Mr Vandair, to the shock and horror of everyone and quite possibly his own, was dead.
They found him hanging from the iron railing of his tenth-floor tower residence's balcony. Suicide was out of the question; he had a noose around his neck made out of his own intestines.
By the time Larandus arrived at the scene, the man had been well and truly dead for at least five hours. A pair of ravens had already begun to make a meal out of him. Larandus had them chased off, and the body cut down. Vandair was the ninth victim in a spate of similar hangings all across the city. Thus far, there was no pattern to them, no motive to speak of, nothing to connect the victims to each other. After nine deaths, Larandus found that disturbing.
'Search his rooms,' he said to Siel, his aide and formerly one of the most notorious manhunters of Dockside. 'I want an inventory of everything. Get Dansh up here if you can.'
While Siel did as he asked, Larandus searched the body, kneeling on the iron platform of the balcony to do it. It was unlikely that anything would be left on Vandair's person, but it never hurt to check. He knew more than one case that had been solved because of a clue left on the body. This time, he was disappointed. Nothing but an old coin, worn with age to the point where the milling had all but disappeared, and the Emperor and Eagle on its two faces had been smoothed into invisibility. Larandus pocketed it.
Standing up and wincing slightly from sore knees, Larandus went back inside the apartment. It was small: two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom around a parlour. Vandair lived alone, a merchant and ex-Imperial Army. There was an old musket resting across a pair of hooks on the wall, with a bayonet in its sheath hanging beside it. Vandair had mounted his service medals on a blackwood plaque which rested on a bookshelf. The only signs of a struggle in the room were the overturned table and chair and a spill of food nearby. The dirty work was done outside, on the balcony.
His neighbours only thought to check on him when a woman hanging her laundry out on the balcony below noticed blood dripping on her clothes. By then, the killer was long gone.
'Nothing,' Siel told him as she stepped out of the bedroom. 'Just the usual stuff: clothes, shoes, underwear of about six different girls, you know the thing.' She looked tired, her clothing accentuating the dark circles under her eyes. None of them were sleeping very well. 'Dansh is coming up now.'
'Any ideas?' he asked her. Even after fifteen years of investigative work, Larandus still valued her opinion as something of an expert in manslaughter and murder in general, having had hands-on experience in the field, as it were. It had taken a lot of convincing at gunpoint to finally turn her over to his cause. It was worth it, as he was continually reminded.
She shrugged. 'Nothing to link him to any of the others. Just killed, nothing taken. Money's still there, jewellery still there. If it was me, I'd have taken his piece, at least,' she indicated the musket. 'Old, but still pricey on the black market.'
'You're not taking anything, Siel,' Larandus told her pointedly.
'Says you,' she retorted, taking an apple from a basket in the kitchen and taking a bite out of it.
The door opened, and Dansh walked in, looking pathetic and frail in the heavy coat he affected. He was to Larandus what a mage would be to any other investigator. Because the city was blanketed by a powerful wild magic field, however, Larandus found Dansh to be far more useful than any spell-caster. A telepath, and a brutally intelligent one, at that, Dansh managed to do with his mind tricks the things that would only leave a normal wizard as a smear on the wall from backlash. Most considered him a freak, which suited Larandus' purposes fine.
'You need something,' he said, stating the obvious.
'What do you hear, Dansh?' Larandus asked him by way of reply.
The telepath paused for a moment, turning his tousle-haired head this way and that, his squinted blue eyes looking beyond the normal bounds of space and time. Larandus could tell he was using his powers, partly from nine years' work with him, but mostly because the wooden flooring he stood on had suddenly filmed over with ice.
'Nothing,' Dansh eventually remarked with a shrug. 'Unless you want to hear about psychic screams of dying people again. A lot of killing is connected with that musket.'
'As well there should be,' Larandus told him. 'Service to the Emperor, and all that. Anything else? At all?' he tapped his booted foot impatiently. Four months, and they had turned up nothing.
'I'll check his records once we're back at the office,' Dansh offered. 'I doubt there will be anything that he has in common with any of the others, besides that they breathed the same air.'
Larandus sighed in disgust. 'Alright, we're done here. Get the browncoats up to clean this mess.'
They spent the next week making inquiries and sifting through the Imperial Archives for Vandair's personal file, cross-referencing it with those of the other victims. There were tantalising clues as to possible relationships, but nothing concrete. Larandus had an affinity for making connections that others would miss, but these murders had him puzzled.
'Is it some kind of ritual?' he mused while he sat with Dansh and Siel at a small café near the old barbican. 'I don't think anything else explains the brutality of the victims' treatment. Unless it's supposed to be a deterrent.'
'They're spaced too far apart for any rituals I know of,' Dansh said, his thin fingers tapping a steady rhythm on the table. 'Not even the death-priests of Amardia do things like this, at least not without leaving obvious signs of their work.'
'Agreed,' Larandus nodded. 'Unless it's a splinter sect. How about a mob action?'
Siel shook her head this time, her pale locks waving as she did so and catching the eye of some passing workmen. Larandus envied them. Whatever thoughts he might have engendered of romance with her, for she was certainly attractive in both appearance and manner, were dispelled early on. She was a cold killer. 'None that I can think of,' she was saying. 'Besides, we've been through that possibility, boss. No mob links on any of the victims. I'd know.'
Dansh gave a sudden start, and ice momentarily coated the table near him. Larandus raised an eyebrow. 'Message from the Palace,' said Dansh. 'They found another one.'
This one was in a smeltery. His co-workers had found him hanging from a crossbeam as they were coming in for the first shift of the day, still dripping blood onto a stack of iron ingots. A search of his home turned up nothing, as with all the others.
The body was left where it was found. The local watch cordoned off the area, and the smeltery workers avoided it, hurrying past when they had no choice but to walk near it. Larandus and Siel looked at the supervisors' records, while Dansh was running an identity check remotely, communing with other telepaths in the Palace who had ready access to the Archives.
It took two hours to complete the process. Telepathic communication was not the most reliable of methods, but Larandus did not want to waste time trekking back to the Palace just to look at more files. In the time it took for Dansh to run the background check, they found scraps of information about the victim from the smeltery records.
He was Toleyn Kleis, labourer, father of two. He had made no enemies in his fifteen years at the smeltery, other than a supervisor who died of disease a few months ago. He had no criminal record to speak of, and was a diligent worker, his efforts ensuring that the Emperor's forges were stocked with metals for swords, guns and armour. That was what the boss said. Dansh's check revealed nothing else.
There were still no leads. But a flash of inspiration suddenly granted Larandus with a hunch.
Acting purely on instinct, Larandus searched the body. There was nothing.
Frustrated, he was about to walk away when he saw an odd glint of light between two ingots. Kneeling down for a closer look, he found the coin, smooth and worn. He pocketed it. Two might just be a coincidence, but he was sure that if he searched the other victims and their surroundings more carefully, he would find more.
He did. Three more coins of the same sort turned up in one day. Larandus had Dansh check them over for psychic signatures. While the telepath did so, he took Siel into the Archives to run a quick search on known groups who used similar markers to identify its members.
It took hours. Hunting through the musty caverns of shelving and filing cabinets beneath the Imperial Palace, they went back further and further into the past, taking notes on everything they came across. It was tedious work. Servants had brought down food and drinks, but they were left untouched on the large, circular table Larandus had co-opted for their use.
Finally, after records became illegible some four hundred years into the past - Larandus made a mental note that the archivists be told to restore them - they stopped. By this point they had a stack of parchment half a foot high, covered in barely legible writing. The air-ducting system was whining audibly, and from the clock near the stairwell, it was close to midnight.
'Eight groups,' he said, breaking the whining silence. 'Two of them secret societies, the rest anarchists. Only two used blank coins, both anarchist cells, and one of them disappeared forty years ago.'
Siel stared at him blankly. This work was not her sort of thing, he knew.
'If we haven't found our killer, at least we know who they're killing,' he elucidated for her. 'Next, we find out why, but we'll leave that for later. Let's go. I'm hungry.'
The raid happened at midnight, two days later. It was a ground-level apartment, and to most observers appeared to have been boarded up and abandoned for several years. The front door was jammed so that even if the wooden planks over it were removed, it would not open short of being blown out of its hinges. The other entrance, a back door opening out into a dingy alleyway, was more cooperative. At the best of times, this place was enveloped in shadow. At high noon, sunlight would struggle to reach down here, past the many bridges and clotheslines strung between neighbouring towers high above, and the ever-present smog. At night, lamplight from the street would have to be physically thrown into the alleyway and start a fire before it would penetrate the gloom.
Larandus was not at all bothered. He was used to working in dark places. As were Siel and Dansh, after working with him for so long.
There had been a guard posted in the shadows near the back door. It would have been difficult to see him even in the daytime, but he was no trouble. By the time Larandus and Dansh reached the door, Siel was already wiping the guard's blood from her knife. Larandus had Dansh scan the area with his mind, doing nothing to help the autumn chill. He shivered a little in his long, grey coat. Standing too close to a telepath at work would do that to the greatest men.
'Nothing,' Dansh said after a moment, perplexed.
Larandus cursed. 'We can't be at the wrong place. They had a guard out.'
'They might have psy-shielded the place,' Dansh explained. That was an even worse alternative for Larandus. It meant that this cell had more resources than they knew about. Moreover, it meant they had their own telepath or telepaths.
'Cover us,' he told Dansh as he pulled his revolver from its holster, checked that it was loaded, then eased his sword in its scabbard. Larandus felt the chill once more as Dansh reached out with his mind and covered the three of them against psychic detection.
Larandus kicked the door down, sending splinters of wood flying inwards as he swept the room with the nose of his revolver. 'In the name of the Emperor, surrender yourselves to his justice!' he bellowed before he could even see through the dust. There was a lamp in here, and a soft orange glow permeated the small room. There were three more guards.
Larandus shot one in the throat, his revolver kicking and making a sound like a wine glass exploding as a tongue of blue flame licked from its barrel. The guard's neck exploded in a red mist as the large calibre round tore through it. The next guard barely had the time to pull a knife from his belt before Larandus put a bullet into his chest, knocking him onto his back and leaving a gaping hole where his sternum had been. The third one had pulled an old single-shot pistol from under his battered coat, but never had the chance to fire it. From behind Larandus, Siel had put a knife into the guard's wrist. A second later, and another knife was lodged into the man's larynx.
There was another door in the room, opening out into a stairwell leading downwards. Nobody had heard the commotion, or if they had, they had wisely decided not to charge upstairs for a look.
'Let's go,' said Larandus as he hurried down the stairs, Siel behind him and Dansh at the rear. Siel had taken the pistol off the dead guard upstairs, along with some propellant charges and lead balls he had in a pouch.
The stairwell turned at least ten times before they reached the bottom of it. There was a door with a little window built into it, which could be closed with a wooden hatch. Trying it carefully, Larandus found that it was locked. He had Siel pick it while he reloaded his revolver and tried to listen to what was beyond. It was silent.
Her work done, Siel stepped back from the door. Again, Larandus kicked it open with a bang, yelling 'Interior Ministry! Hands in the air where I can see them!'
In response, the four men in the room opened fire with crossbows and pistols from behind various pieces of furniture. Larandus rolled into cover behind a filing cabinet as shots zipped through the air where his head had been a moment ago. Siel overturned a table and hid behind it, pistol in hand. Dansh remained outside the door, out of sight. Besides the four shooters, Larandus marked a cloaked and hooded figure and another man in a green coat. He had little doubt that the hooded one was a telepath. They would know that another telepath was here, but they would at least be unable to shoot Dansh. During the mad rush for cover, Larandus had lost his peaked hat.
The shooting paused for a moment while their opponents reloaded. Larandus leaned to the side, picked out a man behind another upturned table and shot him through his meagre cover. Larandus' revolver fired rounds which were better designed for penetration than their own pistols, and the bullet tore through the table. The man screamed, tried to rise again to shoot back, and Siel put a bullet into his skull. The other three leapt out of cover with swords in hand, thinking to overwhelm Larandus and Siel with numbers. The man in the green coat followed shortly after with his own sword and a pistol.
Larandus shot the first attacker in the leg as he pulled his sword from his belt. Stumbling forward, the bigger man still managed to take a swing with his sword, which was nothing more than a huge meat cleaver in Larandus' eyes. He knocked it aside with the basket hilt of his sabre, then emptied his revolver into the man's chest, reducing it to an unrecognisable pulp. The next attacker leapt over his fallen comrade and made a series of practised cuts and thrusts at Larandus, which he, no blademaster himself, parried to the best of his ability, receiving a few painful gashes for his effort. Larandus capitalised on a sudden opening and skewered the man with his sabre. On the other side of the room, Siel grappled with the last of the thugs. The telepath was nowhere to be seen, but an open door on the far side of the room showed that he had escaped. The man in the green coat was slowly backing into the opening, his pistol aimed where Larandus wisely stayed behind cover.
He was just about to enter the passage beyond when Dansh stepped into the room and froze him by some power of the mind. Pulled out of the passage as though by some unseen hand, the man was hurled through the air and against the wall as Dansh applied pressure to hold him there. Brickwork cracked under him.
While Siel finished off her attacker, Larandus stood, nodded his thanks to Dansh and calmly reloaded his revolver in front of their prisoner. He pointed it casually at the man's stomach as he fixed him with a stare as he presented his badge of office.
'I am Larandus Zekar, Imperial Service. By the mandate of the Emperor, I take you into custody. Henceforth, you have no rights. I will demand answers and you will provide them. Do you understand?'
The man had fainted. Dansh released him, and he fell clumsily to the floor.
'Take him away,' said Larandus.