Alexander Drake, Investigator for Hire, doesn’t like working for the Nobility, and doesn’t prefer to take jobs from strange men who accost him in alleyways. A combination of hired muscle and ready silver have a way of changing a man’s mind.
A lord has been killed, his body found covered in bite marks. Even worse, the late lord’s will is missing, and not everyone wants Drake to find it. Solving the case might plunge Drake into deeper danger.
City of Wolves is a gaslamp fantasy noir from debut author Willow Palecek.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.40(d)|
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City of Wolves
By Willow Palecek, Carl Engle-Laird
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Willow Palecek
All rights reserved.
I WAS ON MY WAY HOME after a night ill spent at the Stool and Rooster, a filthy little dive with lousy clientele and lousier drinks. As an Investigator for Hire, I needed my drinks to be of the lowest caliber, as the money was terrible. I could have led a comfortable life working for the Ministries or as a wealthy lord's private retainer, but I tried to keep away from jobs involving the nobility; the money was good but the price was trouble. Instead, I got my income by digging up dirty laundry for suspicious spouses or tracking down prison escapees. Once in a while, I'd manage to get hired on for a consultation with the City Watch, but these days, the Watch was more concerned with hushing up murders than solving them.
I was broke. I was drunk. I was pretty sure I was being followed.
A fellow must either be very brave, or very stupid, to go out alone in the dead of night in the neighborhood that surrounds the Stool and Rooster. It is left as an exercise to the reader to decide which category I fall into. I stumbled down the middle of the lane, built-up tenements and workhouses on either side, not venturing too close to the alleyways. I was not a block from the Stool and Rooster when three men emerged from an alley some fifteen feet behind me. Two of them tall, the other plump and short. I didn't let my concern or even my awareness show. I kept my pace steady and staggered toward the edge of the lane, turning into the next alley.
Large arms gripped me from either side. Struggling, I managed to get a hand on the face of one of my attackers and dug my fingers into his flesh as hard as I could. He let loose a yowl of pain while his partner forced my other arm behind my back, pressing hard. He could have easily broken the arm, but it was my good fortune (such as it was) that he only desired to inflict agony upon me. I clenched my jaw and ground my teeth, refusing to give him the satisfaction of a scream.
"That will be enough, gentlemen." The fat one's voice was refined but also labored. The meaty jowls of his face were surrounded by massive sideburns, and round spectacles covered his small eyes. He had to be a member of the Ministries or possibly the trusted retainer of a nobleman. The latter seemed more likely; the Ministries wouldn't have to resort to hired muscle. They had plenty of thugs on the payroll already.
My arm was released and the two goons retreated, one farther into the alley and the other into the light of the street. The deep scratches I had inflicted on his face bled profusely; he wiped his face on his sleeve, soaking it with blood.
"Make it quick," I said. Freed from the thugs, I swept my coat open to reveal the brace of pistols and the hatchet on my belt. The little lump of a man did not react, but his companions moved to display their own weaponry.
"Mr. Drake, my employer is interested in procuring your services," he said. "There is a delicate matter that requires a consultant."
"I don't work for the nobility."
"I rather suspect that you'll make an exception in this case." He withdrew a leather pouch from his satchel and opened it. Even in the dim reflections of the streetlights, I could see the glimmer of gold.
"Thirty crowns, Mr. Drake. Another thirty upon successful completion of the job."
Sixty crowns was almost as much money as I'd made in a year hauling drunks out of gutters, bringing parole jumpers back to the gaol, and spying on wives for cuckolded husbands. And then there was the matter of my debts. They weren't enough to send me to the debtors' prisons, but the offer was certainly tempting. I considered what that sum would buy. Conviction and pragmatism wrestled for primacy in my thoughts.
"How can I refuse?"CHAPTER 2
GEOFFREY WINTERS, as the pudgy little man was named, had a carriage waiting not too far yonder to convey me to his employer's town house. The trip was silent. Mr. Winters curtly insisted that all inquiries about the job be directed to his employer. The thug I had gouged sat across from me, glaring with bloodshot eyes and poorly contained rage. I smirked at him and turned to my side to steal a quick nap.
The carriage brought us to the stables. Despite my inebriation, I could tell the carriage was taking a circuitous route. Once at the stables, I was quickly ushered into a well-appointed sitting room dominated by a few pieces of abstract art, a rather garish set of lamps, and a number of bookcases. Reflexively, I scanned some of the titles.
I was not kept waiting long. A young nobleman entered the room. He was well dressed, with a tailored jacket and trousers, wavy hair, and neatly trimmed sideburns. His handsomeness was marred by lips slightly too big for his face, which seemed permanently pursed in a look of bland confusion. A servant soon followed, pushing a cart with a silver pitcher of water.
"Mr. Drake, pleased to make your acquaintance. I apologize for the circumstances of our meeting, but my position demands a certain degree of discretion. Please, be seated."
I was standing — not out of respect for him but to better size up the room and its contents. By his leave I took a seat in a large, leather-upholstered chair.
"You seem to have me at a disadvantage, Mister ..."
He was silent for a moment, contemplating. "Mr. Drake, tell me. Did you fight in the war?"
"For the Crown."
"Most everyone in the war was fighting for one crown or another. Which side, Mr. Drake?"
"Loyalist," I spat.
"I appreciate a man who values loyalty. My family is in a sensitive position. While our house eventually declared for King Werton, we fought under the banner of the Grey Wolf in several early skirmishes. My name is Colin Abergreen."
When a Lupenwalder mentions "the war," he is referring to the War of the Wolves — a schism in the royal house that set two would-be Kings against each other. King Sebastian, the Grey Wolf, was the rightful heir, and was traveling on the Continent when old King Joachim died. His uncle, Werton, prevented Sebastian from returning, proclaimed himself King, and consolidated power in himself and his supporters. Those of us who supported the Grey Wolf called ourselves Loyalists; those who supported Werton, the Red Wolf, called themselves Unifiers. We called them Pretenders; they called us Traitors.
The war lasted almost fifteen years, ending only with the death of King Sebastian, the Grey Wolf. At the dawn of the war, I was young and idealistic, eager to serve for the rightful King. That was ancient history. I'd since learned the true meaning of the war: a pointless monument of death celebrating two men's vanity.
"I don't know much about loyalty." I fished out one of the coins from Winter's pouch. "But I do know coin. This is what buys my loyalty." I set the coin on the small table between us, face up. "The coins bear the face of King Sebastian. I understand most such coins were melted down. That makes their value complicated, since officially, they are no longer legal tender." I retrieved the coin, hefting it in my palm. "A more suspicious man might see this as a trap, an attempt to pay me in contraband."
Mr. Colin Abergreen hesitated. "The coins were a test of your ability, Mr. Drake. Your astuteness recommends you as a capable man for the job. By way of apology, I will have my man tender you with coins minted with the face of our reigning King."
"Old Pretender?" I laughed. "That will do for my payment upon completion, but I'd rather not look upon his ugly visage more than I have to." I moved the pouch into my pocket. "These coins are well worth their weight. Mr. Abergreen, I accept your case."CHAPTER 3
"MY FATHER, THE LATE Lord Abergreen, was murdered on the grounds of our family estate," said Colin Abergreen.
"And you don't feel safe leaving the matter in the able hands of the Crown's investigator?" I asked.
"A fresh perspective is all I'm looking for," he replied. "My father is dead, Mr. Drake. I want to know the truth."
"You suspect one of your siblings."
"Yes. Our father did not leave a will. My elder brother, Corth Abergreen, will have full inheritance. He gets the title, the wealth, everything to parcel out as he sees fit."
I nodded. It was unusual for an influential noble to fail to leave a will; usually, there would be some bequest left aside for each heir. I'd gotten involved in such a case before — not murder, but digging up dirty laundry during a protracted legal battle. It was one of the reasons I didn't like working for the nobility — too many complications.
"Mr. Abergreen, the hour is rather late, and I am rather drunk." I rubbed my eyes. I felt deathly tired. "I would prefer to discuss further details of the case in the morning. The very late morning. And I'll need to see the body."
"Of course. I will be leaving for my family estate two days hence. I suggest you get rested and take any preparations you require."
"One more thing," I added. "Your men had an awfully easy time finding me. Is there anything you aren't telling me about my terms of employment?"
A nervous look crossed Colin Abergreen's face, quickly replaced with a smile. "I had forgotten. The Tracking Charm. I'll have Mr. Winters turn it over to you."
"Why not hire the wizard who made it to investigate your father's death?"
"A wizard deals in forces. I need a man who deals in conclusions. I need you."CHAPTER 4
I SPENT THE NEXT DAY getting my affairs in order. First a visit to my barber, Bill Hughes, who gives what is perhaps the closest shave in Lupenwald. Then a payment made to Miss Margaret, my landlady, for several months of back rent. After that, I picked up a few supplies that would be useful for my investigation. And I burned the damnable Tracking Charm.
The most important visit of the day was Butcher, a fence. Butcher was a short, ugly little man, with a bulbous nose and an uneven beard, large, perceptive eyes, and wide lips covering large teeth, usually clamped around a cigar while he did his business, which involved more than just cutting meat. He'd never betray his own clients, but he kept his ear to the ground and was a valuable source of information about the criminal element.
"I'm looking to cash in some of these." I held my palm open with one of the Sebastian-headed coins and clamped my hand tightly closed as he attempted to take it. "You get your cut when the job's done, Butcher, not before."
"Of course, of course." He pulled a jeweler's glass out of his apron pocket. "Just need a closer look." I held the coin out between thumb and forefinger. "How many?" he asked.
"Twenty-five. All the same quality." I had already broken the others with the type of money changers who get you coming and going.
"I'll give you twenty crowns with the smiling face of Old Pretender, right here and now."
"I'm not looking to sell them fast, Butcher. I'm looking for the best price."
"I'll ask around. My fee is ten percent, straight off the top."
"Fair enough. Let me know when you have a serious offer."
I returned to my lodgings and was surprised to see a coach out front with Mr. Winters standing next to it, flanked by two of his brutes. He was checking his pocket watch and looking worried.
"Ah, Mr. Drake, wonderful." He sounded apprehensive, hardly wonderful at all. "I must apologize there's been a change in plans. We must leave for the Abergreen estate posthaste."CHAPTER 5
"I DON'T APPRECIATE IT when plans change."
We were in the carriage, driving through the outskirts of Lupenwald. Slums gave way to fashionable new neighborhoods, which gave way to farmland, which the cruel forces of time and civilization would one day turn into fashionable new neighborhoods and then reduce to slums. Mr. Winters sat across from me, a hired brute crammed in next to each of us.
"My apologies, Mr. Drake. However, we've received word of the Crown's involvement."
I grunted a harsh affirmative, waiting for him to continue.
"Royal Inspector Sir Ernst Loxley-Birmingham."
Bloody hell, I thought. Loxley-Birmingham was widely regarded as the Ministries' finest investigative mind. He could have been Inspector General if he wanted, but he'd turned down the position. If the Ministries were sending him, then this was far bigger than I had realized.
"What are the known facts of the case?" I asked.
"Lord Abergreen was found in the gardens. He had fallen from the window of his study, and his body was covered with wounds."
I was taking notes in a small book, cursing my shaky hand as the carriage bounced over uncertain terrain.
"What sort of wounds?"
"Bite wounds. Canine."
"Was Lord Abergreen — or anyone close to him — a dog fancier?"
"No more than anyone else. A kennel, a staff breeder, perhaps twenty hounds in total."
Foreigners may not fully appreciate the significance of a Lupenwalder's hound. Specimens of the Walder breed are cunning, loyal, ferocious, and large; sometimes as tall as four feet at the shoulder. Truly, they are closer to wolves in character and stature than they are to most domesticated dogs, and they are a far cry from the small, furry lapdogs popular in parts of the Continent.
Lupenwald was so named for the locals' use of hunting wolves, and the name stuck. The wolf was the symbol of the Royal Family, and now a Walder hound was a possible murder weapon.
"I'll need to see the site of death, the Lord's study, and I'll need access to the corpse. I'll want to speak with some members of the household staff once I know more."
"Of course," said Mr. Winters.
"Tell me more about the missing will, Mr. Winters. I find it surprising that Lord Abergreen would not have left any specifications for his entail."
Mr. Winters shifted uncomfortably. "He was in excellent health for his age. There was nothing registered with the family solicitor, but our employer is quite concerned that there was not even an informal document."
"Perhaps I will find one. But suppose I don't. What does the law have to say about the inheritance?"
"The standard disbursement would be that the heir — in this case, Corth Abergreen, the eldest son — would receive the estate, the title, and sixty percent of all assets. The remainder would be divided amongst Lord Abergreen's remaining four children."
Lord Abergreen was a wealthy man. Was he killed, I wondered, to ensure someone's ten percent? Or for sixty?CHAPTER 6
THE JOURNEY WAS UNEVENTFUL. I ran over possible scenarios in my head and watched the rolling countryside. I had rarely had opportunity to leave the city of late and found I'd missed the country environs.
The Abergreen estate was a large, built-up manor with sprawling wings built as add-ons to the original house. The grounds were hilly and lightly forested, with a scattering of outbuildings and gardens.
As the coach arrived, a valet descended the manor steps to meet us. He had barely reached the carriage when behind him, the front doors of the manor flew open and a well-dressed man rushed down the steps. He had a tall and sturdy physique, and Colin Abergreen's sideburns and wavy hair, but a much stronger jawline. Mr. Winters leaned in and whispered, "Mr. Corth Abergreen, the heir apparent."
I made a token nod as Mr. Corth Abergreen approached.
"You must be Mr. Drake," he said, "the private investigator. You aren't needed here."
I stepped down from the carriage. "My employer seems to think otherwise."
He stared at me condescendingly. "Whatever Colin's paying you, I'll match it. All you have to do to get your pay is turn around and go home. The Abergreens don't need your interference."
I turned to the valet. "If you would be so kind, see to my bags." He stood silently by Corth Abergreen. "Or I can get them myself; it's no trouble," I said. "That's a mighty generous offer, your Lordship. But I'm no mercenary; my loyalties for sale to the highest bidder. I pick my side, and I stick to it."
Corth Abergreen's eyes narrowed and he leaned in closer.
"What are you implying?"
"It's easy to fall in line with the winning side. Some of us kept our loyalties during the war."
When he threw the punch, I was ready and sidestepped it. He lunged past me, and I gave him a hard push, sending him sprawling into the dirt lane.
"You'll pay for that," he said as he regained his footing and wiped his face off.
"Stop it!" We both turned and saw a lovely young lady at the top of the stairs, her hair up in curls, attended by a serving woman. She hitched her skirts up and came down the steps. I stepped back and watched with cloaked enjoyment as she harangued Corth Abergreen.
Excerpted from City of Wolves by Willow Palecek, Carl Engle-Laird. Copyright © 2016 Willow Palecek. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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