Chapter 1 – No Rest for the Wicked
“You can’t tell a member of the Dwarf race by its height,” explained the chauffeur as he drove through the Red Light District in Amsterdam.
“You’re joking,” said Joseph Redwing from the passenger seat. With the driver’s bushy mustache and trivia, he could have been sitting on a barstool at Cheers. Chatting with him was much more entertaining than riding alone in the back. “The textbook version is anyone four foot ten or below as an adult. You’re about five feet.”
The chauffeur shook his head. “That’s different because I have rickets. Dwarf is a corruption of the Old Norse dokkalfr, the root of which is dark. The number-one differentiator for people of the blood is dislike of sunlight. Without sun, we don’t get enough vitamin D, which often makes us hunched or bow-legged.”
This was news to Redwing, but probably nothing more than he could glean from an Internet search on his phone. They wouldn’t teach him the deeper secrets until he learned Ancient Sumerian. His wife was helping him, but the writing resembled circuit diagrams on acid.
“I’ve noticed most of you are pale.” If Napoleon could characterize England as a nation of shopkeepers, then Dwarves were a race of surly clerks and craftsmen with the pallor of cavefish. He likened them to IT professionals without their morning caffeine. Ruling them was like herding cats.
“Not all, sire. The man you are looking for is quite dark. Search this corner for a hairy man with a fondness for chains.” The limousine parked beside a glass-front building. All shapes and skin tones of women posed, advertising their wares in the windows.
As Redwing emerged into the warm, early-June evening, in his tailored pants and tight, black T-shirt, the women tracked his movement. He liked to think it was because of all the weight-lifting he’d been doing over the last six months, but his multi-billion-dollar bank account was probably the real lure. As he scanned for his quarry, he adjusted his German hat with the eagle feather in it, illegal for all but a handful of American Indians to possess.
There in the alley, with his back turned. Redwing considered himself tall, but this man had to be a basketball player, 6’8” at least. He wore dreadlocks down to his elbows and a leather, biker jacket decorate across the back with links of chain. He was helping a drunk customer into a cab, politely but firmly. When he stood again, it was with the aid of a stylized cane.
Redwing moseyed up behind him. “Could you scream pimp any louder?”
The tall, African man turned to snap a response. He was older than expected, over fifty, with a goatee, scars, and tiny dreads on his forehead that curled inward like horns.
Officially scary. Redwing tapped his hat and let the illusion flicker, just for a moment, so that the crown of Ur-Metal was visible. “No offense. I once worked as a bouncer in a strip club. Are you Zane Kinnect?”
Zane’s nostril’s flared as if he smelled the magic device, and he bowed on one knee. “Lugal.” In Sumerian, the word meant king or owner.
Redwing didn’t like the connotation.
“Our new owner.” Zane said loudly, pointing Redwing out to the ladies. “I have been a good steward. You may examine any part of our enterprise. I’ll introduce you to everyone.” He pulled a ring of keys from his pocket, secured with a fine silver chain.
The brunette in the black see-through negligee stretched until the bottoms of her breasts showed.
Whoa. More pushups tonight to forget that image. “Thanks. That’s not why I’m here. My wife, Frigga, sent me here to procure your special services.”
“Ah, you’re a faithful husband. This is fortunate.”
“So you’re loyal to the Thorvald family, not the crown?” Redwing felt safe because none of the players could harm the king of their own suit.
Zane smiled, a truly creepy experience. “The Thorvalds spared my life when others called for my blood. So I honor my debts and obey the law scrupulously.”
“I’m about to trust you with some serious responsibility, so I need to know. What did you do to deserve death?”
“I’m a royal bastard.”
“What? Genealogically or by personality?”
Redwing laughed. “You passed the interview. I’m glad you speak English.”
“Have you met anyone here who doesn’t?”
“Hop in the car where we can talk in private.”
Zane whistled and two more thugs came out of the shadows. He pointed to the doors and gave brief instructions. While walking toward the car, he hunched like an old man, using the cane to stay erect.
“Does it hurt?” Redwing asked when they were insulated in the back seat with the privacy screen up.
“Does yours?” Zane responded, nodding toward Redwing’s prosthetic left foot.
“A bit in the cold or damp, but I sacrificed mine for a good cause.”
“To kill a dragon. A noble cause indeed. You chose well making the Valkyrie Frigga your queen.”
The worm had paralyzed his wife from the waist down—a euphemism for crushed organs, broken back, and a smashed pelvis. Only the magic of her crown and his proximity enabled her to recover as much as she had. Anyone else would have been dead. “She said your title last game was the Left Hand of Ur-Metal.”
Zane bowed his head. “How may I serve?”
“One of the Dwarvish women from the Vandemere family petitioned the crown. Her oldest daughter, Greta, is missing under suspicious circumstances. I contacted Interpol, and there’s been a lot of abductions around here lately. The women are sold into slavery. I’m going to put a stop to that.”
“I take it you want me to ride at your side and punish the wicked.”
Shaking his head, Redwing said, “No. I came here because I’m told you know where all the dirt is hidden in this town. I want you to help me find the wicked. I’ll take care of the punishing myself. When I was a bouncer, a customer showed up who gave me the willies, so I checked out his truck. He had rope, duct tape, scalpel, and a shovel. I beat the crap out of him.”
Zane saluted with his cane. “Sometimes bad children need instruction. I will so enjoy working with you, sire. We may have to … interrogate a few humans. Do you object?”
“As long as we don’t tip our hand to what we really are to the Adams. I’d like to start with the girl’s uncle. Both Frigga and I think he’s hiding something.” If he could find anything incriminating on the man, they could use it as an excuse to have Frigga question him. As a former inquisitor for the witches’ council, she would find the truth.
“The girl’s uncle is a count, a distant cousin of Thorvald’s. He could probably find Greta with his own underworld contacts, but the longer you take, the more noise he’ll make about your incompetence and lack of caring toward your subjects.”
“He’s raised the stakes. The ancient Romans had a rule: anyone could appeal their case to Caesar, but if you did, someone’s head was going to roll.”
“Excellent, sire. I’ll go grab a few necessities.”
Redwing opened the car door for him. “You’re willing to start tonight?”
“I can see in the dark, sir, and that’s when our prey is out.”
The amateur detectives camped outside the uncle’s apartment. Redwing phoned Count Vandemere and asked for an interview the next morning. “I have a solid lead on your niece’s whereabouts.”
After Redwing hung up, Zane said, “No you don’t.”
“I will after he contacts the traffickers to warn them.” Redwing clicked on a device on his console. “And he’ll have to do that because his cell phone is having problems.”
“Dangerous. The criminals may move the shipment before we find them.”
“Have you ever hunted a rogue grizzly before?”
Zane replied, “Nearly every animal native to Germany and the islands, sir. I fancy myself a skilled outdoorsman, but I’ve never had the exhilaration of tracking a large bear.”
“We brand them as rogue when they run afoul of civilization. The animals aren’t usually the ones in the wrong, although once they cross a certain line, they develop a taste for it. Bears are known for their strength, but all that power needs constant calories to sustain it.” I have to eat five or six times a day. “Before he can run or fight, a bear needs to feed, and the rogues always take the easy way.”
Soon after, the uncle emerged from his gated parking area in a leased BMW. The limo trailed him to a sports bar.
Zane unzipped his jacket, revealing a red Chicago Bulls T-shirt. “Dwarves don’t hang out in Human bars. The drinks are too weak and the insults too frequent. He’s here to meet somebody. I’ll follow him inside. You might be recognized.”
“And you won’t stand out?”
“I’ll bet on whatever game is on the TV screen.” The tall man let himself out of the limo.
Redwing held out a hand. “Wait. Vandemere’s a gambler?”
“The doorman let him in without a second glance. Appears to be a regular.”
The Dwarf worked high up at insurance company Frigga had inherited. Redwing phoned his lawyer. The man never slept. Then again, Redwing was his only client. “Midas, I need an audit at my wife’s company tomorrow, looking for evidence of embezzling.”
“All of them. Especially Count Vandemere’s insurance division.”
“Sire, you promised not to make any major changes for a year after assuming the reins.” The lawyer’s voice dripped disapproval.
“I’m not pricing it for a sale. I’m trying to get to the truth about an indiscretion before the police demand all our computers. Look for fraud and outright theft. Tell everyone it’s for the second-quarter performance report when I meet the analysts in July.”
Midas paused. “Very good, sir.” He hung up, no doubt to waken other flunkies.
Twenty minutes later, the uncle left, and Zane darted back into the back seat and reclaimed his jacket. “Follow that motorcycle. Vandemere owes a lot of money. The bookie took off today’s interest on the debt in exchange for the tip.”
“Did the guy sell off his own niece to pay off a bet?”
“Perhaps she found out about his problem, and he had to keep her quiet.”
The limo had to hang back further when they left town. They switched off the headlights because Zane wasn’t the only one who could see in the dark. At raised bridge, the driver lost the motorcycle. Redwing climbed out to track on foot. Zane followed with a gleam in his eye. He’s having a great time.
Near two in the morning, an exhausted Redwing sat on a rooftop, watching a remote warehouse through binoculars that had come from Zane’s massive duffle bag. Organized-crime soldiers kept round-the-clock watch. He whispered to the hunched man in leather and chains. “Through my crown, I can feel a single Dwarvish subject inside. I know my people.”
Zane nodded. “I smell at least five Human women inside as well. Several reek of fear.” Any woman who wasn’t terrified had to be heavily sedated.
Redwing passed the binoculars to him. “Keep an eye out while I call in the cavalry.”
“The Myrmidons?” Zane said, referring to the Dwarvish security corps.
“No. These are mundane criminals, so I’m bringing in Interpol.”
“At night? With no warrant?”
“I know a guy.” Redwing ducked behind a crumbling, brick chimney and faked a cell phone call. In reality, he touched the band of his hat and concentrated. All of the kings of the magical factions could secretly communicate over their crowns.
After a few seconds, his old comrade Raymond Lee, the King of Justice, answered mentally, “Redwing, how can I help?” Both men had been granted their crowns as payment for services to the winner of the last wizard war, Aaron Pyrogenes, who had disappeared with the fragments of the dragon’s body.
“Sorry about calling you in the middle of the night.”
“Not a problem. I’m in Bhutan right now, but I will be out of contact when I have the surgery. Now that the swelling has gone down, I can be fitted for a glass eye.”
Redwing nodded. “That’s good news.”
“I hear you tried to bribe my paladin with a convertible,” Ray said in a light tone.
“Bah. He’s incorruptible. I was just trying to repay Skippy for handling my wife’s medical bills for the first month.” They called the young man Skippy because he teleported, and Ray liked embarrassing nicknames.
“Married? Wow. You didn’t invite me.”
“We kept it small. Justice of the peace in the hospital.”
“How’s Frigga doing?”
Able to sit upright on a good day. “I’m in a bit of a hostage situation here outside Amsterdam. Criminals kidnapped half a dozen women and … well, you can fill in the rest. Since one of them is a subject of mine, I could sweep them up, but I wanted to keep magic out of the news and keep our treaty.” Justice had jurisdiction near The Hague, and his version of the Smithsonian Special Branch cleaned up
“Give me your address. I’ll send a strike team.” A few calculations flitted through Ray’s mind, and he said to someone else in Chinese before speaking through the crown again. “Can you contain them for another four hours?”
“Count on it.”
“When the cops arrive, show them your deputy badge from the reservation. I’ll tell them you stumbled across the ring while on your honeymoon.”
“Roger and out.” Redwing tipped his hat back to cool his forehead. He walked back to the brick edge of roof and whispered to Zane. “We have to keep them bottled up until six.”
“Only one way in or out of this area—through the crossroads where we left your limo,” Zane said.
Redwing nodded. “We’ll park across both lanes, and I’ll pose there with the jack and a tire iron.”
“Frigga would not want her king to be exposed.”
“I make a good distraction. You and the chauffeur will be my backup.” Redwing hoped that someone tried to sneak out. A good bar fight could blow off some steam. “I get the feeling you’re the sort of guy who does his best work from the shadows.”
Zane grinned, a chilling effect with his many scars. “You have no idea. I shall honor your wishes.”
Redwing hefted the tire iron as he paced the narrow intersection in the pre-dawn light. The ground on each side sloped off into low marsh with high grass, where his assistants lurked. Instead of a car from the warehouse, he was surprised by a van from town. Speeding, it didn’t stop to converse or offer assistance. A blond thug in a dress shirt and five o’clock shadow lowered the driver’s window and blistered him with curses. He looked like a drug dealer fresh from an all-night rave, reeking of cheap perfume and weed. “Move that hunk of junk.”
Speaking in rapid Navajo, Redwing gestured to the jack and the spare propped against the back tire.
The thug groaned and tried to squeeze his van around the limo on the thin shoulder of the road.
“Now that was just rude,” muttered Redwing as the van brushed by him. He bashed against the side of the vehicle like a tackle dummy, sliding it a couple centimeters in the wet grass.
The red brake lights lit the area. “What was that?”
Redwing wailed in mock pain. “I’m going to sue.”
The driver’s door slammed.
Grinning, Redwing grabbed under the side of the vehicle and rocked it.
“No. Shit. No. What?” By the time he reached Redwing, the van was sliding down the embankment into the marsh.
“Ain’t Karma a bitch?” Redwing asked.
The thug pulled out a 38. “I guess I’ll take your limousine, then.” He fired into Redwing’s chest, but the bullet harmed little more than the T-shirt.
While the man was still staring in confusion, Redwing threw the tire iron hard at the thug’s gun hand. As a former college baseball pitcher, his aim was true and the wrist cracked. The gun clattered to the asphalt.
While the thug grabbed his arm and cursed in pain, Zane leapt a distance of several meters in order to smack him in the forehead with the cane. His extended arm was covered in bristly, wolf-like hair. Tossing the pistol into the marsh, Zane said, “Help me place him behind the wheel. Authorities will assume the injuries came from his auto accident.”
“Good plan.” Redwing picked up the unconscious body, and blood from the shallow scalp wound stained his jacket.
Zane held the van door open as he whispered, “You didn’t use your crown to stop that bullet or lift that van.”
“No. I’m a ghost dancer. I already eat and shave enough for two men, and I didn’t need the crown’s side effects making that worse.”
“I hear that.”
“I’d appreciate if you didn’t tell anyone about my Native American abilities. Just like I won’t tell anyone you’re part supernatural animal.”
“My father was a creature of the night,” Zane admitted.
Redwing scanned the area. “Not something we want the Adams to know. Can you make your way back to town on your own?”
“Good. I’m going to be pinned down here for a while when the police arrive. I need you to do me a favor.” Redwing pulled out a couple hundred-euro notes.
“If you offer me payment again, sir, my service ends. What do you require?”
“Sorry. I just need someone to grab Vandemere before he hears about the police raid. I want him to face justice in front of the assembled Ur-metal court. Is that acceptable?”
“I could not imagine a more pleasurable entertainment, sire.” Zane loped off into the darkness to accomplish his mission, tongue lolling happily.