Book Excerpts


“Readers are in for some fun.” —Publishers Weekly

Read on for an excerpt from William Schlichter’s new novel, Sirgrus Blackmane Demihuman Gumshoe and the Dark-Elf.

Bacardi and Coke. Neat.

Not the usual drink of choice for a mountain dwarf. Then again, Detective Sirgrus Blackmane is no ordinary dwarf—at least not since the Great War. Being a gumshoe during Prohibition might appear glamorous, with secret speakeasies, all-night cocktail parties, and scantily clad women displaying their knees, but crime and conspiracy lurk beneath the city’s shining illusion.

When the human half of the Mason and Blackmane Detective Agency is found dead at the scene of a rum-running bust, Sirgrus vows to find the killer. But this quest for justice leads him straight into a tangled web of underhanded deals with demihuman mobsters who are fighting for control of the rum supply. 

And when two more corpses turn up, Sirgrus must work double-time if he wants to find the killer—and avoid turning up dead at the next crime scene.

“Colorful settings, demihuman characters with depth and a plot full of fun twists make this book an enjoyable and quick read. I’m ready for more.”

— Lee Goldberg, Librarian and NetGalley Reviewer

Excerpt from Sirgrus Blackmane Demihuman Gumshoe and the Dark-Elf

Chapter 1: Dead Partner

The Great War is over, Prohibition is in full swing, and fairies have the right to vote. Sprinkle-dust fae, not those bloody orcs. Don’t give me any “bleeding heart,” “love your enemy” buggery. Ending a war with signatures on a paper doesn’t change what I witnessed. No way. The only good orc is a dead one. Dwarves are born hating orcs. And I’ll die hating orcs.

Cops would be a close second. I’ve no ancestral urge to butcher them, but I don’t have a desire to cooperate without a warrant either. I’m jammed between two uniformed officers in the back of a coupe. I’m not under arrest, so I don’t appreciate the perp treatment. Sandwiched between them, one thing is clear: I’m not trusted.

I’ve nothing better to do. My caseload is open. Private dicks aren’t normally called to the busting of a rumrunner ring—especially dwarf detectives outside the Quarters. I’ve got little to do with Prohibition, other than that it’s a law I fail to practice. Mead is a staple of the mountain dwarf diet.

I slip a golden clamshell case from the inner pocket of my trench coat and remove a cigarette. I prefer pipes, but in a pinch, a cig will do. If I don’t catch a case after this, I’ll have to roll my own.

The driver hits every pothole in the road before pulling into a field. They let me out. I crush my cig, using the moment of freedom to grind the cherry into the green grass. I’m not manhandled, but the brusque movement of my escorts suggests I’m expected to follow the officers.

The sight of wooden box after wooden box being dragged from the barn makes me want to cry. Uniformed men outside smash case after case labeled “Perfect Maple Syrup,” and their acts are the true crime. Hard rum vapors hover in the air, wafting from the growing pile of shattered glass and growing pond of brown liquid soaking into the ground.

My escorts bring me to the man in charge.

His suit gives away that he is no patrolman. I can’t get over the paisley print stitched into his blue silk tie. His tie reveals his talents if a person knows what the symbols mean. He’s human, and human mages are a dying breed. Mages have always been feared. Hell, they used to be burned for heresy.

I light another cig.

“We found a body.”

Now, a body does pique my interest. Bodies are to be expected when rumrunners are raided, but not always. Most middlemen bootleggers surrender, and the lawyers have them out on bail within twenty-four hours. But other than drinking the product, I’ve nothing to do with such nefariousness. Anyway, I don’t deal with stiffs. They tend to skip out on the check.

 “Agent Edgeangel, since when does the Justice Bureau’s Mage Division enforce the National Prohibition Act?” I speak with disdain, mostly because of the smell. Magic stinks worse than the wafts of spilt rye.

 “Sirgrus…Blackmane.” He bites off my clan name as if it’s tough, overcooked meat. “Magic crimes are on a downward trend since the end of the war. Drinking-related crimes are rising.”

When you pass a pointless law to help those returning from war to curb their drinking, you create more criminals. The Great War wielded the tools of men over ancient mysticism. Europa suffered, centuries of culture was decimated, and magic failed to restore the old ways. This surly baboon won’t admit mages of any race are going extinct. But I’m here about a dead body, not a dead culture. I puff a series of smoke rings, contemplating how best to remind him wizardry is obsolete. “The trenches gutted the ancient countryside, destroying the old ways. No magic will ever bring it back.”

Edgeangel wags a finger toward the silver rune-etched beads laced into my beard’s braids—a long-standing dwarf superstition. Some claim the runes have a charmed origin. “The technology of men rules the world now. But I didn’t ask you here to discuss the diminution of the old ways.”

“I figured not.” I stand next to the classy G-man. Even on a government salary, his suit is tailored. Mage-users are elitists. I’m not a fan. Mages failed us in Europa.

The G-man gazes down his long nose at me.

Not because of my height. Dwarf is a species, not a size. I reach a stature of five feet, without the fedora.

Edgeangel’s blue eyes reveal his distaste for me. Or perhaps he just thinks all non-mages are beneath him. I don’t need the gift of clairvoyance to understand his assignment was no career builder. Rum-running busting is a job for the common officer, not a master of the Dark Arts.

Agent Edgeangel marches past the men carting case after case of booze from the barrelhouse. They must smash it here onsite. Somehow, if they don’t, it never arrives to be booked into evidence. Another reason the lawyers get the minions out on bail so fast: no proof.

We continue past a paddy wagon. The shackled men ignore me.

In a back room of the barn—maybe for tools or tack storage—a white sheet shrouds a human figure. The corpse isn’t wide enough to be a dwarf. I had thought maybe a dwarf crossed the line to work outside the Quarter, which might’ve explained my presence here. Edgeangel might have supposed I knew a dwarf. Men always think dwarves know each other. We all look alike to them.

A red bloom of blood is centered over the forehead. Edgeangel kneels, gripping the corner of the blanket. “Prepare yourself.”

I’ve seen dead bodies before. Dead ones don’t disturb me like some of the living. I crush out my cig.

My beard braids can’t hide my gaping mouth or my right hand, which drops to my side in search of my axe.

I know him—this human man. We chewed the same earth in the war and partnered afterward at the detective agency. Why in Thorin’s Beard is his blood all over the floor in an illegal whisky barrelhouse?

Rye whisky—the good stuff.

I hold back the impulse to open one of the jugs of “maple syrup” and guzzle half to block out the gut-wrenching pain of losing someone who’d shared the darkest experiences of my soul. But no—I’m not about to expose my pain before this wizard.

“His face is a bit of a mess,” Edgeangel says.

His nose is broken. No other signs of a beating, but he wasn’t given time to bruise before death. “They improved on his looks,” I joke. Dwarves and humans normally don’t bond, but war changes people. Mason was my partner. Our names are painted together on the door of our office.

“You two working a case?” Edgeangel asks, all business.

Not that I know about. Our bank account is drier than the desert. “Nothing.” I crouch on my hams.

“What are you doing?”

“Checking his pockets.”

“Tampering with evidence.”

“My partner’s dead. I plan to find out why. Can’t do any investigating without clues.”

Edgeangel nods reluctantly.

I reach into my dead partner’s coat pocket and fish out a few items: his wallet, a penknife, his wedding ring and a black matchbook from The Dark-Elf. I palm the matches—a possible clue; humans aren’t welcome in the Quarter’s most popular nightclub.

“He must have caught a case. Or someone thought he did,” Edgeangel muses. “Maybe he learned a little too much.”

“According to his wife, she claims he knows too little about too much.”

“Don’t all wives think that?” Edgeangel hints he might have a sense of humor.

Not the way I want to start this week. “Do that magic trick. Show us what he last saw.”

“I’m not a necromancer.”

“Magic’s magic.”

Edgeangel drops the sheet, pointing a finger in my face. “Listen, dwarf, I did you a solid.”

He did, but only for his career. He locks in a raid with enough barrels of rum, and he gets to go back to Magical Misconducts.

He asks, “You own a heater?”

“Don’t have much use for one. Got my fill firing several varieties of weapons the war.” No reason not to sing. “Got two in the safe at the office. Even got a little white card says I can carry.”

“.38 caliber?”

I eye the forehead of my dead partner. Blood escapes, only to pool around his head. That means he was shot right here. The hole in the skull is right for a .38-caliber bullet. Don’t need some fancy medical expert to tell me as much—again, the war. Some of those poor boys bleeding in the trenches could have been diagram posters for bullet caliber sizes. “You want to see ’em? No squawks from me, wizard. Long as you got a warrant.” Hell, as far as I know, it was from our .38. Mason could’ve been carrying it, and one of those men outside could have taken it from him.

“Take it easy. I wouldn’t allow you to check him if I thought you did it. None of them outside had a .38-caliber pistol.”

I stand, the perfect picture of control. Control is not stomping my dead partner’s already maimed face for leaving me in a mess. “Did you glamour them?”

“You know the law.”

I tug on a beard braid. “This will be your only chance to question them. Likely, you’ll never even get real names on an arrest report.” The system favors the criminal.

I step past Edgeangel to take a gander into the barn. The coppers have yet to drain a fourth of the liquor stores. Only one organization could stash this much booze in one location. I wonder if the G-man knows this observation connects with the matchbook clue.

Dew melts from the field, which is now a makeshift parking lot. Five buckets belong to the coppers—all new cars painted with fresh stars on the doors. Three more trucks with flat wooden beds for hauling barrels might be the bootleggers’. Then there’s the coupe I rode in and the paddy wagon. A final pair of taillights peeks out from the far side of the barn.

Forced to stand along the outside of the wagon, seven men manacled to each other sneer at my approach. I rub my jowl, giving my best angry dwarf eyes. They wouldn’t speak to me even if I beat on them.

As Agent Edgeangel strolls past each man, he raises his right hand. It glows a baby blue. “Did you plug the man inside?”

“You can’t use magic to search us!”

The goon next to the goon who spoke digs his elbow into his ribs as a reminder that if he shuts his yap, they will all be back on the streets by lunch.

One of the young officers whaps the elbow-throwing goon in the gut with his nutcracker. A gentle reminder that beating down suspects is the copper’s job.

What Edgeangel said is true. No court allows magic-obtained admissions of guilt. That said, I’m not the courts.

Edgeangel signals the uniformed officers to cart the men off. “None of them did it.”

My face must match my red hair. I could still beat it out of one of them. I’ll thump the protester first since I lack a rubber hose. They know who did it: their boss—the most powerful being in the city, which makes my job difficult. The death of my partner cuts my access to half the suspects in the city. Dwarves aren’t relegated to the demihuman Quarters, but we stand out in the human section of the city. It was the second reason for our partnership. A man teamed with a dwarf could go anywhere in the city.

“We’ll find his killer, Sirgrus,” Edgeangel says.

“It’s a human-on-human crime. I’m sure it will be a top priority.”

“If you learn he was on a case, you call my office.” He waves a hand as if performing a fancy card trick.

I snatch his business card that appears out of thin air. Mages, too arrogant for their own good. No one is going to solve Craig Mason’s murder unless I do it. In the old days, before medical examinations, I’d have stood over him, drawn my knife and cut my arm to allow drops of blood to cement my oath. Today’s coppers would target a dwarf as the shooter if I perform the rite now. “I’ll check with Rhoda.”

“You still working with that one? Fairies are going to demand more money along with the right to vote. They’ll unionize. Go get yourself a human woman to push your papers.”

No self-respecting human woman would work in the Quarter, even if it is right across the street from the Human Sector.

Chapter 2: Fairies and Follies

I pause outside our office door, recalling the proud moment Mason and I hung out our shingle. Two war buddies, home alive and forming the dream partnership. We opened our office on the border of the Human Sector and the Open Quarter of the city.

I flip the light switch. Nothing.

Hovering in the dark, a foot or so off the floor so her green, feline eyes meet mine, is Rhoda, thin as a rail. Fairy women have gotten taller over the generations but remain thin, so their papery wings support their weight, unlike the males, who are smaller and have pug noses to match their fat bodies. Giving fae the right to vote brings them into the public eye; they’re the last faction of magical creatures to be granted citizenship by the Constitution. She doesn’t sport the typical fae flower blossom-cut dress. Instead, Rhoda’s in a business suit. Human clients feel more at ease with her conforming to their dress styles. “I didn’t pay the bill this month…or last month. And before you growl at me, Dwarfy, you haven’t given me jack in three months.”

“Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?”

She flutters like a feather to her desk. Too much weight and those tiny wings would lack any lift. “Who’s going to answer this phone that never rings?”

“Not me. I’m going to find a hole and drink.” Not because of Mason’s death alone; it’s necessary for me to sleep.

“What do you want me to tell Mason when he shows up?”

“The only way he’ll be in will be at the hands of a necromancer with a Ouija board.”

“You mean he’s dead?” Fairies usually sport happy, childlike faces, but Rhoda’s melts into a frown.

I drive in the last nail. “Kicked off. Expired. Pushing up the daisies.”

“What happened?”

“He was shot.” I hang my fedora on the coatrack. “Was he working on a case?”

“No.” She shuffles some blank papers.

“Take the day off.” I slip from my trench coat.

“But Sirgrus, you’ve got a woman waiting in your office.”


“As the day is long, Dwarfy.” Her smile returns.

I drum my fingers on the corner of her desk, then examine my fingertips. One problem with having a fairy secretary is that they don’t dust. Or maybe I don’t spend enough time in my office. “Wait until I’ve spoken to her and she leaves. If she isn’t a case, take the day off, unless you figure out what case Mason was working on.”

Freshly dead partner or not, I need income.

The human woman has gams that reach the top floor, and while seated, her skirt exposes their well-defined curves.

If I were human, this hoofer would twist my dingus. Only I’m not. As a dwarf, I prefer my ladies with a bit more body hair. Dwarves are funny in that manner. It’s why it was easier to employ a fairy secretary for our office over a human woman. I’m not interested, and a fae can resist Mason’s charm. Besides making a killer cup of joe, humans enjoy her Dumb Dora routine. And she was cheap. Fairy salaries are manageable, and they appeal to both human and demihuman clients. But now that they’ve won the right to vote, they’ll demand higher wages…and health insurance.

“You’re not detective Mason.” The woman has a pleasing elevator voice.

“I’m sorry, Miss…?”

“Mildred.” She holds out her hand.

I shake it, protecting the daintiness. “Mildred. I wasn’t informed of this appointment.” I bet I know why. Mason wouldn’t plan to speak long—while she was vertical.

She flutters her long eyelashes and purses her red lips. This human kitten should know her wiles have little effect on a dwarf. We just aren’t wired for lack of stoutness in a mate.

“I didn’t have an appointment. I was hoping to speak with Detective Mason only. No offenses, but I wanted a human. I know Craig from the club.”

Already on a first name basis.

Mildred looks down, opening her purse. No rings on her fingers. She removes butcher paper folded into a sleeve. “I know Craig expects expenses up front.”

From the size and shape, I guess a wad of bills lay inside. Only one way a dame with her looks makes that kind of cabbage without a rich husband.

I take my seat. Even if I can’t convince her to allow me to take her case, I’ve got to know what she wanted Mason to investigate.

Her eyes flicker above me. I know what caught her attention. It’s not a trophy.

Mounted on the wall behind my desk is my double-bladed axe. I guess most find intimidating. If it wasn’t a family heirloom, I’d toss it in the river. A human must wield it with two hands. The handle is long enough for a double grip, but a stalwart dwarf needs only one paw on it to cleave an orc skull. I mastered the technique in the Great War. Many long days in the trenches, shivering cold and avoiding the mustard, I honed the edge. Days of mud prevented our rifles from firing. The orcs brought down many a human with crossbows when gunpowder was too wet to fire. Grandfather’s chain mail deflected the poison bolt tips as the family axe took forty-three heads.

“What did you want Mason to investigate?”

“My sister’s suicide.” She can’t add fast enough, “Only I know she didn’t kill herself.”

Hm. Dead sister. Apparent connection to Mason. Dead Mason.

Bring on the waterworks. Dames like this cry at the drop of a hat. Family never likes to admit a loved one chose to end it.

“What makes you think she was murdered?”

Mildred’s eyes flick about the room. “Like I said, I was hoping to talk to Craig about this.”

“Mildred, I just identified my partner’s body.”

“He’s dead?” It’s impossible to tell when a woman’s grief is genuine or if it’s just a convincing show to reel in a man’s sympathies. This chippie is good, but I’d bet the light bill that her distress is because she needed a detective fast and she believed Mason was the only game in town. Now he’s dead. Could be her sister’s mystery death might be at the heart of his murder.

“Tell me of your suspicions.”

She’s more broken up over a weasel she met at the club than a person should be. She clears a catch in her throat. “I need a drink.”

Don’t we all. Time for my charm. “What would you prefer?”

“A Rum Collins.”

A woman of sophistication, or she desires to appear as such.

“I’m fresh out of club soda.” It’s an office, not a nightclub. What kind of dame did Mason hook me to?

“A Scotch Mist then.” Her purr flutters with uneasiness.

If she can hold up under that kind of drink, I’m not going to get much out of her except what she wants me to know. I unlock the bottom drawer of my desk, pulling out the only item inside—liquor. The glasses are clean and even lack fairy dust. I slosh in some brown liquid. Not scotch. “I’ve got whisky.”

Her trembling fingers wrap around the glass, and she downs the shot better than most men I served with in the Army. “My sister was a dancer.”

If her legs matched Mildred’s, I bet so. I may not be attracted to human women, but hasn’t gotten any easier to not notice the shape of them. I lock the bottle back in the drawer.

“She was hired to work at The Dark-Elf.”

Would’ve gotten no odds at the track on that piece of information. The matchbook, Mildred’s legs and the fact that she approached the only detective agency with both human and demihumans connections… “The largest nightclub in the Open Quarter. She was human?” Now I’m confused.

“Many demihumans species enjoy the human female. They paid big bucks to watch her dance and sing.” Mildred dabbed her eyes with a lace handkerchief.

And that’s not all they pay for. The Dark-Elf has an upstanding, no-longer-serving-liquor area that proper ladies frequent. The speakeasy below the main floor is where anything you want to pay for happens. I didn’t know it had expanded to include human dames.

“Doris was earning plenty and would have been able to abandon the nightclub lifestyle after a few months with a nice chunk of dough. And she was seeing…someone. Someone who wanted to be with her too.” She dots her kerchief under her dry eyes. “She would not kill herself.”

She might. Money may have been rolling in for her, but I need not guess what she was forced to do to earn it backstage.

“I’ll investigate Doris’s passing if you’d like me to pursue it?” I ignore the sound of the outer office door opening. Whoever enters will have to deal with Rhoda. A muffled male voice filters in from the front room.

Mildred places the butcher paper package on the desk. “When I said ‘dough,’ it was only part of the reason she took such a job. See, we have a sick mother, and she needs a surgery.”

The sick mother routine. The prettier they are, the sicker the mother.

“Her death was ruled a suicide, and the insurance won’t pay out. You prove it was murder, and I’ll have the money to help my poor mother.”

All this smells worse than a bugbear in a bait shop. I open the butcher paper, removing six Jacksons. Sixty dollars should cover any expenses. Handing her back the stack of bills, I fail to inform her she has more than enough bread to cure three mothers. “I’ll investigate The Dark-Elf. You come back in tomorrow. If it appears your suspicions have merit, I’ll take the case and your money. If not, this will cover my retainer.” I need the whole roll, but I won’t screw her like Mason would’ve.

“You’re an honorable dwarf,” she states, as if this isn’t true of all dwarves. She isn’t uncomfortable around me, so she’s dealt with demihumans before. “Do you know who killed Craig?”

“Yeah. Someone with a heater.” I escort her out of the agency. After closing the door behind her, and before I can ask Rhoda who else dropped in, I note the backward letters imprinted on the glass. “Rhoda.” I place two Federal bank notes on her desk. “Get the power back on. And buy yourself a black dress for the funeral. I’ve got to tell his wife.” I slide into my coat.

“You take her case?”

I reach for my fedora. “I said I’d investigate if there was a case. Get Mason’s name off the door. Did I hear the door?”

“You and he each had a package delivered.” She pats two small, wrapped parcels I could cup in my palm.

I snatch the first one. It’s Mason’s, but it’s the ink I’m concerned with. The name on the return address is that of our Army lieutenant during the war. Don’t know what or why he would send us anything. Now is not the time to be dealing with him.

I take each small box back to my office, place them on my desk and turn to the wall to move the axe blade aside. I handle the heft with ease, but both Mason and I knew that a thief likely would not. Behind the weapon we hid a wall safe. I turn the knob, stopping on the numbers of the date we founded the detective agency—the only date we could agree on. Not the date we opened, but the one on which we agreed to partner.

I sift through the papers. None of the documents are life insurance. I toss them back inside and reach into the far back. My fingers brush metal, and I pull out both revolvers so I can inspect them in the daylight. I sniff the cylinders. They need oil, but they have not been fired recently, nor are they loaded.

I return them to the back of the safe. I’ll clean them later, but not now. Fresh oil might raise an eyebrow with Edgeangel, and he will be difficult enough to operate around. I give the dial a spin, scrambling the combination. Right above the wheel is a dwarf rune. Magic could open it, but it would melt the internal contents.

I unlock the bottom desk drawer and ignore the cheap bottle I keep for clients, as well as the glasses, and just swill the liquor from my private stash—Halfling Mill’s Finest Bourbon. Now those little folks know how to brew. I return the bottle, drop in the packages and lock the drawer.

Seven of my rifle platoon crawled out of the trenches alive. Now we are six, and anything the lieutenant sent can wait until later.

Chapter 3: One On The Way

“Glad the bastard’s dead.”

Elyse Mason fumes as she struggles to keep eggs separate from one another in an iron skillet with a spatula wielded with her free hand. Ready to pop with her next baby, her belly sticks out past her tiny feet. The faded slip she wears was meant for a thin woman, and as pregnant as she is, it only reaches her knees. The well-worn garment must be something Mason bought for her before the war. Even as much of the city prospers, most people lack funds for an extra set of clothes, or in her case, a chance to shop for some that fit.

She busts the yolks, scrambling the yellow into the white, giving up on sunny-side up eggs. The child, not quite toddling age, propped on her side like a jockey hanging sideways across her belly, reaches for the stove. A barefoot toddler holds tight to her stubby leg, peeking one eye at me. I give the kid a wink.

Oversized rolling curlers hold Elyse’s matted hair to the top of her head, and a cigarette with two inches of ash about to drop hangs from her lip. I smell the eggs. Burnt bacon. The baby needs a fresh diaper. There’s no bread or muffins, and she doesn’t strike me as the type to bake cookies for kiddos, but vanilla lingers in the kitchen.


It takes everything I have not to leap from my chair at the first bang. It wasn’t even loud. I successfully suppress how much it startled me. The largest boy strikes the table again while screaming “Bang, bang!” A long stick serves as his weapon.

“Die, you bloody orc!” He races around the table. Faux rage flares in his eyes.

The next-sized child clutches her chest and contorts into an agonizing death pose. “You got me, you filthy human.” She collapses faux dead on the unswept floor.

Another boy belts a gravely. “You’ll never win.”

My mouth dries. I need a drink. I ball my left hand into a fist to hide the quiver. I’d settle for my pipe. No orc sounds like the noise the child creates. They wouldn’t be playing this game if they’d known a half hour in the trenches.

“Don’t like kids?” Elyse drops the cigarette ash into the metal waste can before it crumbles to the floor.

I hate that she saw me jump. Dwarves fear nothing—except for a little kid with a stick.

“Craig was jumpy after he got back. The nights he was home and not on a case, he tossed and turned. Sweated until the mattress was soaked. He never did that before the war.” She places the child in her arms in a high chair.

The boy pretending to be the orc rises from the dead, and the siblings chase each other again. The back of my eyes throb with each new “Bang, bang.”

“Hard to get used to a soft downy bed after a year of sleeping on rocks in the mud.” I’m not here to talk about the war. Being startled was enough. I’m not about to look even weaker by speaking on my time in Europa. Warriors and Orcs is just a game most kids play, not understanding there are places where children are forced to march into a minefield, or that where the forces fall, they don’t rise.

“You were his partner even in the war. You know he was a cheating bastard?” She wags the spatula at me. “Tell me you didn’t know.” Bits of egg fling from the kitchen utensil.

I don’t want to answer. “When we weren’t on a case, I assumed he came home to you. He doted on you and his kids.” It’s a lie, and it turns out, his kids might make me change my mind about orcs being the worst creatures on the planet. I knew Mason had children, but not this many. Six. Wait, is that counting the bun in the oven? Plus, there’s the older girl—Evelyn Rose—the product of the shotgun wedding. There should be a gap in the children’s ages for the two years we were in Europa. A small one, at least, since Mason had leave just before we shipped out.

Before meeting her husband, Elyse must have been a Sheba. I bet he didn’t take a week to deflower her, and the rest is history. Based on this room full of kids, she’s highly fertile.

“I take it there’s no money?” Elyse stirs the eggs. “He probably spent it on one of those floozies at The Dark-Elf.”

I missed what she mumbles afterword. The kid in the high chair beats time with his fists on the wooden tray.

Not that I know of. I don’t know how he would have paid a life insurance policy when we haven’t had a case in months. Wyvern manure. I don’t know how he bought this child army food. Were there seven? The missing girl makes eight? They move so fast I can’t count. I feel for Elyse. No one is going to provide for this tribe. “I’ll check with Rhoda, but I don’t think we have insurance papers.”

I know I don’t, but insurance is a human racket. Gamble on an accident that may never happen? Death, sure, but we all die, which is why we should be allowed to drink and be merry.

“You expect me to believe you’ve got no income? He was bringing home so much cash this last month. Said you guys were swamped with cases. It was why he was never home. He didn’t sleep in my bed once. I’ve got a few hundred to last, but I would have thought he’d have policies paid up.” She scrapes the scrambled eggs onto three plates. “Kids!”

The two boys and one girl racing around the table leap into chairs, grabbing forks ready to shovel grub. At some point, Elyse must’ve swapped one baby for another, and now the one that had been clamped to her ankle is in the high chair, and the smaller one is back on her hip. When did she do that?

I draw my fingers through my beard. I need to tighten one of the braids. Might let one of the sporting girls do it for me. Mason was bringing home cash money, yet we’ve had no cases in two months. Was he working on the side? If we had folded, it would have ruined his cover. What was he involved with that he couldn’t tell me? “Did he say anything about his last case?”

“You know that was against agency rules.” She slams each plate on the table. “He never spoke about work. He never spoke about you. The war. Anything. He just came home, impregnated me, showered and was back on the job. He was all about being on the job.”

No matter what I witnessed in the trenches, nothing was as dark as the eyes of Mason’s pregnant wife in this moment.

She waves her free arm at the pictures on the wall. The eldest daughter is there, the one that prompted the shotgun wedding. She clearly isn’t home. Is she at school? Is it time for school? Better she isn’t in this madhouse.

“Eat!” Elyse slams the kid on her hip into an empty high chair.

I would’ve cried from the mistreatment, but the baby doesn’t flinch.

I can not get out of there fast enough. And here I thought consoling a crying woman would’ve ruined my day. Elyse hated Mason. I spent a year in the trenches with him; I get it. And yet, they had more than a half dozen kids. Before the war, humans believed a woman’s place was in the home. Elyse was forced into that role, and now she’s stuck there with too many children. Not much I can do for her but uncover any money she can use to feed her babies.

Best I check out The Dark-Elf. Retrace Mason’s steps. Find out if he’s given me the Chinese squeeze—giving her hundreds of dollars and not paying the office electric bill.

If Mason wasn’t dead, I’d have to kill him. After all we’d been through, he was chiseling me.

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