For those who are more into short fiction than novels, this week’s excerpt comes from Tales from Dragon Precinct by Keith R.A. DeCandido, the first short story collection in the Dragon Precinct Series. Currently there are five novels and one short story collection, but more of each are planned. This series has been described as “Dungeons and Dragnet” by one reviewer and “JAG meets Lord of the Rings” by another. In either case, you get the idea. These are fantasy police procedural fun.
GETTING THE CHAIR
“What’ve we— lord and lady, what is that smell?”
Lieutenant Danthres Tresyllione of the Cliff’s End Castle Guard stopped short in the doorway of the cottage. Behind her, Lieutenant Torin ban Wyvald, her partner, had to do likewise to keep from being impaled on the standard-issue longsword scabbard that hung from her belt. He found himself staring at the brown cloak with the gryphon crest of Lord Albin and Lady Meerka that Danthres (and Torin, and all lieutenants in the Guard) wore.
Torin was about to ask what she was on about when he, too, noticed the smell.
Danthres was half-elf, so her senses were more acute. Torin could only imagine how much worse the stench was for her—it was pretty wretched for him. He detected at least four different odors competing to make his nose wrinkle, and only one matched the expected stench of decaying flesh.
The guard who had summoned the two lieutenants was a young man named Garis. Like most of the guards assigned to Unicorn Precinct—which covered the more well-to-do regions of Cliff’s End—Garis was eager to please and not very bright. “Uh, that’s the body, ma’am.”
“Guard, I’ve been around dead bodies most of my adult life. They don’t usually smell like rotted cheese.”
“Uh, no, ma’am,” the guard said.
A brief silence ensued. Danthres sighed loudly. “So what is the smell?”
“Ah, probably the rotted cheese, ma’am. It’s on the table. Or it could be other food items we’ve found.”
“Who found the body?” she asked, still standing in the doorway blocking Torin. Since she was half a head taller than him, and had a wide mane of blond hair, he had no view of the interior. Under other circumstances, he might have complained. Instead, he was happy to enjoy the less unpleasant aroma of the street a while longer. At least this murder wasn’t in Dragon Precinct or, worse, Goblin Precinct, where a rotting corpse constituted a step up in the local odors.
“Next-door neighbor, ma’am,” Garis said. “The, ah, smell got to her—”
“No surprise there.”
“—and, ah, when he didn’t answer the door, she summoned the Guard. I came, broke the door in, and found this body. He’s the only one here, and there’s only one bedroom upstairs, so he probably lived here alone.”
“You didn’t ask the neighbor that?”
“Uh, no, ma’am, I thought that you—”
“Would do all your work for you. Naturally. Did you at least have the wherewithal to summon the M.E.?”
“Yes, ma’am, the magickal examiner sent a mage-bird saying he’d be here within half an hour—and that was about a quarter of an hour ago.”
Danthres finally moved into the house, enabling Torin to do likewise. He surveyed the sitting room, which seemed to take up most of the ground floor. To his left, a staircase led, presumably, to the second level. To his right was a wall taken up almost entirely with shelves stuffed to bursting with books, scrolls, papers, and other items, interrupted only by two windows. The wall opposite where he stood was the same, those shelves broken only by a doorway. Directly in front of Torin was a couch, festooned with papers, dust, writing implements, and wax residue from candles. Perpendicular to it on either side were two easy chairs, one in a similar state of disarray as the couch, the other relatively clean. A table sat in front of the sofa, covered with a lantern, papers, books, scrolls, candles, bowls, and foodstuffs—including the cheese responsible for keeping Torin’s nostril hairs flaring.
Lying facedown on the floor was the body of an elderly man, already decomposing, which meant he’d been dead at least a day. The corpse wore a simple—but not cheap—linen shirt and trousers. Most importantly, the man’s head was at the wrong angle relative to the rest of his body.
“The question now,” Danthres said, “is whether he broke his neck or if someone broke it for him.”
“I’d say the latter.” Torin pointed at the body. “Look how neatly he’s arranged—almost perfectly parallel to the couch, with his arms at his sides. He was set there by someone.”
Danthres nodded in agreement, then looked around. “Probably too much to hope for that it was a robbery. Not that we’d be able to tell if something was missing in this disaster.” She turned to look at Garis, folding her arms across the gryphon crest—a match for the one on her cloak—on the chest of her standard-issue black leather armor. “Why haven’t you opened a window?”
Garis seemed to be trying to shrink into his own armor, which was a match for Danthres and Torin’s, save that he wore no cloak and the crest on his chest was that of a unicorn, denoting the precinct to which he was assigned. “Well, er, uh, I didn’t want to disturb the scene. I remember that robbery in Old Town last winter and I tried to close a window, and—well, ma’am may not remember, but ma’am tried to cut my head off for interfering with possible evidence before she had a chance to, ah, to examine it.”
Danthres snorted. “That’s ridiculous. I never would have tried to cut your head off—there’d be an inquiry.”
Torin grinned beneath his thick red beard. “I think it will be safe for you to open it, Guard.”
“If you say so, sir.”
Garis walked to the window, and found that it wouldn’t budge.
“Honestly, they have got to raise the standards during those recruitment drives,” Danthres said scornfully. Her not-very-attractive face looked positively deathly when she was angry, and Garis tried to shrink even further inside his armor. Danthres’s features were rather unfortunate combinations of her dual heritage. The point of her ears, the elegant high forehead, and the thin lips from her elven father were total mismatches with the wide nose, large brown eyes, and shallow cheekbones she’d inherited from her human mother.
“I’m sure,” Torin said before Danthres truly lost her temper, “that it’s just stuck.” He walked over and saw that there was no locking mechanism. That, in itself, was odd. True, this was Unicorn Precinct—people didn’t need to virtually seal themselves into their homes for safety around here—but an unlocked ground-floor window was still unusual. Especially if this old man did indeed live alone.
Torin braced himself against the window and heaved upward. It still wouldn’t budge.
“It won’t work, you know.”
Whirling, Torin looked for the speaker, his right hand automatically moving to the gryphon-head hilt of his longsword. The only people in the room were Garis, Danthres, and himself. And the corpse, of course, though he was unlikely to speak.
“Who said that?” Danthres asked. Her left hand was also at her sword’s hilt.
Torin realized that the voice came from the area of the couch.
“Come out from behind there.” Torin walked around to behind the sofa.
“Uh, sir, there’s nobody there,” Garis said. “I checked.”
Torin saw that Garis was right.
“It’s the couch,” Danthres said. “The couch talks.”
“Brava to the woman,” the couch said.
“Hell and damnation,” Torin said, “our corpse is a wizard.”
“And bravo to the man,” the couch added. “Yes, my dear, departed owner was a mage. His specialty, as you might have already deduced, is animating furniture. He also hated the very concept of fresh air, so he magicked the windows shut.”
Another voice said, “You’d think just once he’d take pity on us, but no.” This, Torin realized, was the lantern.
Then the cleaner of the two chairs made a noise. “All you ever do is complain. Efrak gave you life, and now that he’s dead you spit on his grave.”
Danthres turned to Garis. “I don’t suppose the M.E.’s mage-bird is still here?”
“No, ma’am, it discorporated as soon as it gave the message.”
Another noise from the chair. “It really is a shame about poor Efrak.”
“It’s not that much of a shame,” the couch said. “I mean, really, what did he do for us?”
“Well, he did give us life,” the lantern said.
“I don’t think—”
“That’s enough!” Danthres bellowed, interrupting the furniture.
Torin added, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to question each of you individually.”
“What’s the point?” Danthres asked him. “He’s a wizard. The Brotherhood will claim jurisdiction, perform their own investigation and keep us completely out of it, like they always do whenever one of their own is involved. And honestly, they’re welcome to it. I hate magick.”
“Don’t be so sure of that,” said another voice, this time from the doorway. Torin recognized this one: Boneen, the magickal examiner. The short, squat old man was on loan from the Brotherhood of Wizards to provide magickal assistance to the law-enforcement efforts of the Cliff’s End Castle Guard.
“Good afternoon, Boneen,” Torin said with a grin.
“What’s so damned good about it? I was having a perfectly fine nap when one of those blasted children woke me with another damned thing for you lot.” Several young children—troublemakers, mostly orphans that had been arrested and pressed into service in lieu of incarceration in the work-houses—served as messengers and/or informants for the Castle Guard. Most of the Guard called them “the youth squad,” except for Boneen, who usually had less flattering terms. Garis had no doubt sent one such to fetch Boneen. “And what in the name of Lord Albin is that horrendous smell?”
“A combination of various slovenly habits,” Torin said.
“Not surprising,” Boneen said as he entered. “Efrak makes the gutter rats in the Docklands look positively pristine by comparison.”
“You know him?” Danthres asked.
Boneen nodded. “A tiresome little old man who dabbles in useless magick for the most part. He’s not actually a member of the Brotherhood.”
Torin blinked in surprise. “I didn’t think that sort of thing was permitted.”
“With new wizards, it isn’t.” Boneen reached into the bag he always carried over his shoulder. “But Efrak’s a couple centuries old—he predates the Brotherhood, and they let him be as long as he registered with them and stayed out of mischief.” He pulled the components for his spell out, chuckling bitterly. “That certainly won’t be an issue anymore.”
Torin led Garis toward the back doorway, which presumably led to the kitchen. “Come on, let’s give him some room.”
The primary duty of the magickal examiner at a crime scene was to cast a “peel-back” spell—it read the psychic resonances on inanimate objects and showed him what happened in the recent past. This generally meant he was able to see what happened, how it happened, and, most importantly, who did it.
Danthres followed him into the kitchen, which smelled worse than the living room. The place was an even bigger mess, with several part-full mugs of various liquids (or congealed messes that were liquid once), plates of partly eaten food, and still more papers and books freely distributed about the table, chairs, countertop, and cupboard. The cupboard itself was the source of the worst stench. Torin recognized the sigil on the cupboard door as that of a freezing spell, but he also knew that it had to be renewed every few days—something Efrak was no longer in a position to do.
“Why would anyone want to have animate furniture?” Danthres asked.
Torin shrugged. “It gave him someone to talk to? If he lived alone, shunned even by other wizards, he probably didn’t have much by way of social interaction.”
“We should talk to his neighbors—starting,” she said with a look at Garis, “with the one who called you. Take us to her.”
Keith R.A. DeCandido is a white male in his late forties, approximately two hundred pounds. He was last seen in the wilds of the Bronx, New York City, though he is often sighted in other locales. Usually he is armed with a laptop computer, which some have classified as a deadly weapon. Through use of this laptop, he has inflicted more than fifty novels, as well as an indeterminate number of comic books, nonfiction, novellas, and works of short fiction on an unsuspecting reading public. Many of these are set in the milieus of television shows, games, movies, and comic books, among them Star Trek, Alien, Cars, Summoners War, Doctor Who, Supernatural, World of Warcraft, Marvel Comics, and many more.
We have received information confirming that more stories involving Danthres, Torin, and the city-state of Cliff’s End can be found in the novels Dragon Precinct, Unicorn Precinct, Goblin Precinct, Gryphon Precinct, and the forthcoming Phoenix Precinct and Manticore Precinct, as well as the short-story collections Tales from Dragon Precinct and the forthcoming More Tales from Dragon Precinct. His other recent crimes against humanity include A Furnace Sealed, the debut of a new urban fantasy series taking place in DeCandido’s native Bronx; the Alien novel Isolation; the Marvel’s Tales of Asgard trilogy of prose novels starring Marvel’s versions of Thor, Sif, and the Warriors Three; short stories in the anthologies Aliens: Bug Hunt, Joe Ledger: Unstoppable, The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, The Best of Defending the Future, TV Gods: Summer Programming, X-Files: Trust No One, Nights of the Living Dead, the award-winning Planned Parenthood benefit anthology Mine!, the two Baker Street Irregulars anthologies, and Release the Virgins!; and articles about pop culture for Tor.com and on his own Patreon.
If you see DeCandido, do not approach him, but call for backup immediately. He is often seen in the company of a suspicious-looking woman who goes by the street name of “Wrenn,” as well as several as-yet-unidentified cats. A full dossier can be found at DeCandido.net