All That Glitters:
A Tale of Zodom
by Stuart North
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The next morning, I was woken by the chiming of my bell. Captain Anur was back.
“Morning, Agbek,” he said. “Hope I didn’t wake you.”
I stifled a yawn. “Not at all, Captain. Can I offer you anything? A drink perhaps?”
“You wouldn’t have what I want.”
“I suppose not.” I coughed. “So, ah, what do I owe for this visit?”
“Answers to questions.”
“I thought I told you everything I knew yesterday.”
“Things have changed since yesterday.”
“Suppose you start from the beginning,” he said. ‘Then we can move on to that.”
“Like I said, I already told you what I knew.”
“You told me you knew nothing.”
“Want to stick with that story?”
“I don’t see what else I can do.”
“Start telling the truth, maybe.”
“That’s what I’ve been doing, Captain.”
“Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to start coughing up some more of it, given recent developments.”
“Please, Agbek. Let’s stop this cat and mouse stuff. I’m not in the mood for it this morning. I presume you know there’s been another disappearance.”
I felt something go thud in my guts. “Actually, Captain I didn’t.”
He peered at me and did his icy stare thing, and I felt my soul shiver. After a moment, he said, “Hmm. You seem sincere enough. I’m surprised. Given that you’re our number one suspect.”
I did a double-take. “Me?”
“Do you deny meeting with Malabek last night?”
“No, I don’t. But how?”
“These little things called tails. I put one on you. See, I didn’t quite trust your evasiveness, all that crap about doing the accounts and the way your eyes kept shifting to the back of the shop. Thought I’d see for myself, so I put the Weasel on you.
“A great tail, the Weasel. One of my best. He’s a sleen addict so he can’t be seen unless you know he’s there. He told me some very interesting things. Told me you were seen leaving your shop at sundown, where you headed straight for Malabek’s gaff in the Warren. He told me you had a parcel with you which was gone when you left. Do you deny any of this?”
Anur was smiling. “Agbek, my friend, you appear to have trouble speaking. Perhaps we’d better take a trip down to the Gatehouse. I might have a few things there that could loosen your tongue.”
It wasn’t my tongue that felt loose at that moment. I stuttered a few more non-sentences then gathered up my coat and followed him out like a sleepwalker. Anur had a drunk wagon waiting in the street. There were no drunks in it, but it still had that nice pukey stench from its rounds of the night before. He bundled me in the back like a sack of turnips, then jammed himself next to me and whistled to the driver to be off.
It was a nice warm pleasant morning, the sort you normally get in Zodom at this time of year, but it might have been a rainy day in Sheol for all I could enjoy it. The birds twittering, the sun dappling through the olive and eucalyptus trees, the smell of early morning bread and the whole earthy bustle of life, and me in my cocoon of ice and fear as the cart jolted its merry way toward the Zodomite Gatehouse, the finest interrogation cells in the whole flat earth.
* * *
The Gatehouse is like a skin growth. Most of it exists under the surface and it seems to spread every year.
We passed through the main gate and down into the vast labyrinth of dungeons, where Anur sequestered me in a nice windowless room with a single butter lamp that gave out more soot than light and more stench than soot.
A table and two chairs were the only adornments. They had that shiny dark look that wood gets when it’s absorbed lots of blood. Anur took one of the chairs and motioned me to the other. His face looked pleasantly demonic in the light, all pits and hollows. At least I couldn’t see his eyes.
“Okay, Agbek. Despite appearances, I don’t wholly despise you. But I’ve got my job to do. So why don’t you tell me everything you’ve been up to in the last few hours, and anything else you think might be relevant. If I’m happy with your story, I’ll let you go before lunchtime. Deal?”
I nodded. It was all I could manage at that point.
“So,” he said, “I’m listening.”
There wasn’t much point in holding back at that stage. Not that I would have done in other circumstances. Professional ethics only goes so far. I told him all I knew, about Hakar’s visit and the strange bit of merchandise he’d brought with him, and my visit to Malabek to get a second opinion and negotiate a buyer.
Anur listened patiently. Every now and again, his eyebrow would raise a fraction of an inch then settle back, and once his mouth twitched and spasmed, though I don’t think he noticed that.
When I’d finished he leaned back in his chair. “Sounds like an interesting pit of snakes you’ve found yourself in, Agbek.”
“That would be one way of putting it.”
“Any ideas who might have wanted Malabek dead?”
“Sure. Everyone he ever crossed.”
“I’m not into that sort of thing.”
“That’s still to be determined.” He took out his knife and began picking his nails. There must have been a lot of dirt under them. A whole graveyard’s worth. Without stopping he said, “This crown. Did Hakar tell you where he got it from?”
“Hakar’s a collector.”
“Meaning collectors are precious about their sources. And we don’t press them. It’s a sort of unspoken agreement between us.”
“And Hakar never gave you a hint?”
“What if it were hot?”
“The thought had crossed my mind.”
“Captain, it’s not every day someone comes in with a treasure like that. Mostly it’s just bits and pieces of old trash that someone a few hundred years ago threw out with their chicken bones. We polish it up and sell it, and no one’s any the wiser. What Hakar brought in was beyond anything I’d ever seen before. Hot or not, I’d have been a fool to pass that up.”
“Buy first, chase up answers later.”
“Something like that. That’s what I went to Malabek for, as a matter of fact. He’s an expert in pre-deluge metalwork.”
“Pre-deluge. That’s old, right?”
“Old? Captain, our earliest records don’t even scratch the surface of that era.”
“So who made it?”
“Someone with a whole lot of skill.”
“And do you think Hakar is responsible for the disappearances?”
I shrugged. “Could be. I’ve never really checked his background. I know he has some family in the old quarter but, beyond that, I don’t know much about him.”
He put down the dagger. “Want to hear something?”
“I guess you’re going to tell me.”
“Hakar was our prime suspect for a murder about a month ago. Another collector by the name of Ghul. That’s funny isn’t it? A grave robber named Ghul.” He bared his teeth again and made that noise in his throat. I waited for him to continue. He did.
“So. Old Hakar and his friend decide to go prospecting, only they decide to do it in the mounds east of the deserts near Melmoth. Why? No one knows. Nothing there but a load of old stones and a heap of bad juju, so I’m told. But, for some reason, they’re there.
“When they come back, they’re haunted men. And they have a sort of smell about them that makes people keep away. They’ve been tainted. Rumours start to go round. They find they’re no longer welcome in their usual haunts.
“They eventually find lodging in a flophouse on the edge of town. The innkeeper takes them in ’cause he’s like that: doesn’t ask questions. Also likes to keep his eye on prospective guests, in case they might be in demand from certain concerned quarters. With me so far? Good.
“So, my friend takes them in, no questions asked, though he’s dying to ask, and goes to bed. In the dead of night he’s wakened by the sounds of argument. Being the conscientious fellow he is, he goes up to their room to investigate. He listens for a few moments then hears that they’re arguing over a particular bit of merchandise. A crown. Wait, hear me out.
“So, the innkeeper hears other noises, strange noises, like a sound of choking followed by some sort of guttural chanting and that same horrible smell, intensified a thousandfold. Naturally, he gets real spooked and lets us know about it.
“When we arrive, Ghul is dead, his throat hacked to pieces by something sharp and nasty. Hakar is nowhere to be found. We put out a few feelers, but nothing. The trail goes cold and we forget about it. Till now. Quite a story, don’t you think?”
“Pity it doesn’t yet have an ending.” He looked at me from pits of darkness, and I saw something glint from deep within. “I have a proposal for you.”
“Call Hakar to your house. Arrange a meeting. We’ll be waiting to pick him up.”
“That might be difficult, Captain.”
“Hakar turns up when he turns up. I don’t have any way of contacting him and, even if I did, the fact that I was doing so would likely make him smell a rat.”
“Then we’ll have to keep you till he shows.”
“He won’t show if I’m not present at my shop. Let me go, Captain, and I promise not to skip town. Post a guard on me if you like. Hakar is bound to show up at some point. He’ll want his money.”
“You owe him?”
“Yes, about sixty marduks.”
“Why didn’t he pick it up earlier?”
“Because you scared him off.”
“The other day?”
He tapped his fingers on the table. “Guess we’ll have to play it your way then. All right, Agbek, you’re free to go. Don’t think for one minute you’re off the hook though. There’ll be someone to pick you up the moment you go back on your word. Trust in Shem, trust in Marduk, trust in whatever gods you like. It’ll happen.”
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Stuart North