Clanging. My head. Like a bell. Exploding. Like a melon full of… of… fire. All mushy. No, not mushy. Hard, like a bell. Clanging.
With what felt like Herculean effort, I levered my eyes open. I discovered that the world was swaying, and apparently upside-down. I groaned, or tried to. It came out more like a gurgle.
“Nice of you to join us,” said a dry voice to my left.
I turned my head and saw the face of Edric Mercer about a foot away, at the same orientation as myself. Warm satisfaction flowed through me as I noticed the purple bruise under his eye. I was vaguely aware that I was the cause of it.
“Ah, you’re awake. Good,” said another voice. It spoke in clipped tones and belonged to a woman who, despite being the wrong way up, was clearly a Regulator. Mercer groaned for the both of us. “Answer when I call your name, please.” She consulted her clipboard. “Albert Two-Toes?”
“Here,” said a gruff voice behind us.
“Yes,” moaned another.
“And what is the knocker’s name, please?”
“…Coblyn…” Ang responded, feebly.
“What was that?”
“Her name’s Ang,” I supplied. “She’s a coblyn, not a knocker.”
The Regulator peered at me over her glasses. “What’s the difference?”
“I see.” She made a note on her clipboard. Probably adding Ang to a list. Regulators love lists. “I trust you all understand you are being held here due to your involvement in the fracas earlier this evening. Tell me please, who started the fight?”
Despite the growing ache from the blood pooling in our heads, no one spoke up. We all knew what to do. Like chastised school-children, we stuck to our silence. You don’t grass up your enemy. You just beat him up later, in a quieter location.
The Regulator knew this too, and wasn’t about to waste effort on a small bust-up. At least, I hoped it was only a small bust-up. I wasn’t conscious for most of it.
She exhaled in an exasperated but resigned manner. “All right, then. You will be given permission to leave once someone has come forward to vouch for your character. You will be released on the understanding that you will not be involved in any further disturbances. All future infractions will result in a far more permanent solution. Have I made the situation quite clear? Please affirm your understanding.” This was met with a chorus of groaned assent. “Good.”
She motioned to a snub-nosed troll loitering nearby. It stepped forward, raising a giant cleaver in its enormous fist. We shrank back as much as a collective of hanging bodies could. The troll swung, and Mercer hit the ground with a thump.
“Mr Mercer, we have already received your character reference. You are free to go.”
He picked himself up, unsteadily. He must have been rather dazed, as he staggered off without throwing one witty quip behind him.
The Regulator cast a cursory eye over her remaining captives. “As for the rest of you, you will remain hanging until I receive a reference, or you suffer a brain haemorrhage. Whichever comes first.”
A small crowd had gathered around us. We were the free entertainment for the evening. A stone bounced off my head. Ang squeaked somewhere to my right.
I scanned the upside-down faces of the mob for one I recognised.
Front and centre in the crowd, one gaze met mine.
A calm, quiet gaze.
I couldn’t believe my own eyes. She was still here; she was right here! I tried to call out, but my voice was strangled in my throat. I tried to take in her face, her features, her hair, every last identifying mark and crease in her skin, tried to burn the image onto my retinas. All the while her cool, quiet eyes followed me. I think there was a smile on her lips, but I couldn’t say for sure.
With a flick of her hair, she turned away.
“Wait,” I croaked as she slipped into the crowd. “Wait!”
She was gone. Again.
My head was thumping, and I felt like I might pass out.
“Dydh ha, my lovely,” said a familiar gravelly voice. Through the descending haze I could just make out a grimy yellow hard-hat. “’scuse me, I’d like ta vouch fer the lady here. She be of fine and stalwart character.”
“You vouch for Ms Bloodhorn?”
“What? Nah, ye blind bobby. This lady, the fair coblyn.”
“I see. And you are?” said the Regulator.
“Name’s Goron. Blacksmith, I am. Enchanted iron, and the like.”
I heard the scratching of a pen on paper, followed by a soft swish and thump.
“Ye alright, lass?”
“Get y’smelly hands off me. Go away.”
“’ng,” I implored. It was getting harder to breathe.
“Oh. Could ye vouch for him, also?”
“D’int ‘e get ye into this trouble?”
“Avenging my bluecaps, he was.”
“Ah, say no more!”
Black clouds were edging in on my vision. My cheeks felt puffed full of cement, trying to drag my head clean off my neck.
There was a swish and a thump, and a great deal of pain.
“Nngh,” my throat articulated.
“Don’t do it again,” said the Regulator, standing over me. “We keep track of offences, you know.”
“C’mon lad, up ye get.”
Two pairs of wiry hands gripped me under my shoulders and hauled me to my knees. They couldn’t really haul me much higher than that. I lurched to my feet and patted down my pockets. Everything in order, nothing broken, except… oh. I withdrew my hand from inside my coat and shook the sticky residue from it. That was the last of my special-offer Invincibility Cordial. Ironic, that.
My jaw felt swollen; my left shoulder was on fire; every other bit of me ached, and I’d just discovered a nasty cut across the palm of my hand.
“You any good with a needle, Ang?” I asked blearily, pressing my coat sleeve into the cut.
“I can darn socks,” she said, uncertainly. “I’m more at home with a pick, really.”
“I’d like t’see ye at work wi’a pick, lass,” said Goron.
“You ain’t gonna see nothing of the sort!” Ang replied, hotly.
“Calm down, both of you. Let’s get back before more trouble finds us.”
Ang threw me a sidelong glance. “With respect, gwas, ye went out of your way to find that last spot of trouble.”
I rubbed my aching jaw, trying to recall the events that had led up to it. I remembered visiting Reva the gypsy, and I remembered the way she had looked at me, and the bitter anger that had propelled me all the way to Mercer’s pitch. And, with a dark satisfaction I hadn’t felt in a long time, I remembered finally giving in to temptation and punching that smug git square in the face.
“How big was the fight, in the end? Six of us strung up, were there?”
“Them’s just the ones that were too slow,” said Goron, cheerfully. “Most of ’em legged it soon as the Reg’later turned up. Ye shoulda seen that troll o’ hers in action. Well, ye were on the receivin’ end, so I’d wager ye saw enough.”
My shoulder twinged louder. “I suppose I’m glad I don’t recall the details. Were they all Mercer’s boys?”
“Naw. Most were just passin’ by. Jumped in fer the fun’ve it. Bobbys, the lot of ’em.”
“Bobbys?” I asked.
“Idiots, lad. Who’s fool enough to join a fight in this place? Ye’d have t’be a bleddy great dobeck to risk bein’ noticed by one o’ them Reg’later types.”
“’Twas a damn ffwl thing, gwas. Didn’t think ye had it in you,” agreed Ang.
“All right, everyone makes mistakes,” I said, irritably. “Mercer had it coming, anyway.”
“Aye, he did,” said Ang. “But mebbe ye should have picked your moment, like.”
“Next time git yeself hid first, and try somethin’ more original. Come at ‘im sideways,” suggested Goron. “If ’twere me, I’d pick me a good high spot, then caggle ‘im proper!”
Ang and I exchanged looks. It was nice to not be the only one lost in translation for a change. Ang was the one who asked: “Caggle?”
“Means t’cover ‘im in filth! Pour a great ol’ tub of muck on ‘is ‘ead!” he exclaimed, gleefully.
Ang cackled loudly. “I’d pay t’see that thievin’ basdun wallowing in muck, like a pig in a pen. Ha! Fittin’ for such a colossal pen pigyn!”
“Ee, I do love a maid that can cuss.” Goron reached into a pocket in his overalls and pulled out a small parcel of brown paper. He held it out to Ang. “I ‘spect ye be famished after that quarrel. I brought ye another hoggan, lass.”
Ang’s eyes lit up. She greedily snatched the package from his hands, then tried (and failed, miserably) to conceal her delight.
“Gifts be getting yus nowhere,” she said, loftily. “I just don’t like things t’go to waste, is all.”
Goron cracked a smile as he watched her rip into the paper. The smell of warm pastry reached my nose. She bit into the shell of the hoggan. Meat juice dribbled down her chin.
“He give ’em to me this mornin’,” she whispered to me, around mouthfuls. “He’s a smelly ol’ knocker, but his pasties ain’t half tasty.”
I think Goron may have fathomed the path to Ang’s heart. I wondered if that was the traditional way to woo a knocker. Maybe their version of a romantic, candlelit dinner was a good solid Cornish pasty shared by lamplight in an intimate corner of the mine. Maybe next to a good seam of coal to provide the romantic backdrop.
We reached my pitch. It stuck out on the end of the row – less like a sore thumb, more like a broken one: at an odd angle and going slightly green around the edges. Despite my best efforts it was still woefully full of stock, and some of it was starting to go off. The Odious Miasma in particular was trying to escape its bottle. Mind the smell.
“Aieee! Big man!” guffawed the trader next to me. “Broke out of lock-up, eh? Fancy yourself a fighter now, ah?”
“Shut up, Gary,” I muttered.
“You wanna pick a fight with me, big man?” he continued, grinning. “I got these dancing sparrows here, they’d be a good match for ya!”
“My money’s on the sparrows.” Tracey sauntered over, bearing a mug of foaming yellow beer and an amused expression. “So you’re a fighter now, are you? That your new niche?”
I squared my shoulders. “Mercer had it coming.”
“Maybe. But from you?”
I deflated. “Shut up, Tracey.”
He winked and offered me the beer. “Don’t say I never do anything nice for you. That’s a fair bruise you have there.”
“Covers up ‘is ugly fizzogg, aye?” snickered Goron.
“A definite improvement. Maybe you should have a go at Gary’s singing mice next time. I reckon you could take them.”
Sure, everyone laugh at the one man who tried to stand up for something today. Admittedly, that man may have chosen a rather dull-witted way to do it, and may actually be somewhat unclear about the thing he was standing up for, but at the very least I was the only one in this circle who could say that he had punched Edric Mercer in the face today. That had to be worth something.
“I saw that woman again, if anyone cares,” I said, moodily. “She was watching while we were strung up, you know.”
“The lady with the eyes?” asked Tracey, with renewed interest. “Did you work out what she looks like, this time?”
I shook my head. “That’s just the thing. I saw her, completely. I mean, I was looking right at her. But I don’t know what she looked like.”
“Hmm. What colour were her eyes?”
“I don’t know.”
“What? But earlier you said her eyes were the only thing you did remember. You’re not trying to pull my leg, are you?”
Ang spoke up. “We said she had calm eyes, twpsyn. Di’n’t say nothing about the colour. Buggered if I could tell ye.”
That’s right, calm. Horribly calm, the more I thought about it. Eyes that viewed the world as though it was of complete irrelevance.
Calm, perhaps, because there was never a reason not to be. Patient, because the owner of these eyes doesn’t have to take risks. Quiet, because this person could slit your throat in front of all your friends, and not a single one of them would be able to recall her face. They were the eyes of a woman who was safe and comfortable in the knowledge that she would slip out of your mind as easily as a dream.
“Some kind of spell?” mused Tracey. “There’s this chap a few rows over who sells budget glamours. You know, make yourself handsome for a day, that sort of thing?”
“You’re a regular patron, are you?” I said, sourly.
“Darling, I’m his inspiration.” He unloaded his best boyish grin; it dripped with charm almost as much as Ang’s pasty dripped with gravy. I tried to hold back the smile, but failed. Tracey’s air of charm was so thick you could bottle it like a sauce. Not a bad thought that, could be an idea worth pursuing. A brief image of Suave Condiments flashed through my mind. Fancy a splash of Debonair on your chips? Maybe some Poise to spice up your salad?
I shook my head to clear it. Later.
“So what you’re saying,” said Tracey. “is that despite seeing your lucky lady twice at the Market now, you’re still no closer to actually tracking her down? Good grief, it’s like having the needle jump out of the haystack at you.”
“Except the needle is invisible.”
“Or you’re just bad at catching. Now, if you want some tips on how to really reel a woman in–”
“Not your sort of tips, thanks. Although,” a thought struck me, “I don’t suppose you have a song that would, I don’t know, make her come to us?”
“Oh, lots.” He smiled, lazily. “Trouble is, the songs that would do the job would also attract all the other ladies in the room. And it would draw them into a stupor. And then they would die of malnutrition. And probably some Regulator would hunt me down for it, as if it was my fault people would rather die than stop listening to me sing. Your call, though.”
As much as I hated to admit it, Tracey was right. We were back to square one, and I was out of ideas. We had no leads on our thief. Except…
Perhaps it was the knock I’d received to the head; what else could have made me forget Reva’s words?
“There is something else,” I said, then leaned in conspiratorially. Gratifyingly, everyone else leaned in too. I lowered my voice to a whisper. “Have you heard of… ‘Baines and Grayle’?”
Tracey shrugged. “Nope.”
“Really? Nothing?” I concealed my surprise, and my disappointment. Tracey usually has his finger on the pulse – a lot of gossip seems to be passed on in the bedroom.
“Been out of the country, mate,” he reminded me. “Now, if you wanted to know about the recent rise of this mysterious new power in Bavaria–”
“No,” I said, flatly.
He shrugged. “Suit yourself. There were heroes and sword fights and everything.”
I became aware that another conversation was happening down by our knees. Goron was shifting uneasily on the spot, while Ang nudged and cajoled him.
“I can see it in your eyes, ye old ffwl,” she said. “What is it that ye know?”
He bristled under our combined stares, but I think it was Ang’s pleading that swayed him.
“Don’t know nuthin’ much,” he said, hesitantly. “Never met these Baines ‘n’ Grayle folk meself. They seems to come as a pair, never one nor t’other by hisself.”
“Are they traders?” asked Tracey, curiously.
“Dunno. Only heard o’ them from other knockers, see?” His brow creased. “Some talk of work for knockers who wants it. Good money for good metal, so’s they say. Trouble is, the few who went, ain’t come back.”
“Maybe they decided to stay wherever they went?” I suggested.
He gave a worried, humourless smile. “Could be. Could be.”
“You don’t think so.”
He fidgeted with a loose thread on his overalls. “Knockers don’t like t’stray from home, ‘cept for good work. Mebbe it is good work, so they stay. But they ought’ve sent word home. They left a month agone, and we’ve had no word as yet.”
Ang’s gaze flicked to mine, and suddenly I knew she and I were thinking the same thing.
“Are they family of yours, these missing knockers?” I said, carefully.
“O’ sorts, o’ sorts. I don’t know ’em well, like, but they still be kin to me and mine.”
“And how did you – and how did they – hear of Baines and Grayle in the first place?”
“Already said, bobby. Other knockers come by our home, tellin’ of good work. Most din’t care fer it, but a couple of the young’uns thought it an adventure, see. So they go off together with this woman and ain’t heard of again –”
“What woman?” said Ang, sharply.
“I dunno. Some human woman. She was with the knockers that come to us.”
“What did she look like?” I pressed.
Goron fixed me with a pointed stare. “Ye all look alike t’me.”
“Try, would you?”
“Please,” said Ang. I think it may be the first time I’ve ever heard her use the word.
Goon shook his head. “Wish I could lass. Like I say, more’n a month’s gone since then, and in truth I barely noticed she was there.”
“That’s a bit strange, don’t you think?” I said. “I mean, humans tend to stick out amongst knockers.”
“Aye,” said Goron. “Yer uglier.”
It wasn’t enough to give us the whole picture, but it was a small piece in the puzzle. Some months ago Ang’s coblynau friends went missing without a trace, and now knockers too? Were Baines and Grayle to blame for both disappearances?
Whoever they were, whatever part they played, Baines and Grayle were sounding very suspicious indeed. It was an odd thought, but the names had the ring of, well, partners in a legal firm, or something like that. Maybe they were just two pushy Black Market traders in business together. But they were probably something worse.
I remembered where I had first heard their names. It was from the mouth of a troll who had been sent to murder a friend of mine. And now, according to Goron, it seemed like they were either employing knockers, or capturing them. And, most importantly, Quiet Eyes was connected with them somehow.
I wonder if she works for them? Thief-for-hire, maybe? I bet you can command a pretty hefty fee for a skill like hers. And how is Edric Mercer involved? Our stolen bluecaps had ended up with him, after all. Could he be the man at the top of the chain, pulling strings?
One way to find out.
“Who’s up for a chat with Mercer?” I said.
“You’re joking,” said Tracey. “Haven’t you had enough punishment for one day?”
“I need to ask him a pressing question,” I replied, grimly.
“With your fist? It won’t work out any better a second time.”
“I’ve decided to change tack.”
* * *
“You want to trade?” said Mercer, incredulously.
“Certainly,” I responded, with my most jovial smile in place. It may have looked a tad skewed due to my swollen jaw. “I’d like to offer an apology for earlier, of course. Been under a lot of stress lately, don’t quite know what came over me.” I lowered my voice so that his cronies couldn’t hear. “A mere miscommunication. Baines and Grayle send their compliments.”
He flinched. I don’t know what I was expecting – it was a stupid ploy, a mere shot in the dark – but the flinch took me entirely by surprise.
I suppose I had expected one of two reactions. Either I would be faced with sneering disdain (which would tell me Mercer knows more about Baines and Grayle than I do) or I would be met with a sudden blank wall of cool ignorance (which would tell me Mercer knows a lot more than I do). Either he’s working for them, or he’s working with them, and I’d hoped to find some small indication as to which it was.
But a flinch? A flinch holds bags of information. It holds fear.
I smiled again. “About my business here. I would like to buy my bluecaps back. I’m sorry, I mean I would like to buy your bluecaps. Just a coincidence that they look so similar.”
“Already sold,” Mercer snapped. “Not that you could have afforded them.” He seemed to regain his composure. He adjusted his stupid hat. “I have no business with you, Hansard. You are lucky we are in the open, like this. With… witnesses.”
“Well, we both know someone who doesn’t need to worry about witnesses, don’t we?” I said, brightly.
It wasn’t exactly a threat. But if, for example, you had previously made the acquaintance of one quiet-eyed woman and, just supposing you knew that she was as dangerous as she was sly, then you would be forgiven for taking it as a threat. Something flickered in Mercer’s eyes.
“What do you want?” he hissed.
“I’d like to know who bought the bluecaps.”
“Some knocker. Paid good money.”
“Who cares? They all look the same.”
“Didn’t you get a name?”
“Why would I care what the wretched creature’s name was?” he glared at Goron and Ang, who were hanging back behind me. They were unwilling to get involved in another fight. “Doubtless the little rodent will scurry back to his hole in the ground. If you want to find him, try digging in the dirt.”
Ang’s ears pricked. Goron laid a hand on her shoulder. The air seemed to heat up around us, swelling like the air before a heavy storm. Some of Mercer’s men squared their shoulders.
We froze. The sound of a pen tapping on a clipboard filled the sudden, empty silence.
The Regulator stared at us impassively over her glasses. It was a look reminiscent of a stern librarian, and just as terrifying. Her pen scritched across the paper; when she was finished she tore off a strip and handed it to me.
The words: ‘ORDER TO VACATE PREMISES’ glared up at me.
“Sign here,” she instructed, pressing the pen into my hand. I signed to acknowledge my receipt of the note – in triplicate, obviously. As I obeyed, she continued: “You are in direct violation of an order given not one hour previous, to wit: stipulated adherence to peaceful behaviour while in attendance of this Market. You were warned that further violence on your part would result in drastic action on ours.”
“But there hasn’t been any violence,” I said, puzzled.
She fixed me with her cold stare. “There will be if you don’t vacate the premises.”
Ah. Straight to the point, Regulators. Very efficient.
She ripped off another ticket and handed it to Mercer.
“You expect me to leave as well?” he said, indignantly. “Do you know who I am?”
Her hard gaze turned on him. “Indeed. You are an individual who is complicit in the aforementioned contravening behaviour. If you do not accept my terms, then you will be a dead individual who is complicit in the aforementioned contravening behaviour. And, consequently, no longer my problem.” She held out the pen. “Sign here.”
As much as I wanted to savour the sight of Mercer being knocked down a peg, it was time to make an escape. The key now was speed.
“We leavin’, gwas?” asked Ang, trotting beside me.
“Yes. Time to make tracks. I want to be far away by the time Mercer sets off.”
We collared Tracey and cajoled him into lending a hand. Bottles disappeared into their cases, jewellery was unceremoniously stuffed into boxes, and the ceremonial boxes were rapidly encased in bubble wrap. Powders, gems and knick-knacks were stowed in their pouches, and the stuffed barn owl that I had picked up somewhere along the way was perched precariously on top of the heap.
I felt strangely alive. I’ve never been thrown out of a Market before. It only ever happens to people who get noticed.
Outside by the car, Tracey and I shook hands.
“Safe travels,” he said. “Try to stay out of trouble for a while, eh?”
“I will. What’s your plan after this?”
“Got me a warm bed to go to tonight. After that, who knows?” No doubt his warm bed came with a lady attached. I wondered vaguely how he managed to live life so easily as a drifter, never knowing where it would take him next. Then I remembered that’s basically how I live, but with fewer warm beds and nice meals. Living two sides of the same dream. Somehow his side looked classier.
Goron was trying to persuade Ang to stay.
“It’s not an abandoned mine,” he was saying. “The big folk abandoned it, but we’re still there. Smithin’ when we ain’t minin’. Produce the finest enchanted iron in the whole country, so we do. We could go there soon as the Market’s over.”
Ang actually seemed unsure of herself. “I dunno, Goron. I’m a coblyn, me. Never smithed in me life.”
“I can teach ye,” he replied, encouragingly. And then, slowly, his face fell. “Ye ain’t stayin’, are ye?”
Ang wouldn’t meet his eyes. I nudged her with my foot, but she wouldn’t look at me, either.
“G’bye,” she muttered, turning away.
“Wait.” Goron grabbed her hand. “Wait awhile. I’ve got somethin’ for ye. Stay there.” He scampered off back inside the building. When he returned, he was holding a crate of bottles, each lit with a gentle blue glow. Ang’s eyes widened. She looked from the bottles, to Goron, and back again.
“Them’s mine,” she said, faintly. Goron nodded, and placed them at her feet.
“Safe an’ sound,” he said. “Didn’t want some unworthy beggar t’be makin’ off wi’ ’em. Bought ’em, legal like, so that Mercer won’t be after ye. Well, not because of these, at any rate.”
Ang picked up the bottles, one by one, turning them over in her hands.
“Diolch,” she said, gravely.
“Means thank you.”
“Ye welcome, lass.”
She placed them back in the crate, and held it out to the knocker.
“Take ’em. You’ll give them a good home, and good work. I knows it.”
At first he looked taken aback, then he accepted the crate with a solemn expression.
“I will at that. Ye have my word.”
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance of discussing a price…?” I tried, but I knew I was being ignored.
“Hyns diogel,” said Goron. “Means good journey.”
“Da bo chi,” said Ang. “Means goodbye.”
I sighed. “Look, this is all very touching, but if we don’t leave soon then we’re going to have to deal with Mercer and his boys. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not end the night as a smear on the pavement.”
“I’ll write ye,” said Ang. They nodded to one another, and that seemed to be that.
We were on the road again, heading into the faded grey light of dawn.
I wasn’t sure whether today could be counted as a win. We’d got the bluecaps back, briefly, sort of. Ang was happy with their new owner, though we hadn’t been paid for them. We had a little more information on the quiet-eyed thief, and the two mysterious names she was connected with, and we knew that Mercer was afraid of them. He hadn’t hired Quiet Eyes – why would he be worried by her, if she was on his payroll? And as for Baines and Grayle: what kind of person is so dangerous as to frighten a man who has traversed the underworld and fought monsters? And there were the missing coblynau and knockers, all wrapped up in the same mystery?
Despite all these new leads, it felt very unsatisfying to only have more questions, rather than real answers. Quiet Eyes was at the Market the whole time, I’d seen her twice, yet was still no closer to knowing who she was.
Does it matter any more? asked a faint voice in my head. We got the bluecaps back. Sort of. They’re the only reason we were trying to chase her in the first place. None of our business now, is it?
True, true. But what about my promise to help Ang find her missing friends?
Well, she’s given away my bluecaps to a knocker she got all gooey-eyed for. Why should I continue to care? None of my business.
Ah. But you see, I’m not in this business for the sake of keeping to my own business, am I? I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere in this world if I didn’t like to know the answers to questions like ‘What does this do?’ and ‘What price could I get for that?’ and ‘How did that strange man in the coat suddenly disappear when the coins he gave me turned to dust in my hands?’ Means you can pull the same trick on some other bugger down the line. Practically karma.
At least there was one question I could get an immediate answer to.
“Why didn’t you stay?” I asked Ang. “Goron seemed all right.”
“Not ready yet, gwas,” she said, distantly.
“Oh? I thought you might have preferred his help finding your missing friends. Seeing as you consider me no help at all. And, frankly, you gave him my payment.” I glanced at her. “Wouldn’t you be happier with your own kind?”
She stared out the window, watching the twilight scenery roll by.
“I seen things,” she said, thoughtfully. “I seen trolls and witches, and a river-dwellin’ smellycoat, and a gypsy who reads blank cards and a thief with uncanny eyes, and a knocker who’s all right and does good pasties. Can’t find none o’ them in a mine. Well, ‘cept the knocker and the pasties.” She paused. “Life’s intrestin’ round you, gwas.”
Somehow, that felt like the biggest compliment anyone had ever paid me.
“Even if y’are a big liar and rubbish at detectiving.”
“How are you going to keep in touch with him?” I asked.
“Same way I keeps in touch with cobynau back home.”
“’Course, gwas. I sends letters, reg’lar.”
“I’ve never seen you post a letter,” I said, doubtfully. “And I’m sure the Royal Mail doesn’t deliver to mines located in dimensions hidden within the folds of reality.” Actually, I wasn’t sure on that last point. It would explain why so much mail gets lost in transit.
Ang fixed me with the glare she reserved for when I was being particularly dense.
“Rats, gwas. They go everywhere. Reliable delivery, if you got the grub to pay ’em. They likes ham best.”
We drove in silence for a while. It felt heavy on my shoulders.
“Where we goin’ now?”
I don’t know.
“Next sale, Ang. Next opportunity.”
“What about them Baines ‘n’ Grayle?”
They’re sharks. We’re fish. Tiny, tiny fish.
The sky paled around us, bringing the world into gradual focus. I felt myself awaken, sharpened by the light of dawn. The path was suddenly clear.
I took a breath. “How far are you willing to go to find your friends, Ang?”
Our eyes met, and I knew the answer.
“As far as the road is long,” she said, voice as steely as her gaze.
“It’ll be dangerous, you know. Not like anything we’ve done before. We might get into real trouble. I mean, real trouble.”
My eyes were back on the road, but I could feel hers boring through my skull.
“What’s in it fer you, gwas?” It was a question with a blade attached. “You ain’t exactly done your utmost up til now, have ye?”
“I want to catch that thief. I want to know who Baines and Grayle are, and why everyone’s so afraid of them. Way I see it, we’ve got a common enemy now, right?”
“Oh? And I can rely on ye, can I?”
“I’m in, Ang. From now, I’m in, and I’m serious.”
It was like a knife slowly turning in the side of my head; that was the nature of Ang’s stare. I wondered if maybe my thoughts were spilling out of the wound for her to measure.
Then she turned away, and tipped her flat cap down to her nose.
“Good,” was all she said, leaning back into the seat.
“Okay then,” I said. “Okay.” I wasn’t certain if I was reassuring her or myself.
I focused on the tarmac, the never-ending vein of grey that gave the lifeblood to my living. The sun was up, and the sky was so blue.
Under my breath I said, “Let’s hunt sharks.”