The Deep Imbroglio
A Novella by Ludolf Forest
Chapter 1 – Clipping the Starling’s Wings
The dame came to me late on a summer night. I was smoking, legs up on my desk, the ice in a glass of brandy settling slowly beside me when she walked into the room. She was short, and not much of a looker, but that’s the way it is with these government types. She said that I had to catch a phantom thief having his way with the city’s nobility; that it was an order from the Lord General himself.
I slowly exhaled a puff of purple smoke. I don’t like being given orders, but it doesn’t pay to upset men like Sigismund. I said I’d take the case. This didn’t seem to satisfy the dame, and she started going on like they do, but my mind was already on the mystery at hand. Phantom thieves are always trouble, and if years of prowling this city has taught me anything, I wouldn’t be able to handle this one alone.
A piece of paper drew my eye on the desk, under the glass of brandy. A letter from my own bird. She’d been writing a lot lately, excited about going out west and this new elite squad she was working with. I don’t like the idea of leaving Freystadt, but an elite squad sounded like just what I needed for this case.
The dame was still droning on. I fished out a piece of paper from my desk and began to write. Being a member of this town’s so-called elite had its benefits, and the message would reach Karin by nightfall. Until then, I’d case this phantom thief’s recent hits, and see what I could learn.
I swung my legs off the table and grabbed my overcoat. The dame seemed angry now, still ranting about something, but all that mattered now was the case. My office door slammed shut with a crack behind me, muffling the last words of her endless lecture.
Pemberton’s report was on time, as it always is. You don’t get very far as a detective in this town without getting a few contacts among the suits, and Aalekzander was the best of the best. I unfolded the message as his man scurried away; they’re always nervous around my type.
Reading the report told me what I had already suspected. This elite squad my bird kept talking about lived up to their reputation. On their way back they’d killed an adult hydra, survived an attack by will o’ wisps, saw through a trio of annis hags, and assassinated a dragon. An impressive record, but I decided to wait until I saw them function in the city before making any judgments.
It was early in the morning, outside the gate of the Paternoster estate, when I met my “elite squad” for the first time. Years of working the shadier parts of this city had taught me not to give anything away, but it wasn’t easy keeping the shock off my face. I asked for detectives and they send me a bunch of broads and a bug. The only man among them was the one they call Tsenkyo, and he worried me. From what I’d read in Pemberton’s reports, the man was a magnet for trouble. I didn’t ask whether the monkey was with them – I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer.
I took a long drag on my cigarette. If this is what they sent me, I’d just have to work with it. We walked into the estate while I gave them the rundown. A lot of it, they already knew, and that spoke well for their abilities, but it started to wear on me when they wouldn’t stop asking about the Paternosters’ blasted golden elephant.
I was showing them the very elephant when the owner of the estate made his first appearance. Eustachius Paternoster was a weasel of a man, the very image of a stuck-up noble. Can’t say I liked it, but years of experience told me to just give this type what they wanted so they didn’t stick their aristocratic noses too far into the investigation.
Paternoster demanded that we post a pair of guards in his sleeping chamber. Starling hadn’t murdered anyone yet, but a twinge in my gut told me that he was right to be worried. I decided to stake out his quarters myself, along with Captain Barkwin. She may have been a tree, but there was no denying she seemed the most reliable of the lot. The rest of Major Kohler’s squad would take care of guarding the elephant.
I couldn’t do anything but watch as Starling punched through Paternoster’s chest and pulled out, hand dripping with blood and holding the noble’s heart. After an eternity, I loosed a throwing knife from my coat and threw it at the thief. With a jolt and a spray of blood, the weapon flew back to me. That was reassuring. Starling could bleed.
Reaching out to me, with a thousand screaming voices, the thing shot something out that froze to my very soul. You don’t police this city for as long as I have without dealing with worse than this, though, and I shrugged off whatever it did to me. The cigarette left my mouth, and I drew another knife, but Starling was already gone.
I checked Paternoster first. Sure enough, he was dead. Even a noble can’t survive with a hole in his chest that big. There was some commotion going on outside, and the Major said the monkey had picked up the thief’s trail. Trying not to think too hard about that, I followed the rest of the squad.
There, lying on a flight of stone steps in a back alley, was the body of Starling. His black cape was still, he wasn’t breathing. Starling was dead, and things just got complicated.