Rubbing my eyes for what was probably the umpteenth time, I leaned back carefully in the rickety old wooden chair that was the only available seat down here in the library and let out a deep regretful sigh. I reached out and grabbed the mug on the desk, draining the last dregs of the kafe that was left in it, shuddering when I was done. “Damn, that is some bitter ass kafe!” I muttered, wiping my mouth.
“Would you like some more, Detective Jonas? I would be more than happy to go get some more kafe for you! I know that you’re very busy, trying to decipher those markings.” A chipper voice came from behind my right shoulder, and I suppressed a groan. It should be illegal to be this happy this early in the morning, I thought with a snarl of disgust, before wiping it off my face and turning to face the bearer of that upbeat attitude.
The first apprentice that Dorf had sent down last night was an Elf, and whether he held to the same prejudices a lot of his country kind did or he was just taciturn by nature, he barely said more than ten words to me the whole two hours that he was down here. I liked him; he left me alone to get the job done. When his shift had ended and it was time for the new apprentices to come on, my partner must have taken great glee in selecting the one who was standing before me, uniform pressed spotlessly clean with a big smile on her face. He knew I didn’t like her.
Her name was Trixie, and she was a species adopter, as they were calling themselves. Most regular people called them poseurs, and with good reason. Even though she had been born human, Trixie felt that deep down in her heart, she was really a half-Orc, and so she had been paying a caster to make small changes to her body –skin tone, eyes, hair and tusks so far- so she would look more like us. For fuck’s sake, half the time we didn’t want to look like us, and by doing this she not only looked absolutely ridiculous, but she made a mockery of the very real bigotry and harassment my people faced every day of our lives! Hells, she was still tiny!
At least she had gotten used to talking around the tusks, I thanked the Gods for small favors. Those first two weeks after she had it done were so annoying, I had to restrain myself from just grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking some sense into her soft little head! But, it wasn’t up to me to tell people how they should live –just as long as they didn’t break the law doing it. And, I was all too aware of how easily something like this bald-faced admiration she had for my kind could turn into burning hatred if she was mistreated; and so I kept my opinion to myself and bit my tongue a lot to keep from saying something that, while true, I knew I’d end up regretting. Some days, like when I had gotten no sleep, it was admittedly harder than others.
“Thank you Trixie, that would be most helpful. And, no matter what you may believe, not every half-Orc drinks their kafe as black as midnight, so make sure to add the cream and sugar like I asked you to, OK?” Though she turned beet red, she still nodded her assent and took the mug from me before scurrying off to the stairs. We had a steam-powered elevator, but it was faster to just use the stairway than wait for it to come all the way down here to the sub-basement.
The steam-generators that powered the station were even lower than this level, accessible only by the engineers that maintained and understood their complex functions. Give me a spell over steam-tech any day of the week, I thought. Most people didn’t like coming down here to the library, since the grey stone floor seemed to thrum in time to the generators’ pulses, like it was a heartbeat. They found it frightening, I found it soothing. And besides, since this level was closest to the generators, the lights never seemed to dim or crackle, so that was something.
Not that there was much to see with the lights anyway. The walls were originally painted a beige color, but years of cops smoking pipes or cigars while perusing the various books and tomes had stained most of the walls an ugly yellow that never truly came clean. Besides the lone desk and chair, the only other things in this room were rows upon rows of books, tomes, journals, and even a few parchments and ancient scrolls that we had ‘acquired’ in the various cases that had been solved. Even the librarian didn’t stay out here but usually hid in his office, which was barely bigger than a broom closet. Looking around, I couldn’t blame him.
Sighing once more, I turned back to the tome I had spent the last 30 minutes perusing. This was the fourth book I had read from front to back –well, skimmed mostly, since as much as I read even I’m not THAT fast a reader- and there was nothing even coming close to matching the markings that had been inscribed on the victim and the alley. The police force had a pretty extensive library from all of the casters that it had employed and were currently employing, so if it wasn’t in these books it only meant that nobody had ever encountered the like before.
Suddenly, an idea popped into my head and I sat upright, already making the corrections to compensate for how this chair seemed one good shake from falling to pieces. Back in the day, when this station had just been built, there wasn’t the “one mundane, one caster” rule, and if the police back then had encountered anything like these markings, they wouldn’t have written a book on it, they would’ve just mentioned in it their case notes. “Jackpot,” I said triumphantly.
“Good news, I take it?” I had heard Dorf’s heavy footsteps coming down the stairs, so I wasn’t surprised by him trying to sneak up on me. I turned my chair around just in time to catch how crestfallen he was at once again not being able to scare me. Deciding not to rub it in, I just nodded yes while standing up and stretching out my poor abused back before gratefully accepting my mug of kafe from him. He went on talking as I used the cup to warm up my hands. “I’m just about to go talk to the press, so I told Trixie she could go do something else and I would bring you your bitter swill. You know the kid has a crush on you, right?”
“Yeah, and I’d sooner sleep with a Goblin than a poseur,” I muttered before taking a sip of the steaming nectar of the Gods. Ah yes, sweet and creamy, just the way I liked it. “I don’t care if it has been a couple of years of riding solo, I’m not having sex with her.”
“Why not? She’s pretty enough, you know, for a girl; and she has those curves that you straight guys like. Are her breasts and her ass not big enough for you? Or do you like them slim? Come on, partner, give me something to work with.” Dorf was getting me back by watching me squirm, and his grin just kept getting wider and wider.
“Unless you want me to start asking questions about your sex life, can we just drop it? Besides, since when do you care if I play hide the salami, as it were?” I muttered bitterly.
“I don’t, but it makes you turn all interesting shades of red, so it’s fun. And anything you want to know about what Gregory and I do behind closed doors, ask away. I got nothing to hide.” My partner waggled his thick eyebrows suggestively.
“I’m aware of that,” I said drolly and Dorf let out a big barking laugh. Changing the subject, I said, “I’m about to go to the Archives, do you wanna come?”
He shuddered. “Nah, that place gives me the heebie-jeebies. You go ahead, I’m going to go face the press and try not to bite their heads off for once.”
“Good luck,” I told him, and he echoed it before stomping back up the stairs. He was going to be in a foul mood for those reporters, I thought with a savage grin. Exercising always makes him cranky. But, he had to be the one who dealt with the press, and not just because he was the senior detective on this case. Most of the reporters were human, and they all seemed to be so amazed how I could speak in complete sentences and thoughts that their questions weren’t informative or probing but condescending, and it riled me up something fierce. So, for all of our sakes (and the station’s reputation), Dorf was stuck being the spokesperson.
Putting my partner and his misery out of my mind, I went to the steam elevator and pressed the call button. I occupied my time waiting for it to arrive by savoring my kafe and trying not to fall asleep, but soon enough the bell dinged, announcing its arrival. The doors opened with a hiss of steam, revealing the operator, a small Gnome by the name of Kindor. That wasn’t his real name, but a shortened version of it that most non-Gnomes could pronounce. “What floor, Detective Jonas?” he asked, in that rolling lilt that all Gnomes had.
“The Archives, Operator Kindor,” I said, using his full title. A lot of people liked to mock the little person, but I was a firm believer in giving what you get. He always treated me with respect, and I made sure to do the same. Besides, this world reminded us at every turn that it wasn’t built for people our size –him barely coming up to 8 Hands, me with my ridiculous height- and so I found in him a kindred spirit, and I hoped that he felt the same way.
People also liked to tease Kindor about his little uniform, but unlike some of the flatfeet and detectives that worked here in this station (and yes, I’m referring to my partner), the Gnome took pride in his appearance. The uniform, a variation of our detective uniform but with cotton breeches instead of denim trousers, was pressed sharply every day that I had seen him. His white hair was always cut short with a red fez perched on top of his head, his mustache was waxed and shaped with a little curl, and his black leather shoes were always spit shined to a mirror polish.
Kindor nodded and tipped his hat to me by grabbing the fez and lifting it up slightly before turning back to his operator’s panel and finding the right combination of levers to pull to take us to the Archives. Once he did, he pulled and pushed a few until he was satisfied, and then he pushed the button to close the doors. After they had closed with a small burst of steam, we started to slowly move upwards. Since this was the only way to get there, I didn’t have a choice.
And just like Kindor, my full name wasn’t Jonas. Oh, Jonas was the name my father gave me, to help me sound more human; my mother had insisted on giving me her surname, to tie me to me Orc heritage. Like my tusks and size didn’t do that already, but I never begrudged her that choice. It’s why I still go by it today, even though the average person only knows me by Jonas or Detective. My last name is Kuurnok, which translated into Common means “shadow”. She had said it was the name of her former tribe, and so I wore it with pride.
Not sure why I had thought of my parents; hadn’t done that much in the last few years, and here I had conjured up their ghosts twice in one day. I guess this case was making me melancholy, though I’m not quite sure what the reason was for that. This reminded me of an old Elven saying: those who have passed on are never farther away than your heart. Granted, it sounded much prettier in Elven, but since right now I was so tired that the only word I could remember was the word for heart ’turath’, I wasn’t about to try and recall the exact phrase.
Kindor, like the good operator he was, kept the small talk to a minimum, and so most of the ride was done in comfortable silence; him with his own thoughts, and me digging up old memories to torture myself with. And as much as I enjoyed being around him, I was relieved when the elevator came to a shuddering halt and he pulled the lever opening the doors with their characteristic burst of steam. “The Archives, Detective Jonas.” Thanking him, I swiftly got out.