“Why do I always look so squinty in these things?” I stared at my calling card. One side of my face was scrunched up. I looked like a scurvy scallywag.
“You’re always squinty.” Paolo, my go-to communications wizard, replied. Right there with support.
“Special request,” I leaned over the cluttered counter and lowered my voice, although, currently, I was the only patron in the dusty little shop. ”Can you hook me up with a sensate spell or two?”
“Those are only for the cops, Stag.” He rocked back, hands behind his head, rejecting my invitation for complicity.
“You know cops don’t actually do anything anymore.” I knew he wouldn’t cave now, but maybe I could wear him down over time. “They hire all the real work out to dicks like me. Everything’s been privatized.”
“Even if I could pirate a spell, hacking into the ley lines without authorization could get me…”
My deck buzzed woefully, like an old dog sighing. “Alright, but please, charge this up. I can’t afford to miss a client.” I dumped the cards out of the box and handed it to the wizard.
“That,” Paolo said, taking the case, “I can do.”
I sifted through my deck looking for the call. “Speak of the devil.” I said, raising my eyebrows at Paolo. I focused on the vibrating card in my hand, a small, colored portrait of Detective Sergeant Pilsburk quickly resolved into a live feed. The heavyset cop sat at his desk as usual.
“Stag,” he blurted unceremoniously, “I got something for you. Aspirant Hill. Number 3-2-6.”
“Hello to you too, Pilsburk.” I always try to be polite. “I’m kinda busy.”
“Dead guy,” he continued without pause. “Rich. Close it fast.”
“I…” With a flick of his wrist the Detective snapped the connection. I looked up at Paolo. “If you’d cast a sensate on my deck, I’d know if he was hiding something.”
Murmuring, Paolo gave his head a quick shake and continued gesturing over my card case.
The residents of Aspirant Hill certainly didn’t have much aspiring left to do. The most affluent neighborhood in the city boasted real pixies in every street lamp, walled estates with security trolls, and the best warding spells draped over every mansion and outbuilding. The entire area reeked of ill-gotten wealth and all the magic it could buy.
Modest next to its neighbors, the victim’s estate stood three stories with a coach house. He lay on the floor of an upstairs bedchamber. At first glance it looked like he’d collapsed while undressing. A couple of Souvenier were circling the room, memorizing the scene.
“What do we have?” I asked the constable standing just inside the door. The heavy longsword slung on his belt gave my rapier a complex.
“The butler found him. After a prostitute ran out screaming,” he said. “She actually bumped into me on the lane outside. Usually a quiet beat, but she was raving. A hottie though. Wearing almost nothing.”
“Get a card?”
“No card,” he said, “can’t imagine where she might have carried one.” Obviously trying to imagine just that. “I marked her with homing ink.” He added, snapping back to the present.
I nodded. A young copper with all the wrong attitudes. I’d have to play it crass with this guy to get him to share all his thoughts.
“Who’s my feely bitch tonight?” I asked, scanning the lushly upholstered room.
“I hope you’ve got a dog, Stinkweed, because if you mean ‘Who’s the Empathologix,’ ” a stern female voice rang directly behind me. “That would be me.”
“Stagwood.” I corrected as I turned. Valerie Lang. I’d worked with her once before. I wouldn’t say we got along, exactly, but she was good. Could read a room like no-one I’ve ever seen.
“Right,” she smirked. “Stagwood. Horny and hard. You make that up yourself?”
“My mother’s name.” I handed her one the calling cards Paolo’d made me earlier. “This’ll help you remember.”
She looked at it and cocked an eyebrow. “Samantha Stagwood. Pirate Investigations?”
“What?!” I examined the cards in my hand and read carefully. “Shit.”
“Hmm,” she stepped past me into the room. “What do we have?”
My words exactly, I thought, shaking off my irritation at Paolo. I’d keel-haul him later.
“Dart to the neck,” the constable replied. I side-eyed him. All I got was him ogling the half-nude concubine. What else didn’t he tell me?
Valerie closed her eyes and held her hands by her hips, palms out. “Three souls, but no passion,” she nodded toward the corpse. “He was bored. Arrogant and comfortable.” She looked toward the bath chamber. “One was detached and anxious, probably the whore.” Then she turned and walked slowly toward the bay windows, heavy with drapes. “The last…all I get is…respect? Duty?”
“Yes,” Valerie said softly. “Professional. Barely left a trace.”
“Respect?” That was different. “Why would someone dart a man they respected?”
I approached the body. The Souveniers had left, so I could touch stuff, they’d locked the scene in their minds. A tiny dart. I plucked it and dropped it into a pillbox from my pouch. I rolled the body over.
“Whoa.” Three scars stretched across his back from his shoulder to his hip. “Wonder what did that.”
“Name was Degret.” The constable answered. Sort of. “Mr. Janos Degret, Esquire. A banker. Don’t know how he’d get marks like that counting gold.”
“We all have history, Constable.” Valerie stepped closer, then added, mostly to me. “These look like dragon talons.”
“A quester?” I asked aloud. “Turned usurer?”
“Or perhaps a cage fighter.” She looked at me, with emphasis. She felt something from the corpse.
“There’s also this,” The constable gestured toward a painting. A bath scene, three men and a woman, not quite delicto but certainly flagranté. “It was open when we got here.”
I looked closer, the picture hung skewed from the wall. It covered a safe. “A robbery then.” But swinging the door wide, the safe appeared full. Stacks of gold bars and bundles of papers.
“So the call girl comes back in from the powder room and catches the thief in the act?” The constable offers. Not a ridiculous hypothesis, but sometimes I wished people would just do their own jobs.
“Did the woman mention seeing a thief?” Another detail he’d neglected to mention? I flipped through the stack of papers. Financial records, bills of sale, a lot of numbers.
“No,” he said, taken aback. “She said the room was empty except for him. Locked.”
Valerie came up next to me. “Those feel…” she said, cocking her head toward the documents, “…dirty.”
I skimmed a hand-written note. “Pilsburk isn’t gonna be happy,” I said. “This looks like more than a murder,” I lifted the page so she could read. “This has all the trappings of a scandal.”
“Yikes,” Valerie’s eyes widened. “That is dirty.”