Copyright © 2000 Robert G. Ferrell

'Tis a Living

The air was stale and crisp, like week-old pumpernickel. I pulled my moth-eaten cloak up over my ears and huddled there in the darkness, the heavy familiarity of the blue-steel broadsword slung low across my hip reassuring me that I wasn't merely offering myself up as a late night shack to whatever minion of hell was prowling these dismal ruins. For the hundredth time I mentally kicked myself for getting involved in someone else's dirty laundry.

She slunk into my life yesterday morning, her hair smelling of windblown flowers and her shapely figure undulating provocatively beneath a close fitting cotehardie like a snake in a stocking. Where dames are concerned I've got all the restraint and common sense of a drunken Viking in a convent, so by the time I had found my lower jaw and stuffed most of my tongue back in my mouth she had talked me into going after this thing, whatever it was, that stalked the grounds of her ancestral demesne. My self-preservation instinct was buzzing like a wounded bee, but I told it to get knotted and took the case anyway. I guess I'm kind of stupid that way.

Here I was, 36 hours later, shivering in the damp night air and wishing I had taken my mother's advice and indentured myself to a draper. Something moved beyond the gatehouse; it sounded like a huge bag of cabbage being dragged across an iron grating by something with an unusual number of limbs and a nasty disposition. I didn't like it--it reminded me of my ex-wife's family. I briefly considered taking a powder, but a sudden vision of my client's milky-white neckline rooted me to the spot, and the chance was lost.

I couldn't stand there all night, so I slipped past what remained of the portcullis and stepped into the murky, damp courtyard. Shrouded shapes loomed all around me, and I realized with the same sickening sensation you get when you walk barefoot across the floor and hear a soft, wriggling crunch that any one of them could be the monster. I drew my sword and threaded my way through the fallen gargoyles, expecting one of them to take a shot at separating me from my head. Without warning the world exploded like a Chinese new year and every piece of stone mason's twisted imagination in the area seemed to fall directly on me. I went down like a bad bread pudding.

When I came to it was broad daylight, the kind of daylight that made you wish some rock scientist would hurry and invent sun shades. I sat up slowly and tried not to notice the chorus of gnomes playing kettle drums just inside my forehead. I felt like I had been marinaded in raw green mead for a week, and my mouth had that taste you usually get from having oxen trample through it. I perched for a while on one of the limestone uglies and held on to my throbbing temples until my eyes decided to focus again.

The scene wasn't a pretty one. The inner courtyard of a keep that was really more of a disorganized pile of rocks than a place where human beings would live was littered with more bits and pieces than my great aunt Margaret's jewelry chest. I couldn't tell the debris from the rubble without a program. I poked around most of the day looking for some sign of the jasper that clobbered me, but whatever it was left a trail like a sandpiper at high tide. I called the case closed and blew.

I didn't see Miss Persuasive again. I figured she might have been the one who beaned me, to make me sore enough to stick around and find something she wanted found. Only I messed up her scheme by not finding it, so she took off. I may be a sap sometimes, but I'm nobody's patsy for long. I dreamed about her for a couple of nights, but the robin's egg at the base of my skull kept reminding me that dames are trouble with a majuscule T. I swore to myself that I would avoid them from now on, like a heretic avoids the Vatican.

So I'm sitting at my desk watching the walls sweat when from out of nowhere in steps this blonde number with more curves than the Dover road. I tell her that I don't do business with dames and she starts bawling like an orphaned goat. I can't remember exactly what happened after that, but all I know is now I'm on the back of this swaybacked nag heading through God knows what kind of wilderness dodging crossbow bolts and looking for some saint's gall bladder or something.

Brother, it's a hell of a racket.