The bartender, a portly fellow with a sweat-stained shirt and bulbous, flabby arms turned his attention toward the front door. The new customer was clad in chainmail, wore a short sword and a pair of binding irons at his belt, and had a plate helmet obscuring most of his vision: several telltale signs of a member of the City Watch.
The bartender gave a dejected sigh.
The City Watch officer removed his helmet as he shut the door and approached the countertop; his eyes cold and gray as the day had been. The scowl he gave the bartender was closer toward the night, far colder. He took the first available stool, sitting next to a brown-haired, middle-aged man with a similar dour look on his face; savoring his sweaty mug of beer.
The Watch officer’s eyes shifted from the middle aged man toward the bartender. He and the bartender stared for several long moments, saying nothing.
“Man, c’mon. I’ve already paid up for this month! Talk to Asen...”
“Ain’t here for that,” The Watch officer said. “I’ll have what he’s havin’.” He nodded his head to the brown-haired man.
The bartender raised an eyebrow and looked toward the other customer at his counter. “I wouldn’t recommend it. He chose the cheapest shit I got.”
“I’ll take it.”
The bartender nodded and moved toward an anteroom behind his spot at the counter. The middle aged man took a swig from his mug and winced as he forced the beverage down his throat; hissing as the last of it left his mouth.
When he was sure the bartender wasn’t within earshot, the middle aged man said, “Was wondering when you were going to come calling.”
“Got one for you,” the Watch officer said. He removed a wrinkled piece of paper and set it face down on the counter next to the man’s mug. “What you got for me?”
The man examined the paper. “Suicide? Why even bring me this? The Watch usually handles these don’t they?” He rubbed at the stubble that had collected on his face.
“I was doing you a favor, asshole. We haven’t had a real case in months; nothing worth passing on, anyway. I see this guy dead, first thing I thought of was you.”
The man scoffed. “First thing you thought of was how much you’d get for it.” He took another look at the paper. “No immediate family? He probably doesn’t have any family. You brought me a dud.” He pushed the paper back towards the Watch officer; and stopped suddenly as the officer’s gloved hand slammed against his own.
“He’s got a sister. We found a journal and a necklace with an inscription. I’m heading to talk to her after we finish here.”
The bartender appeared with a frothy, sweaty mug of the same swill the man was drinking. “Three tiny ones,” he said. The Watch officer tossed a trio of copper-colored coins onto the counter and took a swig from his drink; gagging at the taste and forcing it down himself.
“For fuck’s sake, how can you drink this shit?”
“What makes you think the sister will even come to me? It’s a suicide,” the man asked, taking another drink; managing it down slightly better. “You’re desperate, and you think you’ve got something someone will pay for. I’ve done suicides. They don’t amount to anything, which means I’d be paying you for nothing. I at least can thank you for not leaving out the suicide part, this time.”
The Watch officer sighed and took another drink. “Alright, I’ll make sure she comes to you.”
The man chuckled. “How are you going to do that?”
“You don’t trust me? C’mon, Mort, we’ve been doing this as long as I can remember.”
“I think it was around the time I stopped being one of you guys,” Mort spat.
“I’m helping you out here. You fuckin’ know if I weren’t with The Watch you’d be cleaning weapons and armor, or digging trenches, or some other shit. Nobody else wants to come to you. Now take this one, and give me something for it. They didn’t give me my sick time when I was out, so I’m gonna be short.”
Mort rolled his eyes and reached inside his coat. “How much?”
“A hundred,” the Watch officer said.
He turned toward the officer, his face looking like he had just been slapped several times. “Even if I had that much myself, there’s no way I would pay that much for a suicide.” He removed ten silver coins and set them in front of the officer. “Don’t complain. This doesn’t work out, I don’t have an office next month.”
“Maybe you should find a better paying job, then,” the Watch officer said, taking the money. He took one last sip of his beer, spat it back into the mug; and set it back on the counter. “Good luck.”
Mort turned his head and watched the officer leave, then turned his attention back to his mug.
“What the hell was that all about?” the bartender asked after an interim.
“Bunch of bullshit, probably,” Mort said, mostly to the mug in front of him.
Four mugs of the swill and a silver coin later, Mort found himself walking past several taverns, whorehouses, and abandoned properties of the Red Light District, or Red for short. The stench of alcohol, sweat, excrement (both human and animal) lingered throughout the cold air of autumn; assaulting Mort’s sinuses. He doubted the prostitutes standing outside their respective establishments were much bothered by the stench. For all the alcohol he had consumed while waiting for the Watch officer to arrive, he knew he wasn’t nearly drunk enough to pay more than the slightest attention toward the girls calling him as he passed.
A suicide also wasn’t going to be nearly enough; unless this sister was related to the Emperor. Most suicides he had handled, that he was able to accept money from, gained him little more money than solving robberies. Murders were the most profitable, but those were few and far between. The Watch usually handled those in house and gave up when they couldn’t solve them. Of course, they wouldn’t have told the victims’ families that they had given up. Mort could count on one hand the numbers of murders he had solved himself, even before he had left the Watch.
His office was on the third floor of a formerly abandoned building; which with the number of homeless persons and rodents skittering about, it probably should have remained abandoned. He walked through the gaping hole in the wall next to the gigantic metal door to gain entry. The door itself had been bolted and chained shut sometime after the building had been abandoned to prevent vagrants from squatting; but when the previous owners of the building had failed to sell the building, the rights fell to the City. When the City itself couldn’t find a use for it, being so approximate towards the most violent parts of the City, they abandoned the building to the natives.
Mort soon after had procured some explosives and blew a hole in the wall and took possession of an office on the third floor of the building. The previous tenants had forgotten the key to the office when they had left; and once Mort had earned enough he had had the locks changed and added several more. In his haste to gain entry, he had forgotten that the building sat in the worst part of the City; and found himself fending off against rats, roaches, and armed vagrants. Only after he had approached The Watch and offered to pay the City montly rent for his office in exchange for them stopping the violence, did his issues with the vagrants dissipate. They still squatted on the bottom floors, but left Mort to his own devices. Mort had felt he had to take what he could get.
He stepped over the rat droppings and leftover waste and ascended the steps to his office which he had made his home for the past five years. A crudely made sign “Greenborough Investigations” was affixed on his door, along with several locks. Inside, he removed his heavy coat and tossed it on a slowly rotting couch sitting in a corner. From there, he removed both the worn short sword and the rusted dagger from his belt and set them behind his desk before sitting in his chair also situated behind his desk.
He emptied his coin purse onto his table, and a cluttering combination of silver and copper coins scattered. From what he could count, he could afford maybe two dinners at one of the worst taverns in the City. Mort stared at those coins and shook his head. Even if the suicide he would soon get pays well, he doubted he’d have enough to make the rent for next month: which meant The Watch would stop their security of his building: which meant he would revert to engaging in mortal combat every time he stepped out of his office. Law of averages stated eventually one or several homeless derelicts would get the better of him, and kill him for what little money he had. Either that or someone would break in to his place and kill him there and take all his belongings.
Mort shook his head again and sat back in his chair, closing his eyes. The alcohol had made him more tired than he’d thought.
A sharp knock on his door snapped him open moments later. It seemed like moments until he looked outside his window to find morning had snuck upon him since he’d been unconscious. He rubbed the sleep from his face as the knocking became more and more incessant. Setting the rusted dagger on his belt he muttered a still-somewhat unconscious “what do you want?”
“Sorry to wake you so early, but I need your help, Mr. Greenborough,” a voice, feminine, called from the opposite side.
He opened the door and eyed the young girl standing in the building’s decrepit, dirty hallway; thinking that she had come to the wrong building. She was dressed in a modest, but impeccably clean dress, looking much like a farmer’s housewife. Her leather boots were common but not cheap. She couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. Her golden blonde hair was neatly tied in a ponytail behind her head; but Mort focused more on her ocean blue eyes: young, perfect, but her gaze was stoic, determined, aged somewhat; as if behind those eyes lay someone more learned and wise.
Her eyes shifted slightly towards the dagger on Mort’s belt. “Come in,” he said, opening the door wide and asking her to shut it as she entered. The girl looked toward the rotting couch, saw Mort’s heavy leather coat perched ungracefully across it, and looked towards him. “Just throw it on the floor, or wherever. I had another chair but it was...” Mort trailed off as he watched the girl neatly fold his jacket and hang it on a coathook Mort had never noticed adjacent to the couch.
“My brother killed himself yesterday,” the girl started. “They said it was a hanging.”
Mort smirked. “But, you don’t think that.”
She shook her head. “The officer who went to inform me explained to me that he suspected foul play was involved, but the investigating officers don’t agree. He suggested to me that I come see you, to see if you would investigate his death further.”
Mort nodded. “That makes sense. The Watch likes suicides because they can clear them fast. They don’t take too much thought into them.” He watched as her expression changed slightly, as if she suspected his answer. He leaned forward. “The truth is The Watch is not working in the City to investigate crimes or serve the public. They’re here to take money from people, give money to others, and protect the status quo. Investigations that need to be conducted that they can’t solve easily go to third party investigators.”
“Such as yourself,” the girl responded.
Mort nodded. “Many families who feel that they don’t agree with the Watch’s conclusion are free to hire third parties as well; which is what you’re doing now.” He felt a twinge of regret as he told her. Though the woman kept a stone face, he could tell she was holding back tears. “I’ll be willing to help. I’ve done plenty of investigations into suicides.” More than I want, he didn’t add. “But, I have to warn you not to be too expectant. Almost all of them were actual suicides.”
She slowly removed the small coin bag from her belt. “I’ll be willing to pay-“
“My fee is ten silver pieces per day, plus any expenses I incur.”
She dug her hand into her coin purse. “Um, would one hundred gold pieces be enough? I think there’s a hundred in here.”
This, Mort had not anticipated. Even half that amount would’ve been more than enough to cover Mort’s living expenses for the next three years. Any other investigator would’ve leapt at the offer, but Mort sat back in his chair. He folded his hands and raised an eyebrow.
“You don’t believe me? You can count it!” The girl said, tossing the coin purse onto Mort’s desk. Neither of his hands went near it.
“What’s your name, ma’am?”
“Angeline, Angeline West,” Angeline West said. “My brother’s...name is Gesten.”
“West. I don’t recognize the name from any royalty or lordship. You live in this city or around it?”
“Yes, we both do. What does that have to do...”
“A hundred gold pieces is a lot of money. With a tenth of that, you could hire three of the best private investigators in town. Yet, you risked getting raped, robbed, killed, or all three to come down to this abandoned building rife with more cockroaches than every building in the city combined to talk to me. Why do that, when you can go to any other investigator that has an assistant, reputable office space, and is more qualified?”
The girl leaned forward, and for the briefest moment Mort saw her eyes shimmer. “Because he told me who you are, Mr. Greenborough, and what you were. He said you used to walk the beat with the Watch. You moved onto investigations after a year, and you were the best investigator they had. He told me after you left, their clearance record was cut nearly in half.”
“Did they tell you why?” Mort asked.
“No, but he did tell me that no one else in The Watch will even be seen with you except for him. I can make a guess, but the only ‘why’ I care about is ‘why my brother died.’”
After several silent moments Mort hefted the coin bag in his hand. He set it in his desk and locked it.
“You’re not going to count it?” the girl asked.
“Later. I’d better get started.” Mort stood, grabbed his short sword and set it on its’ spot on his belt. He moved toward his jacket and the girl stood and stepped in his way. Both were close enough to hug one another.
“One thing, Mr. Greenborough, and this is non-negotiable: I work on this with you. I go with you, help you think, whatever you need to do to solve this, I’m at your hip. When the time comes and we find out who did this, I want to be there to kill them.”
“You do realize that’s illegal in this City?” Mort asked.
Her eyes were deathly cold at that point. “My brother was everything to me. He was the only family I had; and some asshole strangled him and strung him up like a meat in a freezer. Do you think I care about going to jail?”
For the first time that day, and in a long time; a smile crept upon Mort’s face. “Then, let’s get started.”