When we last left our heroes…one of our heroes left! LUCY has taken her leave of adventuring, retiring to read books. NUTMEG, wracked by grief, ran through the streets of Dwarroway – and witnessed some suspicious kobolds smuggling at the rivergate! With the help of Lucy’s replacement, her elven nephew GELMAHTA, NUTMEG occupies his mind with a little street recon…
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – In Which They Meet Some Goats
- Chapter 2 – In Which the Warehouses are Implicated
- Chapter 3 – In Which Benny is Implicated
- Chapter 4 – In Which Benny is Adjudicated
Chapter 1 – In Which They Meet Some Goats
Someone very important had chosen a particularly inconvenient time to cross the city. Nutmeg and Gel were caught in a crush, a crowd that pushed and jostled by the edge of the main road as someone – some highfalutin ne’er-do-well, most likely – caused a hell of a traffic jam.
“Can you see over them?” asked Nutmeg. He stood on tippy-toe, trying to peer past a pair of poorly-positioned paladins.
“A little.” Gel, too, craned his neck. The elf had a good foot-and-a-half on Nutmeg, a fact which Nutmeg had already begun to resent. “City guards. Well-dressed. There’s a litter, too. Carrying someone. A palanquin.”
“You can just say litter,” said Nutmeg. “Palanquin and litter are basically the same thing.”
“I know that.”
“Okay, good, as long as you know that.”
They’d just been trying to head north across town, up toward the riverfront where Nutmeg had beheld the kobold smugglers. A simple trip. Already, things were more complicated than necessary. The day was bright and clear, and there were already a number of folk wandering the streets. This fancy procession helped nothing at all.
Any doubts in their mind as to the identity of the jam-causing public figure were dashed entirely when a herald proclaimed, somewhat belatedly, “Make way for Lord Lobo of House Terlethian! Make way!”
The paladins parted, and Nutmeg caught a glimpse at last of the passing procession. A great palanquin, borne on the shoulders of burly half-orc servitors, made its way down the main road, flanked indeed by city guards in fine livery. The poles of the palanquin were made of queer white wood; the tent and box were wrought with gold leaf and silver inlay. The windows of the box were drawn back, and the figure inside, though wreathed in shadow, was plainly visible. A man, a human man, perhaps between the ages of puberty and old age (it was hard to tell, with humans), jet-black hair, plain features, a pointed chin, and curious, bemused eyes. What little showed of his robes looked expensive, opulent without being tacky.
“Who is that guy?”
“He’s on city council here,” replied Gel. “One of the councilors. His family owns the castle at the other end of town. There’s been a Terlethian on city council as long as there’s been a Dwarroway.”
“Alright, nerd.” Nutmeg snorted. “Right now, he’s Lord Traffic of House Jam. Booo. Booo.”
One of the paladins turned to face Nutmeg. The armored priest had a red face and, in the customary fashion of Palladian paladins, had grown out his hair to a preposterous length. “Careful,” said the holy man. “Not wise to draw Lobo’s ire.”
“What’s his deal?”
“The most powerful city councilor in Dwarroway? His brother-in-law is the High Councilor representing our city? His is a name you ought know.”
“Thanks, man, always appreciate some local insight. Blessings upon you.”
When the procession was done, they shouldered on.
Dwarroway had come alive. Maybe it was the early-spring air, maybe it was the passage of the city councilor on his way to work, maybe it was just the turning of the stars and moon: whatever it was, the place was hopping. Nutmeg led Gel brusquely through the crowds, deflecting the elf’s attempts at conversation. It wasn’t that he had anything against the newbie. If Lucy trusted him, then fine. Good. Whatever. But he was just tall, and knowledgeable, and he had a weird face, and his hair was a weird silver color, and he was condescending and kind of a dick. Other than that, though, fine. Good. Whatever.
Toward the riverfront they went. In daylight, it looked far more welcoming. This was a halfling part of town for sure – little burrow-sized houses fit for families of fourteen, the smell of tomatoes and garlic and basil, tiny children running in packs like hairy-footed fairy folk. The shops all had quaint, rustic names – Ralph’s Country Cookin’, Mama’s Home Made Wooden Bowls and Kitchen Items, and The Bungled Gumbo all stood shoulder-to-shoulder on Butternut Street. Nutmeg couldn’t resist stopping at a little stall (“Uncle Giuseppe’s Specials”) and getting toasted bread with an herb-tomato sauce and melted soft cheese. He even offered a bit to Gel. The elf declined. That alone was weird. No one made better toast-with-sauce-and-cheese than Uncle Giuseppe.
“What are we looking for?” asked Gel, when they came out on the river.
“I’ll know it when I see it,” said Nutmeg. “Kobolds would be a good start.”
The rivergate was open, and business was booming. Four barges were unloading at the docks, mostly coal, ore, and quarry-stone from the hills, although one barge carried several living goats and a few boxes of what Nutmeg could only assume were not living goats. Most of the dock officials were halflings, with a few humans mixed in.
“Not a lot to go on,” Gel observed. “What dock did they stop at?”
“Okay, good question, thanks for contributing. That one.” The one with the goats.
A halfling farmer was attempting to lead the goats off the barge, dragging at their lead ropes as they stubbornly refused to disembark.
“Need a hand?” offered Nutmeg. The halfling looked up in surprise and appreciation.
“You fuckin’ bet,” he said, in a thick halfling accent. “These goats, eh, they don’t want to come.”
Nutmeg knelt and held out his hand for the goats to sniff. They approached, cautious but willing. Nutmeg cooed at them and tried to give off an air of amused disinterest. That was the best way to get goats to like you. Goats could be real sweethearts, under the right circumstances.
He easily took hold of their lead ropes and walked them forward. The halfling swore. “By da gods. These goats! I owe ya, big time.”
Nutmeg turned and winked at Gel, who was watching the scene play out, nonplussed, arms folded across his chest. “A favor, huh? Well listen, I’m looking for someone. Someone who trades here at the docks. A kobold.”
“A kobold. You know. Little lizard guys. Live in the mountains. Kobolds.”
“Oh, I seen them before.” The farmer waggled his finger. “Up in da mountains. Couple of em tried to raid my pops’ farm. Didn’t know pop had bought himself a wand. One flare goes off and bada bing, bada boom, the kobolds go running.”
“No, okay. Kobolds, yes, I understand they live in the mountains. But I’m looking for some who trade here in the city.”
The halfling farmer frowned. “That’s not a thing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen nothin like that. Be funny if I did, though!” He turned, distracted. One of the goats had started chewing on the lead rope which held the boat to the mooring. “Fucks me. Listen, thanks for da help, but I gotta take care of this. Dominic! Stop chewing, damn you!”
Nutmeg sighed and returned to Gel. “Okay. That’s a no-go. You got any bright ideas?”
“We need to find someone who was here all night, overnight, hidden.” The elf peered up and down the waterfront. “Someone who knows how to lurk. There’s vagabonds in Dwarroway, yes? Homeless folk?”
“Beggars and shit, yeah.”
“Let’s find a beggar.”
“Oh, I know just the trick.” Nutmeg spoke the command word. His mystical breastplate became a finely-tailored suit, inlaid with cloth-of-gold and studded with moonstone beads. “Walk with me. Pretend to be my bodyguard.”
“I’m familiar with the trade.”
“Yeah? Neat. Most bodyguards stay quiet, though.”
Nutmeg strolled slightly ahead of Gel, down past the barges and the cranes and the swarms of halfling crewmates and dockworkers. “Patsy,” he said to Gel, in a foppish tone, “I do hope I can get these precious gemstones to the dealer before lunchtime at the fox-hunting club.”
“Yes, milord,” agreed Gel.
They carried on in this fashion for no more than a few minutes when an old woman stinking of wine wandered across their path and held out a little tin cup. “Alms for the poor,” she croaked. “Alms, please, good sir.”
“Patsy! Detain this wretch post-haste!” commanded Nutmeg. “I will not have my new fit sullied by poor people!”
“Right, you’re coming with me,” said Gel, menacingly. He took the old woman by the arm and pulled her off the main road. Nutmeg followed, amused. Gel was a good actor. The guy could be useful.
In a city full of shadowy alcoves, it wasn’t hard to find a suitable shadowy alcove. Nutmeg spoke the command word, and his rich tunic became a city guard’s uniform. The woman paled. “Oh sirs,” she said, “I didn’t know you were undcovers. I’m terrible sorry.”
“It’s for your own protection,” said Nutmeg, quite enjoying his role. “We’re on a secret mission. From up top. The very top. And you’re a crucial part of the investigation.”
“It weren’t me,” she wailed. “I mean, I helped Netty steal the chicken from the market, but only cause she had a sick baby – two sick babies, I mean, and me too, I also had two sick babies -”
“This isn’t about that,” said Nutmeg, quickly. “Last night. On these docks. Did you see any kobolds? Little scaly guys, dressed in robes, about halfling height?”
“Oh.” The woman’s tune changed. “Yeah. Yeah, sirs, I did. I did!” She chuckled to herself. “Lorks a mussy, I thought I was hallucinatin’ that, I did. Couple little lizard men took two wagonfuls of boxes down to the southside warehouses. Saw it clear as day, I did.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere.” Nutmeg patted the old woman’s arm. “You’ve done well.”
“Shall we let her go?” asked Gel. His hand was still on the woman’s arm.
“Yeah, yeah, totally,” said Nutmeg. “She’s free to go. Just don’t say a damn word about this. To anyone.”
“Yes sirs!” She turned and fled, as soon as Gel released her. Nutmeg nodded in approval.
“I gotta admit, you did pretty good. Good instincts. Way to play along.”
“You had a good lead. I don’t mess with that. I like the trick with your armor, though.”
“Oh yeah, I gotta hook you up with the lady who made it. She’s great.”
“I’d like that.”
Chapter 2 – In Which the Warehouses are Infiltrated
The southside warehouses were well-fortified. Gel estimated the walls around the warehouses at twenty feet high, local-quarried stone – too hard to carve quick handholds. There was some limestone around Dwarroway, but most of the buildings were made of sterner stuff. No guards patrolled the walltops, though. Just a handful at the main gates, where a line of wagons waited to enter.
“Think we can pull the same trick?” asked Nutmeg.
“It’s worth a try.” Gel had enjoyed deceiving the old woman. Nutmeg proved to be an able partner, one with a peculiar and specific skill-set. Lucy had not misled him there. He had yet to see the dwarf fight, but Lucy had assured him, too, that Nutmeg was a champion warrior, ferocious with his battleaxe and fists. There was a kind of comedy to play-acting as Nutmeg’s bodyguard. A lovely kind of irony.
Nutmeg disguised himself appropriately and took the lead. That, too, was fine. For now. There would be time to assert his own plans once the dwarf became accustomed to his presence. Nutmeg elbowed his way to the front of the queue, passing harried merchants and errand-runners alike, until they stood before the guards at the gate.
“I simply must enter!” declared Nutmeg, to everyone around him. “There’s been a dreadful mix-up, and my very important chandelier has been mis-labeled and mis-delivered! I must be let in! I demand it!”
The guards, who looked as though they might fall asleep at any given minute, looked Nutmeg and Gel up and down. “Who’re you?” asked one, a man nearing fifty with a potbelly and a too-small uniform.
“I am -” Nutmeg paused. Clearly, the dwarf hadn’t thought this far ahead. Amateur. Gel knew all about creating false identities. You had to start with a name. “I am Allspice, the well-known, very reputable merchant, and I insist on being let in to the warehouses!”
“No entry,” said the guard.
“Not even…for this?” Nutmeg produced a stack of gold coins. The guard rolled his eyes.
“Been bribed by smarter merchants than you. All processing requests have to go through the city Trade Bureau. Missing Goods is on form 11-A. See you in two weeks.”
“Two weeks!” Nutmeg’s eyes bulged. He was doing a pretty good job. Maybe overacting a little. He looked ready to pop. Gel put a hand on Nutmeg’s shoulder.
“Master,” he said, affecting an accent he’d picked up from a low-caste elf in Elfstone Rush, “please, do not over-exert yourself. You remember what the medical advisers said. Come. I will see to the paperwork.”
Nutmeg hesitated for a moment; Gel couldn’t tell if that was good acting or the dwarf’s natural reluctance to listen to other people. But he nodded, and they took their leave of the guards, although not without some threats from Nutmeg to “speak to the supervisor, whomever that may be!”
Gel led the dwarf around the corner, out of sight of the main gate to the southside warehouses. Beggars and poor folk hung about the base of the wall; some had erected little shanties and lean-tos. On seeing Nutmeg, the hoi polloi stirred.
“Well, that doesn’t seem like a productive avenue,” said Nutmeg. “Did you have something else in mind?”
“Why use the front door?” Gel shrugged. “In my experience, it’s easier to, you know, take a back route.”
“Is there a back door?”
“There’s always a back door. To be clear, I don’t mean that literally. I mean we will make our own back door.”
“Aw, hell yeah, dude. Explosives?”
“Subtler.” Gel swung his pack to the ground and pulled out a length of hempen rope. “I never leave home without it,” he said.
“Hmm.” Nutmeg eyed the wall. “Not a lot to hook onto there. What are you thinking?”
“Easier to watch. Come on. Let’s find a less crowded spot.”
That, in and of itself, was a tall order. Dwarroway appeared to have a homelessness problem. It made sense. Land was cheaper here than in the interior of the Hegemony, but work was scarcer and farther-flung. The city wasn’t quite the industrial job center of, say, Eldar’s Mount. Although some of these indigent types seemed capable of creative construction. They came round the back end of the fortification, and were met by a lean-to that stretched more than halfway up the wall, not so different from scaffolding, reinforced by mismatched timbers and bricks. The residents of this makeshift high-rise peered down from on high.
“Okay, this helps.”
“Agreed. Nutmeg, you want to use the city guard disguise?”
“Nah, peep this.” Nutmeg spoke the command word and changed to a suit of black leathers, not too different from Gel’s own. “Hey, folks,” he said, to the temporary residents of the scaffold. “My buddy and I are going to break in there and steal some valuables. You want some?”
The residents conferred. It didn’t take long. “Yeah, sure,” said a woman with a missing eye and a bad set of burns. “Grab us something good. Need to use the tower?”
“Yeah, this thing’s dope,” said Nutmeg. “Appreciate it. Tell you what. A little pay in advance.” He distributed a handful silver coins to each of the tower’s residents, nine folk in all.
“Not gold?” asked the woman. “Come on.”
“Gold’s more suspicious for you lot,” Nutmeg explained. “Guards’ll look for someone with new gold. They won’t be looking for silver.”
Gel led the way up the tower. The residents had added simple ladders – crude, but they got the job done. At the top, he was still a good eight feet below the tip of the wall. But it was more do-able now.
“You’ve got good street instincts, Nutmeg,” he said, as he wound the rope into a loose hoop. “Personal experience?”
The dwarf nodded. “Yeah. Lucy didn’t give you my background?”
“She mentioned that she hired you to polish her shoes and carry her shit.”
Gel eyed the walltop. From here, he had a better sense of the crags and crannies. Not the easiest climb in the world, but not the hardest he’d done by far. He swung the rope high with a flick of the wrist and lassoed a chunk of weathered stone. Gel scaled the wall quickly, using the rope as a brace to walk up the stone. There were some adjustments to make once at the top – Nutmeg was a heavy guy, for such a short dwarf – but it took no time to haul him up and over.
They’d come over the wall behind a warehouse. A huge warehouse. More warehouses stretched out – twenty in all, if not more, oriented around a central road. The place was definitely bustling. Wagons came in through the gate, directed by a clerk in an orange vest to their appropriate warehouse, where teams of burly workers unloaded the goods. A few guards lazed around, but nothing Gel couldn’t handle.
“Alright. We’re in.” Nutmeg shaded his eyes. “Fuck. That’s a lot of stuff to sort through.”
“Hmm.” Gel watched the road. “Let’s get off the walltop. Then we’ll figure it out.”
They jumped down. Gel lightly, Nutmeg less so. In the shadows behind the warehouse, Gel felt at home. In the dark. There were windows high in the warehouses, and back doors marked with exit signs.
“So now what’s your plan?”
“Wait until nightfall. Break into the warehouses, systematically. Check for signs of kobolds.”
“Listen, I respect your noble profession, blah blah blah, but that’s dumb as shit.”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“Yeah.” Nutmeg pointed over Gel’s shoulder. “Let’s follow that guy.”
A hooded figure no taller than Nutmeg was hurrying down the back alley, back towards Gel and Nutmeg. A yellow scaly tail swished out from under the hem of the cloak.
“Okay,” said Gel. “Yes. That makes sense. Kind of a freebie.”
“Don’t look a gift kobold in the mouth, dude.”
Chapter 3 – In Which Benny Is Implicated
Gel tailed the kobold. Nutmeg followed. The little guy led them around the perimeter of the warehouses, to another building further down the line. He produced a key and let himself in through a back door, and then they were alone.
Nutmeg had to admit, he was enjoying Gel’s company. The elf was good, but not threateningly so. There was definitely something off about the dude – he had a weird affect, sort of detatched. But thus far, it was all working out. He had to wonder if the elf was as good with his weapons as he claimed. Anyone could say they were a contract killer, a hired assassin. But was he? Was he really? Or was just he just a guy who liked playing dress-up? Either way, he was fun. And that was what mattered.
The elf handled the climby shit again, threading a rope skillfully up to the window and ensuring it could hold Nutmeg’s weight. Nutmeg hadn’t bothered to bring his new battleaxe, but he did have two daggers at his belt. That would be good enough for now. Besides, Gel was carrying enough weaponry for a small army.
“It’s just two kobolds in there,” said Gel, who was perched outside the window, peering in. “Want to ask them some questions?”
“Fuck yeah. Bust the window.”
Gel’s version of “busting” the window involved a slim pick and some jimmying, but before Nutmeg could suggest an alternate plan (smash), the elf had the window up. Silently. Spooky guy.
The kobolds never knew what hit them.
Gel went in first. He vaulted through the open window and sprang lightly to the ground, unsheathing a pair of blades as he landed. Nutmeg tried to spring lightly. His was more of a crash landing. The two kobolds turned to run, flinging clipboards and pencils to the ground. Gel caught one of them, pinning it down, swords to its neck. Nutmeg sprinted after the other and tackled it bodily, wrapping his arms around its midsection. The creature smelled bad. All lizards did. Except Pierre, who was perfect. Nutmeg cupped a hand around the kobold’s snout and whispered “Try to resist, and I’ll rip your jaw off.”
The warehouse was jam-packed with crates and barrels, each marked with sets of squiggles, numbers, and lines. Nutmeg gestured to a nearby box. “Who wants to tell me what’s going on?”
“Say nothing, Nimtuk!” hissed the one pinioned by Gel. “Hold firm!”
“I wouldn’t pay him any mind, Nimtuk,” said Nutmeg. “Here’s the thing. We’re really just asking some questions. No need for this to get weird. You the guys who brought in the boxes on the river barge last night? Through the north gate?”
“No,” spat Nimtuk. “Velkutt, we will resist! Stay strong, egg-brother!”
“Well, sure, that makes sense,” said Nutmeg, tightening his grip on Nimtuk’s neck. He was sitting on the warehouse floor, with the kobold held almost on his lap. “Those were probably the out-of-town partners, yeah? You guys are the Dwarroway side of the operation. What are you smuggling?”
“Not smuggling! Legitimate operation!”
Gel sighed. “Nutmeg, I respect your patience, but I think we can move this along a little faster.”
“You might be right. Hey, Nimtuk, Velkutt – guys, we need some answers. My friend here is pretty unpredictable, and he’s getting impatient. So for your sake and mine, please, cooperate.”
“Never!” cried Velkutt.
Gel brought down his shortsword like a cleaver on the kobold’s bare foot. A toe went flying. Before the kobold could scream, Gel pinned his mouth shut. “Nimtuk, I’ll keep taking toes until we get somewhere.”
“Man, what is it with you and Lucy and toes?” asked Nutmeg.
“Runs in the family.”
“You’re not – okay, sure, fine. What’ll it be, Nimtuk?”
“Fine.” The kobold sagged. The sight of his comrade’s blood seemed to cool his stubborn resistance. “Weapons, mostly. Some ore, some…assorted goods, but mostly weapons.”
“Weapons!” Nutmeg chuckled. “What’s the plan? Overthrow the government?”
“How should I know?” Nimtuk seemed almost hurt. “I am a simple, hardworking businessman, facing discrimination and repression.”
“Granted,” said Nutmeg. “Honestly, I got nothing against kobolds. But you’re going to have to do better than that. Who buys the weapons?”
“Lots of people.”
Velkutt lost another toe.
“Fine! But you’ll be sorry you asked. I’m only trying to protect you.”
“The main buyer…” the kobold paused. For a plain businessman, he had a flair for the dramatic. “…is the Duke of Dwarroway.”
“Huh?” Nutmeg stretched his back. This position was getting uncomfortable. “Dwarroway doesn’t have a Duke.”
“Oh, yes it does. He’s the man. The head guy. The big cheese. Organized crime in Dwarroway doesn’t exist without the Duke.”
“Okay, cool, noted. How do we find him?”
“I woudn’t know. No, no no hang on!” he shouted, as Gel raised his dagger to take a third toe from Velkutt. “Really! I don’t! He buys through a series of fronts! Shops, merchants, things like that!”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. Who’s buying this shipment? These weapons?”
“A lot of them are going to Benny’s Discount Hurtmakers. He’s a reliable dude.”
“And he gives them to the Duke?”
“How should I know? That’s not my end of the production chain.”
“Where do the weapons even come from?”
Nimtuk shrugged, or tried to. “What does it matter? The mountains. My clans. Kobolds face significant discrimination in so-called civilized lands. We have to eke out a living however we can.”
“I mean, look, that’s fair.” Nutmeg sighed. “Gel, whaddya think? I hate to kill them after they’ve been so helpful.”
“Hmm.” Gel looked like he disagreed. “They’ve seen our faces.”
“Who’re they gonna tell? The guards?”
“This Duke guy, probably.”
“No no!” said Nimtuk, quickly. “Look, you guys seem like you could get involved with the organization, all things considered. I can try to hook you up with a job.”
“Sorry,” said Nutmeg, producing his Hegemony badge, “but I’m already full-time.”
“Ah, fuck,” said Nimtuk.
“The kobold raises a good point,” said Gel. “Are we looking for a job? Money? What’s the objective?”
“Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. I was just fucking around. But now I’m thinking…well, tell me if this sounds crazy.”
“We take down organized crime in Dwarroway.”
“What?” said Nimtuk.
“Augh,” moaned Velkutt.
“Sure,” said Gel. “Why not?”
“That is the best reason to do something.” Nutmeg shoved Nimtuk off him and stood, drawing his dagger. “Here’s the deal, lizard boys. We’re going to tie you up, gag you, and leave you in the warehouse. Nothing personal, just don’t want any chance that you’ll squeal anytime soon. But keep us in mind if you ever need someone to buy weapons and shit.”
“Your moral compass is very confusing,” observed Nimtuk.
“My moral compass always points towards fun,” replied Nutmeg. “Gel, get your rope. And, uh, let’s wrap up that dude’s toe-stumps. I don’t want him bleeding out.”
Chapter 4 – In Which Benny is Adjudicated
Gel kept the toes.
“What do you plan on doing with those?” asked Nutmeg, as they made their way into the heart of the city, away from the warehouse district.
“Not sure yet. But you never know. Inspiration comes from the most unexpected places.”
“Like lizard toes.”
Benny’s Discount Hurtmakers was located close to the central square. City council was just letting out, and the councilors were all spilling out into the streets, accompanied by entourages, guards, and the various hangers-on of bureaucracy. Gel, it turned out, had done his homework, and pointed out the various councilors to Nutmeg as they waited for the throngs to pass. He indicated a trio of halfling councilors, all dressed in fine brocade, stout and jovial. Two men and a woman. “Jert Gommo, Felwa Diggle, and Jim Thackarack,” said Gel. “I’ve heard their names before. Connections all across the Hegemony.”
“Halfling ties run deep.”
More councilors poured out. A man as large as a bull and as powerfully-built; a representative from the druidic orders with a councilor’s badge emerged, deep in conversation with a pale, drawn mystic. Last of all came Lobo Terlethian, walking this time, laughing at something said by a fellow councilor with a lyrelele slung across his back. A guard captain with a handlebar mustache followed closely behind, eyeing the crowd the way Nutmeg eyed the written word. He looked familiar, that man. Something about the mustache. It was not a forgettable mustache.
But then the crowd closed, and they were on their way again.
Gel insisted on setting up a stakeout. He’d seemed pretty keen on the idea back at the warehouses. They found a convenient alley – there were always convenient alleys in Dwarroway – and hid behind a rubbish heap, watching the front door to Benny’s Discount Hurtmakers.
It was a pretty hopping business, all things considered. No forge attached, so clearly Benny wasn’t making his own Hurtmakers. Lots of common folk came in and out – construction workers, fruit vendors, the proles and peons. When they emerged, they were carrying cheap-looking daggers, brass knuckles, clubs, and, occasionally, something a little larger, like a handaxe or a machete.
“This is really a criminal kingpin?” asked Nutmeg. “Some guy named Benny selling, basically, street fight shit?”
“It’s a good front,” said Gel, with admiration in his voice. “Doesn’t appear too profitable, but does enough business to not arouse suspicion.”
They’d only been watching for about half an hour when a familiar figure came up the road and entered the shop. One of the councilors. The big man, big as a bull.
“Think he needs some discount daggers?”
“Doubt it. I’m going in. Cover me.”
“What does that even mean in this context?”
Gel didn’t answer, but strolled as casually as possible to the door of the shop and, whistling with a perfectly-affected air of nonchalance, entered. Nutmeg followed.
The inside was crowded with all sorts of weapons. None looked particularly impressive. There was a box of daggers – just a big box of identical, loose iron daggers, all with the same plain crossguard and same half-dull blade. Stranger things lay under a glass display case at the counter – daggers painted with vibrant, aggressive colors; daggers with little notches cut into them to look dangerous and radical; brass knuckles with little skulls on the knuckletips. Kitsch and garbage. Nutmeg pretended to sift through the box of daggers while they eavesdropped on the councilor. He was speaking to the shopekeep, who must have been Benny. Benny was a rat-faced little dude, weasly and thin, with sunken eyes and a pouty, frowny mouth.
“What’s the buy?” asked Benny.
“Three crates,” said the councilor, in a deep, sonorous voice. “Lots of daggers for all my nieces and nephews.”
“Birthdays coming up,” Benny replied, knowlingly. “That’ll be…” he did some quick counting on his fingers. “One thousand, six hundred and eighty-six gold pieces.”
“Daggers are getting expensive these days,” grumbled the councilor. From a sizable purse, he produced a pile of platinum and gold pieces. “Ought to cover it,” he said. “How’s your cousin?”
Benny began counting. “Lenny? Ah, he’s good. Got a wife and two kids now. Can you believe it? Time flies.”
Gel slipped over to Nutmeg. “Seems like a lot, even for daggers.”
“If they’re comparable to these,” said Nutmeg, “then we wouldn’t be talking any more than, say, a hundred gold a crate. Something else going on.”
“After the councilor leaves, I’m going to lock the door.” Gel gestured to the counter. “You handle Benny.”
If Benny noticed them, he didn’t let on. They were the only customers in the store, aside from the large councilor. “Same delivery address?” asked Benny.
“Yes indeed, my man will meet your man at the gate.”
“Splendid. Farewell, Dalacious.”
Gel was in position. As soon as the door closed behind Dalacious the councilor, Nutmeg beelined for the counter.
“Can I help y-”
Nutmeg grabbed Benny by the shirtcollar and hauled him over the counter and onto the floor. It was a little awkward, because Benny was tall and Nutmeg was short. Benny kicked out and broke the glass display case, sending tchotchkes and unimpressive knives skittering across the floor. He wriggled. Nutmeg wrapped his arm around Benny’s neck. He went limp. His dead weight was more than enough to hold the shopkeep down. Benny writhed. He stank of cheap soap. The rough wool of his shirt scratched Nutmeg’s arms something fierce.
“Yeah, you can help me,” said Nutmeg. Gel returned from locking the door. “I’m looking for a guy named Benny who sells smuggled weapons to, apparently, city councilors. Know him?”
“Hey, hey, woah. Woah. Hold on. Smuggled is a strong word. This is all perfectly legal. Sounds like there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“So, kobolds unloading shit under the cover of darkness is ‘legal?’”
“We talked to Nimtuk and Velkutt,” said Gel. He held up one of Velkutt’s toes. “This is what’s left of them.”
“Ah, shit. Ah shit. Shit shit.” All the color had drained from Benny’s face. “Who sent you guys? It’s not Yuktusk, is it? That fucking orc has been up my nuts all year.”
Nutmeg produced his badge. Gel flashed a badge, too.
“Oh sweet, Mister E gave you one too?”
“Lucy lent me hers.”
“I’ll tell you anything,” pleaded Benny. “I’m an honest businessman, I swear. Just caught up in some bad elements.”
“Uh huh. Why did you charge the councilor sixteen hundred gold for, let’s face it, three crates of letter openers?”
“Are you familiar with…mister dusty?”
Nutmeg’s eyes lit up. “Hell yeah!” He pulled out his little pouch he’d gotten from Roscoe a while back. “Love this stuff.” He dipped his finger in and rubbed a little on his gums. His mouth felt a little numb. “Is that what’s going on here? Straight up drug dealing?”
“You make it sound tame.”
“I mean, not gonna lie, I was hoping for something a little spicier. But who supplies you with the drugs?”
“Hey, Nutmeg, I’ll be right back,” said Gel. The elf pointed to a door in the back of the shop. “You got an office back there, Benny my man?”
“Neat.” Gel disappeared into the back of the shop.
Nutmeg sighed. “Benny, it’s going to be a lot easier to just talk, dude.”
“The Duke,” said the shopkeep. “The Duke. It all comes through his organization.”
“The Halfling Mafia?”
“They don’t like that name.”
“Whatever. The Duke. Great. How do I find him?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.” Benny scooted away, as Nutmeg brandished one of the cheap daggers. “Wait! No! Look. No one’s supposed to know who the Duke is. But I know his nephew. Not many people know this.”
“Jim Thackarack, a city councilor.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. This Thackarack. Where does he chill? What’s his vibe spot?”
“Are you familiar with Skeetwizard’s Shack?”
Nutmeg grinned. “Absolutely. You made my day, man.”
Gel returned from the back office carrying a little rolled-up tapestry. “Nice artwork, Benny. Worth something in resale, I’d say.”
Nutmeg whistled, but Benny frowned. “Now I had a good five thousand in that cashbox just a minute ago-”
“Nope,” said Gel. “So. Nutmeg. We good to go?”
“Yeah. What do we do with Benny?”
“Up to you, man. He’s seen our faces, though.”
“You gotta protect me,” pleaded Benny. “The Duke doesn’t forgive traitors.”
“Hmm. We don’t really have the resources to protect you. We got shit to do.” He paused. What would Sister D do? She had a pretty good moral compass, a good sense for what was right and wrong. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done, Benny?”
“The…” the man looked uneasy. “The worst thing I’ve ever done?” He frowned, then sighed. “I kicked a puppy once. In the head. Just to see what would happen. Not proud of that.”
“Damn, that’s fucked up,” said Gel, scooping some silver coins out from behind the counter.
“Yeah, I’m not really a dog guy, but that’s an unforgivable one.” Nutmeg grabbed Benny by the shirtcollar, hauled him up, and plunged the dagger into his throat. Benny died gurgling.
“There’s a back door,” said Gel, apparently unfazed. “In the office. Although I hate leaving behind a corpse this obvious.”
“I don’t know.” Nutmeg wiped his hands on his armor. “I kinda want the Duke to know we’re coming for him. I want to send a message, you know?”
“Well, if you want to send a message, there’s one very good way to do that.”
It wasn’t hard to find enough scrap wood to get some fires started. Benny’s shop was mostly timber, with stone supports at the corners and a flagstone floor. Nutmeg got a fire started after a few tries, and turned to see Gel setting his fifth. The elf was efficient. They found some booze in the back office, and, after taking a swig each, doused Benny and his counter in potent liquor. Gel struck a spark, and Benny’s body lit up. They watched for a moment as the flames grew. Nutmeg snuck a look at Gel. The elf was smiling a little, silver hair reddened by the light of the blossoming fire. He seemed like an alright dude. They were going to get along just fine.