Vincenzo smiled feebly when he saw me. His tiny mouth and buckteeth gave him the look of a ferret. I smiled back, and he bolted up the crooked stairs.
I found Vincenzo right where Mac said I would, in a small warehouse abutting the Bunyip Dock. Even in the heart of the Cheapside districts, the sagging pier was a lonely place. Some of the local toughs, including me, liked to take a woman there if time was short and she wasn't picky. Others took marks down the long pier, knowing the ravenous creatures that prowled the waters would dispose of the body. And a certain addict of my acquaintance apparently used the place to ride out his latest shiver-induced dreams.
The warehouse was small and inhabited mostly by rats and the occasional squatter. The owners wouldn't pony up for repairs, so those foolish enough to rent the space sometimes found their goods floating past the pilings after the rotten floor gave way. The last tenants had abandoned their wares, so the place stank of mildewed grain and imported fruit that had long since turned to slime and mold.
"Don't make me chase you," I called after Vincenzo. I doubted that would stop him, so I followed him up the stairs, grimacing at the squealing steps. If Vincenzo had taken his hit already, he wouldn't run for long. But when the shiver took him down, he'd be out for hours, his head filled with spider dreams.
The upper floor was a confusion of crates and slanting beams of sunlight. The sound of his footsteps had stopped, but I saw Vincenzo's wake in the dusty air. Thinking of the sharp knife he favored, I glanced to the sides in case he wanted to try his luck at an ambush.
The stack of crates beside me creaked. I leaped forward, avoiding the falling boxes but not the disgusting explosion of rotten fruit that burst from them. As I rolled up to my feet, I slipped in the mess and fell down hard in the splinters and slime. The stench was worse than anything I'd smelled since crawling up through the privy in House Tauranor. I tried breathing through my mouth, and that was worse. The mold spores wet my eyes and prickled the back of my throat.
Behind me, Vincenzo scrambled over the boxes to reach the stairs. Trying to stand up, I slid in the muck and nearly added my breakfast to the goo. Before the mess could swallow me whole, I grabbed an unbroken crate and pulled myself onto the stack. My first few hands-and-knees steps just smeared more of the crap over the crates, but enough of the stuff came off to give me friction. Despairing of the insult to my new clothes, I uttered a vow of revenge on that miserable addict. I crawled over the unbroken crates and saw Vincenzo's head disappearing down the stairwell. One of the rotting stairs cracked under his foot. He stumbled and cursed, but I heard him plant his feet at the bottom.
I made it to the stairs and leaped the rail. Desna smiled, and Vincenzo ran directly under my trajectory. My knees caught him in the kidneys. He screamed for half a second before the pain shut down his breath and he hit the floor beneath me. The floor beneath him gave, and we fell through the splintering timbers.
I caught the edge of the hole with one hand, Vincenzo's graying ponytail in the other. We let out simultaneous shouts as my arm and his scalp went taut. Below us, fragments of the broken floor splashed into the water where Lake Sorrow drained into the River Adivian. They bobbed to the surface before a swell raised them up within inches of Vincenzo's kicking feet. A dark shape emerged from the water to disintegrate a three-inch plank with one snap of its jaws.
It was a bunyip the size of a fishing boat. Its head resembled a seal's, only five times bigger and with a maw bristling with three rows of shark's teeth. I'd never seen one this close, and one look at its grin told me there was no intimidating something like this with my own pretty smile.
Vincenzo squealed and grasped my wrist. He struggled to climb my body back into the warehouse. If I didn't need his information, I'd have shaken him off and let the monster have him. It wouldn't have taken more than two or three bites for the bunyip to gobble him up.
Instead, I strained to pull us both up with one arm. Vincenzo was so frail that it would have been a breeze under different circumstances. Between his thrashing about and the splintered edges of the broken warehouse floor digging into my palm, I was lucky just to hang on. The remaining floorboards creaked as I pulled us up.
The bunyip leaped, causing a big wave to wash over the pilings. It came so close that I felt the warmth from the big mammal's body, and its fishy breath washed over us. The monster's jaws snapped shut just behind Vincenzo's ass as the informant clambered up my legs. He almost fell back into the water when he grabbed my "tail" and unexpectedly pulled my big knife out of its hidden sheath. A second later I felt his knee in my kidney, then his feet upon my shoulder as he climbed back into the warehouse.
"Give me a hand," I demanded. He turned to face me, his eyes dreamy and confused. For an instant he brandished my own knife at me. Then he looked at it in horror and dropped it as if he'd just realized he'd picked up a snake. He turned and ran.
My foulest curse chased him, but I felt the air pressure drop beneath me. Refusing to look down, I grabbed the shattered floor with my other hand and pulled with all my might. In two quick motions, I jerked my body above the floor and rolled forward onto my feet just as the bunyip's head smashed up through the floor and doubled the size of the hole.
Vincenzo hesitated at the warehouse door to look back at me. He shrieked at the sight of the bunyip rising above my five and a half feet of height. Feeling cocky, I ignored the thing, brushed a few splinters off the shoulder of my jacket, and crooked a finger at Vincenzo.
"Last chance to play nice," I told him. Beneath us, the bunyip fell back into the river with a splash that shook the warehouse. Vincenzo moved toward the door. I took a throwing knife from my sleeve. The moment his hand touched the latch, my knife pinned it against the door.
Vincenzo screamed and tugged at the blade, but I'd thrown it hard. I retrieved my big knife and strode over to him in six big steps. Removing my throwing blade from the door, I grabbed his ponytail and dragged him back to the hole in the floor. There I held him over the river water.
I fixed my eyes on his face, but he stared down at the water. We both heard the furious splashing, but only he could see what swam down there.
"You know what I want," I told him. "Who and where?"
"At the opera," he screamed, his pupils rolling back as the shiver began to grip him tight. "I don't know the name. One of yours!"
"One of my what?" I growled. I felt the air pressure change again, and Vincenzo hugged his knees to his chest. We both knew that wasn't going to be enough.
"A hellspawn!" he shrieked as we heard the bunyip crest the surface.
∗ ∗ ∗
"I am in no vein for bad news," I warned Radovan. He had burst past the butler to enter the solarium, causing me once more to reevaluate my decision to employ so many halflings. I considered adding a few guards large enough to encourage him to develop better manners.
"Can't be helped," he said. The several foul stenches he had brought into the hothouse threatened to wilt the nearby orchids that I had cultivated for decades since my all-too-brief expedition to the Mwangi Expanse. "One of your peers hired an assassin."
I blinked at him, uncomprehending. The scent of flowers had lulled me toward an afternoon nap. I reached for my wine, but the clumsy butler must have repositioned it after refilling the glass. I bumped it from its table onto the stone path, where the crystal shattered into a thousand glittering fragments. They sparkled in the afternoon sun, briefly mesmerizing.
"Do you hear me?" said Radovan. "It's a hit on you."
"Ridiculous," I said. Granted, I was perhaps a trifle drowsy, but I could not at that moment think of anyone who would be so rash as to threaten a scion of House Jeggare. I did, of course, have one prominent rival. However, his ethics, if not his demeanor, were beyond reproach. The day he chose to end my life, I would see it coming. "Who would be so reckless?"
"I didn't get names," he said. "But I have a description of the assassin and a location. You'll want to skip the opera tonight. There's a tiefling you want me to find before he finds you."
"Out of the question," I said. What I did not explain, what Radovan could hardly understand, was that a performance of The Water Nymph promised my only solace in a day that had brought nothing but miserable tidings. Besides, the Opera House was the perfect location for me to avoid hellspawn, since none were allowed within. I waved Radovan away, but he failed to grasp my meaning. I tried to rise from my reclining chair and said, "You may go."
My hand slipped off the chair, and I began to fall. Radovan caught my arm, his grip exceedingly tight. "Boss," he said, "you need to take this seriously. A lot of families got hurt in the Henderthane business. I'm just surprised we haven't taken more heat before now."
I removed myself from his presumptuous grasp and stepped back, slightly unsteady. All of this unwelcome news was exacerbating my headache. I felt dizzy and confused, but most of all I felt angry.
"It is not for you to tell me how to receive this or any other information," I said. "You've delivered your news, and you are dismissed."
He stood in perfect stillness for a moment, his expression caught halfway between wonder and anger. Never before had he released his fury on me, although I had seen him cow thieves and informants with one of his notorious smiles. If he retained even a fraction of the good sense he had demonstrated in past service, he would not test me now.
He did not speak for many seconds. At last he rubbed the back of his neck and said, "Right."
Radovan never addressed me properly, and I had been permissive, perhaps excessively so, in allowing him such informalities as "boss." He turned and walked away, brushing past the butler, who scurried toward the broken wine glass with a brush and pan. Before he bent to tidy the mess, he set another crystal goblet on the table and filled it from the bottle.
I lifted the new glass to observe the color of the wine. Instead, I noticed a difference in the glass itself.
"Why is this not the same as the previous?" I asked the butler.
"Forgive me, Your Excellency," he said with a low bow. "I am afraid that was the last of the old set. Recently there has been some... attrition."
I squeezed the bridge of my nose, hoping to dull the rising pain. How could I have been so careless, so forgetful? I felt a sudden urge to call Radovan back, but I could think of nothing to say.
Coming Next Week: A night at the opera turns deadly in Chapter Three of "The Lost Pathfinder."
Dave Gross has been a technical writer, a teacher, a magazine and book editor, and a novelist. He is the author of the forthcoming Pathfinder Tales novel Prince of Wolves and the Hell's Pawns series in the Pathfinder's Journal for Council of Thieves, both of which star Varian Jeggare and Radovan, the heroes of this story. His previous novels include Black Wolf and Lord of Stormweather.