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Lieutenant Arkham. Elves and Bullets

Alessio Lanterna

Acheron Books n.3

Editorial Director: Adriano Barone

English editing by Max Booth III

Translation from Italian by Kate Mitchell

Cover by Antonio De Luca

Ebook Publishing by Matteo Poropat

ISBN epub: 9788899216108

ISBN mobi: 9788899216122

Copyright © 2014 Acheron Books

All rights reserved

Acheron Books – www.acheronbooks.com

Alessio Lanterna

Lieutenant Arkham

Elves and Bullets

Last night, a dot in the middle of four zeros

I bang the boot of the car shut and light myself a cigarette. The smoke drifts away into the oily night of Nectropis. Thick, rank, sticky city air, it snakes into your lungs every single fucking day, if there’s any point in using that term to describe a period of twenty-four hours during which the sun barely glimmers for little more than the length of a decent fuck.

I take a deep breath of poison. After all, when you find two idiots and a cop, dead in a nicked aviomobile and twenty kilos of special stout in the boot, worrying about the long-term oncological risks is just about on the same level as wondering what excuse to make to the surgeon who’s going to have to stitch your backside back together while you’re about to be raped by an entire male basketball team.

Not even forty yet, it’s not like I can say that I’m close to retirement, or anything. No wife, no children, a mother who hits the bottle so much she doesn’t even realise who or what crosses the threshold of her own home. And the Brunette would have let someone else bang her. Fact. Shit, it all sounds a bit pathetic put like that. But, at the end of the day, I nearly screwed over one of the biggest bigshots in Nectropis, along with his entire family of tie-wearing arseholes. Not bad as a finale. Pity no one would have lived to tell the tale.

The cigarette butt flies straight into a puddle. A short hiss. At this point there’s no use asking myself If I’m sure I want to do it. Even if I wanted to ask myself this moronic question, my three dead friends would quickly remind me there’s no going back.

Either me, or that immortal bastard with rabbit ears and the rest of the gang in one go. I’d give myself odds of sixty to one. If I weren’t the bookie, obviously. After my last cigarette, the only thing left to do is knock back the last dregs of whiskey, rake my hand through my hair, sit in the car and think, soaring towards one of the highest spires in the city, about how the hell it came to this.

Just like any other Wednesday

It’s raining. What a surprise. On the pavement in front of the ramp there’s a gathering of lower-class hookers, they’re taking full advantage of the sluggish traffic and putting their goods on display in the sodium yellow from the few street lights that still work. They cross the traffic lanes and try to pick up drivers, oblivious to the rain. The Seventh Level, to hell with it, nothing but a revolting cesspool. A small greenish figure wrapped up in filthy rags leaps onto the bonnet brandishing a windscreen wiper which is far dirtier than any vaguely transparent windscreen. One horizontal pointy ear and half an ear like a cone, heading north like an antenna abortion.

Fucking gremlins. Only such a parasite would be dumb enough to try and clean car windscreens in the pouring rain after washing fourteen other levels. According to scientists, it’s living proof of a demonic invasion that took place about a thousand years ago. Common mortals call it the Failed Apocalypse. Their genetic code is totally different to that of any other life form on the planet. As far as I’m concerned, they’re no better than rats—in fact, they churn out sprogs at about the same rate; about the Apocalypse, the Seventh Level seriously questions the theory that it failed. Without even so much as glancing down.

Motioning to the filth to get the hell off my car is utterly in vain. Worse, it starts dirtying up the windscreen with that shit-spreader in its hand. It’s gone too far. Suddenly I swerve onto the hard shoulder, the local streetwalkers are thrown into a panic, prancing away and cursing in my general direction, the gremlin hits the windscreen. So I slam on the brakes. The rag bag rolls a few metres, but it’s not dead, dammit. It gets up and hauls itself away, melting into the infinite number of cracks in the city. I’d mow it down but I wouldn’t want to damage the car.

A siren, it’s directed at me. The metropolitan police is incredibly efficient when it’s totally pointless. They pull up behind my car and one of the two officers approaches. Unbe-fucking-lievable, the town council is broke again and patrol cars station themselves near the ramps so they can slap a fine on anyone who jumps the queue.

A knock on the windscreen.

Sir, this lane is reserved for emergency vehicles...

I press my ID badge against the window, right in front of his nose.

Oh...I’m sorry...—a gulp—Lieutenant, sir.

He races off to his car like he’s just seen Satan and, before I can even switch the ignition on, he’s vanished. The effect a Federal Guard badge has on cops is just amazing. I used to be a cop, when I was young, I remember it clearly: ‘Whatever it is you see, if the Guard is there, just flee’.

Everything is easier in the emergency lane. All you have to do is give the hookers time to get out of the way. I should have got into this lane straightaway, even though I’m not on duty.

It takes me just ten minutes to get to the address I was given. A grimy alley in front of Godur restaurant. A small huddle of curious onlookers practically crowding on top of each other tells me this is the right place. I double park, on double yellow lines.

Out of the fucking way, lowlife, I say to a half-ogre. He’s got a face that would make even a boss-eyed sow throw up and he’s blocking my way. He turns round, with a menacing air, but cools down pretty damn quick when he sees my badge. dropping his fists, he moves off. This scene is repeated a few more times, with variations on the theme, until I reach the police cordon. Luckily it’s a narrow, dead end street, otherwise the two officers would have had problems holding back the rabble. I just vaguely wave my badge around to get past.

A third guy in a dark raincoat, about twenty-five, moves away from the body and comes towards me.

Hello. Excuse me, but who—

What have we got here? I cut him off, without even looking at him. My complete attention is on the corpse, and I start to go towards it. The young kid stands in front, blocking the way. He must be new. I can smell the fear coming off the two guards without even sniffing the air, which, incidentally, reeks of the sickly stink of Godur takeaways.

I asked who you are. This area is—

Lieutenant Arkham, Federal Guard, organised crime department. I asked you what we have here.

In the end, I bestow one of my tried-and-tested harsh stares on him. It hits the mark, they always do. However, this kid is not your average sprog and he takes it on the chin, though with the slightest of squirms. He’s good-looking, as far as I can tell, not that I’m an expert on fellas, deep blue eyes and a lady-killer goatee, neatly-trimmed. Bet the ladies in his neighbourhood adore him.

Elf, apparent age—

Elf?

Yep.

Instinctively, I glance around. A filthy alley in the Seventh. Holy crap, what’s an elf doing here? I get closer and lean over her. She’s very slight, delicate embroidered silk clothes, probably masterpieces by some giant spider who inadvertently became a star of haute couture. Girlish breasts, manicured nails.

Don’t touch! We’re waiting for forensics!

Good luck. Have you brought a tent?

But—

How long have you been on the force?

Eight months.

A premature birth.

Naturally her face is breathtakingly beautiful. I think an elf’s pointy ears are just ludicrous in principle—that’s where the nicknames ‘asses’ and ‘rabbits’ come from—but the overall effect is stunning. Her green, slanting eyes are staring wide. Copper-coloured hair, even though some silver strands interrupt the harmony. Her lips are parted in sheer terror. The top of her skull is smashed in. Her curls, bone and grey matter are all fatally mashed up together. Leaving this detail aside and after a quick warm-through in the microwave, this corpse would make even the most God-fearing of men discover the joys of necrophilia.

Apparent age, eight hundred, I continue.

Eight hundred? Are you sure? I would have estimated—

I couldn’t care less. I definitely know more about Elves than you do, boy. Trust me.

"I do have a name, Lieutenant."

Oh really.

"Inspector Nohl Cohl."

Excellent, boy. Say it out loud now and then, so you don’t forget it.

I close my eyes and breathe in, concentrating.

Lieutenant?

"Shut up."

A smattering of words, in an ancient language, murmured. A Na gesture. I open my eyes again and look beyond the thin shroud which separates the land of the living from the torment of spectres. Shadows from beyond the grave seem to chase each other, snapping at heels, until they become aware of me. They freeze, possibly surprised, maybe annoyed. They close in on me, the intruder against the universal object of vendetta. My survival instinct sets off all the innate alarm bells in every single fibre of my being, trying to persuade me to get the hell out. I don’t belong here. For a second I catch sight of a humanoid outline, curled up like a foetus, wailing, desperately wailing—but it’s just a vague silhouette, a ghost which has been searching for peace for so long that it is almost indiscernible from the shadows. A second Na gesture brings the spell to a close—blinking rapidly, I find myself once again in the filth-ridden alley in the land of the living. Despite everything, its much more preferable to its parallel beyond the grave. Need a scotch.

Was that...magic?

I take a moment or so to catch my breath.

She didn’t die here.

How can you be so sure?

Did you find spatters of blood? Globs of brain stuck to the walls?

It’s pouring down!

Not over there it isn’t, I reply, pointing to an area of wall covered by a ledge a bit higher up, right behind the corpse. If a blow to the head had cracked her skull open here, there would be clear signs. Nohl comes closer, while I remain crouched, repeating to myself that it’s just the usual beyond-the-grave stuff, that there’s nothing to be afraid of, that I’ve already seen it a hundred times before—rummaging around in my pocket, in search of a cigarette. It’s finished, I repeat to myself, lighting up with trembling fingers.

There’s nothing there, says Nohl, doubtfully. Then adds, as if making excuses, Anyway, this is a job for forensics.

Dickhead kid.

Have you already talked to the people at Godur?

No, I was waiting for forensics and crime scene back-up.

Even though I’ve still got the shakes, the kid still manages to make me laugh.

With you around, delinquents can work until they die of natural causes, I say, while my words are drowned out by the rain which is coming down harder.

What?

"Go to the takeaway!" I yell at him, adding an exasperated fuck under my breath. I’ll join you in a second.

Cohl patently disapproves of my working style, but he’s got no choice but to set off muttering some half-baked curse under his breath. I finish my smoke sheltered by the building and stare at the corpse while trying to block the trembling.

Five minutes later I go into the ogre restaurant, trying not to vomit at the appalling stench. Cohl treats me to some more laughs, standing at the counter, he’s trying to talk to the cook, half-blood human-swine, while holding a handkerchief under his nose, and pathetically miming the location of the alley with his free hand.

D-i-d y-o-u s-e-e…see, understand? With your eyes… - he says, pointing at his eyes.

The half-ogre shakes her head to say she doesn’t understand. If I weren’t gripped by nausea, I would stay to enjoy the show. Moving amongst the keen gazes of the patrons, I recognise some of them from the crowd of vultures around the body. The murder was probably good for business. I get to the counter and Cohl turns to face me.

It’s hopeless, she doesn’t understand a word. Maybe one of the customers can translate…

Turning towards the cook, I show her my badge. Show me your permit, otherwise I’ll close this sewer down.

Oddly, she gets the message instantly, and after a quick trip into the back, she returns, triumphantly waving the permit in the air.

Shit, it’s above board. Plan B.

I take the permit, approach the patrons and, unleashing my rudimentary Ogrese, I inform them that the takeaway will be temporarily closed for a health inspection, and invite them to make their way to the exit. The cook starts banging on about having a legal permit, this only meets with my utter indifference and the Inspector’s thinly-disguised confusion. A quick squint at the permit tells me what the half-sow’s name is, Mari Eggu—human first name, an ogre’s surname.

So everythùng okay, place clean, no close! No fùne me! she yells in broken Common, transforming all the i’s, which are inexistent in the language of Ogres, into one of the eight different u’s in her language.

Leaning over the counter, I grab her by the collar, my face only a few centimetres away from her squashed snout. Oh, so now you can speak our language, eh? I push her roughly against the burners. Finally she stops screaming, and looks at me in fear.

At this point I hold the permit as though I’m about to rip it up.

No! You no do thùs! U’llugal!

If there’s one thing that does my head in, it’s a fucking half-blood telling me what I can and can’t do. I rip up the permit and throw it on the floor. Cohl flinches, but doesn’t get involved.

Now, if you just tell me what I want to know, I’ll leave and I won’t close this piss-hole down and you’ll have time to bribe someone else into giving you a new permit, which you are undoubtedly not eligible for. Alternatively, I’ll close this pit and I’ll send you down for forgery of an official document. What’s it to be, sow?

Okay, saw somethu’ng.

As I guessed from her strenuous resistance, the suspect was an ogre. Pigs are incredibly loyal to each other. Mari says she saw him dump the body in the alley about an hour before the police came on the scene. She can’t give me a description but the van was from a pest control company called Gremlicide. Grateful I can finally leave, I go without saying goodbye, with Cohl trotting alongside. When you come out of a Godur, even the suffocating atmosphere of the city feels like bracing, alpine air. A dead elf on a van from a pest control company run by ogres. It doesn’t make much sense, so far.

Did you hear what I said? Cohl says to me, raising his voice in irritation.

No, I wasn’t listening. Bet you didn’t have anything intelligent to say.

"What you did was illegal, Lieutenant. I should report you immediately! This is my jurisdiction, it’s my case and your behaviour not only jeopardises the evidence in court, but it also compromises my career!"

Finished? I won the bet. And now, shut your trap and listen to me: the investigation is all yours, lock, stock and stinking barrel. If we solve the case, all the credit will be yours and it’ll be great for your fucking career. If you think that Mari the half-sow will report me for ripping up her permit with no eye-witnesses around, then flush the dope and come back to our planet. She’ll be inside this very minute giving thanks to some ham-shaped idol that she’s still got her business.

But—

"But my arse. We needed information and we’ve got it. Now, go and get the prints off the corpse, shut the fuck up and get off my back! Move, fucking hell!"

My tirade sends him backwards into the alley as soon as I stop, stabbing my finger towards where he should go, he hurries off to the crime scene. Some passersby stop and stare.

"And what the fuck are you lot staring at? Federal Guard, move your sorry arses!"

God, when I lose it…grabbing my mobile, I call the Divination Department. For the hundredth time, I think that retracing objects using magic and transforming data into satellite coordinates would solve a lot more cases for the metropolitan police—and more quickly, too. Instead, only the Federal Guard can do it, and even then only very rarely.

So, as usual, I call Dorisa.

Arkham.

Hi, Arkham. I’m working, yes, I’ve got time to see you tonight, what kind of favour do you need?

Okay, I’ll buy you dinner. In return…a five-minute thing.

…and a few thousand crowns from taxpayers.

Oh come on, It’s not like I’m looking for a lost dog. We’re talking murder here.

All right. But I want you to take me to Fierno for dinner.

Fine. That way, as well as a few thousand crowns of taxpayers’ money, I’ll have to fork out a few hundred of my own, shit.

Go ahead!

Call a firm called Gremlicide, and get them to give you all the number plates of their vans. Tell them to make the drivers return to base immediately, then trace them and let me know immediately if anyone disobeys. Send a MetroPo team to keep the other drivers at headquarters until further orders. I’ll speak to you later about the dinner.

The elf has a name at last: Inla Lovl’Atheron. Incredibly for an ass, Inla was arrested and put on file (even though she was released straightaway) eight years previously, during one of the many violent disturbances on the streets during the Year of Revolt. Thinking about the old times always make me stroke my gun fondly.

You were wrong, Lieutenant, says Cohl, in a tone of voice that makes me want to smash his face in, she was just over three hundred years-old.

Impossible…by elf standards that would make her only little more than a girl, that doesn’t explain the grey hair.

Maybe she went prematurely grey, I don’t know. In any case, the prints match, there’s a photo, too, he says, showing me on the patrol car computer. It looks just like her. In fact, there’s no trace of grey hair.

Or winkles, I add, pointing at the screen. Impossible for them to appear on an elf in such a short space of time.

Maybe due to illness…I must admit it’s weird, though.

I go back for a closer look at the body. Just before I turn away, I catch sight of a slight tear in Inla’s sophisticated dress, over her heart. There’s a cut underneath, somewhat insignificant to the naked eye, just above her nipple.

What’s this?

"Looks like a cut.

I stare at it for a moment without saying a word and sigh. Despite the fact that rigor mortis is already setting in and stiffening the body, the flesh around the breast is still soft. By applying light pressure on the wound, the cut reveals itself to be unexpectedly deep and thin, blood trickles out of the wound that was trapped within the damaged tissues.

Incredible!

"It’s like she’s been sliced by a sheet of paper. Two to one, this is the cause of death."

Have you ever seen anything similar, Lieutenant?

No...but I know who to ask.

I take a few shots of the wound and the dress with my mobile, which suddenly starts ringing.

Lieutenant Arkham? This is Divination. It isn’t Dorisa, it must be the telephone operator. Gremlicide’s got six vans, they’re all heading back to HQ bar one, who isn’t answering the call. I’ll send you the GPS coordinates.

Thanks, the van’s only a few blocks away. I turn to the kid. "Come on, Inspector, let’s see if we can catch our suspect. With your car."

A Fiamma 1600, it still smells showroom-fresh. He lives it up, this kid. For a brief second I’m tempted to ask him who feathers his nest, but certain things are best left unsaid. Or maybe he’s simply rich. The ashtray is spotless and I grind my cigarette into it.

I don’t smoke, Lieutenant, and I would prefer it if you didn’t smoke in my car.

Nodding, I light up another. He stares at me for a moment, stunned, then shakes his head in disbelief and turns the engine on. Driving only a few blocks at five in the afternoon in rain like an impenetrable smokescreen is like being stuck in the summer exodus. The siren is completely useless at getting through traffic when there’s a bottleneck in the guts of the lower levels. So I find myself boxed in with Inspector Cohl. The first cigarette goes by in peaceful silence, broken only by the occasional cough of complaint and the sound of the window periodically going up and down to let the smoke out. Then the kid feels obliged to make small talk.

So…how come you came to my crime scene?

A tip-off. What else could I say? Not the truth, that’s for sure.

Ah. So there’s a link with organised crime, I suppose. Ogres, perhaps.

Maybe.

"Maybe if you could tell me more, we could try and crack this case together."

He’s a pain in the arse with this ‘my case’ business, the wanker.

Nohl Cohl, I say, changing the subject, doesn’t sound like a name from ‘round here.

No, in fact, I’m from Frosgaarde.

Way out East of Nectropis. This kid really doesn’t like the sun. There’s no shutting him up now.

"…Then, when I finished my training, I was posted to customs for couple of years, until I discovered a shipment of Onirò hidden inside watermelons; inside watermelons, can you believe it? They cut them open, emptied them, filled them with drugs and then they closed them up again using magic. Do you want to know how I knew something wasn’t right?"

To be perfectly honest, no.

But Cohl’s not listening anymore, he’s all wrapped up in his story.

"…So I stuck a knife in and poof! A cloud of white powder flew out, unbelievable, I nearly ate a stick of Onirò, ahahah! Course, that time was just a stroke of luck, obviously I didn’t get a promotion just for that, I’d carried out a few raids. Like, once…"

The queue is on the move. I sit and watch it for a few seconds, imagining the sheer bliss of taking the Altra and blowing his skull off, right here in the cab of his Fiamma 1600. Then, with a sigh, I light up another cigarette and think about something else while the Inspector dries his mouth out with all the bullshit he’s spewing. Thinking about it, I don’t mind the idea of meeting up with Dorisa at all. I’ve been screwing no one besides the Brunette for at least two weeks now. Fancy goods, don’t get me wrong, but you need to vary your diet once in a while to stay healthy. Sergeant Xevez, that’s what I call her when we’re fucking, is the type of woman who appears to be designed to release stress. Shit, Arkham, what’s with you? All you do is fuck everything. Money, colleagues, women, cases belonging to poor old Nohl ‘dick head’ Cohl…

Okay, here we are.

A squalid lateral opening where the cement is literally crumbling away in some places, patched up with something that vaguely resembles dark soil. Considering, though, that the nearest soil is six levels away (a quick mental calculation: nearly two hundred metres below), that stuff could be anything except soil. The green Gremlicide van is stoically still in the pouring rain, a big lifeless gremlin face is painted on the side. The windscreen wipers are motionless, and the rivulets of water on the windscreen barely reveal a shape at the wheel. Pulling out our regulation Sebans, we get out of the van.

A high-pitched scream of terror from some creature greets us. This wouldn’t be very good publicity for a pest control company if it came out that one of their vans was nearly ransacked by a tribe of tiny parasites.

We approach with our weapons aimed, in the filthy rain.

Metropolitan Police! Come out with your hands up! Cohl yells at the cab.

Nothing.

I’ll open it and you look inside, Inspector.

He nods. We move towards the door. I open it. Nohl lowers his weapon to look inside. The ogre is stock-still, his glassy eyes are locked on the rain washing down the windscreen. A needle sticks out of his right arm, which helped to wipe away another useless piece of shit a tourniquet completes the pretty picture.

Call the station…

I’m on it, answers the kid, mobile already in his hand.

I’ll look in the back.

The double doors are locked, so I go back to the cab to get the keys from the dashboard. While I’m trying to get them out, I inadvertently lean on the corpse’s arm. Something’s not right. The pig’s body is still warm, but it’s as stiff as a board.

Shit.

What is it?

He’s like a piece of wood.

Maybe he simply didn’t like dancing. Nohl can hardly keep a straight face, all pleased with himself with the jokey comeback. He had it all ready or he heard someone else say it and thought it was so damn hilarious it deserved another airing.

Too soon for rigor mortis, considering the temperature and the fact that according to the Godur ‘cook’, our pest control worker here was still alive enough to dump the body and leave no more than two hours ago. Judging by the traffic, the ogre can’t have died more than an hour ago, an hour and a half if he somehow managed to fly over the other vehicles.

I try and move the eyelids, definite proof. They’re not stiff yet.

Shit, he’s been murdered.

How can you say that? Maybe he stiffened up quicker because of the drugs.

A, it’s too soon. B, eyelids are the first part to go stiff on a dead body. You know that scene in all the films where they close the corpse’s eyes? Complete bollocks. C, this piece of shit hasn’t got one single hole in his arm, apart from the one that sent him to his maker. What the fuck do they teach the rookies in Frosgaarde, how to hunt penguins? I toss him the keys. Go get the weapon out of the back of the van, kid.

What weapon?

Oh Sweet Mary.

The blunt instrument this moron used to smash the ass’s skull when she was already dead, idiot.

Father, if I hadn’t been here, I would have filed this as a suicide case. Or, ‘accidental death caused by solid excrement falling from a great height’. Instead it’s looking more and more like a fucking conspiracy. Evidently, the God of Intrigue, the Slitherer.

The back is utterly revolting, pieces of skull everywhere. There’s a bat, too, all smeared with blood and other matter. Nohl is pale, he looks like he’s about to puke. You were right, Lieutenant Arkham.

Of course I was right. Wait in the car for your pals to get here, then let’s go. This is a red herring.

Getting into my car right after getting out of Cohl’s Fiamma is a bit like having to leave the honeymoon suite of a young, selfless model to go back to your fat old wife who doesn’t believe in hair-removal. You love her (I suppose), but, I mean, for fuck’s sake…

Well. At least I’m alone at last. I take out the envelope from the inside pocket of my raincoat and turn it over in my hands for a second or two, and think. Five thousand crowns in cash, and a note, handwritten in gold ink, stating the address of the alley where we found Inla and a promise TEN TIMES AS MUCH IF YOU TURN THE REAL CULPRIT OVER TO THE AUTHORITIES. Oh yes, it’s a very tempting offer, but what