"I did it for the money and I did it for the girl.
Well, I didn't get the money and I didn't get the girl.":: Walter Neff - Double Indemnity
So I point the flintlock at the guy and that's no easy thing, big musket like that on a little gnome like me and I peer down the sight. Not many people know what it's like to stare at a man through a glass. But in those sacred moments, the whole world takes a breath and it's just you and him. I line up the shot, and I think about the girl, and--
What? That is the start. What do you want, Sheriff, my life story?
Alright, well, I'm Gniles Brody the Third that's GNILES, silent 'g'. G-N-I-L-E-S. Your boys over there in the robes got that? I'm a Risk management clerk. You've heard of Royal Gnomic Treasury, right? Well, that's me and the guys. You got a risk, we cover your back for a modest sum. We're like alchemists - 'cept we turn gold into more gold.
What? This IS the interesting bit! You have any idea how big Risk is these days? There's a growing market out there for-
Ok, Ok, you want the thing with the girl and the Necro, right? Well alright, but how about a little something to wet the whistle huh?
Thank you. Can't tell a story when you're drier than a is that water? You can't refuse a wounded man a drink, that's no way to-
Fine. Well, it all started two weeks ago. I was leaving one town, moving on to another. Just me, Bishop - that's my horse - and all the gear I can fit in the cart. It was raining. Hell, "raining" doesn't cover it. It was wet enough to drown a mermaid out there. A pretty girl tottering through all that weather was just about the last thing I expected to see. But there she was: cold, wet, and in a funk that would silence a banshee. She barely even sees me on the cart: it's not until I stand up to my towering two feet and two inches never forget those two inches, Sheriff and hollar at her that she gets her bearings.
"Need a ride?" I call down to her.
"That depends," she says, cool as you like. So I bite, and she replies:
"On whether you're just riding around scaring innocents or whether you're heading to the nearest tavern."
And like that, I know the girl speaks my language. I invite her up. Bishop don't mind a little company and I make the introductions. I fish out some rags from the back and she pats herself down a little, tells me her name's Rita. We get to talking - as usual, it's me that does most of the jabbering. Pretty soon she's got me onto the subject of Risk.
The first surprise of the evening is that she perks right up at this. Now, your average human doesn't know his Risk from his potatoes. City folk, they're a little savvier, but they can still only deal with potatoes. Intangible matters like Risk don't make many odds. It's normally your elves and your gnomes that are smart enough to see the benefit. But this girl's on it like a Night Marsh leech in Spring. She says her husband's an alchemist, and she's terrified he's going to blow himself up in some lab accident.
I'll tell you, a long ride on a rainy night has never looked as good as it did then. I've got time to fix her the works Hundred Year Life Cover, Accidental Death, Wedlock Guarantee, everything I've got. Even Philosophical Misendeavour, and that one ain't cheap.
"First thing in the morning," I says, "I'll write up your contract, take a down payment, and get you some peace of mind, Rita."
That's when I get my second surprise. She yawns, thanks me, bends over double like she's got the Whitefoot Plague and before you can say "shape-shifter", she's turned into a damn tabby cat! She hops across to the back of the cart, settles down between a trunk and a pile of linens, and falls asleep without so much as a meow.
Never trust a dame who ain't a dame. That's my advice, Sheriff. I shoulda just thrown her out first thing the next morning.
But I didn't. We stopped at the Blue Dahlia to dodge the rain and give old Bishop a rest. She slinks off into the darkness I figure, why pay for a room when you can turn into a mouse and sleep under some hay? Come morning, a sparrow lands on my table and starts pecking at my breakfast. I'm about to swat the damn thing away when she changes back into her human form. She's all doe-eyed and going on about how her husband spends more time with his weights and measures than with her. I sympathise for all I'm worth while I take down her details for the biggest deal I ever signed, breakfast could wait.
Then this look flashes across her eyes. Like a bolt of lightning. She says:
"You know, a girl could think that her husband's worth more to her dead than alive."
I give a nervous laugh, but she keeps on. She's thinking about the money, about what she could do if only her husband had some sort of accident alone in his tower. I saw what she was getting at, and I was about to walk right out of there - but she keeps going on with those doe-eyes and I find myself agreeing to head back to the Treasury, file the paper work, and meet her back at the Dahlia in two weeks. She hands over a bag of gold and like that the deal was done. She says good-bye with a kiss on the cheek and flies off into the village, leaving me standing there like some kind of petrified troll.
Now I've never cheated anyone in my life, 'cept maybe one or two that cheated me first. But the stakes here were so high, the moment so ripe, that I had to take it. What's so bad about ending one miserable life to create two happy ones?
Anyone knows that what a gnome lacks in height, he makes up for in smarts. That's no secret, so you must be wondering why in the name of the Twelve I agreed to all this. But I tell you, Sheriff, this girl got her claws in me like nothing else. Literally, at one point. You ever been with a shifter? Well, neither have I. But for the next two weeks the possibilities are all I can think about. Sure, I know that there wasn't a future there. But I spied a pretty fine present for a few nights, which is a damn sight more than I normally get.
I figured out all the little details on the way back. This far away from the Velvet Throne, no-one would be keeping an eye on me. I could off the husband with my father's rifle, then rig the lab to make it look like an accident. My father was a tinker a great one, too and he left his legacy on his little namesake. Most of the flatfoot gnomes at the Treasury have never left the vault, let alone seen the inside of a lab, so I wouldn't have to get too clever to fox them.
Here's how the gig works just so we're all clear. Anyone with life cover gets a payout to their closest kin upon their death. It's a pittance life is cheap, what can I say? But a couple of years ago, the Queen decides to encourage natural philosophy throughout the realm. The Treasury's forced to offer bigger payouts for accidents which occur in the pursuit of knowledge. Thus, Philosophical Misendeavor was born, and any fool who offs himself in the quest for wisdom gets a payout big enough to keep their family fed for years. If they could afford the premium in the first place, of course.
The genius of the job was that by mocking up the alchemist's death to look like a scientific accident, the dame gets off Scot-free, and we get a nice juicy payout. Even splitting it down the middle with Rita, I'm still sleeping in feather beds for the next twenty years.
Everything runs smoothly at the Treasury and I get back to the Dahlia a day early. Rita comes to me the next night, right on time, strolling through the tavern door and sidling up to me at the bar.
"Everything's set, sweetheart," I tell her. "Make sure he's home tomorrow night, and I'll do it."
"Thank you, Gniles." she says, working those eyes again. "I've not been able to think about anything else since you left. Will you show me the world when we're done? I want to see the Icefang Mountains, and Bluebird Falls, and-"
"Sure thing, Kid," I tell her before she gets excited. "One step at a time, alright? Now: the Treasury will take a few days to show up once you've sounded the alarm. So meet me here in six days time from tomorrow. Don't come back before."
"Make it seven days, will you Gniles? I need to arrange the funeral once the Treasury's left."
"Of course," I say. Second stupidest thing I ever said. She tells me to stay safe, keep out of sight, and gives me a kiss goodnight.
So there I am, crouching beneath a half-moon the next night, with the husband in my sights. The things a man will do for a whisper and a thousand gold coins.
The rifle sings like the world's about to end, the alchemist falls to the floor like it already has, and I'm half-way to a better place.
Hold your horses, Sheriff, 'cause that there's small beans to what's coming. You don't get far in this life with a stature like mine, so every good gnome knows a trick or two. A couple of picked locks later and I'm in the alchemist's tower and that's where I get my first feeling that something is seriously awry.
This guy was one sick alchemist.
Skeletons dangle from the ceiling, hanging from rusty butcher's hooks. Runes are carved into the floor and written on the wall in something that looks an awful lot like blood. Leather-bound books are piled high on the floor. And there, in the very centre of the room, as if the whole damn thing was built around him, is the alchemist himself. He looks like he died long before my bullet found him: gaunt like you wouldn't believe, and pale as a sheet. And if that guy's an alchemist, I tell myself, I'm a table-top dancer. I hold the mirror in front of his mouth for two good minutes something in that set-up stank, and I don't mean the gaping hole in the man's chest. Still, the glass doesn't mist up at all, so I figure he's dead enough and time's wasting.
It takes me fully ten minutes to find so much as a single test-tube. Even longer to find anything which looks like it might actually explode. Still, eventually I scrape together an apprentice alchemist's rig and make an explosion big enough to convince the inspector and rattle any passing werewolves. I score a musket round and unload it into the alchemist's belly. There's enough iron in there to look like a cauldron's exploded into his gut. And if you don't like all that, you really won't like this bit: I did such a damn fine job in there that even I thought the guy had blown himself up!
I head back to the Dahlia and just about make it before sunrise. All that's left is to put my trust in the girl to discover the body and sound the alarm. So I lie low, tick off the steps as I think they're happening. She shows the Watch the policy, the Watch calls the Treasury, and a couple of days later the gnome inspector's inside, peering suspiciously over the paperwork and muttering curses against the Queen.
Now, I don't know about you, Sheriff, but stick me in a dark room with nothing but cheap wine to drink for five days, and I start to think about a few things. Like how the alchemist was lying down right in the middle of the room. The very centre like someone had measured it and dropped him there. He'd been still for an awful long time while I drew a bead on him, what was he up to? And how come he was surrounded by a giant star painted in blood? I started wondering why the girl needed an extra day for the funeral, and why she'd want to see the world with a bum like me.
Head full of questions, I decided to head back to the tower a day early I had this funny feeling that something wasn't right, and rather than sit and pace I wanted to get out there, put my mind at ease.
When I see the lights burning on the top floor, I kick Bishop into a canter. I've never known a dead man that needed a light, and Rita wasn't supposed to be anywhere near the place. But someone was in there. I pull Bishop up, leave him grazing, and tear up the stairs for all I'm worth which isn't a lot, as it turns out. I burst through the doorway right into the gleaming point of an arrowhead.
The alchemist looms over me, pointing an ugly crossbow down at my forehead. And all of a sudden it clicks: I guess the flowing black robes are too big a give-away for even me to ignore. He's not an alchemist, he's a necromancer. Or an ex-necromancer, which makes him a lich, right?
Whatever he was, the resurrected bastard was here, preparing to head out to the Treasury and claim on his own life insurance. Can you believe that? If the head clerk knew about this, he'd have interns re-writing contracts for the next twenty years.
I look across at Rita, that nine-sided whore, to try and get a little support. Except she's smiling all wild-eyed at the back of the room: she's not my friend anymore. I'd been played, Sheriff, every step of the way.
There's talk, most of it unpleasant, and I take the Necro's advice and get out of there while I can. He wasn't as good as his word though I'm just saddling up on Bishop when he leans out of a tower window and takes aim with his crossbow. He takes a pot-shot and gets lucky, the bolt catching me on the shoulder. Bishop does most of the rest, getting me away from that damn place. I fell unconscious and must have lost, oh I don't know, three hours in a ditch by the side of the road. Which is round-about where you come in.
And, there you have it, chief. Somewhere out there you've got yourself an unliving denizen of the night, walking hand in hand with the most beautiful shape-shifter you ever saw and twice his weight in gold.
So how about you fix me something stronger than this pondwater?