was none. So it was either wait for Krizner’s men to show up and hope they had a torch, or knock on the door and get a servant to bring down a candle. Or…Yes, go down the dark staircase leading underground. Nothing bad has ever happened in such places.

He wasn’t entirely sure why he was being as wary as he was—Helg was a malnourished shell of a man. Perhaps it was just that, though; he did have the look of a sauma fiend, and desperation bred strength even in the absence of true muscle.

The cellar was not a terribly deep one, nor very impressive in size. A simple stone space running the length of the house, filled to the ceiling with casks and crates and a variety of sundries for household use. Thijis came out of the stairwell with his gun up, scanning the room. Light beckoned from a far corner.

And there, huddled over an oil lamp flickering weakly in the dark, crouched Keynish Helg. He was weeping.

* * *

Key warmed his hands over the small flame, the oily smoke stinging his eyes and clinging to his hair. It smelled, but better than he did, which wouldn’t be hard. The last few hours were a feverish blur, a series of sharp flashes of memory interspersed with a darkness that threatened to swallow him. He was frightened of the darkness, but at the same time he craved it; it felt like going home.

Where was he? He couldn’t quite remember. He’d come here for a reason, after— But he couldn’t remember what that reason was, now. There was waking, in a strange place, the headpiece pulled and sawn noisily from his skull, as violent and rough an awakening as any could imagine. They’d pulled him from the amber sea just before the final node, before he reached the antechamber of the place where he thought she might be, and like a fish he’d come gasping and struggling into the air of reality. A flash of light and voices—men, evil, grasping men whom he didn’t know, standing around him. A tall aristocratic one giving orders, answering questions. And then nothing: then the blackness came up and took him back, and he faded into unconsciousness.

He had slept, then, he thought: the sleep of a man who had driven his mind to its breaking point for days on end without rest or food or much water. Sailing the amber sea was a thirsty, demanding task that could just as easily kill you as empower you. Key was aware of the dangers of long term immersion, but there hadn’t really been any other choice. He’d made no progress. He needed to try harder, go further. Take himself outside of his comfort zone in the aether and exercise his will in the hopes that it would grow, in the way soldiers grew their muscles by lifting iron weights.

So much for growth. Here he was, almost naked, in a dark place he didn’t recognize. And he was so cold. It felt like the vital warmth had left his body, like if he didn’t concentrate every second then life might trickle out of him completely and leave him a dried up husk. Why had he come here? The basement. A basement. A cellar… Tears trickled down his cheeks, not for the first time that day, when he failed once again to remember.

And then he heard the scrape of aboot on the stone floor, and a man was there with him, a tall, slim man withElimannen features and a strange, wide-brimmed hat. He was aiming a pistol at him.

 

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