Chapter 1: He’s Not Nearly So Shaggy As That, Sir

“Dean Morton’s dead.”

I blinked blearily. It was New Year’s Day, and I was hung over. I was trying to cut down on booze, but it had been a heck of a week. I could tell it was Li Fang Fen’s voice, even through the slight static that her calls always had. “Yeah. What’s up, Li?”

“Not undead, Atina. Dead. Caput.”

I rubbed at my eyes. “So he’s going to be taking a sabbatical-“

“We found the remains of what we think are his corpse outside his office.”

“Well, shit. Poor bastard.” I sighed. “Thanks for telling me. Anyone know how he died?”

“Well, fire was involved at some point, because all that’s left of him is an ashy footprint. We had Arthur give the ashes a taste just to confirm who they were. And all of his power was taken- Arthur didn’t get even a hint of the magic he should’ve had. We still need to investigate, but that’s going to have to wait until we can get through his will and disable all of the traps he kept in there.”

I blinked blearily. “His power’s… missing? Did he get eaten by a ghoul before Arthur, or-“

“I really don’t know.” She was quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry to drop this on you first thing in the morning, but-“

“It’s alright. I didn’t have anything special planned today.”

“After the night you had, I’m not terribly surprised,” said Li, her voice shifting from fear and anxiety to amusement with all the grace of a natural social butterfly. I rubbed at my face.

“Yeah, yeah, hah hah.” I rubbed my forehead, and memory kicked me in the teeth. “Fuck. I was the executor of Dean Morton’s will. That guy was owed a lot of favors over the years, and knowing him, he’s going to call them all in now. That asshole.”

“Ugh. Don’t remind me. He lent me some money, once. Can’t wait to see what he wanted for that.” She sighed. “I’ll keep you up to date on what I find out. This is making a lot of people incredibly nervous, Atina. He was a major part of the community here, he was powerful, and he was a paranoid recluse at the best of times. He didn’t get as old as he was by doing anything worth killing him for. You hear from him lately?”

“We haven’t talked much since… Oh, son of a whore.” My headache was blooming into a truly magnificent migraine, now, and I grabbed the jug of water by my bed, taking a long drink with an aspirin chaser.

“You okay?”

“Jenny’s trial. Fuck. That’s right, both of us owe him a favor.” I leaned back in my bed, staring up at the ceiling, blinking the crust out of my eyes. It was entering the time of year when Binghamton had become intensely, obscenely cold. The floor downstairs, tile and linoleum, was going to be frostbite inducing. The sun was only just risen, and it had that peculiar cold quality you only got in the deepest part of winter. The sky, what was visible of it through my windows, was stark blue-black, sucking the heat out of the world like a vampire. The sun was going to set by 5 PM today. “Can’t wait to find out what the sadistic old bastard wants us to do.” I blinked as memory registered. “Did he have a phylactery or something?”

“He’d always claimed to, yeah.”

“Do those work? I thought that they were something out of Dungeons and Dragons.”

“I don’t know. He talked about them a lot, I never paid it much attention. I’ve never heard of anyone making them work. But I’ve spent the last year or so learning that the world is a more bizarre and difficult place to deal with than I’d ever expected. Anyway, if he did or didn’t doesn’t matter for now. I just need you promise me that we’re going to have a little get-together this week. You’ve been a bit gloomy lately, and I want to talk about it.”

“I’m not talking about it, but I will drink with you.” I smiled, and ended the call, content in getting in the last word. I stood up, and shivered as I walked downstairs.

Roy had been in a mood, lately. He hadn’t spoken about it, but he was tense all the time when he was around. He never snapped at me, he never yelled or expressed anger, but he paced like a caged tiger when he was over, and he kept wandering into the night. I wasn’t afraid of what would happen to him. I was afraid of who he’d happen to.

Roy… Well, like Li Fang Fen said. The world was a bizarre and difficult to understand place. Roy was a dragon. There were as many legends about dragons among the supernatural as there were among humans, and about the only thing the supernatural world agreed on was that they were all dead. As far as I could tell, he was the first, and the last. And he was really, horrifyingly powerful. I didn’t know exactly how powerful. I wasn’t sure anyone did. I had never met anyone else who realized he existed without being told, first.

On top of that was the Atlanteans. The world had learned that there was crazy shit out there, the aforementioned Atlanteans. A strange off-shoot of humanity that had come- if you believed the news- from some undersea refuge. A species of crazy-ass fish-people that nonetheless had human DNA. A culture that claimed to use gods the way normal humans used tools. Mainstream science was having quite a time trying to explain it as an odd manifestation of psychic ability locked in the human genome.

The Atlanteans had begun settling with humans, teaching the techniques for channeling prayer and belief, and it was amazing how quickly people just started to take it for granted. Most of them didn’t take the ‘god’ stuff as anything more than a parlor trick, the equivalent of stage magic or meditation. There was a class on Atlantean philosophy that was being taught at Binghamton University now. They thought it was just a metaphor.

I knew better. I knew a goddess. I’d gotten her off a murder charge by making her into one. But I had spent long enough ruminating. It was time to face the day.

The floor was predictably frigid, and made me think twice about facing the day. I pulled on a pair of thick woolen socks, and made my way down to the kitchen.

Green tea, or not green tea. Breakfast, or not breakfast. I considered for a moment, and then I heard the soft creak of the steps.

Jack Knife stood in the doorway. Behind her, stairs led down to the basement room where she’d been staying for the last five months. She had a small duffel bag over one shoulder, and she wasn’t meeting my eyes. “I’m going out.”

“Are you coming back?” I asked, gently.

She didn’t meet my eyes.

“Jack, how about you sit down and have breakfast with me. Then we can discuss this.”

“You think I’m going back to my old ways,” she said, venom suddenly sharp and obvious in her voice. “You think I’m going to go murder people again, corrupt good people into psychopaths. Don’t you?” She looked up at me, as though daring me to disagree.

I kept my eyes on her, my expression as level as the Great Plains. There was a trick to outstaring people. You let the face go very still, almost slack. You withdrew from everything, and focused entirely on them. Most people, confronted with this, begin to laugh, because they get scared. Others get angry and defiant, some start to blink. In most of nature, this kind of prolonged eye contact is the prelude to going for someone’s throat. But I trusted her too much to think she’d take it that way.

I held the look until Jack turned her head sharply away, arms crossed. “I’m just a burden here. I know that you’ve been looking for information about me, but- It’s hopeless. It’s…”

“I haven’t been looking hard enough. That’s on me. I’m still going to help you find out who, what, you really are, Jack. I’ve been pursuing things that haven’t given any leads; lists of famous swords, manuals on the creation of artifacts, that kind of thing. No luck in anything that would help me track down your past, since you don’t resemble any of them. So, I decided to try something else.” I took out a small pamphlet. “The Atlantean Mission in town. They make Tsukumogami, I think. As far as I can tell, they’ve got the whole thing down to a science. They might be able to help us.”

She stared down at the small pamphlet.

“Now, they don’t have any openings for, well… The next couple of months, at least, because they’re the very popular, in thing, and I need to feel them out. But if you’re willing to try it out… They might be able to help me narrow it down with you. Help you figure out a bit more about where you come from, who and what you are.”

She looked up at me, her eyes uncertain, and nervous. “Why do you keep helping me?”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked, an eyebrow raised. “You remember what happened in New York, right?”

She looked aside.

“I remember what Li Fang Fen told me. About that goddess, Amaterasu, threatening to kill her. Trying to get her to betray someone she cared about, jerking her around.” I smiled. “And she winds up showing up after everything settles, and tries to threaten them. And you drove her off.”

“I don’t remember any of that. I didn’t do anything.”

“Yeah, well, reasonable minds can disagree.” I shrugged. “And besides, I have a soft spot for people who are in trouble.” I cracked a pair of eggs into the frying pan, and they began to sizzle in the butter. “Now. Let’s have a bite of breakfast, alright?”

I sat across from the young- No, that was really the wrong instinct. She was, in fact, older than almost everyone I knew, which was a hell of a feat considering the number of undead my social circle contained. A knife made into a person, who had- as I understood it- killed a lot of innocents because she thought that was what she was supposed to do. She’d been told differently, by someone she apparently thought knew the truth. As he’d been a manipulative, psychotic asshole, I didn’t know how much to trust that statement. But I had promised to help her find out.

A part of me had been nervous about finding out. That’s why I hadn’t devoted as much attention to the issue as I could have. I might’ve just found out she was actually a cursed sword, and then who knows what she’d do. Losing hope was a lot more dangerous than not having it in the first place.

But for the moment I had the supernatural equivalent of a traumatized-

“Atina, are you monologuing in your head?”

“No,” I said, taking a sip of my green tea. She was sharper than she seemed, which was only to be expected-

“Because you keep staring at me and moving your lips slightly like you’re trying out phrases that’d look good on a book jacket.”

“Sorry.” I grumbled, and rubbed my eyes. “Roy wasn’t here this morning, so I got a little… antsy. It’s got me in a bit of a gloomy mood.” I sighed. “Plus, someone I owe a favor to was apparently murdered last night.”

“Oh,” said Jack. She coughed into her hand. “That’s… I’m sorry, I really don’t know what kind of news that is. Relieving? Sad? Frightening?”

“Let’s go with annoying,” I said, and took another sip of tea. “I can think of at least two people I need to pick up before we go to read out his will, and they’re going to be awkward to have in the same car.” I took another slow sip of the tea. “Jack. Have you considered… I don’t know.” I looked up at her. “Are you comfortable being around people?”

She looked away. “No.”

“Is there anything I can do? I mean… Would you like me to be more active towards you? Find you some friends?”

“If you were to be able to find another Tsukumogami… I suppose that would be very nice,” she said, and smiled wanly. “As it stands, I am afraid I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m supposed to need, or want. It’s like… being hungry for something. And you don’t know what it is. All you know is that every time someone offers you something to eat, you know with certainty that that’s not what you want.” She looked up at me, and her soft gray eyes were nervous. “Is that bad?”

“What? No. That’s pretty human, actually. You don’t know what you need. Just that you’re not getting it.” I smiled. “You could come along, if you like. Alfred’ll be there. You like Alfred, right?”

“He did do a very good job honing me when I met him,” she admitted. “But… from the look on your face, things are going to be awkward enough without me.”

“Yeah.” I sighed. “Tell me about it.” I stood up. “Do you mind taking care of the plates?”

“Sure,” she said, always eager to help. Always eager to be useful. There was definitely a kind of servicing quality about her- “Atina, you’re monologuing in your head again.”

“Yeah, thanks,” I said, and headed for the front door. Alfred wouldn’t mock me for monologuing in my head. He’d probably actively encourage it.

I opened the door, and came up short. Roy was standing in the doorway. He was looking down at his feet. He lifted his chin, looking up at me. “Atina,” he said, solemnly. “You’re pregnant.”

I opened and closed my mouth, staring at him. My mind began to race. Was that possible, when did it happen, oh god I’d drunk alcohol the previous night, how on earth could he know. By the time I noticed the grin breaking across his face, it was far too late to save face. “That’s your idea of a joke?”

“Yeah,” he said, grinning at me. I tried so hard to glare at him, I swear, but the laughter was already bubbling out of me, and I had to turn it into a snort. “Had an inkling about the other things bothering you. Saw Jack Knife packing some things yesterday, figured she was about to make a cry for attention.  And…” He shrugged, and smiled. “Well.”

He knew what had happened last night. He knew it all. He probably knew every single thing that happened in this city, and if he’d wanted, he could have stopped Dean Morton from dying.

And then what next? The last time I’d seen him interfere, he’d been getting ready to conquer the world. I didn’t really know what to expect from him, or what he might do if I asked him a question about it. If I kept things as they were, he was supportive, kind, emotionally stable, a good cook, and all the other things I enjoyed. As long as I kept it shallow. As long as we didn’t discuss the deep, terrifying secrets of his unknown and tremendous past.

He was smiling at me. I had good reason to believe he knew exactly what I was thinking, and he knew not only when I was monologuing, but what I was thinking. You can hear me, can’t you?

His smile grew just the slightest bit wider.

“I’m going to be busy today, probably. I might not be home until awfully late.” I was quiet for a moment. “Ah… Is this going to be a long one?”

“Very,” he said, his head tilted, watching me to see if I would ask for more. I shook my head.

“I’ll see you tonight. I love you, sweetie.” I kissed him firmly on the lips.

“I know,” he said, when the kiss broke. I rolled my eyes.

It was a very strange relationship. Fucked up in a way that I’d never learned how to deal with. Abusive, that’s easy. Inattentive or inexperienced sexually, no problem. How did you deal with a relationship with someone who, to all evidence, could conquer the earth single-handed? My answer so far had been ‘pretending that everything is normal.’  It was hard, sometimes, to not ask him all of the questions I wanted the answer to, but not as hard as confronting the answers he could give.

But then, what might happen if I broke up with him?

“I’d get over it,” he said, and smiled.

He always knew what to say. I smiled at him. “What do you have planned for dinner tonight?”

“Grilled tuna steaks with a bit of lemon and parsley.”

“That sounds great.” I kissed him again, and set out.

I would bicycle, but it was fucking cold out. At a certain point, I had actually reached the point that I could financially justify owning a car, which was a blow. It had been at that precise moment that I realized I would likely never return to New York City, never be a big shot lawyer, never be tempted to elbowcheck someone onto the third rail of the subways ever again. It had been a sad moment. But heated seats in the winter softened the blow. I leaned back in the driver’s seat, and enjoyed the sensation while trying and failing to not think of the time my mother said the seats made her feel like she’d lost control of her bladder. The comfortable sensation thoroughly ruined, I backed out of the driveway.

Broome County, New York, is in the snow shadow of the Great Lakes, the cultural shadow of New York, and the economic shadow of its own once glorious past. During the winter, the arctic winds sweep down across Canada, loiter over the Great Lakes while picking up a lot of moisture, and then dump that moisture on upstate New York. Binghamton is far enough out of the shadow that it doesn’t usually get pounded into oblivion the way you find in much of the state. Instead, there’s simply a kind of constant cloud cover, making it the cloudiest city in the United States. Thus, the nickname my mother gave it: Gloome County.

She probably wasn’t the first person to think of it. It’s been this way for as long as the Great Lakes.

Today, however, was a rare exception. The morning sky was gloriously blue and bright, and shining ferociously. Despite drinking last night, I was not sporting much of a hangover, though I was still slightly sleepy. The sun helped.

It was funny. Indoors, it looked warm, even inviting. It could even feel that way, with the sun pouring ferociously down through the glass, the light travelling where the cold could not. But today, the sky was cracked open, letting all of the heat bleed away from the earth. It was bright, and sharp, and merciless.

It was going to be a long damn day. I wasn’t going to make it any shorter by internal monologue. I focused on my driving.

“Atina!” Polly smiled brightly in the door. Her hair was half done, red as blood across most of the right, brown as mud across most of the left. Polly’s a redcap, a brigand fairy that feeds on fear born of intimidation. She was also wearing nothing but one of Alfred’s t-shirts, and a pair of steel-toed workboots. She grinned. “I’m pleased as piss to see you!”

“You too, Polly.” I smiled. She also faked a very bad Irish accent. “If you need some work, by the way, your position is always open.”

“That’s sweet of you. I might take you up on it- And I’m sorry I wasn’t able to give you more advance warning about leaving last time.” She paused for a moment, and frowned at me. “Is there something dangerous going down? Like, are we talking secretary work, or bodyguard work?”

“I’ll let you know,” I said, with a substantial sigh. “Dean Morton’s dead.”

“Oh. Good.” Polly paused for a moment. “Well, I guess not good, exactly, but he was an arsehole. Wait, when you say dead-“

“Someone left him as ashes.”

“Oh. Not good, in that case. I know Alfred was never fond of the man, precisely, but unexplained murder is a bit of a bugger. I was hoping, jealous lover shot him, or maybe he had a heart attack.” She paused for a moment. “But, I suppose that he’d be a pretty lousy lich if either of those did the job.”

“Yeah.” I smiled. Polly was like that. She was also a genuinely good friend, if a little bit scary. Maybe because she was a little bit scary, and a lot loyal. “So, where’s Alfred?”

“In the shower.”

Alfred stepped out into the hallway. “Oh, Atina.” He was wearing nothing more than a towel. He smiled brightly.

There was Alfred, essentially, in a single action. I had enough time to take in a few things. Yes, he was still built like one of the better class of god. Rich blonde hair currently allowed to grow long and shaggy, though his face was still cleanshaven. Seafoam green eyes. A few scars were fading from whatever he’d gotten up to, the previous summer, that had taken him to Bolivia. And his neck was covered in red bites, with a few visible scratches on his shoulders. Polly was rough, but as far as I could tell, Alfred was into that.

“Dean Morton died. I’ve got to go read his will.”

“Inconvenient,” grumbled Alfred. “Bet I owed him something. The man collected favors like a crow collects shiny objects.” He paused for a moment. “Wait. ‘Died’?”

“Murdered, probably.” I sighed. “It’s probably going to get messy. He was a prominent voice on the Night Court, and he was owed quite a lot of favors. Never exactly popular, but… Well, predictable. Go get some clothes on, big guy.”

He met me at the car, chainmail rustling on his shoulders, disguised as cheap cosplay equipment. He always disguised his armor that way, some sort of illusion that he was fond of using to make himself look harmless. His broadsword rested sheathed between his legs as we started driving. I noticed a distinct lack of his other favorite sword. “Hey. Where’s your rapier?”

“Ah. I threw it.” He coughed into his hand. “Won the fight, but the blade was rather damaged by the act. I needed it repaired. Gave it to a fairy craftsman, expecting to have it returned sometime soon.”

“And Excalibur?”

He looked to the side. Hanging from his belt was a third scabbard. White silk, and silver highlights, brilliant and stylish. It was definitely the kind of scabbard one would expect to hold a blade of legendary power. It was conspiciously empty. “Seems someone else beat me there. Still haven’t figured out who. The only clue at the scene of the crime- in a room, mind you, full of dust, guarded by powerful fae-“

“Fairies-“

“Fae,” he said, insistently, frowning at me, “was a little… cat emoji.”

“What?”

“You know. A colon, and a three. Like a cat smiling. I have no idea who that might be.”

“That stole Excalibur?” I blew out a breath. “I don’t know. Bastet? Uh… Puss in Boots? Hecate, who else-“

“I don’t think it was a god, or anyone in the know,” he said. “Among other things, they didn’t take the truly important part.” He patted the scabbard, and smiled.

“So that’s the real thing?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.” He was quiet for a moment. “You were going to ask me about the scratches on my back, weren’t you.”

“No, I was just going to think sarcastic comments about it and write them down later. Polly helped you test it?”

“In a manner of speaking.” He smiled. Then the amusement drained from his expression. “Atina… If Dean Morton is dead…”

“It’ll be trouble, I’m well aware. People are going to be ornery. The Night Court will be out for blood, and some poor son of a bitch will pay the price, whether they’re guilty or not.”

“Not just that. Dean Morton was formidable, and paranoid.” He crossed his arms, frowning. “The Venn diagram of people who wanted him dead, and who could make him dead… That’s not a sizable group. You said he was in his office?”

“Yeah. I’ve read Discworld. A wizard who’s tired of checking his food for glass is a wizard who is tired of living. You don’t get to be immortal without a healthy sense of paranoia and a lot of defenses.” I sighed. “Anyone who you think could have done it?”

He looked out the front window, and frowned. “I can think of one Undead.”

We were pulling up towards the student housing. Jenny Nishi stood at the door of the dorms.

“That’s not funny, Alfred.”

“No,” he said. “It’s not.”

“What is the reading of the will going to be like?” asked Jenny, her head tilted to one side as she sat in the back seat of the car. She was, to anyone who didn’t know her, a fairly ordinary young Japanese woman. Pretty, though not spectacularly so, wearing a simple white blouse and a pair of heavy pants, under a thick black jacket. Demure, in precisely the way that I was not and never would be. Her English was immaculate, and I can’t even think those words without feeling racist. In fairness, it was down to her being very good with the language. She’d lived in America for barely eighteen months. In fairness, it had been a very full eighteen months.

“Dull, most likely. A lot of bequests. An Undead’s will is less like a list of prizes- Though there are some of those- and more like a list of demands. They’re dead, so they’re free to ask for the favors to be granted, and they can’t really be argued with. Not without consequences, anyway.”

“Death curses?” asked Jenny, an eyebrow raised.

“More social than that. Though there are consequences for one of the Undead. Becoming more vulnerable to sunlight, needing to feed more often, if you break a promise or refuse to follow through on a favor.” I sighed. “For me, if I didn’t follow through, I’d probably just get blackballed by most Undead. It’d mark me as untrustworthy. For a fairy, it’d mean having a lingering obligation over them. For a demon- Well, I’m not sure exactly. I’ve got the impression that it causes some cosmic alignment against them? Bad luck, verging on the fatal. Final Destination style? That might have just been bullshit, though. You know how demons are.”

“Bigot,” said Alfred, his lips quirked in a smile.

“She’s dreadful, isn’t she?” agreed Jenny. The two shared a laugh at my expense, and I joined in, because it was pretty damn funny.

“So,” I said, like the doctor who’s finished giving the child a lollipop, and now has a syringe cunningly concealed behind their back. “What’s going on between you two?”

“Nothing,” said Jenny, softly. Alfred looked up into the mirror, his eyebrow raised.

“Jenny-“

“It’s alright, Alfred. It’s nothing. I had a crush. These things come and go.” Jenny smiled softly.

“No,” he said, rather more firmly. “This is a matter of destiny, not the heart, and I would like you to know my reasons.” He paused for a moment, his brow furrowed. “I found the resting place of King Arthur. Or at least, Excalibur’s sheath.” He tapped the white silk gently, lifting it slightly, his eyes fixed on the silver filigree. “The Four Courts of Fairy each placed a guardian there, each with a test to be passed. The Test of Winter was to be bound to a woman. One woman, for the rest of my life.”

“Someone knew just how to torture you,” I said, lightly, even as I watched him out of the corner of my eye.

“Quite so,” Alfred said, the corner of his mouth quirking up. He brushed his fingers through his hair. “I suspect that I am going to die, sometime soon. Die, and be brought to Avalon to be born again. There are vast games afoot, and Fate plays games with the lives of men. If that happens… Well, I will likely not be returning.” He was quiet for a moment. “I didn’t want to tie you into that pain, Jenny. Polly is a fairy, and they are drawn to drama and heartache like a junkie to a needle. You…”

“You’re going to die?” I said, feeling a tight little sensation in the pit of my stomach.

“Yes. It’s the nature of the story of King Arthur. Betrayed, and taken away, so that I may save my home in its time of greatest need.”

“So, you are coming back?”

“Binghamton is not my home,” he said, shrugging. “Not in the metaphorical sense that matters most.”

“Is there anything we can do?” asked Jenny, softly.

“The question is whether there is anything we should do,” said Alfred, smiling cheerfully. “I have always lived my life dangerously. By the sword, if you will. If I die, it will almost certainly be protecting those I love. And if I die, it is because I will be needed. The world will need me. Think of it not so much as me dying, but me being called up.” He winked. “To the big leagues.”

“Sounds more like a case of supernatural cancer to me,” I said, smiling. I’d learned early to smile and crack a joke when something horrible was happening. “Sometime in the next… Whatever amount of time, you might just drop dead.”

“Oh, it won’t be unexpected. You know how the Fae are,” said Alfred, and he chuckled, as though he wasn’t going to die soon. “Never without their drama.”

“Will you still be… you, afterwards?” asked Jenny, her eyes on her hands in her lap.

“I really don’t know,” said Alfred, looking out the window. He didn’t see the way that Jenny’s fists tightened.

“Hey, looks like we’re here,” I said. I didn’t know a thing I could do about a pronouncement like that. I’d probably spend some time reading about it. But there were other things to worry about.

“… Here?” asked Jenny, frowning.

“Yeah,” I said, stepping out, and approaching the bank, carrying the key with me. “Why?”

“I… Well, it just seems a little… I was expecting something supernatural,” finished Jenny, sounding embarrassed at herself.

“He filled out his will occasionally, whenever there was a change, mailed it here, and they placed it in his safety deposit box. He apparently didn’t want anyone else knowing about what he had planned, so he had to do it hardcopy with a typewriter, and a couple of Undead buddies acting as witnesses while sworn to secrecy.” I sighed. “He paid me very well to be the executrix of his will. He had to, because it’s going to be a nightmarish job. Probably a whole twelve inch box stuffed full of letters.” I walked up to the bank teller, and held out the key. She stared at it for a moment. “How big’s the box?”

“I think you should come with me,” she said, and stepped back. I looked at the other two.

The vault was impressive. Large, too. Filled with cardboard boxes inside, which were somewhat less impressive. “Which of these is his?”

“All of them,” said the woman. “We’ve been getting at least a letter a week since 1923. I learned about it when I started working here. I didn’t think anyone would ever come to retrieve them.” She looked at the boxes, opened her mouth, and closed it again. She clearly wanted to ask. I watched her until she straightened, and stepped out of the vault.

“Motherfucker,” I said. “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted him.”

“They’re dated,” said Jenny. “Looks like this is the newest one.” She tapped a box. It dated back to the 2015. I opened it, and carefully studied the letters. There were easily over a hundred of them. I carefully selected a letter from the middle of the stack, marking the place, and opened it. In a dense paragraph, he noted the names of half a dozen people, detailing changes, additions, and removals to the will.

“God help me,” I said, closing my eyes. “I’m going to have to read every single one of these damn things.” I sighed. “Better get another set of eyeballs. Hey, Jenny, be careful with those.”

“This one looks rather different,” she said, frowning as she lifted the most recent letter out of the box. I checked it, and frowned. The address was written by hand, and an unsteady hand at that. It was dated the previous day.

“Ah, shit,” I said, frowning, as I opened it. “Yeah. No witnesses signatures on this.” I read through it.

“What’s in it? The identity of his killer?” asked Alfred.

“Yeah,” I said.

“What, really?”

“No, we’re not that lucky.” I shook the letter. “Three changes to the will. You, me, and Jenny.”

“Oh?” asked Jenny, her head tilted.

“Yeah. Alfred’s first.” I cleared my throat. “Alfred, my boy; While I know this isn’t your bailiwick, I also know you made a pact with that Camazotz girl, which gives you as much claim to this as anyone. I’m making you the Interim Dean of the Department of Postmortology, until such time as you choose a worthy replacement, or agree to take the position on full time. I know you’ll make me proud.”

“Oh,” said Alfred, frowning.

“Next, me. Atina: In exchange for my support during the Camazotz fiasco, I wish you to investigate my death, to determine whether it was murder, and if so, to identify the culprit. And to Miss Nishi: In exchange for my support during the Camazotz fiasco, in the event that my death was intentional, in exchange, I ask that you execute the perpetrator, as the most dangerous being who owes me a favor. I understand that you may be reluctant to do so. I leave it up to you as to whether you wish to take on the consequences of breaking your oath, but I urge you to remember that forever is a very long time to hold regrets.”

“Oh, dear,” said Jenny, frowning. “So, we have a mystery?”

“No,” I said. “This is a lot worse than that.” I waved the letter. “This is a set-up.”

“Yes,” said Alfred, his voice calm though I could see the steel in his eyes. “A mysterious new letter, which has given me a fabulous gift, and a substantial degree of power, and set two close friends of mine with a history of rebelliousness to discovering who was responsible for his death.” He sighed. “This is definitely a set-up.”

“Yeah. I think we’d better get to the Dean’s office with this letter.”

“We couldn’t just… shred it?” said Jenny, frowning.

“No,” said Alfred, shaking his head firmly. “Whoever is responsible for this most likely planted damning evidence. Providing this letter will help to show that this was intended to frame me. Anything else would simply make us look more guilty.” Alfred sighed. “This is going to be a shitshow, Atina.”

One thought on “Chapter 1: He’s Not Nearly So Shaggy As That, Sir

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