He saw me and tipped his hat, holding its rim between his index and middle finger the way some people hold cigarettes, and I got a glimpse of his face: hard lines, three-day stubble, and pale eyes, quick and cold. There was nothing especially threatening in the way he looked at me, but something behind those eyes made me want to raise my hands in the air and back away slowly until it was safe to run for my life.
"Maaaa'am," he drawled.
He scared the shit out of me. I smiled at him. "Good morning." My greeting sounded a lot like "niiice doggy." I'd have to squeeze past him to get to the door.
The receptionist came to my rescue. "You can go in now, dear," she called.
The man stepped aside, bowing slightly, and I walked by him. The side of my jacket brushed against his trench coat, probably picking up enough bacteria to knock out a small army, but I did not pull away.
"Nice to meet you," he murmured as I passed him.
"Nice to meet you, too," I said and escaped into the protector's office.
I found myself in a large room, at least twice the size of the offices I'd seen so far. Heavy burgundy draperies covered the windows, letting in just enough light to create a comfortable gloom. A massive desk of polished cherry-wood dominated the room, supporting a cardboard box, a heavy mesquite wood paperweight with a Texas Ranger badge on top, and a pair of brown cowboy boots. The legs in the boots belonged to a thick-shouldered man, who leaned back in an oversized black leather chair listening to the phone at his ear. The knight-protector.
At some point he must have been very strong but now his muscle was sheathed in what my father had called "hard fat." He was still a large, strong man and he could probably move fast if he needed to, despite the unsightly bulge around his middle. He wore jeans and a navy blue shirt with a fringe. I did not know they even made those anymore. The clothes in which the West was won - or sung into submission - were meant for whiplash-lean men. They made the protector look like Gene Autry gone on a long Twinkie binge.
The knight looked at me. He had a wide face with a massive square jaw and probing blue eyes under heavy eyebrows. His nose was misshapen from being broken too many times. The hat hid the hair, or more likely, the absence of it, but I was willing to bet that what was left of the growth on his head had to be gray and short.
The protector motioned me to one of the smaller red chairs set before the desk. I sat, getting a look into the cardboard box on his desk. It contained a half-eaten jelly doughnut.
The knight resumed listening to the phone conversation, so I looked around his office. A large bookcase, also of dark cherrywood, stood at the opposite wall. Above it I saw a large wooden map of Texas decorated with strips of barbed wire. Golden script etched under each piece announced the name of the manufacturer and the year.
The protector finished his conversation by hanging up the phone without saying a word. "You've got some paper to show me, now's the time."
I handed him my merc ID and half-a-dozen recommendations. He flipped through them.
"Water and Sewer, huh?"
"Gotta be tough or dumb to go down into the sewers these days. So, which one are you?"
"I'm not dumb, but if I tell you I'm tough, you'll peg me for a bravo, so I'm going to smile cryptically." I gave him my best cryptic smile. He did not fall down to his feet, kiss my shoes, and promise me the world. I must be getting rusty.
The protector squinted at the signature. "Mike Tellez. I've worked with him before. You do regular work for him?"
"More or less."
"What was it this time?"
"He had a problem with large pieces of equipment being dragged away. Someone told him he had a baby marakihan."
"They're marine," he said. "They die in fresh water."
An overweight slob who eats powdered jelly doughnuts, wears shirts with fringe, and identifies an obscure magical creature without a momentary pause. Knight-protector. Camouflage expert extraordinaire.
"You got to the bottom of Mike's problem?" he asked.
"Yes. He had the Impala Worm," I said.
If he was impressed, he did not show it. "You kill it?"
Very funny. "No, just made it feel unwelcome."
The memory stabbed me, and for a moment I stumbled again through a dim tunnel flooded with liquid excrement and filth that rose to my hips. My left leg burned with icy pain and I struggled on, half-dragging it, while behind me the enormous pallid body of the Worm spilled its life-blood into the sludge. The slick green blood swirled on the surface, each of its cells a tiny living organism consumed by a single purpose: to reunite. No matter how many times or how many miles apart this creature appeared, it was always the same Impala Worm. There was only one and it regenerated endlessly.
The protector put my papers on his desk. "So, what do you want?"
"I'm investigating the murder of Greg Feldman."
"On whose authority?"
"I see." He leaned back. "Why?"
"For personal reasons."
"Did you know him personally?" He delivered the question in a perfectly neutral tone, but the underlying meaning was all too clear. I felt happy to disappoint him.
"Yes. He was a friend of my father."
"I see," he said again. "Your father wouldn't be available for a statement?"
"I'm sorry," he said.
"Don't be," I said. "You didn't know him."
"Do you have anything that might support your relationship with Greg Feldman?"
I could easily provide him with collaboration. If he was to look me up in his files, he would find that Greg had sponsored my application to the Order, but I did not want to go in that direction.
"Greg Feldman was thirty-nine years old. He was an intensely private man, and he disliked being photographed." I handed him a small rectangle of the photograph. "This is a picture of me and him on the day of my high school graduation. There is an identical picture in his apartment. It's located in his library on the third shelf of the central bookcase."
"I've seen it," the protector said.
How bloody nice. "Can I have that back, please?"
He returned the photo. "Are you aware that you're named as a beneficiary in Greg Feldman's will?"
"No." I would've welcomed a moment to deal with my guilt and gratitude, but the knight-protector plowed on.
"He bequeathed his financial assets to the Order and the Academy." He was watching me for a reaction. Did he think I cared about Greg's money? "Everything else, the library, the weapons, the objects of power, is yours."