|Vice I: Footwork
Author: Guede Mazaka
The other cases were ha’penny stuff, only lasting longer than a few days because Lancelot had needed to accumulate more billable hours. Since Arthur’s generosity was more than going to take care of that, Lancelot was happy to wrap up matters.
“Cheating wives, cheating husbands, cheating employees…the bread-and-butter of the job’s cheating, and it’s boring as hell.” He signed off on the last paper and handed it to Guin so she could seal it into an envelope. Evening was still unseasonably warm, so then he undid his cuffs and tugged his tie loose.
“Humanity is mostly predictable. You should be happy about that, or else you’d actually have to work.” Guin delicately licked the flap and stamp, then patted them down, pressing the side of a nail along their edges to make sure they’d stick. Even she was beginning to look a bit ragged in the stuffiness, with tendrils escaping from her bun to straggle down her neck and the beginnings of dark shadows beneath her eyes.
Though Lancelot couldn’t see why she would be exhausted, given that he’d been doing most of the talking and the doing of the day. Two clients to be informed, medicated with Scotch, and sent home to have it out with their darling unfaithful spouses, while Guin had looked pretty in the front and handled calls from Tristan and Gawain. “This doesn’t seem too much like a leisure hobby to me,” Lancelot muttered, pulling at his collar. “Remember who ends up getting stitches most often?”
“I’d think that’s more of a commentary on your abilities, or lack thereof, than anything else.” She kicked back from the desk and locked all the filing cabinets in a quick succession of clicking, then stood up.
After a pointed moment, Lancelot got up as well and handed her the coat she wasn’t going to need. He slung his own over his shoulder and settled his hat on while she gathered up all the mail that needed to be sent out.
The last envelope wasn’t actually mail, but was merely a convenient way to shield the eye-popping retainer fee Arthur had scribbled out for them. They’d be getting even more upon successful completion of the case, and then Lancelot would finally be able to afford a short vacation. Three-hundred-sixty-four days of tracking the same kind of story over and over again, with only the minimum time for food and sleep, left him cranky and highly unimpressed with his fellow men. “Even this one’s probably about money. Arthur said his cousin was disinherited, didn’t he? This whole nonsense about the sword’s probably just revenge.”
“Probably. But it doesn’t matter what it’s about, as long as that money ends up with us,” she shot back, adjusting her hair. Then she took Lancelot’s automatically-extended arm and they went out to the car.
For all their sniping, when it came down to it, they had a nice arrangement. Guin had brains and beauty, and she didn’t mind getting her neat oval nails filthy once in a while. The rare times she was drunk, she was still one of the top lays Lancelot had ever had, and when they’d both sobered up the next morning, she wasn’t romantic enough to read anything stupid into it. In return, Lancelot didn’t bother trying to make her stay behind a desk or in a kitchen, or even really do the whole shining-knight-protects-damsel routine, which she seemed to appreciate. It worked. And it was easier than picking up a girl: they either came too innocent to handle the nastier parts of his job, or too cynical to be trusted when his back was turned. Guin wasn’t naïve by any stretch of the imagination, but neither was she going to fuck him over. She’d had her chances to do that, and she hadn’t. Anyway, they knew too much of each other.
“Tristan finished around lunchtime and said he was up for a night shift, so I set him tailing Arthur,” she said once they were cruising down the main streets.
Despite the choke of car exhaust and general gutter stench, the tang of autumn could still be smelled; Indian summer was well underway in this part of the world. Lancelot cranked down a window, forced himself to breathe through the shit scents till he forgot about them, and then headed for downtown. “Nice to see you aren’t that starry-eyed, after all.”
“I’m as capable of disinterested admiration as you are.” She followed his idle glance to the redhead strolling across the road. Then Guin ducked her head and hands together, lighting up a cigarette. A trace of a knowing smile circled the long white cylinder.
“Disinterested? Disinterested would mean you didn’t spend lunch checking out his account spread.” Lancelot reached over and plucked a cigarette for himself from her case, snapping a flame to it with one hand. He blew the smoke out from the side of his mouth so it wouldn’t obscure his view of Guin being momentarily embarrassed.
But she recovered quick, making a negligent gesture with the glowing red tip. “Oh, you know.”
“Yeah, I do.” Another long drag, and Lancelot’s shoulders finally began to relax. “You going husband-hunting on me?”
This time, she smacked his shoulder hard enough to leave a sting, but her grin was wide enough to show a little teeth. “Don’t be ridiculous. You know there’s something going on besides the sword. With the kind of money he’s throwing at us?”
“Well, we’ll see what Galahad has to say. If the fluff-headed dick remembered he’s supposed to see us tonight.” Lancelot swung the car into a curbside spot just large enough to hold it and cut the engine. Before he got out, he flipped his gun out of his shoulder holster and checked that it was fully loaded.
Guin, meanwhile, was finishing off her cigarette with an insolent suck. She arched and blew a perfect smoke ring at the ceiling of the car, while her jacket fell away to flash a whisper of blue-black steel. “Anyway, you told Gawain to start checking the records for both Arthur and Ambrose. You planning on fucking a client again?”
“Two-inch scar on my back says it’s a bad idea,” Lancelot muttered, reholstering his gun. He did a scan of the street, noting where the whores were ambling and where the connected men were dicing for pocket change, before opening the door.
“The three-inch one on my side says the same thing.” Guin had stopped the faux-tease for dead serious slow-burning anger, and it was enough to make Lancelot pause. But she was already putting a leg out, graciously smiling at the wolf-whistles, and by the time he could see her face, the moment had passed.
* * *
Galahad wasn’t exactly part of London’s criminal element, but if one wanted to know where the black market was moving, one saw him. Lancelot had the impression the man played a lot dumber than he really was, because no one liked a mathematical smartass.
“Lancelot, you’re a goddamned bastard and you owe me shitloads. I had two blondes lined up for tonight. Hey, lend me Guin and we’ll call it even.”
Or he was just one lucky son of a bitch with a good pair of ears.
“She’d take your balls and then some,” Lancelot drawled, draping an arm over Guin’s shoulders. That made her tense and glare at him a bit, but she knew this routine as well as he did. Hopefully, she’d save the payback for after they finally got to their apartment. “And I like you, Galahad, so I’ll spare you the agony.”
He and the other man didn’t go back nearly as far as he and Tristan and Gawain did, but Lancelot and Galahad had been trading information long enough to occasionally pick up each other’s bar tabs. Galahad’s day job was running a legitimate, if slightly rundown, auction house, while his real occupation was assessing all kinds of goods in the backalley. If he didn’t recognize something as belonging to someone he knew, he didn’t ask where it came from, and in return, his clientele made sure to do the actual shifting away from his property.
“Very kind of you,” the other man snorted, not bothering to get up from his seat. He took another sip of his Scotch.
The auction house was actually a converted tavern old enough to qualify as historical and Galahad had retained part of the bar, which gave the whole place a vaguely Prohibition air. But he didn’t have anyone playing bartender, and the lazy bastard was obviously not going to take that position upon himself, so Lancelot grudgingly hopped over the bar and poured himself a glass. Guin abstained, as usual.
After downing the remains of his drink, Galahad sprawled backward and dug out a grimy notepad from under the counter. “Make it short, all right? You want results by tomorrow, I’ve got to put the word out in the next hour.”
“Broadsword. Old.” Dainty as a cat, Guin brushed off the stool before she perched on it. Gold and blue-yellow flashed as she got herself another smoke. “Named Excalibur.”
“Christ, what do you two have now? One of those nutcase Druid freaks?” Lousy joke, which wasn’t out of the ordinary for Galahad. What was unusual was his lack of scribbling: unlike Lancelot, Galahad had a serious dependency on his notes. Any whiff of illicit activity generally made keeping a paper trail a bad idea, but Galahad was safe because his handwriting was complete shit to anyone except him and possibly Gawain.
Lancelot glanced at Guin, but she seemed to be busy watching her smoke curl into esoteric script-like swirls. He briefly debated how much to give Galahad, then decided that these particular details were going to leak from Ambrose’s end anyway, since the man would have to back up his claims if he wanted to unload the sword as the real deal. “No. Arthur Ambrose, of the Pendragons.”
If Galahad had still been drinking, he would’ve spit his mouthful out. As it was, he was doing a pretty good job of choking on air. “What?”
“The sword’s being offered up by a semi-relation named Ambrose Aurelian,” Guin added, blowing rings through rings. She flicked a sideways look at Galahad, who was chewing his lip. “Heard of him?”
“The name doesn’t ring a bell.” To judge from the rippling in Galahad’s eyes, something was ringing. Loud and clear. “What does this sword look like?”
One sniff told Lancelot the whiskey wasn’t worth lingering over, so he damned Galahad’s bad taste and just gulped it. “Don’t string us along, Galahad. How many fucking broadswords ever go on the black market? I can’t see as it’d be a very common item.”
“You’d be surprised,” Galahad muttered, hunching over. He folded his hands together and pressed knuckles to lips, thinking. Then he stilled. Slowly turned to give Guin a strangely considering look. “Hey, you said you lived in Whitechapel for a bit, didn’t you? Merlin’s territory?”
“I did live there, but I don’t mix with Merlin’s people.” Guin was very icy, eyes narrowed to slits and cigarette slotted between her fingers the same way a stiletto would be.
Taken aback, Galahad got off the stool and shoved his hands into his rumpled trousers, warily circling away. “It was a fair question. Besides, you aren’t talking to the society pages here; I couldn’t care less whether you knew him or not. I was just wondering if you’d heard that weird rumor he was spreading for a while.”
“What weird rumor?” Lancelot interrupted, determined to drag the conversation back to the matter at hand. As mysterious as Guin’s past was, it wasn’t currently relevant to business, and riling her up did nobody good.
“Stupid crap. Just that there was some kind of treasure buried under Whitechapel. Not gold or anything—more like the Holy Grail. He never did get too specific, but a couple of times he did bring in some museum-quality shit. Small, though. Spoons, cups, that kind of thing.” Galahad shrugged and stared out the window, watching the high-beams of passing cars fracture in the plate-glass. “Anyway, supposedly whatever was there was going to give him the authority to take over the city.”
Well, Merlin was universally considered bat-shit loco. Though he still ruled the East Side gangs with an iron fist, so no one could let him know without getting a shotgun up the arse. He and Lancelot had peripherally crossed paths, never seriously, and that was a good pattern to have, in Lancelot’s opinion.
“Doesn’t look like that’s happened, so I don’t care. The sword, Galahad,” Lancelot reminded him.
“This guy Arthur’s really got a stick up your arse.” For whatever stupid reason, Galahad seemed amused. Fortunately for him, he started unloading information right after that, so Lancelot didn’t have to race Guin for the right to beat some sense into the moron. “Actually, grapevine did start muttering about an ancient broadsword about three days ago. But I haven’t heard anything concrete. It’s just talk so far, and not a sign of it. But Merlin seems to be interested. That’s why I brought him up.”
Something snapped. Or seemed to—a quick check showed nothing broken. But Guin didn’t look happy, and when Lancelot came around front, he noticed a new dent in the battered old bar, right behind her high heel. He absently flashed Ambrose’s photo at Galahad by way of excuse for moving.
Eyebrow raised, Galahad threw in the last few details. “No one looking like that’s been around. And I haven’t heard anything about an Ambrose Aurelian, but he’s probably not using that name.”
“Yeah, well, let us know if he starts. Or if that sword shows up.” Lancelot was staring at Guin, who was staring back without an inch of give in her eyes. Goddamned bullheaded bitch. Some days, she almost wasn’t worth the trouble. “But anyway, who’d he go to, if he did decide to go to someone?”
“There’s only two guys who’d move that kind of antique shit. First one’s Bede—you know him. Second one’s German. Italian guy, but he likes German opera, hence the nickname. He doesn’t have a fixed office; come back tomorrow and I’ll have his latest address.” By now, the silent byplay had managed to penetrate Galahad’s dense mass of curls, and he was regarding both of them with a worried expression. “Hey. So…”
“That’s good. Thanks, Galahad; we’ll be in tomorrow.” The other man was going to wonder about Lancelot’s abruptness—fine. Nothing could be done about that, whereas it was clear that Guin’s problem was going to be throwing off the rest of the night if Lancelot let it. So he crooked his arm at her and dared her not to take it.
She wasn’t an idiot, and she knew about scenes and the making thereof. Consequently, she took his arm and haughtily walked out with him.
He gave her the length of the drive to their apartment, and even parked before he brought it up. “What the hell was that?”
“Was what?” Apparently, Guin wanted to see how much it would take for Lancelot to hit a girl.
With cool-eyed ladies like her, hitting just fulfilled all their internal justifications. Besides, the car was too cramped for any kind of decent angle. So instead, he waited till she was bending to touch cigarette tip to lighter flame, then seized her wrist and dragged her half over the seat. Her other hand went towards her jacket, but he slapped it against her side. Blew out the flame singing the air between them. “Guin. Don’t fuck with me.”
“As opposed to just fucking you?” The hardness in her eyes was cracking a little faster than the hardness in her voice, but it still wasn’t going to his taste. “Put it this way: I don’t live in Whitechapel now. And Merlin’s still there.”
“Don’t you usually kill men who fuck you up?” Lancelot tightened his hold on her wrist, but she only lifted her chin a little. For a second—but he held onto his temper and refused to rise to the bait. When he pushed her back and let go, she didn’t resist. But he still didn’t make the mistake of assuming he’d done much except mess up her clothes a little; that made him respect her and want to rip out her prissy little bun at the same time.
She was getting pretty good at reading him, because the next thing she did was jerk out the pins holding her hair up, making little angry snaps of the wrist as she did. The hair fell in an attractive cascade of dark waves, which softened the angles of her face into hurt.
Lancelot folded his arms over the steering wheel and swallowed till he could taste the last lingering burn of the whiskey. “Hasn’t even been a day, and I’m already beginning to regret taking this one.”
“The grudge between Merlin and I has nothing to do with this.” Guin finally got her cigarette lighted and puffed it in uncharacteristically nervous jabs. “And I can’t kill him. It’s…something like a family matter.”
“Great.” The night just kept getting better and better.
She was looking at him, but Lancelot wasn’t about to look back. If she wanted to pull a sympathy ploy, she was going to have to try harder than that. “I can’t kill him,” she repeated. “Doesn’t mean I have any problems with anyone else trying.”
Rolling his eyes, Lancelot reluctantly turned to face her. “I don’t run a hitman service, Guin. Not even for you.”
“Well, it was worth a try.” At first, Guin seemed to be serious, but then the corners of her mouth twitched and suddenly her smoke was doing an impossible dangle from a razor grin. She rescued the cigarette just in time and leaned over to give Lancelot a half-sarcastic peck on the cheek. “If I wanted to fuck with you, I’d just clean out your account and have the locks changed before I skipped town. Have a good night, and remember to come in early tomorrow.”
“Bitch…” Shaking his head, Lancelot twisted the key in the ignition. His mouth hurt, and when he checked in the rearview mirror, he could see that it was because he was trying not to laugh. Whatever Guin did, she at least was being herself.
Like when she stopped on his side after getting out. “Early, damn it. I told Tristan to meet us at seven in the office to report. And I’ll even make coffee. So if you don’t show, I’ll hang you by your balls from the roof.”
Lancelot waved her off and pulled away from the curb, still laughing to himself. Before Vanora had gotten herself knocked up for the first time, Bors had used to say that two years was the longest a man and a woman should stay together if they weren’t planning on making an honest end of it. After that, there was just too much between them. Seemed like the man had known what he was talking about.
* * *
Given what Galahad had said, Lancelot wasn’t expecting much to happen just yet. It appeared that the play had just rolled into town, and everyone was still trying to find their marks. A good time for him to sidle around backstage, check out a few leads before the city started heating up.
Bede was a venerable old bastard that in his day, had nearly managed to knot all the ends that trailed into London’s vast black market around his fingers. He’d bettered that by managing to survive to the incredible age of fifty-nine, which among racketeers was about equal to Methuselah. Nowadays he’d mostly pulled out of the business in favor of keeping a dusty, sepia-stained bookstore—apparently, he’d caught bibliophilia from a first edition Doré—but he still had some rare connections that let him move the occasional high-end piece.
Way back when Lancelot had first set up an office, Bede had taken a liking to him and showed him a few. He’d never properly thanked the man, but he did try to send the old crank a bottle of decent cognac at Christmas. And sometimes, if he was in the neighborhood, he’d drop in for a few minutes. That was usually late at night, but Bede kept odd hours anyway, so he never seemed surprised to see Lancelot.
Therefore, the front door to Bede’s store should have been open. Frowning, Lancelot touched the accelerator and cruised past into a nearby alley, where he parked. He was starting to regret not changing into a darker suit when he’d dropped Guin off; in the hazy pale glow of the streetlights, his clothes glowed too much. But that couldn’t be helped much, aside from tossing his hat into the backseat.
Lancelot put his hand on the door handle, then paused. After a moment’s thought, he bent over and got the shotgun out from under the seat. Then he eased himself from the car and down the street, careful to be both as casual and as silent as possible.
In fact, the store’s door was not completely closed. A sliver of yellow light remained between it and the frame, looking entirely too inviting. Biting his lip, Lancelot extended the shotgun and carefully nudged with its tip till that space was large enough for him to slip through. He pushed the door shut behind him with an elbow.
Inside, everything seemed normal: the rows of books were in their usual half-disordered state, the dust layer seemed about the right depth, and the lights were on. But it was strangely quiet—no, actually there was a sound. Rustling papers, from the back. On the other hand, Lancelot couldn’t hear any other signs of humanity. For that matter, the place didn’t have the feel of an inhabited set of rooms, which didn’t bode well.
He counted to ten while adjusting his jacket so he could get to his gun more easily, then edged along one shelf, shotgun first. Despite his care, every step seemed to be unnaturally loud, making the floorboards creak and whine like whipped dogs. When he rounded the first bookshelf, his nerves seemed to twang in his ear at seeing nothing. And Lancelot couldn’t even relax then—Bede hadn’t been an idiot, and so the man had arranged his store so that from the back, he could defend himself against any comers.
Thank God it was a small place, because the eeriness of the atmosphere took its toll on Lancelot. By the time he finally made it to the back corner, he was about ready to shoot the rats out of the walls. He nearly blew off the wispy white-haired top of Bede’s head when he saw the figure bent over the desk, like always, and with no one else in sight. “Jesus Christ, Bede. You really take your hobby too seriously for it to be a—”
Either Bede had spilled some red wine, or…Bede didn’t drink red wine. Lancelot swallowed down on his stomach clench and carefully walked around the drying puddle he’d just noticed till he could see Bede’s face.
He had to blink. And then he put a hand to his face, pinching at his nose till the slight dizziness went away.
A quick mental review showed that Lancelot hadn’t left any traces the police would notice, barring a witness somewhere, and knowing this area of town as he did, he knew that possibility wasn’t even going to come up. It’d be hours before anyone found Bede. Judging from the stickiness of the blood on the floor, it’d probably been hours since Bede had had his last conversation. “Fuck.”
Tucking the shotgun under his arm, Lancelot leaned over to see what Bede had been working on: the weekly accounts. “Well, that’s a healthy enough balance to get you buried right.”
He started to straighten up, but a stray squiggle of ink caught his attention. The last line was only partially filled, with “assessment f—” drifting off the page. A check of the floor found the bloody pen that had dropped from Bede’s fingers whenever he’d gotten his throat slashed.
Whoever had done had to have stood from behind, holding Bede over the desk so that the thick layers of papers scattered over it had absorbed most of the blood spray. Bede was a pretty heavyset man, so his body had initially blocked the view of the desktop from Lancelot. Come to think of it…a close look at that final line revealed that either Bede hadn’t entered a name for the fee-payer, or that it’d been blotted out with blood. But the entry had been made in a different-colored ink from the rest, so clearly it hadn’t been a normal transaction.
Lancelot stood back, muttered an apology to his old friend, and then took out a handkerchief. He used it to gingerly lift Bede’s hand so he could peek at the preceding pages: mostly black ink, with the occasional blue-ink entry. One of them was on a date Lancelot had been in, and he remembered Bede waxing poetic on Chinese jade daggers for no apparent reason—then. “So he’s finally showing Excalibur around,” Lancelot muttered, setting Bede’s wrist back on the ledger.
Walking around the room didn’t yield any more information, other than that whoever had done Bede in knew what they were doing. There weren’t any tracks in the backalley, either, and so Lancelot ended up taking that route back to his car. He got in, put the shotgun away, and stared at the alley wall. “Fuck.”
* * *
“…look, Gawain. Just maneuver the police over there, all right? Tell them there’s been a robbery. A prowler. An escaped lion. I don’t care.” The goddamned phone booth was too small and too clear and generally made Lancelot feel like a target, all gussied up like store windows at Christmas. And for some reason, it wasn’t letting the smoke from his cigarette out, so he was just about choking on the acrid fumes. He wasn’t in a good mood. “Bede’s dead, and I think he deserves to be taken down to the coroner’s before the rats get at him.”
*You don’t want to have his body taken care of by--*
According to his watch, it was just shy of midnight. Witching hour, if he actually believed in that superstitious shit. “Bede had his throat opened up left-right, up-down, then got propped in place with a ruler in his jaw. I don’t like it, but those official shits are going to have to check it out. Get a nice drinking buddy of yours, get him down here, and get me a copy of the coroner’s report as soon as you can, all right?”
Muffled exclamation. *Shit. You call up Galahad yet? I should get down there…*
There went the fiver Lancelot had had on that bet. “I was about to. I need to get to that other fence he mentioned—German.”
*Right. I’ll get Bede taken care of…let you know when the funeral is, too. You want me to get Tristan to go with you? I could probably find him in fifteen minutes…*
Tristan. Tristan was following Arthur, who had definitely left out important bits of story. Generally speaking, if one wanted to make money off stolen goods, one didn’t kill off the men who could make that happen. “No, let him be. I need him to keep doing what he’s doing.”
*If you say so.* Gawain sounded reluctant about it, but he hung up without another word.
Lancelot finished off his smoke in a fury and smashed the butt against the frame of the booth. As he stepped out into the chilly breeze, he flicked it over his shoulder. Two deep breaths, and then he went back in to call Galahad. And Guin.
* * *
It turned out that Guin was busy calling someone. Long call. Two tries, spaced five minutes apart, and she still hadn’t gotten off. Tomorrow morning, Lancelot was not only going to show up early, but he was also going to come bearing a nice big bone to pick on her damned little-girl smile. But for now, he had to run with the address Galahad had, after a few seconds of complaining and fussing, managed to hook.
German currently appeared to be working out of a pub called the King’s Lake. At least, he’d been showing up regularly there for the past week—Galahad couldn’t be any more specific than that on short notice. As ill-tempered as Lancelot was, he believed that. Galahad was an annoying shit, but he knew his business inside and out, and he had a reasonably good sense of with whom he shouldn’t fuck. Plus Lancelot had mentioned forgetting about the most recent bar tab Galahad owed him.
Coming up to the pub somewhat relieved the strain on Lancelot, as the windows showed a full complement of merry drunks. The place wasn’t far enough into the slums for murders to be considered part of the evening entertainment, so it looked as if there was a good chance German was still around.
It only took a moment to spot the fence: German was small and dark, with a gray-streaked goatee, while the rest of the pub’s occupants appeared to be pure Irish. Lancelot signaled to the bartender, ducked a few sloshing punches, and slid into German’s booth. “Hi.”
The other man, who’d been cheering on his guy in the brawl, suddenly jerked around and slammed back into the seat, eyes wide. “Who the fuck are you?”
Just then, two hands squeezed through the living wall of flesh around the table. They deposited one large mug of the home brew and a small glass of whiskey, which Lancelot merely sipped at after he’d seen the less-than-clean state of the glass. German warily took the beer with both hands and retired into his corner, sucking on the booze like a nursing baby. Now that Lancelot was in a position to see, he could tell that the other man had had one hell of a conversation not too long ago. “Nice bruises. You knock up the neighborhood virgin?”
“I repeat, who are you?” Interestingly enough, when German calmed down, his accent was almost as posh as Arthur’s.
Up front, the fight had finally started to engulf spectators. Sighing, Lancelot hooked a hand around the other man’s arm and dragged him out. By way of passage, he flung a few coins over the crowd’s heads; an arm shot out of the seething drunken waves and caught them, then slowly disappeared beneath the surface. “Come on. I don’t feel like talking in the middle of this mess.”
Outside, German leaned up against the front of the building, cradling his beer like it was his child. He squinted at Lancelot, then nodded. “I thought I recognized you. You’re that private eye that fucked up the Kay campaign.”
“As the photos clearly showed, it was Kay that was doing the fucking.” Lancelot straightened out his jacket and checked it for any stains. “Not my fault he couldn’t keep it in his wife’s cunt.”
“What do you want?” While still nervous, German seemed slightly more relaxed. Curiously enough.
Eyebrow up, Lancelot stepped forward till he was in German’s space, smelling the guy’s lack of personal care and his sudden rise in fear. “I hear you move big antique items. Like broadswords.”
“Oh, fuck, and I was thinking you weren’t here for that.” The other man looked down at his shuffling feet, looked sideways at the empty street, then stared back at Lancelot. His expression had changed, and was now not so much afraid as…sympathetic? Amused and pitying. “You don’t know what you’re in for.”
Lancelot stepped back and examined his hand for any little cuts that might sting. Then he punched the jackass.
First, the beer splashed out and slipped through German’s fingers to splatter booze and glass on the ground. Then the rest of him went down, keeling sideways and back so his slipping feet riffled car oil and beer at Lancelot’s shoes.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Lancelot muttered, wiping his knuckles off on his trousers. Only five minutes in that place, and already his clothes had the faint but persistent odor of fried grease and stale vomit. “Broadsword. Excalibur. Probably being hiked around by a big blond bastard who speaks with the accent you should have, given your name.”
“Fuck my name. You think it says shit about me? Some detective you are.” Slow and shaking, German got back onto his feet. He gingerly fingered his swelling lip, shooting visual daggers at Lancelot that felt about as dangerous as gnats. “Jesus. Like my neck wasn’t hurting already—okay, okay. Calm down. Look, weaponry’s not really my thing, but I know a bit. And I wasn’t gonna touch that sword with a ten-foot pole.”
The man’s crumpled hat had fallen off to reveal much more gray than Lancelot had been expecting. Overall, German had the look of a professorial type fallen on bad times—probably fucked one too many students over the desk. “So?”
“So I said I wasn’t sure, my specialty’s porcelains and jewelry, go see Bede. The fucker didn’t like that answer—” cuff tugged to show dark finger-shaped blotches “—but he went. Good riddance, too. He can hie himself to hell without taking me along for the ride. Why do you care so much, anyway? He screw your mother?”
“Bede’s dead.” Lancelot walked off a little to stand by German’s hat, which had soared into a pile of broken wood. After a moment, he picked up the sad wreck of felt, brushed it off, and tossed it back at the gaping mouth.
“Oh, shit. Oh, shit.” German didn’t even lift his hands to catch the hat, but only squatted there on the corner and rocked himself. When Lancelot came back around, due to the car being parked on the other side of the man, German did rouse himself long enough to kick at Lancelot. “You idiot! Then that means it’s real and we’re all fucked! And I’m dead! I’m dead!”
The sky was…dark and dreary, like usual. It was probably going to rain tomorrow. “You sound pretty alive to me. So it actually is a genuinely ancient sword. What, does that mean it’s worth a—”
“No, it means it’s Excalibur.” Spitting and snarling, German clawed himself upright and lurched out across the road. Every two steps, he’d stop to shoot another glare at Lancelot. His accent, initially no more than a trace, was getting thicker by the curse. “You fucking brainless idiot. Excalibur’s worth can’t be counted in money—”
Scorching light suddenly swamped the street, so intense that Lancelot could almost feel it shoving him backwards. He threw up an arm, and then he registered the squealing wheels. “Shit!”
Except by the time Lancelot could see something besides pretty dancing dots, German was a sad lump of secondhand suit and mashed brains. Behind Lancelot, the fighting sounds had ceased, and people were slowly filing out of the pub to see what had happened.
“Son of a bitch!”
“Goddamn it, he was the only one of you that paid on time!”
“Anyone get a number on that car?”
“What the hell was that?”
Just as Lancelot was thinking about moving towards his own car, another one cruised around the corner. Police. And someone had grabbed his arm and was babbling in his face about what did he see?—some patrol dick taking his breaktime in the pub, now deciding to cover up the lapse with overzealousness.
* * *
In the end, the police figured him for an innocent friend who just happened to be around when some disgruntled client ran German down. It helped that Gawain sold liquor to most of them. Nevertheless, the whole damn process of giving a statement and satisfying the resident crusader kept Lancelot at the precinct station for the rest of the night. By the time he finally got back to his place, he had just enough strength to yank off his tie, hang up his hat and collapse on the sofa.
Morning tasted like shit, but the last thing Lancelot needed was more bitchy Guin, so he stumbled up. Showered, shaved, changed his clothes. Cleaning up helped to scrape a few layers of fatigue from him and gave him time to organize the gleanings from last night, so when he walked into the office, he was beginning to feel fairly decent.
“Coffee?” Guin raised a full pot, steaming a pleasant aroma past her winning smile. Of course, she looked like she’d never had a bad night in her life.
“Sure.” Lancelot sat himself down at her desk and watched her pour out…three mugs. Then he pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. “Tristan. Wherever the fuck you are, get out where I can see you. This isn’t April Fool’s.”
When Lancelot took away his hands, Tristan was seated in the chair in front of him. The other man never failed to get on Lancelot’s nerves, but at least he usually did what he was told. And he always brought results.
Tristan’s background was a running question among the small group of people for whom Lancelot would even consider buying a meal once in a while. According to Gawain, he’d opened the door one morning to find the weird quiet man napping on his doorstep. He had jumped back, startled to hell, and Tristan had just waltzed in and fixed Gawain’s broken oven. Then he’d gotten himself hired for some small job Gawain had been advertising in the papers, and had somehow turned that into a regular occupation of getting fucked by Gawain and tracking down defaulting payees—Gawain did some smalltime lending as well as running a good liquor warehouse—or whomever else Lancelot needed to know about.
In person, he wasn’t too impressive, aside from the odd things on his cheeks. Gawain said they were tattoos, and not scars. Lancelot had long since decided to just take Gawain’s word for Tristan; it simplified things. “So how’s our client?”
The other man opened his mouth, but before anything could come out of it, a thick file of papers slapped down. Guin turned back to the coffees and started dosing them with cream. “He wasn’t lying about Ambrose—there is such a man, and Arthur’s uncle did have him disinherited. Seems like it was the last thing the uncle did before he died. Arthur’s been living mostly on the Continent for the past few years.”
A quick peek at the folder’s contents showed that despite her fine make-up job, Guin hadn’t had much sleep, either. She must have woken up early and gone round to various municipal offices to collect info from her connections. “Well, looks like you kept yourself busy. Have a nice chat last night?”
Her hand paused over the sugar bowl. “Pardon?”
There was an insistent twinge in Lancelot’s back and the side of his neck, where he’d slept wrong on the couch. Next time, he should collapse on the floor if he couldn’t make it to the bed. “I tried to call you last night. Twice. Around midnight. But the line was busy.”
“Why were you calling?” She pronounced the words with the precision and delicacy of a surgeon. And the sharpness of one, too.
Lancelot started to snap something, but then thought about it. He reached for the morning newspaper and did a fast leaf-through, finding the nothing he’d expected. “Huh. Guess murders don’t even count as hot news any more, unless they’re rich and pretty.”
Tristan resettled himself into a position where he could watch both of them. Meanwhile, Guin calmly handed around the mugs.
“Bede’s dead. Slashed throat. And I had the privilege of seeing German run over in the street,” Lancelot said, locking his eyes with Guin’s. He took the coffee, but set it aside for the moment. “That’s why I was calling.”
Well, whatever she’d been expecting him to say, it obviously hadn’t been that. Her eyes went round, her lips parted a little, and her expression was of general surprise. “Bede?”
“Apparently, that sword isn’t your average illegal sales item. Seems like all Ambrose wanted was a confirmation that he had the right one.” Nice and slow, Lancelot stretched his arms over his head and yawned in Guin’s face. As he brought his arms down, he tilted an inquiring smile at her. “So. Who were you calling? Get a new boyfriend I don’t know about? Catching up with old friends, maybe from Whitechapel?”
Her pretty jaw hardened, and for a moment, Lancelot thought she might try to slap him. But for all that could be said about her, Guin did have class. She backed off and picked up her own cup, looking insufferably derisive. “You’re a moron, you know. The only way anyone’s getting me back in Whitechapel is if they’re dragging my dead body.” Pause to take a dainty sip. “I was calling Arthur. It occurred to me that Ambrose might have been in the city before, and maybe he had friends.”
“It took you that long?” Lancelot asked, skeptical. Though the point she brought up was a good question; members of the nobility usually stuck out like sore thumbs when they went slumming, but there was the occasional peer who knew how to blend in.
“It took me that long because he wouldn’t get off the phone,” Guin retorted, rolling her eyes. She was wearing her hair down today, and one stray strand kept wanting to dangle into her coffee. In the end, she set down her cup and pinned the lock behind her ear. “He must be lonely. Kept trying to make conversation about where I was from, how long I’d known you, if I liked history…didn’t make sense. But anyway, Ambrose is about as much of a stranger to our end of London as Arthur is.”
After a long minute of scrutinizing her, Lancelot decided he believed the gist of Guin’s story. Though she had many talents, hiding her annoyance wasn’t one of them, and Arthur had clearly said something to set her off-balance. Given Guin’s addiction to self-control, that was a guaranteed way to irritate her. “I see. Well, I’m sure you helped Arthur feel better,” he teased, taking up his coffee and trying it. Then he tried not to make too embarrassing a face. “There’s no sugar in here.”
“If you want sugar…” Guin posed with coffee in hand, hip suggestively thrust to the side and come-hither look over her shoulder “…get it your damned self, you suspicious son of a bitch. And get out of my space so I can get to work.”
With an exasperated sigh, Lancelot got up and waved Tristan into his office. Expressionless, the other man walked in and perched on Lancelot’s desk, calmly drinking his coffee. Oddball that he was, he liked it straight up. Turkish-strong if he could get it. Lancelot, on the other hand, preferred to have some sweetener to cut the aftertaste. However, the sugar bowl in his room was empty. “Damn.”
Tristan shrugged and kept looking at him with a blank face.
“You’re annoying me,” Lancelot grumbled, screwing up his willpower and downing the coffee as it was. The stuff was all right in terms of quality, but still, it was yet another irritant in a lousy, lousy twenty-four hours.
“Sorry.” The other man glanced out the door at Guin, who was making phone calls with purr in her voice and many glowering side-looks in Lancelot’s direction.
Closing his eyes seemed to speed up the dissolution of coffee into his system—or it at least gave the illusion of doing so, and one was as good as the other in terms of effect—so Lancelot did that. “No, you’re not. Tell me about Arthur.”
It didn’t take long for Guin to wrap up her work and casually wander back into the room, where she tucked herself into an armchair and propped her chin on her hands, listening intently. So was Lancelot, but not for any obvious reasons: what Tristan had to tell was predictable and boring. Arthur retiring to one of the numerous elegantly discreet high-end hotels, Arthur stopping at certain solicitors’ offices…no different from any other man on a business trip.
“Then he stopped at that new archaeological dig—the one in yesterday’s papers.” Thoughtful, Tristan ran a finger around the rim of his empty mug. For someone who’d been on his feet for the better part of a day and the whole night, he seemed oddly awake. “That was this morning, just before I came here. He was still looking around when I left.”
“So the man’s got an interest in history. Well, we’re trying to find an antique for him. Doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary.” Lancelot kicked off the side of his desk and spun his chair around to arch an eyebrow at Guin.
She was leaning back in her seat, arms folded across her breasts and lips folded into cold aggravation. “And now you’re taking back what you said about him being ‘off’?”
“No. What I’m saying is that whatever side-game Arthur has going, I don’t think it has much to do with your little flirtation.” Her response was to glare fireballs at Lancelot, but he merely grinned and waved her off. “Come on, Guin. I know you. If you really don’t want to talk to a man, you don’t.”
In the outer room, the phone rang and thus gave Guin a great exit. She gracefully levered herself up, hair doing an insolent flip, and clicked her way out of the office. “I suppose you would know, wouldn’t you?”
It was hard, but Lancelot managed to keep himself seated and relatively calm. He rummaged around for something to take off his irritated edge, but only came up with a pen and some scrap paper. “Sometimes I wonder why the hell we put up with each other,” he muttered, doodling.
“I didn’t know Bede was dead,” Tristan said, leaning forward to dangle his hands between his knees. Like a crouching cat, he was craning his head to look at Lancelot; that position almost obscured the sympathy in his eyes in shadow. Almost.
“Guess you haven’t seen Gawain yet, have you? I rang him, let him know, and got him to handle the police and the funeral.” Lancelot dug the tip of his pen deep into the sheet and dragged it in a slow circle. For some reason, the sound of nearly-ripping paper fit his mood. “Shit. He’ll have to get German’s coroner’s report, too.”
The other man nodded. “I’ll tell Gawain.”
Then he just stared at Lancelot, like he thought Lancelot was going to fall open or something. A snarl started to climb Lancelot’s throat. “What?”
Tristan moved his shoulders in a gesture that might have been a shrug, then got up. “Bede was a better man than most.”
“Mostly because he knew when his enemies were ripe for killing,” Lancelot snorted, swallowing down on the sour taste in the back of his mouth. He scribbled a few more random lines, then tossed the pen at its holder. And missed, goddamn it. It was like even the laws of nature didn’t want to swing in his favor now. “He got more years than most, had himself some fun. And now that’s one less card I have to send out at Christmas.”
Of course, the other man completely ignored his babbling. That was the sensible thing to do, and Tristan was nothing if not eminently sensible. Lancelot suddenly had an urge to make the other man react irrationally.
God, he was being an idiot. And Tristan was already saying goodbye to Guin, so Lancelot’s reflexes were slow as well. Thoroughly disgusted with himself, Lancelot started to crumple his doodle-sheet. As he did, he happened to glance down at it.
A stick-man with what apparently were supposed to be swords, but which looked more like sausages. Artistic Lancelot clearly was not, so he’d better stick to what he knew. Which, for lack of any good leads, currently appeared to be tracking down Ambrose the hard way. Checking hotel ledgers, chatting with certain bartenders, keeping an ear to the ground to see who might be inclined to help out Ambrose. “The bastard’s definitely got someone on his side.”
“Are you sure? If this sword is that valuable, maybe there’s a fight going on for it.” Framed like a pin-up, Guin was leaning against the doorframe. Her lips twitched, then stilled as some consideration darkened her face. “Galahad said Merlin might be interested. If that’s true, he’d see nothing wrong in ripping London apart for it.”
“Yeah, that could be going on. But Bede’s last entry was for an assessment fee on a black market deal, so Ambrose had to be the one that killed him. German’s questionable—he got mowed down after he’d seen the sword, and I didn’t get a chance to see the car or driver—but still, why would Merlin want to kill a fence?” Lancelot pivoted himself out of the chair and dropped the stupid little drawing in the wastebasket. Hands in pockets, he ambled over to her and kept thinking out loud. “Hell, German was probably Merlin’s best bet for finding Ambrose and the sword.”
Guin tapped a finger against her lip, running some kind of mental calculation in her head. Generally she seemed to get a weird kick out of unraveling puzzles, but today she sounded as if she’d rather be gutting fish for a living. “Merlin…has a very unusual idea of what constitutes betrayal. You see, in his head, he is king of the city—it’s just that not everyone’s been smart enough to accept it yet. So he might have killed German simply because the man didn’t go running to him and let him know the moment Excalibur showed up.”
There was a curious undertone to her voice, like steel on rock. And when Lancelot looked a little more sharply at her, he noticed that she was struggling to keep her jaw muscle from twitching. One check at her hands showed them to be in fists. “What’d he do to you?”
That startled her, bringing her chin up and widening her eyes as she did her level best to visually flay Lancelot. But after a second, she seemed to figure out that Lancelot was actually just curious, and not mocking. “When’s the last time I asked you about your history?”
“Right now, my history isn’t trying to sneak into a case,” Lancelot replied, not nearly as sarcastic as he wanted to be. His gut was being squirmy and his head was full of a feeling he badly didn’t want to identify as pity. Hard-nosed bitch that she was, Guin didn’t deserve it. Not to mention that she’d take full advantage of any softening in him to do…something.
He didn’t really hold that against her, since from his point of view, it wasn’t doing anything he wouldn’t do for survival. But he did need her on a mutually cooperative footing, considering how their case was going. “Never mind. But I’m going to assume you’re not favoring Merlin at all now, and if I find out differently, so help me God, I’ll—”
“That’s not something you need to worry about,” she interrupted, back to her normal acid self. “He’s fucked me over in far too many ways.”
“Good.” Which wasn’t exactly the most tactful thing to say, but Lancelot had always preferred clarity of expression over politeness.
Then again, being polite might have introduced another subject of conversation, whereas his laconic statement capped things off so neatly that they were left looking at each other in silence. Lancelot shifted his weight around, which in turn twitched his clothes so his collar pulled away from his skin. It felt sticky up there, he absently noted. Running a finger around the back of his neck revealed that his damned hair gel was melting off.
“It looks better when it’s not slicked down, anyway,” Guin commented. Behind her, the phone abruptly buzzed.
“But then it and the hat don’t get along,” Lancelot shot back, watching her answer the phone. Her expression underwent the most interesting convolutions from indifference to intense engagement to uncertainty—that one took a moment to recognize—and the tone of her voice followed a parallel evolution.
The conversation itself wasn’t stellar stuff: Guin said ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and only at the end did she go into a full sentence to say ‘we’ll be there.’ Then she hung up the phone, but with a strange reluctance.
“Well?” If nothing else, this case was introducing completely new sides of Guin to Lancelot. He wasn’t used to seeing her speechless.
Her lips moved, but nothing came out. Then she snorted, giving herself a little sardonic smile, and slanted a cynical look at Lancelot. “That was Arthur, returning my call from when you were talking to Tristan—I figured we should get some more details about this sword, and exactly why so many people would be after it.”
Lancelot’s stomach still hadn’t quite recovered from the shock of feeling sorry for Guin, and this new twist had the odd effect of rippling a vaguely nauseous unease through him. It didn’t make sense—just like most of his investigation. “I do have a few things I’d like to talk to him about. German was ranting about the sword before he was flattened, like it was some mystical thing.”
“Good. Because we’re having tea with Arthur this afternoon.” Guin seemed ridiculously amused just by the act of saying that.
“Tea?” While Lancelot had heard of the word before, it hadn’t been in the context of…Jesus Christ, posh afternoon crumpets and lace and God knew what else. “Tea?”
Grinning, Guin patted him on the cheek and pushed him back into his office. “Yes, tea. You should probably get a haircut—I’ll find you some decent pomade, or something. Oh, and I should put on pearls. We’re meeting him uptown.”
“Tea. Christ.” For a moment longer, Lancelot’s mind remained on the floor where the suckerpunch inanity of the whole situation had put it. But then it snapped back and his practicality reasserted itself. The meal was going to be on Arthur’s bill, anyway, so if he wanted to buy Lancelot a gourmet…tea…then hell, it was his money. “Right. But that’s…what, three? I’ll come and pick you up at half-past two.”
“And where are you going?” Guin stood up and put her hands on her hips, eying him like he was some kind of urchin. She didn’t play the mother-figure very well; for one, her figure was too damn sexy. Two, she didn’t exude a terribly nurturing air.
Rolling his eyes, Lancelot side-stepped her and walked back out, snagging his coat and hat on the way. “I’m going to do some work. In Whitechapel. Since we have no fucking idea where Ambrose is, and the only way you can miss Merlin is if you’re dead and buried on the other side of the world.”
“Bastard,” muttered from behind him. Something went soaring just over Lancelot’s shoulder and he barely caught it in time: an apple. “I suppose you want me to call up all the hotels and convince the clerks to give up information about their guests.”
Lancelot grabbed the doorframe and swung back in, grinning as widely as he could. “But you do it so well,” he purred.
She threw another apple at him.
He ate that one on the way down the stairs—as usual, the goddamned elevator was broken—and the first one while driving down to Dagonet’s place. The man would live nearly outside city lines, but then he needed the room for the dogs. The moment Lancelot stopped, they were swarming up to gambol around the door. All big, all more wolfish than cuddly, but their tongues hung out in idiotic grins and their paws didn’t ever touch the finish on Lancelot’s car. Well-trained.
He gave them the apple cores to bat around, then leaned over the seat and opened the passenger door. “Whitechapel. You feel like coming?”
Dagonet nodded, then turned around and went back into the building. He came out two minutes later with a brutal-looking shotgun that raised even Lancelot’s eyebrows and, after placating his pack with some ear-ruffling, quietly got into the car.
“I just plan on talking, by the way. And if we don’t have to see Merlin, then that’d be like an early Christmas gift,” Lancelot commented as he carefully backed into the street, doing his damnedest not to clip any of the dogs. They got the message and edged back, whining all the way.
The other man nodded again. “I need to be back by lunch to help Bors and Vanora feed the pride.”
“No problem with that. The less time we’re in Whitechapel, the better. Besides, I’ve got a…” Lancelot tried and failed at not curling his lip “…tea-time date.”