Overview

Jocasta Pantile needs a case to keep the bailiffs from the door. Stanislav Duff needs someone to find his prize spells. They make the ideal client and enquiry agent, especially with Jocasta's prize asset, the genetically-engineered Spellhound.

The trouble is that when she finds them, Duff intends to kill the thief and his accomplices. Jocasta doesn't much like his plan, but knows that if she doesn't find them,...

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Vengeance

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Overview

Jocasta Pantile needs a case to keep the bailiffs from the door. Stanislav Duff needs someone to find his prize spells. They make the ideal client and enquiry agent, especially with Jocasta's prize asset, the genetically-engineered Spellhound.

The trouble is that when she finds them, Duff intends to kill the thief and his accomplices. Jocasta doesn't much like his plan, but knows that if she doesn't find them, Duff may kill her instead.

If he doesn't kill her anyway; she knows too much about him for her own good.

Neither of them realize just how far Duff's desire for Vengeance will take them....

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Product Details

  • BN ID: 2940000144244
  • Publisher: Swimming Kangaroo Books
  • Publication date: 5/5/2008
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 301 KB

Read an Excerpt

1

"Spare a coin for a poor orphan child, pretty Dem?"

The voice seemed to pipe out of nowhere, and Jocasta stopped on the street corner, her chain of thought interrupted.

"Oh," she murmured. She looked around for her companion, but it had rounded the corner, not realizing that she had stopped. "I'm a--I'm not a Dem, child, I've never married," she said sadly, looking down at the source of the voice, who gazed up at her.

The girl was about six years old, Jocasta decided. She guessed again: The girl's legs were missing below the thigh, which made it hard to tell. Clad in a bilious green robe that bunched around her waist, she perched on a rickety wooden cart, which, judging by the calluses on her outstretched hand, she wheeled around herself. Her eyes were a rich chocolate brown, but Jocasta recoiled from the thin green stream of snot trickling from one nostril, while a malodorous waft floated up from the child. One of her shoulders was exposed to the air, showing a hideous rash of pustules.

She caught Jocasta's horrified glance, and blurted, "'s not catching, Demoiselle." Then: "Spare a coin?"

Jocasta opened her mouth to say, "I haven't got any," but what actually came out was, "If they find you up here in The Magister's Quarter, they'll kill you, child."

"The Festival of Shamsharra, innit? Free folk are allowed anywhere then." The girl added querulously, "Even ones like me."

Jocasta rummaged in her coin cache and said kindly, "Do you really think it would seem anything but an accident?" With her free hand she drew her forefinger across her throat as she handed over the copper, gripping it in the tips of her fingers so as not to touch thegirl's flesh. She probably isn't cursed, Jocasta thought, but it won't hurt to be sure.

The child took it, and Jocasta said, "Now, run along--"

She was interrupted by the girl's shriek.

A shadow fell over them, and Jocasta urged, quietly, but harsh with near-panic, "Be quiet! Be still!" The girl complied, and Jocasta added in a gentler voice, "It's only my spellhound."

The little girl stared up at the monstrous bulk. Apart from a tiny shiver, she was statue-still, her eyes wide. Finally she whispered, "You one o' the warders? Has he come to git me?"

"If I were," Jocasta said, "you'd be in the back of a prison wagon already." She laughed and said, "He is an 'it.' I use it to track spells. Hold your hand out; no not with the coin."

"Its fur is soft. Can it talk?"

"No," Jocasta said.

Hieroglyphs formed dancing motes of light in front of the spellhound.--This is how I talk--.

As the child gawped, Jocasta urged, "Now run along. Shoo! Before the warders catch you."

Obediently, the child spun her cart with the ease of long practice and sped off.

Jocasta stood up straight and adjusted her dress, gazing out over Frehk. They stood on one of the highest hills in the city. It was early spring and the breeze that blew off the bay still chilled. "I should have worn my cape," she said, half to herself. "Especially if we're not back at the office until late afternoon."

--Did you not pawn it last week?--

She chuckled grimly. "I was trying to forget that."

--Oh.--

She took a deep breath. "We shouldn't stand here too long."

--We were early. We will not be late.--

"Good."

--Did you give that child money?--

"I did," Jocasta said, trying not to sound defensive.

--Does it seem sensible to you to give a beggar child your last coins?--

"You sound as if you are my owner." She half-laughed.

--I am very aware of who owns whom. That is why I said your, not our, last coins. Still, I have your interests at heart.--

But I suspect you'd rather that I didn't sell you, she thought. If I did, your next owner might not allow such independence of thought. Instead she said, "We don't have enough money to pay next week's rent, whether I gave that child a coin or not. By contrast, it will make a lot of difference to her."

--And perhaps the fates will look kindly on our mission, if you make them a small offering?--

They walked slowly, as if attending a friend's execution, and Jocasta took deep breaths to calm her thumping heart.

--If he does not hire us, it is not the end of the world.--

Jocasta wanted to scream that it was the end of the world but made herself ignore the well-intentioned platitudes. Instead she said, "If we don't get this contract, I won't be able to pay next month's bills."

--It is that bad?--

"It's that bad."

They rounded the corner into Unnamed Square, and Jocasta clutched at the stabbing pain in her lower gut. "Damned ulcer," she gasped. The spellhound pretended not to hear her, aware of her embarrassment at suffering from such an archaic and--if the patient had money--easily treatable complaint. Instead, it looked impassively around the square. The square was built around a tiny park at its centre, which was full of trees. There was only one home on each side, and they were all as different and individual as their owners could make them.

Jocasta leaned on a wall, trying not to whimper, and after a dozen heartbeats, straightened up. She took deep breaths and sipped from a small bottle of potion she'd purchased from a healer the previous week. After a few moments, the pain eased.

She took a few more breaths and, leaning on the wall, looked away from the square and gazed out over the city of Frehk. A flitter the shape of an oversized bathtub sailed serenely, sedately, across the skyline.

Even up here, the smell from the Festival of Shamsharra permeated everything. Sweetmeats fought with the odour of deep-fried kelp, with pungent cow dung smeared on the bulging bellies of pregnant women for blessings from the spirit world. Marijuana and Capellan hemp bracketed either end of the olfactory spectrum.

"If you breathe deeply enough, some believe you can hear the insanity and taste the psychotropic," Jocasta said, more to distract the spellhound from her weakness than from any desire for conversation.

It seemed to work.--We should go to Duff's mansion,--it said,--unless your plan is for us to arrive late?--

Jocasta took a last look down at the rooftops of the city, partly hidden by the fog that defied all attempts at elimination. The bonfires of the poor fuelled the mist as the festival split into a hundred-headed hydra of street parties, and people ceremonially burned effigies to celebrate the end of winter.

The spires of rich merchants' palaces poked through the mist in a mosaic of grey and colour. The edible webs of fruit-spiders decorated elegant palaces, while old ribbons dangled from the meanest hovels: Each in their own way celebrated winter's end and the rebirth of the world.

A couple of hours earlier, when they had set out, Jocasta and the spellhound had been part of the same crowd. Although the street parties had been breaking up, from the top of Pommel Hill down to the edge of the docks, a few last jugglers cast balls and truncheons spinning in the air. Not all of them caught everything they threw--some dropped their toys deliberately for the amusement of the crowds. Clowns on stilts and unicycles ducked between armoured militia cruisers whose occupants watched warily for any action against their sponsors. Mime artists performed sketches. Hawkers, human and alien, jostled and shouted to make themselves heard above the zealots with their loudspeakers. An occasional scream pierced the shouts, as someone noticed their wallet was gone. Sometimes a drunk would grope a passing girl, and Jocasta had seen several couples sneaking down side alleys.

"Enough daydreaming," she said as they strode further into the square. Jocasta was certain that they were being watched from the Duff manse. "Even up here, the pressure of Frehk's millions means that they can't live in complete isolation, so I suppose they assert their wealth through individuality."

--Why should they need to, when they have country retreats?--

"Strange isn't it?" Jocasta agreed. "I'm surprised that Duff hasn't stayed there for the last month and waited out the Festival. My guess is that whatever has caused so many whispers to echo around the city is the same reason that Duff is still in town. And why he wants to see us." They skirted the square. Jocasta thought that she caught the trill of birdsong and held her chest for several seconds. "Probably only an imago," she muttered. "No bird could survive long from insect predators, even up here." Even the thought of seeing one of the near-extinct creatures took her breath away.

They stood in front of the Duff manse. It's as big as a small village, Jocasta thought. Crenelated turrets and soaring spires were not to her taste, seeming to be there solely to show their master's wealth. The white surfaces of every wall blinded with their brightness, even though the sun was hidden behind clouds. Probably enhanced with a spell, she thought.

--We are on time, according to the position of the sun.--

"Good," she said quietly. "More by luck than judgement."

They slowly climbed the wide, sweeping steps to the front door, Jocasta's skin rippling with the pressure of unseen eyes. She whispered, "Are those wards we can feel?" and resisted the urge to place her hand in the spellhound's huge paw.

--Probably. I suggest no more talking. Everything we say is almost certainly being listened to.--

Her silence was assent enough. She reached up and pulled at the great doorknocker, expecting from its size that it would be impossible to move, but it responded as if it were a feather. They stood and waited, Jocasta trying to breathe easily.

The door swung open, and Jocasta gasped. A zombie gazed at her with lifeless eyes. Its pasty white flesh was tinged with green. My word, she thought. Either Duff doesn't know what a faux pas it is to have one of the dead opening his door, or he doesn't care. She suspected the latter. Collecting her wits, she said crisply, "Jocasta Pantile from Sirtis and Daniels, Enquiry Agents."

The zombie said in a toneless voice, "Enter, please," managing to make the three syllables menacing.

They followed it into a wide, spacious hallway made almost entirely of marble. The door swung silently, gently, shut behind them, although none of them had pushed it, and then closed with a loud thud. "Wait here," the zombie said.

They waited for several minutes, long enough to ensure that they knew who held all the power. Jocasta stood in plain view in the middle of the hallway, while the spellhound lurked, hidden by the walls of a vestibule. She watched it examine a corner, adding every little fact that it could to its store of knowledge: what the walls were made of (white pseudo-plaster, reinforced to be spellproof), how long the hallway was (at least as long as the added height of ten tall men), and whether the animal heads mounted on the hallway walls were real (undoubtedly, Jocasta decided).

She passed a mirror and straightened her tunic, hoping that its threadbare look was some trick of Duff's mirror meant to unsettle visitors. She suspected not.

The woman who stared back was grey haired and so frail she looked as if she would snap like a twig in a strong breeze. Her make-up could not hide what Jocasta preferred to call 'laughter lines.' You look your age, woman, she thought. At a hundred and thirty, you might only be half Duff's daughter's age, but I'll wager she has no lines, laughter or otherwise. Her eyes looked bruised, they were set so deeply in their sockets. Movement out of the corner of her eye took her mind off her shabbiness.

A girl seemed to drift down the long, sweeping flight of carpeted stairs. She took Jocasta's breath away. Enhanced or not, Jocasta thought, she is stunning. How must it be to be a Demoiselle, to sail through life having every door that's closed to us lesser folk swing open effortlessly for you? Even in a world of beauty--and let's be honest, I'm not ugly--you are breathtaking. Jocasta wished she could afford the girl's rejuvenation consultant.

The girl's shimmering, raven-black hair cascaded down over her shoulders, her marble-white skin matching her simple, yet elegant dress perfectly. The only colours in her face were dark eyes and crimson lips, full, inviting, and parted to show perfect white teeth. "You must be here to see Papa," she said in a soft voice that still carried across the hallway.

"Oh. Oh, yes," Jocasta said, hating herself for sounding so flustered.

"I'm Sinhalese, his daughter," she said. Jocasta saw how dowdy and old she must look by the faint way the girl's nostrils flared. "I'll show you to the library." Sinhalese caught sight of the spellhound and jumped back a fraction, her eyes widening momentarily, before she regained her self-control.

Jocasta often forgot how intimidating the spellhound was, and how powerful and awesomely dangerous it could appear to a stranger. She tried to look at it as if she had never seen it before. It was well over two metres tall, and although it walked upright, it looked as if it should be more comfortable on all fours. Pitch black from head to toe, it wore a simple belted tunic with pockets crammed full of various small objects, shorts, and calf-length boots with armoured toecaps. The hands were clumsy paws, and the head was massive, with a blunt snout about twenty centimetres long, from which lolled an enormous pink tongue between serrated teeth the size of small knives. It surveyed its surroundings through red eyes that burned like hot coals.

"This is my spellhound," Jocasta said to break the silence. It gazed at Sinhalese with ferocious intelligence. She looked away as it yawned, its jaw making an audible crack.

"Come this way," Sinhalese said, radiating disapproval--though Jocasta was unsure which of them she disapproved of.

Sinhalese led them into a dark little room that was lined with books. "I'll have the servants bring you refreshments," she said with a small, insincere smile. "Please. Sit."

Jocasta sat, but the spellhound stood, immobile but for its eyes studying the room. Sinhalese left them although Jocasta guessed that she would still be hanging around outside. She looks, Jocasta thought, like the kind of girl who loiters outside doors, listening to what's being said on the other side.

Jocasta still felt watched, so they sat in a silence punctuated by the gentle ticking of an antique clock.

Sinhalese led another zombie in. He was breathtakingly handsome, only a vacuous expression and a huge scar from his left ear to the base of his throat marring his features. He carried a tray of tall glasses holding a frothy drink. Sinhalese positively purred. "This is my prize possession, Damon Task. Isn't he striking?"

Before Jocasta could reply, a male voice blasted through the silence, and a shaggy, shambling ogre of a man filled her sight. "Demoiselle Pantile? Sorry to keep you." He bowed, kissed Jocasta's hand, and held it a moment too long. She felt a fiery blush spread up her neck.

"Oh." She fiddled with a lock of hair, and catching a look of disgust on Sinhalese's face, let it go. "Oh, good morning--no--well, good day."

"We'll say good day, if it makes you more comfortable," Duff said kindly, but Jocasta caught a faint hint of mockery and blushed. As he covertly waved Sinhalese out, Jocasta studied him.

His laugh, she guessed, would echo around the socialite parties they attended like a shock wave. He was as dark as his daughter was alabaster and as heavy and ugly as she was lithe and beautiful. A jet-black shrub of beard half-hid crooked, misshapen teeth that had to be a deliberate gesture of defiance at the arbiters of fashionable beauty, for he could easily have had them corrected. His large head appeared small compared to his monolithic body. Beauty is for the herd, his attitude shouted--only the great are ugly.

But the eyes that glared at the world were small and mean and gave him away even when he charmed. Jocasta had spent weeks preparing for this meeting, studying the gossip and collecting snippets of information. They had all warned her about his temper.

She swallowed, tried a little flirty smile. "I'm sorry," she said. "You're so--such an ... individual."

Sinhalese turned wide-eyed in the doorway, shaking her head and making a retching gesture. Jocasta noticed but ignored it, instead gushed, "Your beard is very black. So full of vigour."

Duff almost purred. "Flatterer." He poured drinks into two glasses, held out one, and when she took it, raised the other.

"Your good health," he said.

"And yours," she replied. "May your problems soon be over."

He smiled his snaggle-toothed grin, but his eyes narrowed. "What do you know of my problems?" His voice was level, but had an edge to it.

"Only that if you didn't have problems, I wouldn't be sitting here drinking this lovely drink. What is it?"

His smile was definitely nasty now. "It's perhaps better that you don't know."

She put her glass down and sitting, placed hands on knees and leaned forward. "I've heard, as I'm sure everyone else has, that you've misplaced something or are looking for something, or..." She laughed nervously. "The rumours vary more than a spoilt child's moods, but the fact that you've graciously accepted my petition to offer assistance means that there's something that you need and that only an enquiry agent can find for you."

"Admirably put." Duff clapped his hands together and sat facing her. "That you know I have a problem confirms my suspicions. That no man, no matter how discreet, can move through life without leaving a trail." His gaze shifted to the spellhound. "A fine beast. What's his name?"

"It has no name," Pantile said gently. "It's neutered. No sex interfering with its abilities."

Duff nodded. "No, we wouldn't want sex interfering with our abilities, would we?" he said to the spellhound but winked at her, and she felt her cheeks burn. He added, "You don't look like the stereotypical enquiry agent, Demoiselle Pantile."

She tittered nervously. "Please call me Jocasta, Ser Duff."

"Then you must call me Stanislav," he replied. "It seems to me that you'd be far more at home at a club, watching some bravoes duelling, or playing a round of baton-ball."

"Unfortunately." She despised herself for simpering but couldn't help responding to his sheer animal magnetism. "One cannot afford such luxury. One must work for one's bread."

"So Sirtis and Daniels employed you?"

"Not quite," Jocasta admitted. "I'll let you in on a little secret. Neither Sirtis nor Daniels actually exists. Ess and Dee: service and discretion, you know."

He nodded. "Ah." He rubbed his hands together and said, "To business," with the air of a pirate bent on rape and pillage. "You've worked extensively with and around magic?"

"Indeed," she twittered.

Duff frowned, clearly having trouble taking her seriously. "It can be rewarding but very dangerous," he said pompously.

"Less for me than for my associate here." Jocasta signalled the spellhound, who joined them. "Look," she said in answer to Duff's puzzled frown.

Duff peered at the creature's fur, which close up was less black than an intensely dark blue. There was a slight movement, and Duff recoiled.

Jocasta said, "It doesn't have fleas. Don't worry." She passed Duff a lens.

"It looks like a firefly," Duff breathed, "though it's the very absence of light, more like a dark-fly. What is it--some bizarre offspring of man and cockroach? There are dozens--no hundreds of them. They're tiny!" He looked up, comprehension dawning. "Midgies," he breathed.

"Midgies," Jocasta agreed. "They'll eat any magic thrown at the spellhound. In time, if they have nothing else to feed on, they'll eat it alive. Monthly injections take care of that."

"What's your protection? Magic petticoats?" he teased.

"A lady couldn't possibly answer such a question," she said primly.

Duff looked impressed. "How much do you want for this splendid creature?"

"It's not for sale."

"How much?" Duff pressed. "I've heard spellhounds are unrivalled at tracking magic. I must have it."

"And when you've finished with it?" she said. "You'd have a surplus spellhound, and I'd be minus our prime asset. We aren't a bloodstock agency. It isn't for sale at any price."

She added, "Please excuse me, Ser Duff. I have other business to attend to."

"What?" he exclaimed.

"I have to be at the bank in an hour. If you wanted merely to buy a spellhound--well, I must be going."

"Nonsense!" he snapped. "We're just starting. Come now, to the real business at hand."

Jocasta wanted to let out a long sigh of relief but knew that Duff probably had spy-eyes round the room, watching her every move and breath. Instead, she exhaled gently. The bluff had worked! She asked gently, "How can we help you, Stanislav?"

"This is difficult," Duff said haltingly. "I need absolute discretion." He looked at the spellhound, who was watching them with interest. "It won't gossip?"

"It can't talk," Jocasta said. "And not one word will be said by me to anyone alive about this conversation or about any investigation you decide to hire us for." She looked at him steadily. "Stanislav," she urged. "Whatever the problem, it can't be worse than some we've tackled in the past. Our discretion is absolute." He must know that it was true--a talkative enquiry agent would soon be without clients.

"Very well," Duff said. "Where to begin?" He waited while a servant entered with another tray of drinks, which she placed on the table. Jocasta sipped hers. The glass was chilled, and where it had sat, it left a ring of condensation.

"Suppose something was stolen," Duff ventured. "And I wanted it back without fuss?"

"How important is it?"

"To me?" He thought. "Very. But it's equally important my enemies don't know our security can be breached. I've already had to rectify something that could seriously damage my reputation..."

"Good heavens," she said.

"Good heavens," he echoed. "So I'd rather people you ask didn't know what you were asking about. Does that makes sense?"

"Yes." She pondered. "It depends how rare what we are looking for is. If it has many components such as an old watch, we can enquire separately. If it is something specific, we could admit what it is but lie about our client. For example, instead of a mage, our client could be a famous actor, or something else." She smiled, waved a palm. "But without some form of clue, you're asking me to work in the dark, Stanislav."

"Yes. I am." He grinned and changed tack. "Just how good is this spellhound at tracking magic?"

"The best." The finality in her voice was eloquence enough.

"I would have expected no other answer." He smiled. "Do you know how many spellhounds there are?"

"I believe less than a hundred," she ventured.

"Eighty-five. Every one of their owners--like you--says they're not for sale."

Jocasta noticed the implication. So I'm your last resort? She wondered if he was exaggerating about asking every single enquiry agent with a spellhound, but dared not take the risk that he might go elsewhere.

"Can it trace an individual spell?" Duff asked.

"Or combination," she said. "It can also track people, particularly those who have handled those spells."

He leaned forward. "How will it know what it's looking for?"

She doodled in a miniature lake of condensation left by the glass. "Think of perfumes, or tea." She hesitated. "Each particular type of spell has its similarities, which each person who handles it changes minutely. So if you put together as near a duplicate of that spell as you can--"

"You mean buy another spell?" He laughed mirthlessly. "Then why do we need you?"

"No, no." Flustered, she tried again. "You can rent a master spell of its kind from the archives."

"And let everyone know that it's been stolen?" He looked unimpressed, and Jocasta felt her chance slipping away, spellhound or no spellhound.

She took a deep breath, trying to formulate an answer to a conundrum to which she didn't have all the clues, let alone the answers. "Did you keep the spell somewhere specific?" she asked desperately, scrabbling for inspiration. "If we have time to examine in close detail where the spell was kept, it would help."

"We could do that," Duff agreed.

"Ser Stanislav," Jocasta implored. "I need more detail. Is this spell reusable? Is it personally keyed to you? You've told me nothing but expect me to answer riddles."

He nodded, coming to a decision. "You're right. Time for answers--follow me."

He led her through a concealed doorway into a small square room about twice the length of a man. "It has the air of a room well used," Jocasta murmured to the spellhound, which brought up the rear. "Antique." She fingered the books lining the walls. "Printed on priceless paper. Each probably costing more than we earn in a month." She smiled at Duff's sharp look. Even in daylight the room was gloomy but cosy. She and the spellhound stepped away from Duff and wandered around the room, seemingly at random. "It's the first warm room in this house of cold comfort." She had difficulty concentrating and called, "Stanislav, are you operating a confusion?" She pressed her hand against her eye to try to relieve the pressure of a sinus headache. She swallowed, fighting down nausea.

"Sorry." He motioned, and the pressure eased.

"It's set only to you?"

"All my spells are set to myself and Sinhalese. Though that means little. A determined thief will find ways around that."

"Agreed." Jocasta looked around. "There's too much magic in here," she complained. "Truesight won't work. Will a sketch?" she asked the spellhound. At its answer, her shoulders slumped. "Then we'll have to use basic techniques."

Duff pressed a concealed switch, and a bookcase swung open to reveal a tiny chamber, little bigger than a concealed cupboard. Jocasta waved the spellhound forward, and it almost flowed into the chamber. It snuffled and then sneezed explosively.

They watched the spellhound licking the wall to get a taste, its hackles raised. It sniffed its way along every surface, into every gap, into every cranny, its muscles straining as it fought to separate what it sought from what was extraneous. It warbled and chirped in excitement, and hieroglyphs danced in the air.

"Who had access to this room?" Jocasta asked.

"Myself, Sinhalese, and our servant, Damon Task."

"Task?" Suspicion suffused her voice.

"He's a zombie." Meaning, no one had anything that could suborn him.

"Ah," Jocasta said, satisfied. "What was the spell?"

"Spells," he said absently, his attention on the spellhound as it worked. "Can it track them even after all this time?"

"Them?" she said sharply. "It depends how many. It depends on luck as well, to an extent. How many were stolen?"

"Eleven."

"Eleven?" Jocasta shrieked.

Sinhalese appeared in the doorway as if conjured. "Is everything under control?" She smiled vindictively.

Jocasta gritted her teeth. "Everything is well."

"Eleven," Duff said. "We thought ten at first. With counterspells. And some blanks." He itemised them on great sausage-like fingers: "The Spell of Invisibility; Summoning; Elsewhere; the Spell of Yesterday; Enchantment; Levitation; Succubation--"

"Succubation?" Jocasta said. "I'm not familiar with that."

"It allows the user to create a succubus. A female version of an incubus," he said before she could ask. He continued, counting on his fingers: "The Spell of Reanimation; Shadow-casting; Strength and Speed; and the Spell of Silent Death." He stared at her as if she were a specimen on a slab. "This isn't looking for an errant husband who has run off with a glamour girl or who's putting laxative in their supervisor's tree-tea." He laughed. "You look shocked, Jocasta. Did you really think I wouldn't have you checked, discreetly. Small time, but capable, they assured me." He oozed concern. "Is the job too big for you?"

Jocasta thought, I know too much to be allowed to live if I decline it. Even if I didn't need it so badly, I couldn't turn it down. "It is big," she admitted. "We'll need to subcontract." She held up a hand: "They'll only be told the minimum." She studied him again. "What sort of spells?"

"All class one," he answered.

She looked puzzled.

"Self-regenerating." He added, "They'd need time to regenerate. And they could eventually be worn out, just as you could work a man to death."

"There were counterspells for them?"

"For some, antidotes. In some cases actually separate spells."

"And the blanks. Do you think they intended to create new ones by grafting them?" She saw that she'd surprised him by how quickly she'd caught the implications.

"Very likely." His voice held new respect.

"Do you have any idea who did it?"

"I know exactly who did it," he said flatly. "He's dead."

"Oh." She looked thoughtful.

"It's what he's done with the spells or where he's stashed them that puzzles us," Duff said.

"This is going to cost you a lot of money."

"Whatever it takes," he said. They pressed palms to confirm the contract. "I'll send you a copy of my spy's witnessing our conversation as confirmation."

She gulped, realising that she was committed. It was what she'd wanted, but like so much in life, sometimes getting what one wanted had unforeseen consequences.

"I must go," she said breathlessly. "I need to call at the bank. I'll send you an estimate and a formal contract with all the details."

"I'll take you there, if you're in a hurry," he offered. "Have you bills to pay?"

Does he know? she wondered. "I've had a tip from another client," she said and simpered. "I shouldn't really discuss it."

"Come, Jocasta..." he murmured.

"You won't tell anyone else? Please? It's supposed to be confidential!"

"It'll be our secret," he promised.

"You know the Third Spice Mercantile Bank?"

"Indeed."

"I've heard one of the Orbital finance houses is preparing a takeover." She studiously examined her nails and added, "I've a little money put aside for some shares in the bank. Which will be an absolute bargain." Even though it's money I should really be spending on food and rent. But wouldn't life be dull if survival were all that drove us? Still, she wondered if she would yet have to spend her last chunk of painfully gathered savings. She had no intention of becoming a slave, even temporarily.

"I might be interested myself," he said absently. "If it's that good a bargain..."

"Don't go wild," she said. "If too many shares are bought, then it will be obvious that someone's talked."

"I'll decide how much I spend!" he growled. "But this may lead to a bonus for you."

"You are most generous toward a humble enquiry agent, Ser Stanislav." She bowed.

"And you're more resourceful than you first appear, Demoiselle Jocasta." He smiled his snaggle-toothed grin. "I want those spells."

He added, "Remember, whatever it takes."

"Whatever it takes," she agreed.

* * * *

While he drove her to the bank and she drew out her funds, she kept up the pretence of being relaxed and that the case really was so unimportant. Only when she was sure that he was gone and that she was alone with the spellhound, did she lean back against the wall, wipe the sweat from her forehead, and wipe her eyes.

"It's just the release of the tension," she said to the spellhound.

--The tension is only just about to begin. Now that we are committed to him, tension will be our constant companion.--

"I know! Leave me some illusions, won't you?" she grumbled.

* * * *

2

Shhh! Don't move! If you're quiet and stay still, he might not get you. Mamma warned you about The Badman, and she was right to. Here he is...

Quickly--

Be still.

Be quiet.

Big kids don't cry.

If you don't move, The Badman might not notice you.

Keep your eyes shut, keep the bright sunlight out.

Be still. Be quiet. Big kids don't cry. Be still be quiet be still--

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