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—available July 26th from Tor.com Publishing!
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?”
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.”
“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.”
Excerpted from City of Wolves © Willow Palecek 2016