Knight at the Royal Arms

Char­ity Tah­maseb

Pulp Literature - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - Char­ity Tah­maseb

Char­ity Tah­maseb has slung corn on the cob for Green Giant and jumped out of air­planes (but not at the same time). She’s worn both Girl Scout and Army green. These days, she writes fic­tion and works as a tech­ni­cal writer. Her short spec­u­la­tive fic­tion has ap­peared in Deep Magic, Flash Fic­tion On­line, and Ci­cada.

The lobby of the Royal Arms Ho­tel is so very quiet, and I can taste the hunt in the air. Not that I’d planned on hunt­ing. I only stepped in­side out of the rain. Still, the thought tempts me. I don’t know what sort of shadow crea­ture lives in this space, but con­sid­er­ing the mar­ble floors and gilt-edged mir­rors, the prize might be worth the ef­fort.

The glim­mer has lulled the concierge to sleep. He slumps over his desk, snores rat­tling loose pa­per. The door­man has sunk to the floor. With the sun about to set, that leaves me, the crea­ture, and pos­si­bly an­other tracker as the only ones awake. I take a few steps fur­ther in, boots skid­ding against the mar­ble, not fully com­mit­ting to the hunt. Not yet.

There must be an­other tracker. Some­one must have a claim on this space, and I know I shouldn’t ven­ture any far­ther. But there’s no deny­ing DNA, and the shadow crea­ture that re­sides here is call­ing to me. So I blow a good­night kiss to the concierge and find the stairs.

In the third floor hall­way, I breathe in dust, fin­ger­tips in­ves­ti­gat­ing the tex­tured wall­pa­per. I re­main si­lent and try to gauge whether that creak­ing floor­board gave me away.

Some­thing al­ways gives me away — a floor­board, the squeak­ing soles of my boots, a rather clumsy en­trance that in­volves break­ing glass. That’s all fine when I’m pre­pared to hunt. Tonight I only wanted a peek.

Be­hind me, some­thing rasps, brief and brisk, like sand­pa­per against skin. Mist fills the far end of the cor­ri­dor, swal­low­ing the glow from the sconces. I squint, but the shadow crea­ture hasn’t reached its full, solid form. For this, I am grate­ful. I race, carving a zigzag path along the cor­ri­dor. I rat­tle one door­knob, then an­other, all of them locked.

At this point, the crea­ture is still mostly vapour. You could poke your fin­gers through it. But then, you can poke your fin­gers through a thun­der­cloud. That doesn’t make the light­en­ing less deadly.

I sprint down the hall, in­tent on the last door. I try the knob, then spin, my back against the tex­tured wall­pa­per. No stairs, not even a fire exit. That’s got to be a code vi­o­la­tion. At the end of the hall, strands of gray mist probe ten­ta­tively. Some­thing that re­sem­bles a claw so­lid­i­fies and holds its shape long enough to tear a hole in the car­pet.

Fran­tic, I try the door one last time. Three things hap­pen. The crea­ture surges for­ward, fill­ing the hall­way with its girth, the door flies open, and I tum­ble in­side. I kick the door shut, my boots and the crea­ture si­mul­ta­ne­ously slam­ming against the wood. The door frame shakes but stays put.

The room is dark, cur­tains drawn. My own ragged breath­ing fills the space, as does some­one else’s. I’m stag­ger­ing to my feet

when the lights blaze on. I flinch, cover my eyes with one hand, and at­tempt to pro­tect my­self with the other. “What the hell?” a voice says. And then I know: I’m re­ally in trou­ble. I grope for a chair and whirl it so it be­comes both a shield and a weapon.

“I was here first,” the voice says. The tone is strong, au­thor­i­ta­tive, but a hint of fear in­vades the ar­ro­gance. We all carry that in our voice, those of us who hunt. You can’t touch the shad­ows with­out them touch­ing you.

“Says who?” I counter. True, I hadn’t planned on hunt­ing tonight. Now that I’m here? Why let the op­por­tu­nity slip by? “Luke Mil­ner,” he says. “Tracker num­ber 127 .” “I know who you are.” Or at least what he is. There are so few of us that we know each other by rep­u­ta­tion, if not by name and face.

“I’ve been track­ing this crea­ture for weeks,” he says. “It’s on record, claim 5867 . Feel free to check.” “Oh, I will.” I roll my eyes. “Plus, you to­tally fell in here.” He shakes his head. “You don’t even know your way around.”

I grip the chair harder. “Oh, sure,” I say. “I fell in here. I also flushed out the crea­ture. In what? Less than an hour? How long have you been track­ing it again?” I make my voice go all sweet, which is per­fectly aw­ful of me. But I can’t help it. I dis­like most other track­ers. Like I said be­fore, it’s in my DNA. As a damsel in dis­tress, I have good rea­son not to like or trust nearly ev­ery­one.

“Know the way back out?” Here, Luke Mil­ner of­fers up a per­fectly aw­ful grin, pro­vid­ing me with yet an­other rea­son for my aver­sion.

While logic dic­tates that if you can find your way in, you can cer­tainly find your way back out again, shadow crea­tures have a way of eras­ing that sort of logic. I do have a knack for flush­ing them out—and an an­noy­ing knack for get­ting stuck in var­i­ous labyrinths for days. Nor­mally I don’t go in with­out a plan and a week’s worth of sup­plies. The ho­tel room is cov­ered with that same vel­vet wall­pa­per as the hall, all fleurs-de-lis and scroll­work, which makes the space feel el­e­gant de­spite the freeze-dried meals and canned goods that line the dresser. Luke even has an adorable lit­tle camp stove. Plus that queen-size bed? Big enough for two. Not a bad setup, and I can’t help but be a lit­tle im­pressed.

He waves his hands as if he can halt both my gaze and my thoughts. “Oh, no. Don’t even think about it. My claim. My crea­ture.” “Which you can’t seem to flush,” I re­mind him. The trash­can over­flows with wrap­pers and bot­tles. A room ser­vice tray holds a pot of cof­fee and pitcher of cream. One whiff tells me it’s start­ing to turn. He’s been here for a while with­out any luck. It’s hard to catch a shadow crea­ture on your own; it’s even harder to trust an­other tracker. He can’t leave the ho­tel with­out risk­ing a claim jumper. But why stay if you can’t draw out the crea­ture to be­gin with? “You saw it then?” he asks. “Claws. Sharp. Not sure what it is, but it’s big.” I shrug. “Maybe a dragon.”

He pauses as if con­sid­er­ing this—and me. “What makes you so spe­cial, then?”

It’s a fair if some­what pas­sive-ag­gres­sive ques­tion. “I come from a long line of damsels in dis­tress.”

Luke snorts. “Shall I step into the hall and demon­strate?” I ges­ture to­ward the door. All hunts re­quire bait. Usu­ally, that’s me. I sur­vey the room again. This Luke Mil­ner doesn’t seem to have any­thing that re­sem­bles bait. “You don’t look like a damsel in dis­tress.” True. I keep my feet in boots. You try run­ning around in satin slip­pers or high heels. Tulle and lace and all the rest? Highly flammable, es­pe­cially in the case of drag­ons.

“It’s in the blood,” I say. “Did I not fall in here ex­actly when I needed to?” “I was open­ing the door.” “See? You must have some la­tent knight-in-shin­ing-ar­mour blood run­ning through your veins.” Luke makes a face. Okay, very la­tent. But it’s there. He’s too well-stocked and pre­pared to be any­thing else. In the­ory, I should like that in any­one. Plus, he has that knight-in-shin­ing-ar­mour look, wavy hair and fea­tures chis­elled in all the right places. His eyes might glint with hu­mour if he weren’t so surly. Some­thing tells me Luke Mil­ner is of­ten surly.

I’ve never had any luck with knights in shin­ing ar­mour. They’re al­ways too lit­tle, too late, and I al­ways end up bound an­kle and wrist, eye­brows singed.

Luke nar­rows his eyes to slits. I cross my arms over my chest, pre­pared to wait him out. He glances away, but in the mir­ror, I catch his re­flec­tion — all sour milk and res­ig­na­tion.

“Do you have a name?” he says at last, “or do they just call you CJ?”

“C … J?”

His smirk pro­vides the an­swer. CJ. Claim Jumper. “I’m Posey Trombelle,” I say, putting some teeth into my name. “Tracker num­ber 278 .” “Posey?” He makes an­other face. “It’s short for Poin­set­tia. I was a Christ­mas baby.” His ex­pres­sion goes blank. When he doesn’t re­spond, I add, “My sis­ter was born in Fe­bru­ary, on the four­teenth. Trust me, she got it worse.” “Well, what do you sug­gest we do … Posey?” “What were you about to do when I fell into your room?” “Go out,” he says. “Re­con­nais­sance.” I raise an eye­brow. Be­cause that? Fairly ob­vi­ous. Luke rubs his hands across his face. A growl be­gins in his throat, but the sound is all frus­tra­tion with­out any bite. “I have a the­ory,” he says, “that there’s more trea­sure to be had by not slay­ing the crea­ture — “Be­cause most of it is in the lair,” I fin­ish. Oh, of course! How clever. Once you slay the crea­ture, ac­cess to any trea­sure in its lair van­ishes. I can’t help it. I like the way he thinks. Maybe this Luke has more knight in him than his sour-milk ex­pres­sion sug­gests.

“You fig­ure out how to do that,” I tell him, “and they’ll have to call you Sir Luke.”

Luke stares at the doc­u­ment on the cof­fee ta­ble, pen clutched in his hand. “You can’t do this with­out me,” I point out. His knuck­les go white. Granted, a hand­writ­ten agree­ment on ho­tel sta­tion­ary pales when com­pared to a no­ta­rized con­tract. Un­der the cir­cum­stances?

“In fact,” I say, tap­ping three para­graphs down on the pa­per, “you can’t get a bet­ter deal than this.”

No one would in­ten­tion­ally draw a crea­ture to them, but I’ve signed on to do just that. Of course, I’m uniquely suited for the task. But while Luke searches out the lair, I must fend off the crea­ture. While I of­ten find my­self in pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tions, I sel­dom walk into them of my own vo­li­tion. At least not while leav­ing my­self wide open for be­trayal. I oc­cupy the crea­ture, and he runs off with the trea­sure. I try not to think about that sce­nario too much.

At last his grip loosens on the pen. He scrawls his name across the bot­tom of the page, nearly oblit­er­at­ing my own.

Next comes a grap­pling hook and some rope, which Luke se­cures at my waist. He threads a whis­tle onto a length of ny­lon cord. He ties the ends and then places the whis­tle around my neck. “Last re­sort,” he says. “If you need me — ” “Just blow?” He cringes. An an­gry flush cov­ers his cheeks. Be­fore he can turn away, I touch his arm. “Hang on.”

From the depths of my cargo pants pocket, I pull a ban­dana. “A knight shouldn’t ven­ture out with­out a to­ken,” I say and tie it around his arm. As to­kens go, one-hun­dred-per­cent cot­ton is no sub­sti­tute for silk, lace, and em­broi­dery. How­ever, the ban­dana is pink.

“Se­ri­ously?” Luke eyes the ban­dana. His fin­gers twitch over the knot like he might undo the whole thing and toss it on the floor. In­stead, he presses his palm against his jeans and sighs. “See if it doesn’t bring you luck,” I say. “I don’t be­lieve in luck.”

“You should.” I give him a two-finger salute and slip out the door.

I take soft steps down the hall­way, re­trac­ing my orig­i­nal path. I even zigzag, fin­ger­tips brush­ing the tex­tured wall­pa­per on one side of the cor­ri­dor and then the next. The ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem breathes to life, its steady, me­chan­i­cal hum the only other sound.

At the cor­ner, I pause. Things are too empty, too quiet. The space around me feels thin, like some­thing else is us­ing up all the avail­able oxy­gen. Some­thing large. The el­e­va­tor lobby is the per­fect place for an am­bush. At least, it’s where I’d set one up.

The mar­ble floors in front of the el­e­va­tor sport a faux Per­sian rug, a Queen Anne side ta­ble, and chairs up­hol­stered in the most amaz­ing shade of ca­nary yel­low. The space is pris­tine. I sniff the air. No lin­ger­ing scent of sulphur, no rot. What about some slime, a tuft of fur, or even a scale on the floor? Noth­ing? I taste the air one last time, not trust­ing this good for­tune, but my feet are al­ready mov­ing. To hes­i­tate is to lose this chance.

I rush to the el­e­va­tors, push the up and down but­tons, then re­treat to the safety of the stairs.

No sen­si­ble tracker uses the el­e­va­tor—not if they can help it. It’s the equiv­a­lent of step­ping into a lunch­box. Still, it’s a handy ruse. A damsel in dis­tress in­side an el­e­va­tor? There’s no bet­ter bait.

The el­e­va­tor bell chimes. The doors whoosh open. Dark mist spills out, and a roar echoes against the walls, the sound hearty. The crea­ture must be on the verge of trans­form­ing into some­thing solid — and deadly. I’m half a step in­side the stair­well when mist curls around the handrail and en­gulfs my fin­gers. I glance at the gleam­ing claws click­ing against the lobby floor,

then be­hind me to the crea­ture form­ing on the stairs.

Here be drag­ons. Not one, but two. And here I am, right be­tween them.

I cast my gaze up­ward, search­ing for a hand­hold, a win­dow or vent to crawl through … or that chan­de­lier.

The el­e­va­tor doors start to close, then spring open again. The crea­tures are solid enough to trig­ger el­e­va­tor doors, not to men­tion claw, bite, and chomp. They are cer­tainly solid enough to do a damsel-in-dis­tress grab-and-dash. You know, the usual. With a hand on the grap­pling hook, I squint at the chan­de­lier. Will it come crash­ing down on me mid-swing, ef­fec­tively do­ing all the bone-crush­ing work for the drag­ons? Steam fills the el­e­va­tor lobby area. The drag­ons won’t risk a full blast and burn themselves out of their play­ground. But a stream of fire in my di­rec­tion?

I don’t wait to find out. I swing the grap­pling hook up and over the chan­de­lier’s arms. Light bulbs shat­ter. I tug. Cracks ap­pear along the ceil­ing. Plas­ter dust floats down, fog­ging the air and coat­ing the floor, the ta­ble, the dragon. Be­fore I can swing, a great suck­ing comes from the el­e­va­tor — a wind tun­nel draw­ing me in. I grip the rope and brace my feet against the floor. Then the winds re­verse. The ex­plo­sion of sound star­tles me. No heat. No fire. Just slime. “Ge­sund­heit,” I say and swing up and over the snif­fling dragon. I land in the hall­way, car­pet soak­ing up the sound of my boots. Iri­des­cent dragon snot speck­les the tex­tured wall­pa­per and coats the toes of my boots. I yank the rope one last time. The en­tire chan­de­lier and half the ceil­ing crash to the floor. I sprint around the cor­ner to avoid ric­o­chet­ing de­bris. Even so,

I choke on dust. My eyes wa­ter. I blink fast and hard, taste the grit against my lips. At the end of the hall­way, a door flies open. Luke sticks his head out. “What the hell?” I give him a lit­tle finger wave and run.

Only un­der­wa­ter lamps light the pool area, bathing ev­ery­thing in a liq­uid blue. My boots squish against damp tile. Moist air clings to my face, turn­ing the plas­ter dust into muck. With my back to the wall, I ease the life­sav­ing pole from its bracket. Since Luke’s grap­pling hook is now part of the third floor decor, I need some­thing —a tool, a weapon. I test its weight against my palm. Light but strong. It will do.

Now that I’m here, I have the thank­less job of lur­ing both drag­ons to this spot. That shouldn’t be too hard. Af­ter all, I’m a damsel in dis­tress. Lur­ing is what I do. I take minc­ing steps around the pool and coo stupid things like, “Oh, no, I might get my satin slip­pers all wet.”

I’ve never met a crea­ture yet who could tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween satin slip­pers and steel-toed boots.

Min­utes tick by with noth­ing but the gen­tle lap of wa­ter and my damp foot­falls. This was the plan. We didn’t have a backup plan in case the crea­tures didn’t show. I’m a damsel in dis­tress. They al­ways show. Ex­cept for now. I kneel at the pool’s edge and rinse the plas­ter from my face. Per­haps it’s the wa­ter’s chem­i­cal cock­tail—too much bleach and chlo­rine—that con­vinces me, but noth­ing su­per­nat­u­ral ever hap­pens in this par­tic­u­lar space.

But if the crea­tures didn’t fol­low me (and they should have, they re­ally should have—i should be trussed up now, tied to

the div­ing board or cook­ing in the hot tub), then there’s only one other spot they could be: their lair.

Which is where Luke was headed — with­out any backup plan of his own. Can I in­ter­cept him? I glance at my watch. Plenty of time be­fore sun­rise. Still enough time to — pos­si­bly — save Luke. With­out an­other thought, I sprint past the heated towel rack and lounge chairs and crash into the glass doors sep­a­rat­ing the pool from the mez­za­nine.

I push. I pull. I rat­tle the han­dles so hard the glass shud­ders. Then I see a tell­tale glint on the other side of the doors. A dragon scale. I whirl and face the pool. What will it be? Damsel-in­dis­tress Stew? Or per­haps Luke is the main course, and I’m dessert.

Panic and chlo­rine clog my throat. An­other way out — there must be one. I slip across damp tiles, ca­reen into the chang­ing room doors. These, too, are locked. I sur­vey the space—the lounge chairs, dis­carded drink glasses with pink sludge and crushed pa­per um­brel­las, a stack of rum­pled tow­els—and dis­cover a way out.

I find the ser­vice el­e­va­tor be­hind a screen. Steam hisses and clouds roll through the room, as if the wa­ter in the pool is al­ready boil­ing. I won­der if the drag­ons plan to serve me al dente. As soon as the doors screech open, I jump in­side, press ev­ery but­ton I can, and re­al­ize I’m still clutch­ing the life­sav­ing pole only when the doors clang shut.

I land in the most ob­vi­ous spot for a lair, down in the base­ment. The dank and dark, home to boil­ers and fur­naces and the crea­tures most ev­ery­one else has for­got­ten. Only in this case, it seems the crea­tures have for­got­ten this space. Then again, these

are drag­ons—by their very na­ture, quirky and par­tic­u­lar. In this case, there’s a pair. A cou­ple, per­haps?

Oh. A cou­ple. Of course. I push the up but­ton on the el­e­va­tor. There’s no time for stairs. I can only hope I’m right and don’t end up as a char­broiled snack. When the doors open, I step in­side and se­lect the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of the high tower: the pent­house suite.

You’d think, as a damsel in dis­tress, I’d be well ac­quainted with pent­house suites. Sadly, my luck runs to­ward trolls and ogres. On the rare oc­ca­sions I’m cap­tured, I end up in land­fills or junk­yards or, for the oc­ca­sional eco-con­scious gob­lins, re­cy­cling cen­tres.

The doors open on the pent­house level. Smoke fills the el­e­va­tor com­part­ment. The acrid scent tick­les the back of my throat, and I choke on a cough. I step out and crunch some­thing be­neath the sole of my boot. The re­mains shine in rain­bow pat­terns the way only a dragon scale can.

I take a cau­tious look around. The glim­mer is in full force here. De­spite the smoke, I can taste the magic that lets the drag­ons lie dor­mant dur­ing the day and come out to play at night. They haven’t taken over the en­tire floor, not yet, but the lair is well es­tab­lished.

I creep for­ward, pole out­stretched like a spear, eyes cast down­ward. The last thing I want is to track through a pile of ash. That can mean only one thing. The tracker com­mu­nity may be com­bat­ive, but the death of one of our own weighs heavy. My stom­ach squeezes tight. I clutch the pole harder. I want to close my eyes, be­cause I don’t want to see that pile of ash. I keep them open out of fear and re­spect.

At the end of the hall, I brush fin­ger­tips over the pent­house

door then press my palm against the pan­elled wood. Warm, but not sear­ing hot. That’s some­thing. Now for a dis­trac­tion. I need some­thing loud and sure, some­thing these drag­ons won’t miss.

I lean against the wall and that some­thing thumps against my chest. Luke’s whis­tle. I grip it be­tween my teeth and blow with all my might. Then I sprint down the cor­ri­dor and launch my­self be­hind a set­tee. The hid­ing place is flimsy. But once drag­ons get up a good gal­lop, they have a difficult time stop­ping, never mind turn­ing around.

The pent­house door flies open. Claws scrape against the Ital­ian mar­ble floor, leav­ing wide grooves in its sur­face. The drag­ons galumph straight for the el­e­va­tor, by­pass­ing the set­tee. I crawl from be­neath it, scrab­ble to gain pur­chase, then race for the pent­house.

I slam the door. It doesn’t mat­ter if the drag­ons hear. They’re too clever to stay fooled for long any­way. Still, I throw the dead­bolt for the slight de­lay it will give me. For good mea­sure, I jam the life­sav­ing pole be­hind the han­dle. “Luke?” I call out. A grunt comes from the bed­room. Among satin sheets, rose petals, and can­dle­light, I find him, all trussed up, bound an­kle and wrist, damsel-in-dis­tress style. He grunts again, words muf­fled by a pink ban­dana — my ban­dana—gag­ging his mouth. So much for luck. I can’t help it; I know it’s cruel. I laugh. “You wouldn’t hap­pen to have a knife, would you?” he says when I undo the gag, a frown fight­ing the re­lief on his face.

“Swiss Army.” I slice through the ropes around his wrists and set to work on his an­kles.

A crash re­ver­ber­ates through the en­tire pent­house. My hands

shake and the blade skit­ters up and over the rope, but it only catches on Luke’s jeans. A whoosh fills the air, fol­lowed by the cheer­ful crackle of burn­ing wood. “We have all of three se­conds,” Luke says. In those three se­conds, I hack away the last of the rope. Luke smashes the win­dow with a chair. He se­cures a grap­pling hook (one cov­ered with plas­ter dust) and swings us — me clutched in one arm — out the win­dow, past jagged glass, and over the ledge.

We land one story be­low, breez­ing through an al­ready-opened win­dow. When our feet touch ground, Luke re­leases me. I tum­ble into yet an­other ca­nary yel­low chair, knock­ing it over. I suck in air free of smoke, grate­ful for the hard floor that has just bruised my hip bones. As land­ings go, this one wasn’t half-bad. I catch Luke’s eye and point to the win­dow. “I like to go in with a back-up plan,” he says. An ad­mirable qual­ity for a knight in shin­ing ar­mour. “You’re pretty handy with a knife,” he adds. “You’re not bad with ropes.” The build­ing trem­bles. Plas­ter rains down, dust­ing my skin — again. The el­e­va­tor doors pop open and shut.

“We should leave,” I say. “They’ll de­stroy ev­ery­thing just to get to us.”

Even their own play­ground. Threat to their trea­sure brings out the nasty side of shadow crea­tures.

To my sur­prise, Luke takes my hand to help me up. He keeps a grip on it dur­ing our en­tire flight down the stairs. Even out­side, with the first rays of sun ban­ish­ing the night, he doesn’t let go. He pulls us for­ward, in­tent on get­ting us away, while I scan the struc­ture.

“All clear?” he asks.

“Looks that way. For now.” Four blocks from the ho­tel, we slow our steps. I keep the vigil, al­ways toss­ing a quick glance be­hind. With the ris­ing sun, the glim­mer loosens its hold. The drag­ons will re­turn to mist and shad­ows. The ho­tel will right it­self be­fore any of the reg­u­lar guests can no­tice any­thing amiss. Al­ready, glass in the smashed win­dows has re­paired it­self.

“I never thought to look in the pent­house un­til you came along,” Luke says. I in­spire thoughts of the pent­house? Is this a good thing? “The living room was the trea­sure trove, but I de­cided to check the bed­room be­fore leav­ing,” he con­tin­ues. “I walked in on them while they were … I mean, he was … “En­ter­tain­ing a spe­cial lady friend?” I sup­ply. A flush washes across his cheek­bones—a hint of pink to match the sun­rise. It’s kind of adorable. “Yeah.” He clears his throat. “That.” Luke pulls a small vel­vet sack from his shirt. “By our con­tract.” He tips the bag and coins flow into his palm. “Fifty-fifty split. You earned it.” “So did you.” “It wasn’t all bad,” he says, “work­ing with you.” Is that a com­pli­ment? I peer at him, in­trigued. “Well, you are good with ropes,” I say. “And I don’t loathe you like I do most knights in shin­ing ar­mour.”

He tosses the coins in the air and catches them neatly again. “When was the last time you earned a haul like this?”

Al­most never. Damsels in dis­tress al­ways get the short end of things, even when we’re the ones who make things hap­pen. I can’t count the num­ber of times my fel­low track­ers have left

me bound, wrist and an­kle, and made off with the trea­sure. Even though my boots are singed and snot cov­ered, my hair a plas­ter-streaked mess, this time, the prize was worth it. This time, I had a wor­thy part­ner.

“There’s a lot more where this came from.” Luke stares hard just past my shoul­der, like the only way he can say this is to not look at me. “We could spend days, weeks, and still not find it all.” We? “So you’re not re­port­ing me as a claim jumper?” His lips twitch. “Well, you know, I can’t seem to flush them on my own.” “That’s my spe­cialty.” “We’d need a con­tract.” I nod to­ward a diner at the end of the block. They serve a huge break­fast spe­cial — eggs over easy, siz­zling ba­con, pan­cakes drenched in maple syrup—the per­fect meal af­ter a night of suc­cess­ful track­ing.

“Ev­ery­one knows a con­tract writ­ten on the back of a pa­per place­mat is to­tally bind­ing,” I say. “We could talk about it. Maybe over some cof­fee?”

The sun crests the ho­tel, cast­ing the street in a glow to ri­val the ca­nary yel­low fur­ni­ture, ban­ish­ing the crea­tures to shadow for an­other day. We turn to­ward the diner. Luke tosses the coins and lets them fall into his hand one last time.

“Maybe we should,” he says.

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