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For a long time it always started with a beautiful woman at the door, sometimes in the middle of the night. That had ended. Good things do. I wasn't in that racket anymore. There was only one beautiful woman for me. She was on my side of the door already.
Tinnie Tate. Tinnie had wreaked all sorts of changes in my life.
Tinnie had the word out. Garrett, that most marvelous specimen of former Marine, was no longer one of TunFaire's serious players, however you cared to define that term. Mama Garrett's boy was now devoutly monogamous. He reserved his vast professional acumen for the benefit of the Weider brewing empire and, more importantly, for that of the Amalgamated Manufacturing Combine. The man hadn't hit the mean streets in a rat's age. Which was pleasing to many and unpopular with a much smaller crowd.
Bottom feeders and parasites really liked the new Garrett. He was out of their lives. The reverse was true for workmen at the breweries and Amalgamated. Garrett had this habit of turning up just when some underpaid and underappreciated genius was about to enhance his income by reassigning ownership of company property.
My wondrous new life.
It did begin with a beautiful woman, in the middle of the night, a stunning redhead bereft of any perspective other than her own. She gouged me in the ribs with a specially sharpened fingernail. "Wake up, Malsquando."
"Again? What are you, trying to set a new record?"
"We'll work on that tomorrow night. We have another problem, now. There's somebody downstairs."
We lived in two story quarters we had carved out of a little-used part of the Amalgamated manufactory Annex. Something rattled down below, followed by a vague, exasperated curse.
I was awake, now, my head filling with subjects I might offer for discussion once we got out of whatever this was. Like maybe the fact that this situation could not have come up had we made our nest at my house.
I was like liquid getting out of bed. Silently flowing. Not even a gurgle. I armed myself with an oaken head knocker that no amount of fussing or whining had compelled me to divorce.
Just in time.
The bedroom door opened with a faint creak. I was behind it, wound up. The villain entering carried a damped-down lantern. That cast just enough light for someone whose night vision had fully adapted. It revealed Tinnie lying there mostly uncovered and wearing nothing, apparently asleep. An impressive sight, I got to admit.
Lucky me, I'd seen it enough not to be distracted. Much.
"There's something wrong here, Butch." The whisperer leaned in just far enough to offer the back of his mostly bald head.
I seized the day, whacked that mole. Down he went. I spun around the edge of the door…; To stare down the length of twelve pounds of razor-edged steel. I couldn't imagine anybody having forged a sword that big. The eyes behind that monster did not belong to somebody in a merciful mood, nor even somebody truly sane.
Tinnie uncovered the goods, arrogantly showing off how lucky Garrett was. The eyes that knew no mercy did recognize those marvels when they saw them.
Clang! That blade brushed aside. Thump! A solid whack to the temple. Half a minute to make sure the villains didn't come back on us. Then, "Trollop."
"How's your health, big boy?" She had some clothes on, now. She had become the promise, not the literal truth.
"I had him."
"Sure, you did. Just a little insurance."
"Something to tell the grandkids about."
"Garrett. What the hell is going on? Are you into something? You promised. What are you into?"
"Nothing. When would I have the chance?" That was one of the costs of our monogamy. I had no life that didn't include Tinnie, nor should I want one as she interpreted monogamy.
Tinnie is a natural-born redhead, long on emotion and not so long on reason. Yet she did recall that our arrangement had not left me time to get involved in the sort of adventures I used to enjoy. "I'm not sure I believe you but I'll go out on a limb and take your word."
"Bless you. I just had a marvelous idea. How about, instead of you sparking arguments by letting your imagination run wild, we ask our guests what brings them here?"
She can be reasonable. It just doesn't happen all that often.
Neither nocturnal adventurer wanted to share. Neither said a word. Tinnie set limits to how vigorously I could ask questions. She wouldn't let me get loud or messy.
She could be stubborn about stuff like that. This time she insisted on drafting a night shift nephew to run to down the Al-Khar to collect a squad of TunFaire's self-proclaimed finest.
They responded to the Tate name.
If the boy had used mine the tin whistles might have taken weeks. The Tates have friends in that community of people who think law and order is good for commerce. They have the kind of money that rears up on its hind legs and howls for immediate attention. The red tops nearly beat themselves to the AMC Annex, where Tinnie had us keeping house.
That was her idea of a compromise. She did not want to live in my house. I was dead set against being pulled in and converted into another drone in the Tate family hive.
"This would not have happened on Macunado Street," I observed. "They wouldn't have gotten through the door. Unless Old Bones wanted to play with them. And we'd know what it was all about already."
They say women change once they get their talons in and locked. I wouldn't presume to enter an opinion. But I am willing to admit that spending time at my place, even with the Dead Man wide awake, had been no problem for Tinnie back when we were just real good friends.
She ignored me. She was working herself up to make a deal with the minions of the law. She ignored our captives, too.
Those two would have a tale to tell their grandkids. If they got lucky, a miracle happened, lightning struck, and they evaded the labor gang that was their certain fate at the moment.
A tin whistle named Scithe led the red tops. Scithe was a little too appreciative of a certain redhead. Not a friend, by any means. Most lawmen don't even trust each other. But he was decent and reasonable outside his weakness for ginger.
Scithe said, "I don't understand, Miss Tate. You're still associating with this known anti-social type."
"He's like a wart. Hard to get rid of. And he does have entertainment value. For now, though, I'd be ever so grateful if you could take these two men somewhere and ask them why they interrupted my rest."
Scithe made an unhappy noise. He considered the villains. They, only now, were getting a grasp on the bleakness of their prospects.
They hadn't struck me as drunk. Maybe they smoked something before they got what seemed like a good idea at the time.
They had to be brothers. The older one muttered, "We're screwed." The only thing either had said yet. They hadn't tried to talk their way out using ridiculous logic and excuses, which is what these morons usually do.
"Not necessarily true, my friend," Scithe said. "As a Civil Guard officer I'm permitted a certain amount of discretion. You could walk away from this with nothing but your bruises. If you're the stubborn sort, though, it's a safe bet you'll spend time in the Bledsoe healing up so you can put in a few years helping reclaim the Little Dismal Swamp."
"Shit," the younger one opined, without heat. "Just kill us now."
"There ain't no easy way out, boys. You done a bad thing. What you got to decide now is, how do you want to pay your debt to society?"
Scithe was having fun.
His question was not meant to be answered. Neither villain tried. Both were, now, lost souls wandering a desert of despair.
Tinnie said, "They could probably get some cooperation points if they came clean right now, couldn't they, Senior Lieutenant?"
I took a closer look at Scithe. Sure enough, he was sporting senior lieutenant's pips. He was bounding up the law and order ladder.
The man had a knack for something besides mooning after redheads. He could get villains to keep him happy by confiding in him, urged along by his implying that he could provide something they wanted badly: a way out.
"Gentlemen, you have to give me something. I know you aren't stupid." Which was a bald-face lie. "You know how the system works. You'll go to the Al-Khar because I can't not take you in. We have to see if you're on the wanted book for something ugly. If you have no majors there, you could walk out under your own power." In chains, headed for the swamp. "You know we do let folks go to encourage the rest of you to cooperate. So far, here, all we've got is a jimmied lock and some folks who aren't happy about getting waked up in the middle of the night. So why not tell me? What's the story?"
The elder brother thought he'd give cooperation a chance. Condemnation to the Little Dismal Swamp project amounted to a death sentence. Though some prisoners might complete their sentences, someday. None have yet but the project isn't all that old.
"We was supposed to catch the woman and take her someplace. The guy wasn't supposed to be here. If he was, we was supposed to bop him on the head and get out. With her."
That sparked interest all round. None of us would expect Tinnie to be a target.
Scithe can be blisteringly obvious. "Why?"
Shrug. "We didn't get paid to ask questions."
"You did get paid?"
Tin whistles looked at me like I knew what this was all about.
"Talk to him," I grumbled. "He's the one with the answers."
Here was one now. "Forty percent. The balance on delivery."
"Let me get this straight." Scithe was having trouble getting his mind around something. "You were hired to kidnap Miss Tate."
"Ain't that what I just confessed?"
"You did. Yes." Scithe took no offense, nor did he argue, however senseless the villain's statement. "Who might be so starved for Miss Tate's company that he, or she, would enlist your assistance in arranging a date?"
Both bad boys frowned and wrestled with that. The younger one worked it out. "Jimmy Two Steps hired us."
I gave Tinnie a dirty look. I was so out of touch I didn't know who Jimmy Two Steps was. Then me and the minions of the law exchanged eyebrow lifts. They didn't know Jimmy, either.
Nor did Tinnie, who said, "I don't know anybody named Jimmy."
Mysteries. We got mysteries. We got off the wall mysteries.
It's the way things start. There's a smoldering hottie underfoot. But, Tinnie? It's more usually a personable wench from the grass is greener side.
I told myself, "This isn't something getting started. This is just random." But even clicking my heels didn't convince me.