All That Glitters:
A Tale of Zodom
by Stuart North
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Hakar turned up at my door three days late and stinking of booze.
That wasn’t unusual in itself — the booze-stinking, I mean — though he’d never been late for our meeting in all the years I’d known him, and I’d known him more years than I cared to count or acknowledge.
I leaned back so I could look down my nose at him and said, “Nice to see you’ve made it.”
He smiled grimly. “Hallo, Agbek. Mind if I come in?”
“Depends what you’ve got for me.”
I gestured at the limp sack hanging from his hand. “That doesn’t look like a treasure.”
“Looks can be deceptive.”
“And sometimes they say all that needs to be said.”
“Sometimes. Not this time.”
I looked him up and down, more carefully this time. “I’ve got a client coming this afternoon,” I said with a forced yawn that made my jaw click. “You’d better be quick.”
“Oh, that I promise.”
I thought about another yawn, but that would be overdoing it. That left me all out of theatrics for the day. Besides, he’d piqued my interest. “Best come in then,” I said.
He shuffled past me and slumped into the seat by my counting desk. I smelled spirits that could have downed a marsh ox and its whole family. Hakar had been hitting it hard, all right. Harder than usual.
I glanced up and down the street and shut the door. “Okay,” I said, “what have you got for me?”
He dragged his head up from its place by his chest. “Shem’s sake, Agbek. Give me a breather will you?”
“I told you I’m a busy man.”
“Yeah, yeah. Always got someone to see.” He looked about with heavy-lidded eyes. “Got any booze? I’m parched.”
“I don’t drink. You know that.”
“Must have forgot.” He sighed and reached down and picked up his empty-looking sack and dropped it on the desk with a clunk. Then he fumbled about in its folds and drew out whatever was inside.
At first glance I thought it was a tiara. Then I saw it was a crown, though whose head it must have once adorned I couldn’t begin to guess. In bare outline it resembled two intertwining snakes of pale golden metal coming together in an elongated ouroboros to embrace a green globe about the size of a garnet’s egg.
The egg seemed strange somehow, like an object that didn’t quite belong in the waking world, a misty unreal globe into unknown depths. The depths seemed infinite. More than that, they seemed all-pervading, a vast green universe of strange shapes moving endlessly about me, dark shapes, predatory shapes.
A voice said, “Didn’t I tell you?”
“I said: didn’t I tell you.” Hakar was staring at me.
I reached forward and picked up the crown. It was surprisingly light and so smooth it was almost greasy to the touch.
“Where did you get this?” I said, with not quite the authority I wanted.
“What does it matter?”
“It matters to me. If this is hot, there could be trouble.”
He sighed, and there was sadness in his voice. “I doubt any man in this world has ever set eyes on this besides you and me.”
I put down the crown. “All right, how much do you want for it?”
“A hundred marduks.”
“I’ll give you sixty.”
I felt my jaw drop open. I closed it with a clop of my teeth and hoped he hadn’t noticed. I hadn’t thought to buy it for anything less than eighty and, in truth, only professional instinct had made me barter down.
“Why so cheap?” I said.
“Cheap? You suggested the price.”
“Only as the preliminary to a higher price. You know how it works.”
“Well, I’ve saved you all that. What’s the problem? You should be happy.”
“I should, but I’m not. What’s the deal?”
He shrugged. “Who else am I going to sell this to?”
“Talman, Malabek, Hibbel. Any number of other fences around town.”
“You’re the one with the connections, Agbek.”
“Don’t flatter me.”
“Fine. Maybe I just want rid of it, is all.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Look,” he said, “if you don’t want to buy it, I’ll take it elsewhere.” He began to fold up the flaps of the sack.
“If you think that’s going to force my hand, friend, you’re wrong.”
He said nothing, continued to tie the bag.
“All right,” I said, “all right. Let me get my pouch. Sixty, you say?”
He peered at me slyly. “Or whatever you’ve got.”
“I’ve got the money. Hold on.” I made to get up.
The bell chimed in my shopfront. I cursed.
“Wait here,” I said. “Just... sit there, okay? We’ll discuss this when I get back.”
He said nothing, merely stared at me with his sad slouching drunkard’s face and his hand on the strange crown in its folds of cloth. I cursed again, put on my best welcome face and hurried through the curtains to meet my customer.
My grin froze. Captain Anur was waiting in the doorway.
“Evening, Captain,” I said, thawing my grin and giving a little bow. “What can I do for you?”
He rolled something around his mouth, leaned forward and spat a stream of quirit juice onto the floorboards. “Can the pleasantries, you little toad. Who was that you were speaking to?”
“Aye, back there.” He nodded towards the curtain.
“Why, no one, Captain.”
“I heard voices.”
“I always talk to myself when I’m doing the accounts. It’s a tedious job.”
He looked at me long and hard with those glacial eyes of his. After a moment he said, “I’ve come to ask you some questions.”
“About what, Captain?”
“There’s been a disappearance. Antique seller, name of Himmel. You know him.”
“He and I are... loosely acquainted.”
“I wasn’t asking you, Agbek. Anyway, his housekeeper reported him missing two days ago.”
“Ain’t it just? You wouldn’t happen to know anything, would you?”
“Haven’t a clue, Captain.”
“Didn’t think so. Anyway, no one’s clapped eyes on him since then. Himmel’s a punctual man, got regular habits, not someone to just up and leave one day without telling anyone. Pretty odd, don’t you think?”
“Not really. People do strange things all the time.”
“Even quiet birds like Himmel?”
“Anyone, Captain. You never really know who a person is, in my opinion.”
He grunted. “You wouldn’t be including yourself in that, would you, Agbek?”
“Me, Captain? I’m as readable as the High Priest himself.”
He grunted again. I realised it was a laugh. “That’s the first honest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
“You and I should talk more often.”
“Yes, we should, shouldn’t we?” He picked up an amulet I’d arranged on the hanging tree near the window. “This looks interesting,” he said. “Nice metalwork. Gomran isn’t it?”
“Emoshite, actually. But a good guess.”
“I can do you a good price on it.”
“That’s all right. I doubt I could afford it, given my salary.”
“I’m sure you could, Captain.”
His face flushed red. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
I quickly backed up. “Nothing, Captain. Nothing.”
Anur was staring at me like a wild animal. Or like a quirit addict, which is worse, much worse. I wondered for a minute if I’d pushed things too far. I always do that. It’s my one big fault in life. That, and all the other ones that I count as charming eccentricities.
Anur’s kickbacks and ties to the underground were the worst-kept secret in Zodom, so much so that I hadn’t realised he might not consider them so, or be prepared to admit it. But then the redness died down to its normal peachy glow with twin added ice chips. He peeled back his lips and grinned. “Yeah, Agbek. Yeah. Of course not.”
He tossed me the amulet. I lunged forward to catch it, barking my knee on a chair. I winced and began to rub it.
“Well,” he said, “if you do happen to hear anything, you’ll be sure to let me know, eh?”
“Would I do anything less?” I said with a forced smile.
“Given the choice, I’d count on it.” He turned and strode down the street letting the door clang shut.
I let out a sigh then hurried backshop to see Hakar. Hakar was nowhere to be seen. I hissed his name, then shouted it, then looked about for places he might have hidden. I opened the back door and looked up and down the empty alley. Then I shut the door and cursed a third time, long and loudly, in several languages ancient and modern.
The pre-Gollanites have a particularly choice phrase for situations like this, but it didn’t make me feel any better once the final guttural stanza had been completed.
Then I saw the sack.
It was still lying on the table in plain sight, still folded over, but one of the folds had slipped down and I saw a gleam of something within. I reached forward, not daring to hope, and peeled back the flaps. I let out a sharp yelp and quickly covered it again.
Then I picked up the bundle and hurried to my private safe box and put the bundle inside and closed the safe and locked it. After a minute I opened it again and looked inside. The crown was still sitting there, next to my markers and ledgers and pouch of coins.
I grinned. Then I frowned. The pouch was still full, which meant I hadn’t had time to pay Hakar his money.
If ever a book is written listing altruistic and charitable persons of Zodom, there are two things I predict: one, it wouldn’t be very long and, two, Hakar would be nowhere within its pages. Why then had he left the crown without waiting for his payment? The only explanation was that the crown was too dangerous for him to keep. Which meant it was dangerous for me to keep it.
Which meant it was hot.
I put the crown into my knapsack and left the shop. I didn’t expect my client to be coming by any time soon. A visit from Anur has that sort of lingering effect on people.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Stuart North