I said nothing.
"I've checked on you with the Guild," he said. The blue eyes fixed me in place. "I've heard you're able but hurting for money. The Order's prepared to make you a generous offer for the items in question. You'll find the sum to be more than adequate."
It was an insult and we both knew it. I thought of telling him that if it wasn't for Oklahoman cowboys and Mexican whores having a bit of fun, there would've been no Texans, but that would be counterproductive. One didn't call a knight-protector a whoreson in his own office.
"No, thank you," I said with a pleasant smile.
"Are you sure?" His eyes took my measure. "You look like you could use some money. The Order will give you more than you'd get auctioning it off. My advice, take the money. Buy yourself a decent pair of shoes."
I glanced at my beat-up sneakers. I liked my shoes. I could bleach them. It took the blood right out.
"Do you think I should get some like yours?" I asked, looking at his boots. "Who knows, they might throw a cowboy shirt with a fringe in with them. Maybe even a girdle."
Something stirred in his eyes. "You got a mouth on you."
"Talk's cheap. What can you really do?"
Thin ice. Proceed with caution.
I leaned back. "What can I really do, Sir? I won't do anything to threaten or antagonize the knight-protector in his own office no matter how much he insults me. That would be stupid and highly hazardous to my health. I came here in search of information. I just want to know what Greg Feldman was working on when he died."
For a moment we sat there looking at each other.
The knight-protector sucked the air into his nose with an audible whoosh and said, "You know anything about investigative work?"
"Sure. Annoy the people involved until the guilty party tries to make you go away."
He grimaced. "You know that the Order's investigating this matter?"
In other words, run along, little lady, and let people who are more competent handle it. "Greg Feldman was my only family," I said. "I'll find who or what killed him."
"And then what?"
"I'll burn that bridge when I cross it."
He laced the fingers of his hands into a single fist. "Anything able to take out the knight-piner is packing some power."
"Not for long."
He thought about that for a while. "So happens I could use you," he said.
That was unexpected. "Why the hell would you want me?"
He gave me what he must have considered his cryptic smile. It reminded me of a grizzly awakened in midwinter. "I have my reasons. Here's what I'll do for you. You get a Mutual Aid sticker on your ID, which should open you some doors. You get to use Greg's office. You get to look at the open file and police report."
Open file meant I would get the case as it came to Greg: bare facts and no or little findings. I would have to retrace Greg's steps. It was bloody more than I expected.
"Thank you," I said.
"The file doesn't leave the building," he said. "No copies, no quotes. You'll make a complete report to me and only to me."
"I'm bound by the Guild's disclosure of information act," I said.
He waved it aside. "It's taken care of."
Since when? This knight-protector was going far out of his way to help a worthless merc. Why? People who did me favors made me nervous. On the other hand, it was bad manners to look a gift horse in the mouth. Even if you're getting it from an overweight cracker in a fringe shirt.
"Officially you have no status with me," he said. "Screw up and you're persona non grata."
"We're done," he said.
Outside the receptionist waved me over and asked for my ID. I gave it to her and watched as she affixed a small metallic Mutual Aid sticker to it, an official "stamp" of the Order's interest in my humble work. Some doors would open to me and more would slam in my face. Oh, well.
"Don't mind Ted," the receptionist said, returning my ID. "He's harsh sometimes. My name's Maxine."
"My name's Kate. Would you point out the late knight-piner's office to me?"
"I'd be glad to. The last one on the right."
She smiled and went back to her work. Peachy keen.
I reached Greg's office and stood in the doorway. It didn't look right.
A square window spilled daylight onto the floor, a narrow desk, and two old chairs. To the left, a deep bookshelf ran the length of the wall, threatening to collapse under the weight of meticulously arranged volumes. Four metal file cabinets as tall as me towered at the opposite wall. Stacks of files and papers crowded in the corners, occupied the chairs, and choked the desk.
Someone had gone through Greg's papers. They'd done it carefully. The place wasn't ransacked, but someone had looked at each of Greg's files and didn't return them to their proper place, instead choosing to stack them on the first horizontal surface available. These were Greg's private papers. For some reason, the idea of someone touching Greg's things, going over them, reading his thoughts after his death bothered me.
I stepped through the doorway and felt a protective spell close behind me. Arcane symbols ignited with a pale orange glow, forming complex patterns on the gray carpet. Long twisted lines connected the symbols, crisscrossing and winding about the room, their intersections marked by radiant red dots. Greg had sealed the room with his own blood, and more, he had keyed it to me, otherwise I wouldn't be able to see the spell. Now any magic I did in this room would stay in it, leaving no echo beyond the door. A spell of this complexity would take weeks to set up. Judging by the intensity of the glowing lines, it would absorb one hell of an echo. Why would he do that?
I walked between the files to the bookshelf. It held an old edition of the Almanac of Mystic Creatures, an even older version of the Arcane Dictionary, a Bible, a beautiful edition of the Koran bound in leather and engraved with gold, several other religious volumes, and a thin copy of Spenser's Faerie Queene.
I made my way to the metal cabinets. As expected, they were empty. The shelves were marked in Greg's own unique code, which I couldn't read. It didn't matter really. I picked up the closest stack and carefully slid the first file onto the metal frame.
Two hours later, I finished with the papers on the floor and the chairs and was ready to start on the stacks covering the desk when a large manila envelope stopped me. It lay on top of the central stack, so my name, written with black marker in Greg's cursive, was plainly visible.