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In this brilliant sequel to actor Luke Arnold’s debut The Last Smile in Sunder City, a former soldier turned PI solves crime in a world that’s lost its magic.
The name’s Fetch Phillips — what do you need?
Cover a Gnome with a crossbow while he does a dodgy deal? Sure. Find out who killed Lance Niles, the big-shot businessman who just arrived in town? I’ll give it shot. Help an old-lady Elf track down her husband’s murderer? That’s right up my alley.
What I don’t do, because it’s impossible, is search for a way to bring the goddamn magic back.
Rumors got out about what happened with the Professor, so now people keep asking me to fix the world. But there’s no magic in this story. Just dead friends, twisted miracles, and a secret machine made to deliver a single shot of murder.
Welcome back to the streets of Sunder City, a darkly imagined world perfect for readers of Ben Aaronovitch and Jim Butcher.
Praise for Dead Man in a Ditch:
“Superb… With a lead who would be at home in the pages of a Raymond Chandler or James Ellory novel and a nicely twisty plot, this installment makes a strong case for Arnold’s series to enjoy a long run.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Arnold’s universe has everything, including the angst of being human. The perfect story for adult fantasy fans–a tough PI and a murder mystery wrapped around the mysticism of Hogwarts, sprinkled with faerie dust.” ―Library Journal (starred review)
Fetch Phillips Novels
The Last Smile in Sunder City
Dead Man in a Ditch
One Foot in the Fade
I was as cold as a corpse in the snow. Cold as a debt collector’s handshake. Cold like the knife so sharp you don’t feel it till it twists. Cold like time. Cold as an empty bed on a Sunday night. Colder than that cup of tea you made four hours ago and forgot about. Colder than the dead memory you’ve tried to keep alive for too long.
I was so cold, I found myself wishing that someone would fire up the lantern I was sitting in and roast me like a chestnut. Of course, that was impossible. There hadn’t been fire in the lamp for over six years. The open-topped torch used to be one of the largest lights in Sunder City, shining brightly over the stadium during night games. Now, it was just a big ugly stick with a cup at the top.
The field had been built above the very first fire pit. During construction, it was an open chasm to the maelstrom below. Once they’d installed the pipes that carried the flames through town, they’d decided that it wasn’t safe to leave a gaping hole to hell right at the entrance to the city. They covered it over, and nobody was permitted to build on that plot of land.
Instead, kids used it as a sports field. It was unofficial at first, but then the city installed stands and bleachers, and it eventually became the Sunder City Stadium.
When the Coda killed the magic, the flames beneath the city died too. That meant no heating in town, no lights on Main Street, and no chance of fire coming up between my legs. I was huddled in the cone at the top of the pole with my arms wrapped around myself, ducking down out of the wind.
I hadn’t thought about the wind when I’d taken the job. That was stupid because the wind ruined everything. It pushed the cold down my collar and up my sleeves. It shook the lamppost back and forth so I was always waiting for it to bend, snap, and send me crashing to the ground. Most importantly, it made the crossbow in my hands completely useless.
I was supposed to be watching over my client, ready to fire off a warning shot if he gave me a signal that the deal wasn’t going smoothly. But firing into this gale, it would be either pushed down into the snow or flung up into orbit.
My employer was a Gnome named Warren. He was down below in his trademark white suit, blending into the snowy ground. The only source of light was the lantern he’d hung off the gatepost.
We’d been waiting for half an hour, him down between the bleachers, me up in my metal ice-cream cone. I tried to remember if this is what I’d planned for when I became a Man for Hire. I thought I was going to help those whose lives I’d ruined. Do things for them that they could no longer do for themselves. I doubted that covering a Gnome during an illegal exchange reached the noble heights I’d had in mind.
I’d chewed through half a packet of Clayfields, knowing it was a bad idea. They were painkillers, supposed to make me numb, but the cold had already killed the feeling in my fingers and toes, so numbing was the last thing I needed.
Finally, from the other end of the field, a figure crossed the halfway line. She was wrapped up far more sensibly than I was: thick jacket, coat, scarf, beret, boots and gloves. The metal case she carried at her side was about the size of a toaster.
Warren stepped out from the bleachers, holding his hat in his hands so that it wouldn’t blow away.
They stepped close to each other and it would have been impossible to hear their conversation over that distance even without the howling wind. I brought up my crossbow and rested it on the lip of the cone, pretending that my presence at the meeting wasn’t a complete waste of time.
Back when there was magic, I would have had access to all kinds of miraculous inventions: Goblin-made hand grenades, bewitched ropes and exploding potions. Now the only thing that could take someone down over distance was a bolt, an arrow or a well-thrown rock.
Warren reached into his jacket and pulled out an envelope. I had no idea how many bronze bills were inside. I didn’t know what was in the case either. I knew nothing, which put me on familiar ground.
The woman gave Warren the case. He handed her the envelope. Then they both stood opposite each other while she counted her cash and he unlocked the box.
When the woman turned and walked away, I dragged the weapon back from the edge and curled up into a ball, breathing into my hands.
Then, Warren was screaming.
When I looked back over, he was waving his hat above his head. That was the signal, but the woman was already halfway across the field.
“It’s bullshit!” screamed the Gnome. “Kill her!”
Let’s be clear about two things: one, I never agreed to kill anybody; two, shooting women in the back isn’t really my bag. But if I didn’t at least look like I was trying to stop her, I’d have to give up my fee and the whole night would be for nothing. I crouched down, aimed the crossbow a few feet behind the fleeing lady and fired.
I tried to shoot a spot in the snow that she’d already passed, as if I’d misjudged her speed. Unfortunately for me (and the fugitive) the wind changed direction while the bolt was in the air.
From out in the darkness, I heard a yelp and then a thump as she fell into the snow.
“Yes! You got her, Fetch! Well done!”
Warren grabbed his lantern and ran off, leaving me in the dark while he cursed her and she cursed him and I cursed myself.
By the time I’d climbed down the ladder and made my way over to Warren, he’d already snatched back the envelope and was putting the boot in. I pulled him back, and he tumbled onto his ass. Since he was only three feet tall, it wasn’t much of a drop.
“Quit it. You’ve got your money back, don’t you?”
I’d hit her right calf. The bolt wasn’t in too deep, but a good amount of blood was dripping onto the snow. When she tried to turn over, it twisted the muscles around her injury. I put a hand on her shoulder to hold her still.
“Miss, you don’t want to—”
“No!” She span around, lashing me across the face. A line of pain ripped through my skin. Her claws were out, sticking through the tips of her fine gloves and shining in the lantern light. She was a Werecat. When I reached for my face, I felt blood.
“Damn it, lady. I’m trying to help you.”
“Aren’t you the one that shot me?”
“That was two whole minutes ago. Don’t hold a grudge.”
I crept closer again and, this time, she managed not to swat me. She looked Human, other than the claws and a glowing set of cat’s eyes. No fur or other obvious animal traits. Her hair was long, dark and tied back in thick dreadlocks.
“Hold still for a moment,” I said, pulling out my knife. She did as I asked, allowing me to slice the cuff of her trousers up to the point where the bolt had gone through them. The wind and thick material had slowed down my shot so that it only went a couple of inches into her flesh. I pulled out a clean handkerchief and my pack of Clayfields. “Anyone got any alcohol?”
Warren reached into his jacket and fished out a silver flask. I took a sip that warmed my insides.
“What is it?”
“Brandy. My wife makes it.”
I splashed it onto the bleeding leg and wiped it dry with the handkerchief. The Werecat gritted her teeth but thankfully didn’t attack.
I pulled one Clayfield out the pack and put it between her lips.
“Bite down on the end and suck. Your tongue will go numb but that means it’s working.”
Her eyes were yellow-green and full of loathing.
“I wouldn’t mind getting my ass out of this snow,” she said.
“Let me do one thing first.”
I crushed the whole pack of Clayfields in my fist. There were still a dozen twigs inside, so when I pushed the cardboard together and rubbed it, I turned them into a paste. The goo slid out of the packet, onto the wound, and I smooshed it around the bolt, trying not to get it on my fingers.
“Is that helping?”
I helped her up onto her one good foot, put an arm around her back, and we stumbled over to the bleachers. She laid down on her stomach while I sat on the bench below and went about removing the bolt.
“Warren, what was she selling you anyway?”
The Gnome was sitting away from us, sulking, but he opened up the case. Inside, there was something that looked like a crystal flower with multitudes of thin petals that spiraled into a sharp point. It was sitting in the metal box on a velvet cushion and I had no idea what it was.
“Some kind of jewel?” I asked.
“Not even,” said Warren. “Just glass.”
“Then why did you want it?”
“I did not want it! I wanted the real thing.”
“The real what?”
Warren slammed the box shut in frustration.
I stopped working. The Gnome and the Cat sent their eyes to the floor, rightfully embarrassed.
The story goes that there was once a tree whose roots reached so deep into the planet that they touched the great river itself. One spring, the branches bore a crop of rare apples infused with sacred power. When a herd of wild horses passed beneath the tree, they fed upon that fruit and the magic caused spirals of purple mist to spin out from their foreheads.
They were rarely seen and universally protected. The idea that someone would hunt one down to take the horn from its head was barbaric. I looked down at the Cat-lady.
“You’ve come to Sunder to sell shit like this?” I asked. She didn’t say anything, so I poked my finger into her leg.
“Ecchh!” She pushed herself up on her hands and hissed at me. Her claws reappeared out the ends of her gloves, but it was only a threat. For now.
“Where are you getting Unicorn horn?” I asked. “And lie back down or I won’t be able to get this bolt out.”
She rested her head on her hands.
“I’m not getting it from anywhere. It’s just like the Gnome told you. I made it with glass. It’s a fake.”
At least she hadn’t actually been out in the wilderness slaughtering legendary beasts for a bit of bronze. But that was only part of the problem.
“Warren, what do you want with it?”
The little fellow was hunched over, grumbling away in his native tongue.
He didn’t look up, but he spat out an answer.
“I am dying,” he said. The wind went quiet.
“We’re all dying, Warren.”
“But I am dying soon, and it is not going to feel so good.” He lifted up his hands in front of his face, opening and closing them like he was squeezing two invisible stress balls. “I can feel my bones. My joints. They are… rusting. Cracking into pieces. Doctor says there is nothing to be done. We little folk had magic in our bodies. Without it, something inside does not know how to work.” He put a hand on the case that held the false horn. “I found a new doctor who told me that there is power in certain things. He said that a horn is a piece of pure magic and if I bring him one, perhaps he can put some of that power back into me.”
I bit my tongue to stop myself from saying the obvious – that he was a gullible fool who was only making things worse for himself. If he was sick, then the last thing he needed was to be out in the cold on a night like tonight, looking for a piece of the impossible.
I couldn’t keep my mouth shut for long.
“Warren, you know that’s ridiculous, right?”
He didn’t say anything. Neither did the woman. I took out the bolt and tied up the wound so the woman could put some weight on it when we walked back to town. The Werecat and the Gnome didn’t say anything else, and I finally learned to do the same.
We were back in the guts of Sunder City around midnight. Warren paid me what I was owed and sulked home. Then it was just me and the Cat.
“How’s the leg holding up?” I asked.
“Lucky for you, it feels terrible.”
“Because I have a swelling desire to kick you in the teeth.”
When we hit Main Street, she told me she’d be all right on her own. I guessed that she just didn’t want me knowing where she lived. I was fine with that. I was freezing and fresh out of painkillers, so I wanted to be fast asleep before the medicine wore off.
“Make sure you get a real doctor to look at that,” I said.
“No shit. I can probably catch an infection just by looking at you.”
She meant it as a joke, but she wasn’t too wrong. My building hadn’t had hot water since the fires went out. In winter, it takes a stronger man than me to wash every day.
“But thanks,” she added. “If I had to be shot by someone tonight, at least it was a guy who was willing to patch me up afterwards. What’s your name?”
“Fetch Phillips. Man for Hire.”
She shook my hand and I felt the tips of those claws rest against my skin.
The night had worked out about as well as it could have. She’d tried to put one over on us, we’d caught her out, she’d gotten an injury in exchange for our wasted time and we all got to go home to bed. It was fair, somehow. Fairer than we’d come to expect.
She walked up Main Street, one hand resting against the wall, and I thought she’d given me just the right amount of trouble as long as I never had to deal with her again.
But Sunder City makes a few things without fail: hunger in winter, drunks at night and trouble all year round.
The piss in my chamber pot was frozen.
I hadn’t really been sleeping, just scrunched up, wearing every item of clothing I owned, pretending I was dead until the sun came up.
I slipped out of bed and forced my double-socked feet into my boots. When I first moved into my office/apartment/icebox, I’d liked the idea of being on the fifth floor. The view was high enough to make me feel like I was looking over the whole city, and the fall out the Angel door would be hard enough to kill me if I dived out of there head first. It’s just one of those little touches that makes a house a home.
Sunder was a sprawling city, though not particularly tall. That meant that my building made an impressive lookout, but it also caught the full force of the wind. The breeze came in through cracks around the windows and the gaps between the bricks. It even forced its way into the room below and came up through the floorboards. I was going to patch the place up when I had the time. Just like I was going to get a haircut and stop drinking and sew up the holes in my trousers before they completely fell apart.
The cuts to my face had been worse than I’d thought. The morning after my trip to the stadium, I’d asked Georgio, the owner of the café at the bottom of the building, to put in some stitches. His shaking hands only made the blood flow faster so I told him to forget about it. Four days had passed since then. Now, I had four red-brown lines down the right side of my face and was hoping they wouldn’t scar.
I didn’t have my own bathroom. Hence the chamber pot. I picked it up and opened the door to the waiting room and almost bumped into a woman. She was standing there, caught out, like she’d just changed her mind about knocking but hadn’t gotten away fast enough.
It was Linda Rosemary.
She was wrapped up in the same set of sensible clothes she’d been wearing the other night: red overcoat, houndstooth scarf and a black, woolen beret off to one side. The first time I’d seen her, it was night and she was covered in snow. I hadn’t noticed how tired and broken everything was. On her hands she wore thick, black gloves that favored warmth over dexterity, and there was a flush in her cheeks that complimented the mist coming out of her mouth. Her eyes fell on the cold block of ice I was holding out between us.
“You making coffee?”
I lifted up the pot, attempting to hide the contents.
“Yesterday’s. It’s gone bad.”
She wrinkled up her nose. “Smells like piss.”
My embarrassed smile revealed the truth in her statement. We both stood there for a second with awkward expressions stuck on our faces.
“You… want to come in?”
She took a long, painful beat. Her eyes wandered from my face to the chamber pot to the office behind me. My bed was still down from the wall, unmade. There were dirty glasses on the desk and a trail of ants passing crumbs across the floor. I’m not sure what they’d found because I hadn’t had a meal at home in weeks.
Linda stood rigid with indecision, like when you try to feed a wild animal from your fingers and it has to fight against all its natural instincts if it wants to take the food. Eventually she said, “What the hell,” to herself and stepped inside.
She limped a little as she entered, then wiped down the clients’ chair with a handkerchief. I ran around behind her, stuffing dirty underwear and tissues into my pockets.
“After the other night,” she said, “I asked around—”
The Angel door was behind my desk. A remnant of the old days when the world was magic and a few lucky souls might arrive at your house by a set of wings instead of the stairs. I pulled it open and the wind hit me in the face like a hired goon collecting on a loan. I put the chamber pot out on the porch, wiped my hands on my coat and closed the door again. When I turned around, Linda’s face was full of regret.
“Sorry,” I said. “I rarely have guests so early.”
She pulled a pocket watch out of her overcoat.
“I’m sure it is. How’s the leg?”
“Stitched up like a sailcloth. How’s your face?”
“I think there’s still some of it stuck under your fingernails. Isn’t it fashionable to file those things down?”
She unwrapped the scarf from around her neck.
“I detest that custom. Werecats only trim their claws when they’re around other species. My ancestors made their home in the icy hills of Weir. We had our own kingdom. Our own rules. Now that the Coda killed all that, I’ve been forced to come here.”
I couldn’t stop my eyes from wandering. Her skin was smooth, and every movement she made was graceful. Her teeth, though she barely showed them, all seemed to be accounted for.
“If you don’t mind me saying, Miss Rosemary, you came out of the Coda pretty darn well.”
It wasn’t exactly a compliment and, from her expression, she didn’t take it as one.
“My sister died halfway through the transformation with her brain trying to be two different sizes at once. My father’s face was inside out. He lived for a week, silent, being fed through a straw till something in him snapped. There were twenty of us in our house. I cared for all of them, for as long as I could, till I was the only one left. I walked away from my home and eventually ended up here. I know that I’m one of the lucky ones, Mr Phillips, but I’m sorry if you don’t find me jumping for joy.”
There was a long pause as she let her story sink in to my thick skull. Outside, the wind picked up. The chamber pot scraped along the porch and slid off. A few seconds later, there was a clang down below and someone shouted a few obscenities to the sky.
Her expression never changed. When all was quiet, she continued.
“After the other night, I asked around about you. Heard some interesting stories.”
“Really? Nobody has ever accused me of being interesting.”
Not exactly true. The story of the Human who escaped the walls of Weatherly to join the Opus does have a few exciting moments. Not quite as juicy as the sequel, when that same kid handed the most prized magical secrets over to the Human Army. Then there’s the big finale, when the Humans used those secrets to drain the world of magic.
“I’ve been trying to work out what it is you do,” she said. “You’re not a detective. Not a bodyguard. Then someone told me that you investigate rumors of returning magic.”
“I don’t know who told you that, but they’re wrong.”
That rumor wasn’t just wrong, it was dangerous. Everybody knew that the magic was over and there wasn’t any way to bring it back. My job might be a strange one, but I certainly didn’t go around selling pipe dreams to dying creatures like she’d tried to do with the Unicorn horn.
“Apparently you found a Vampire a few months ago,” she continued. “A professor who managed to find his strength again.”
I wanted to lie, but the shock on my face had already given me away. Nobody was supposed to know about Professor Rye, the Vampire who turned himself into a monster, and nobody was supposed to come knocking at my door looking for answers.
“I heard that the Vampire found a way to turn back the clock. He unlocked his old power and you’re the one who tracked him down and discovered how he did it. You know a secret that the rest of the world would kill for,” she put her hands on my desk, tapping her claws against the woodwork, “and I want to know what it is.”
My body tensed. The determined look on her face had hardened and, I have to admit, she scared me.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you that.”
We stared each other down and I hoped I wasn’t going to have to fight her. Then, I realized that it wasn’t hostility in her eyes. Not quite. It was something closer to desperation.
“I’m not here to cause you problems, Mr Phillips. I’m here to hire you. Whatever you know. Whatever you found out. I want you to use that information to make me strong again.”
I sat back in my chair, happy that I didn’t have to fight off a vengeful feline, but stumped about how to explain myself.
“Miss Rosemary, that’s not what I do.”
“Well, why the hell not? What are you saving up all your energy for? Helping little old Elven ladies cross the street? I want to be whole again, and I don’t know who else I can ask for help.”
I growled into my mouth and shook my head.
“It wasn’t magic that came back into the Vamp. It was something else. He gave in to the same temptation you’re feeling right now, and it destroyed him. I hate this new world as much as you do, but there’s no going back. You got out of it better than most. Hold onto that, and be thankful.”
She curled her fingertips, scraping eight little lines into the desktop, then lifted one hand up to her face.
“This isn’t me. Your kind killed me. Everything I was and everything I had. I am not this person. In this place.” She looked around, disgusted with where she’d found herself. “What even is this place?” A tear rolled down her cheek and the trail it left behind turned to ice. “You don’t understand anything, Mr Phillips. Not a thing.”
I tried to bite my tongue but after years of exercise it had learned to fight back.
“I know the magic isn’t coming back. I know that when people try, it gets them killed. Move on, Miss Rosemary. Find something else to look forward to.”
She looked like she was about to rip out my throat. Back in the old days, perhaps she would have. My soft Human flesh wouldn’t have stood a chance against a Lycum like her. But that strength was gone. It had vanished the moment the sacred river turned to glass. Instead, she picked up her scarf, got to her feet and walked to the door.
She looked at the sign that was painted on the window: Man for Hire. She read it out loud to herself, rolling the words around inside her flushed cheeks.
“Man,” she said, wrinkling up her nose. “I see what you’re going for. You’re a Human. You’re male. I’m sure it made sense to you. But look at how you live. Listen to the way you talk.” She didn’t bother turning to look at me, she just stared at the pane of glass and tried to break it with her eyes. “You’re a boy, Fetch Phillips. A stupid boy, playing with things that aren’t yours. Put them down before you hurt yourself.”
Then she was gone.
I looked for a bottle to wash her words out of my head. What did she know? She just wanted to be strong and she hated me for standing in her way. What was I supposed to do? Lie to her? Pretend I could go out on some quest and come back with magic that would make her whole? It was impossible. The magic was gone and the sooner we all accepted that, the better.
I picked up the phone and heard the weary voice of Sergeant Richie Kites. There was some kind of commotion happening behind him, but he kept his words to a whisper.
“Fetch, can you get over to the Bluebird Lounge, up on Canvas Street? Simms wants your opinion on something.”
That was a first. Usually the cops tried to kick me out of crime scenes, not call me over so I could take a peek.
“Sure. Why the invitation?”
Richie whispered into the receiver. “We got a dead guy here with a hole in his head, and it wasn’t done with any weapon we know about. I don’t know what to tell you, Fetch. To me, it looks like magic.”
I was having the kind of day that wasn’t supposed to happen. Beautiful women didn’t come knocking at my door before noon, cops didn’t call me up to ask my opinion, and nobody blasted anyone else with any kind of magic. Not anymore.
The Bluebird Lounge was a Human-only members’ club on Canvas Street in the inner west; a two-story granite building without any signage out front.
The entire Sunder City Police Department was crowded around the entrance. Usually, you were lucky to see more than a couple of cops at a crime scene. In our new, dark world, even murder had become mundane. So it was strange that these police were acting all excited instead of sad and half-asleep. Again and again, this day was different.
Sergeant Richie Kites stood by himself, leaning against the granite. His heavy Half-Ogre body looked like it could push the whole place over.
“What’s going on, Rich? You cops so lonely you have to travel in one giant pack these days?”
He shook his head, obviously annoyed by the crowd.
“When they heard the story, every asshole made an excuse to come on down and take a peek. Come inside. You’ll see why.”
Richie led the way, waving off another cop who tried to protest my arrival.
“He’s got clearance. Special request from Simms.”
I was just as confused as the cop but I tried not to show it. Some part of me suspected I was being lured into a trap and they were all about to force my hand onto a murder weapon and frame me for the crime. That seemed more likely than them asking me for help.
- On Sale
- Sep 22, 2020
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Hachette Book Group