Authors: Frank Tuttle
Tags: #Speculative Fiction
To Mom, to Pop, to Karen
Babysitting banshees is a nerve-wracking business.
And after a morning with Buttercup, my nerves were not only wracked but wrecked and possibly wreaked as well.
Buttercup is all of four feet tall. She weighs forty pounds soaking wet with a big rock in each hand. And despite what you’ve heard about banshees, there isn’t a mean bone in her tiny body.
But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t enjoy a bit of old-fashioned banshee mischief when Mama Hog and Gertriss are away and there’s no one but Uncle Markhat to play with.
Buttercup’s favorite game is to make that banshee hop-step that transports her from place to place without the trouble and fuss of walking through the space between her and, for instance, the top of my desk.
Hop, appear, giggle, hop. From desktop to floor and back again, all in the space of a blink, with my good black hat clutched in her tiny banshee hands.
“That’s my good hat, sweetie.” I put on my most winning talking-to-the-kids smile. Darla claims it looks more like a grimace, as though someone was stepping on my toes, but it’s the best I can do. “Let’s find something else to play with.”
Hop blur, hop blur. She went from floor to desktop, vanished, poked me in the small of my back and was gone when I turned.
Shoes came tap-tap-tapping right up to my door. Not men’s shoes, but female ones.
They stopped. The lady knocked. No hesitation, no furtiveness.
Buttercup appeared at my side. She put my hat in my hand and clung to my leg with what I fervently hoped was purely platonic fervor.
She might be tiny, and she might be a thousand years old, but I’m very nearly a married man I’m told.
“In the back. Get under the covers. Don’t make a sound ’til I come get you.”
Buttercup doesn’t speak much Kingdom, but she understands it well enough. She nodded once and was gone. I heard my bedsprings squeak through the door Buttercup hadn’t bothered to open.
I put my hat on the rack—right above the new tan raincoat Darla had left there the day before.
Funny. The hat was a gift from Darla too. I wondered how long it would be before my entire wardrobe was the product of Darla’s keen eye for my clothes.
The lady at my door knocked again. Three-leg Cat rose, arched his back and yawned silently before sauntering toward the door, eager to slip outside.
I forced a smile and obliged cat and woman.
Darla stood at my door, grinning. Three-leg dashed between her ankles, circling her once and issuing a rough loud purr before darting away at a three-legged gallop.
“Mama swears you’ve never risen before noon.” Darla’s brown eyes glinted. She was wearing something high-necked and purple, and the one hand I could see was wearing a silk glove. “Are you sure you’re decent at this unholy hour?”
I made a show of looking at my elegantly rumpled attire. “I seem to be clothed, though by whom I don’t recall. Do come in, Miss Tomas. And bring that picnic basket with you.”
Darla glided in, and the heavenly smells that wafted up from the basket she carried came with her.
The basket wound up on my desk while we greeted each other. Clever devil that I am, I managed to snag a sticky bun from the basket and bring it up and around Darla so that I had a bite ready when we finished the good morning kiss.
Darla turned and laughed and took a bite and then we sat.
I chewed and swallowed. The bun was hot and sweet and perfectly baked.
I took another bite and lifted an eyebrow.
“So, what brings you out with the wagons, Darla dearest?” I asked. “It’s so early the vampires haven’t taken to their crypts yet.”
One of the many things I like about Darla is her utter lack of pretense.
“I’m here to ply you with pastries and my feminine wiles. I want to hire you, Mister Markhat. I want you to find someone for me.”
I choked down my sticky bun. All the play was gone from her eyes, all the mirth from her voice. She had her hands in her lap and she was not smiling. I’d only seen her do this once before.
“My friend Tamar is getting married. I believe I’ve mentioned that? Big wedding, rich families, we need to get you a new suit because you’re my date?”
I nodded. I recalled the name, was fuzzy on the date, was secretly hoping against hope something would come up and I’d be spared the spectacle of watching a masked priest drone on about the holy state of matrimony.
I’d seen quite a bit of the state of matrimony lately. Its fickle nature kept my partner Gertriss and I in business. Holy wouldn’t be my first choice in describing anything matrimonial.
“Tamar’s intended is a man named Carris. Carris Lethway. You might know the name.”
I whistled. “Lethway as in the Lethways who have the big house up on the Hill?”
“The very same.”
“I’ll need a fancy suit.”
“I hope so. But we won’t be shopping for one today, dearest, because Carris has gone missing.”
I’m not as crass as many claim. I didn’t make cracks about runaway grooms and quick trips on fast horses to isolated villas down South.
“His family claims he’s out West, on family business. That’s a lie, Markhat. Tamar would know. Carris wouldn’t have just left without a word this close to the wedding.”
I just nodded.
“They’re rich. Has the Watch gotten involved?”
“Tamar went to them. They went to the Lethways. They were told Carris was fine, that he was away on business. The family hinted that Carris changed his mind about marrying Tamar.”
“Could that be true?”
“No. It could not.” Darla looked me in the eye. “I’ve known Tamar for years. She’s neither deluded nor hysterical. Something has happened to Carris, or someone is keeping him away against his will. Will you bring him home? For me?”
“For you, my sweet, I’ll try.” I moved the picnic basket aside and brought a writing pad and a sharp pencil out of my desk.
“You know what I need. Names, dates, all of it.”
A tiny hand reached up, and a sticky bun vanished. Darla squealed and grabbed at the air and managed to snag Buttercup and haul her giggling onto her lap.
“It’s all I do these days.” I put pencil to paper while Darla tickled Buttercup. “Whenever you’re ready.”
It took a while, but I got it all. At one point, Buttercup put on my hat and imitated me stomping across the floor with her diminutive banshee hands clenched at her back. Darla doubled over in laughter.
I’m surrounded, I tell you, and there’s not a damned thing I can do about it.
Darla left for work. Buttercup curled up on my unmade bed for a nap moments after.
I put butt in chair, left my door propped open and watched Rannit amble past. I couldn’t chase down Darla’s Tamar’s groom until either Gertriss returned from staking out a certain door in a particular flat, or Mama Hog made it back from Elfways and her weekly breakfast with spook doctor Granny Knot.
The first one who returned, Mama or Gertriss, would have the pleasure of watching Buttercup for the rest of the day.
I listened to the banshee’s dainty snore and wondered for the thousandth time whether hiding her in plain sight was a clever plan or a doomed bit of foolishness. Not that we had much choice—it was either take her in, turn her out into the woods or let the likes of the Corpsemaster have her. Even Mama, no fan of anything that smacked of Elves or the Faery folk, wouldn’t consider any of the latter actions.
I was pondering, lost in thought, not dozing the least bit, and that’s why I didn’t see the three angry road apples until they were nearly over my threshold.
They weren’t city folk. Their clothes were homespun, handed down and patched and handed down again. There wasn’t a matched pair of boots on their feet. Those hats had been scraps of castoff leather not many years ago.
But it wasn’t their clothes that raised my hackles. No, it was the set of their bearded jaws and the squint of their stern eyes and the way the lead man holding the scrap of paper clenched in his fist looked as if he meant to choke it.
I knew those looks.
They were looking for trouble. Worse, they were looking for me.
I stood. Too late to close the door and lock it. They’d seen me, seen me see them and no locked door was going to stop them.
I keep a lead-weighted knocking stick under my desk. But after another look at the burly country muscles of those long, sunburnt arms and a brief wink of steel from under a shirt, I reached up and took my mighty sword Toadsticker from his hooks.
That didn’t stop them, but it did slow them.
I planted myself in my doorway. That would keep them facing me, at least for a moment.
“You gentlemen are walking with a definite air of purpose.”
They stopped, keeping a Toadsticker-length of space between us.
“We’re lookin’ for a finder’s outfit,” said the biggest. He was squat and bow-legged, with a face full of old pox scars and fetid breath that would have set Three-leg to gagging. “A finder named Markhat.”
I gave Toadsticker a casual twirl.
“And what might your business be with this finder named Markhat?”
The man’s piggy little eyes narrowed. I named him Piggy. His companions, two worthies I dubbed Cabbages and Sheep, who might have heard of soap but had never been formally introduced to a cake of it, shuffled and reddened.
“That’s fer us ’an him to ken.”
“Then start kenning. I’m Markhat. Whoa, you—”
I didn’t have time to say anything else. Piggy rushed me, Cabbages reached under his shirt for a knife and Sheep produced an iron shortsword.
I gave Piggy a solid whack under his chin with Toadsticker’s point. That snapped his head back and drew a little blood, and he backpedaled so fast he went down on his sturdy country ass. Cabbages got a kick in his groin, and I just slammed my door hard in Sheep’s face, yanked the door open again and dropped him with a blow to the head from the flat of Toadsticker’s blade.
Cabbages took to his heels and ran blind onto the street.
The thing about ogres and their manure carts is this—they don’t stop. Well, they do if they can and the whim strikes them, but this one couldn’t and didn’t. Cabbages went down squealing under its ogre-hewn oak and iron wheels. The ogre roared and dropped his handles and reached under the cart and yanked Cabbages out, feetfirst, before tossing his squealing, bloody bulk casually into the heap of refuse old Mr. Bull had just put out for the trashwagons.
Mr. Bull appeared from within his shoe repair shop and, by way of saying welcome to Rannit, he began beating the twitching Cabbages with his surprisingly sturdy broom.
Piggy found his feet. I knocked his knife away, shoved him down again and planted the sole of my good right boot directly on his windpipe.
I kept Toadsticker aimed at his little friend Sheep, who was facedown and moaning and showing no signs of anything more ambitious than a bit of profuse bleeding.
“Why don’t we start over?” I pressed down a bit, risked a glance over my shoulder to see if the ruckus had wakened Buttercup. If it had, she was staying out of sight. I thought of her asleep on my bed and pressed on Piggy’s throat just a little harder. “Here in thriving, cosmopolitan Rannit, we greet each other like civilized men, with a hearty ‘good morning, sir.’ Mr. Bull, you’re either going to break your broom or kill him—why don’t you go back inside.”
Mr. Bull cackled, gave Cabbages a savage kick to the head and doddered back into his shop.
“Now, let’s see if you’ve learned any manners, shall we?”
I let my boot take a few more breaths away.
“Tut, tut, little man. Assault and foul language. You’re never going to win Citizen of the Year, at this rate.”
I let him turn purple. Then I eased up. Let him gobble for air just long enough to keep him conscious.
“Who sent you?”
He cursed more, tried to spit in my eye, cussed when it fell back in his own. I laughed.
“We’ll see if you’d like to try that with the Watch.”
“Boy. Boy, what ’ere you doin’?”
Mama came bustling up, wheezing and puffing. She had her right hand in her ever-present burlap bag, and I’d bet good beer her hand was clutching that wicked meat cleaver she favors.
“These three worthies came to call on me, Mama,” I said. “They turned mean without so much as a hello. The cheek, can you fathom it?”
Mama glared. The man under my boot paled.
“You. You’s one of Efram Sprang’s boys, ain’t you? Don’t you lie to me, I’d know them Sprang bug-eyes any damned where.”
“Mama? You know this man?”
Piggy tried to speak. I cut him off.
“I knows his kinfolk. Don’t I, boy? Let him talk.”
I relented. Piggy sputtered and coughed. I took my boot off his neck but put Toadsticker’s point right at the base of his fat chin and let him feel it.
“Gilgad Sprang. I’m Gilgad Sprang.”
Mama snorted. “I knowed it. You Sprangs never was long on brains. You come all this way to start trouble, did ye?”
Gilgad, son of Efram, tried to rise. I put him flat on his back with a tiny thrust of Toadsticker’s bright steel.