“I don’t like meeting here,” one man said, his voice smoke-roughened.
“It’s safe ground,” the thinnest of them said. “Our safe ground. None else digs anymore here but us Leverdowns, and the others all know it.”
“The Crackers and Wells’ lot don’t seem to know lately where their territory ends,” the first mumbled.
“They’d best leave us this if they know what’s good for them,” the short round one said.
“Westchapel’s robbed of all but grey bones, and the Coffin Crackers say Hillside is sparse as well, and that the groundsmen have a pack of stout dogs roaming the place now, and patrols of three men at odd hours,” Smoke-voice said.
“What about this flenk, Wells?” Short said. “I hear he’s one of them half mad Maribelle criminals. Deported and back like a bent pin.”
“I heard a drunken sailor didn’t report in to catch his boat in time, and that he skipped out on the innkeep, too,” Smoke said. “He was seen out with one of Wells’ lads earlier.”
Short nodded. “I heard Wells’ lads followed a dark fellow back of the Sow’s Ride last week, and no one saw him after.”
“If half that is true, this Wells is bad business, and like to bring the law on us all,” Thin said. “There’s too many gangs in town, and not near enough corpses. I’m worried what it will come to.”
“But it’s driving the prices up,” Short offered. “We get twice what we used to.”
“With four times the trouble to get them, and now every digger, weeper, and flower arranger wants a cut,” Smoke said.
“Miss Tansy tried to offer me her old dad last week,” Short said. “Did I tell you? I always said that flustry would sell anything at a profit.”
“It’s a bad pull when folk start looking to make corpses where there’s still breath,” Thin said. “I don’t like where it’s headed. That’s why I called you here. If they’re willing to pop off the occasional sailor, who’s next? What if they decide to eliminate the competition? I want all our lads out there carrying cudgels. Pistols too, maybe.”
“Pistols will bring down all matter of noise.”
“You wouldn’t use them, just have them in case Well’s lads have them.”
“What if Well’s lads see we have pistols and go get their own?”
“Hush! I hear something,” Smoke said, waving the others quiet. They all sank down into the grass, against stones, and were quiet.
Djaren looked over the coffins in the drab undertaker’s shop as they passed on to the Mourners’ room. This chamber was draped in gauzy black fabric, with urns of daisies and other cheap flowers. A painted wood figure of Malenira, the muse of mourning, captured consort to the lord of the underworld, stood on a stand with unlit candles at her feet. A woman with a pinched face floated over to them when they entered, and spoke in a wheezy whisper. “We are so sorry for your loss, may we help you share the burden of your sorrow on this day, or perhaps a coming day within the week?”
Djaren thought her rather like a Pumphrite with all its color and most of its volume leached out.
“We’re not—” began Eljiah.
“Not dealing with a deceased relative just as yet,” Djaren said quickly, switching to a local accent, and adopting body language closer to the boys pushing papers outside, with their dueling minor calamities. He prayed that this set of lies he’d just invented would work better than the last set. “But Elwin’s sister, that’s Elwin,” he gave Eljiah a role with a jerk of his thumb. “His sister is right poorly and like to go any hour. He was worried what with rumors flooding about, and wanted to know that his dear sister would be safe put to rest and watched over. I said yours was the shop to see.”
“Oh, dear angel, fear not,” the woman said, floating over to the somewhat flabbergasted Eljiah. “For just a modest little retainer, my sisters and I will keep vigil over the funeral to the grave, and sing hymns and prayers while whatever other failsafes you employ to safeguard the virtue of your dear sister’s rest are installed.”
“Ah, that’s, mm, good to hear,” said Eljiah. “Have you, is this a service you offer often?”
“To all who can afford it,” the woman said, eyes a little too sharp in contrast to her voice. “And I can recommend an iron monger, or if you prefer, a brick layer for some finishing work to the grave.”
“That sounds a little extreme,” Eljiah said.
“It saddens me to say that in these days, strong measures are needed to safeguard our dearly departed. Soon to be departed, so sorry.” She laid out a book on a draped pedestal and the undertaker, drawn by some signal, came over as well, and outlined the prices of different depths of graves, markers, ironwork cages that could be fitted over the graves, bricks and mortar that could be used to line the grave and encase the coffin entirely, and iron and pewter coffins that could be soldered shut. The prices were all ridiculously high. Eljiah stopped them when they began presenting swatches of satin for lining caskets. His distress came off as genuine. The mourner looked at Djaren, appraising. “Perhaps you wish your proxy to arrange all the details?” she asked Eljiah.
Djaren clapped Eljiah’s shoulder. “You don’t have to do this alone. Let me handle things.”
“You’re sure you know what you’re about?” Eljiah asked, seriously.
“Trust me, friend,” Djaren grinned widely, speaking in nothing like his own voice.
Tallis, silently bemused, just nudged him toward the door. “Kara is doubtless nearby, and can accompany our ingenious friend here back safely, even given the hour. It’s late, and you have class in the morning.”
Eljiah looked a little dubious. “She’s near? Will you be all right to walk home?”
Djaren nodded, adding nothing about the carefully focused state of mind Kara was in, which meant she was picking her own trouble. “I know this part of town and I’ve got friends here. You go see about your sister.”
“She will be gathered into the bosom of the gods, and be mourned by the virtues themselves,” the lady mourner assured, rising out of her whisper into a strident sharp voice. The whisper had been much more pleasant.
Djaren waved them off. It was time to get more serious with the investigation. He and Tallis only set one another off, he recognized, and between their cheerful and morbid kinds of eager curiosity, they warned off or unnerved every potential witness. Eljiah always came across as too good to be involved in any wrongdoing except perhaps as its undeserving victim. What Djaren needed was the opposite of that. His favorite criminal, however, was laying low, which probably meant her investigations were being profitable and interesting right now.
With the others out of the way, Djaren turned to look at the mourner. “About business then,” he said, in what he hoped was an encouragingly criminal manner. “We need to inter one freshly dead body under earth while making her family entirely at ease.”
“Are you one of Jesper’s?” The woman eyed him closely.
“I’m his best.” Djaren grinned, and bowed, presenting the woman with one of the daisies he’d pocketed while they were all going through the awful book. “I’m back in the neighborhood after trying my luck in Logansburg. Nothing like home, though.” She took the flower, torn between dubious and flattered. “I hope to see you often in the coming weeks, mum.”
The woman sniffed, brought out another ledger, and opened it. “Well, it’s a fine mark you’ve found there. Are there any others ill in the family?”
“You saw his uncle, I imagine he’ll be along soon as well. And the boy, well, he’s always been poorly since the accident. A tragedy that a family so blessed with money is so ill blessed in health.”
“I can see why you befriended them,” the woman said thoughtfully. “We can do the usual, have our girls keep watch and do their show, and let you know the final word on all the security and watches, and the ways we’ve left open for Jesper’s set. See that we get the uncle as well when his time comes, and we’ll give you a start on the tunnel.”
“And the boy?”
“Tell Jesper he’d best not be getting greedy. You need deaths spaced out, so the family has the funds to mourn them all proper.”
Djaren nodded. “Didn’t mean to imply anything. We’re all best off if he lingers awhile. Now, uh, do you really want me to pick out all the linens? The way I heard, you have perfect taste, and given the budget, can make something right lovely.”
The woman sighed. “See if you can talk him up to eighty, and I’ll get you the virgin Helvernia package, perfect for the young ladies. Lilies and pure white and a carved marker.”
“And what’s in that for me?”
“A pocket of silver once it’s all paid for.”
Djaren frowned and shrugged, doing his best Kara imitation.
“Now out, and go work your wiles on your pale friend. We’ve real work to do. And next time, if you’re not here with a family, I’ll thank you to use the back entrance.”
“Of course, mum,” Djaren smiled. “Kindly show me?”
The woman sighed, but looked amused again, and let Djaren out the back, into an alley with all sorts of interesting things like soft bricks and bags of sand and mortar. Also shovels. “That one looks nice,” Djaren pointed out a shiny new metal shovel.
“Well, your lot had best stick to wood, if you want to stay quiet. Young folks have no patience these days,” she grumbled. “Now off with you.”
Djaren bowed again and jogged off, elated. Kara often said he wouldn’t last five minutes in her world. He was counting over twenty now, and thought he made a fine prospective criminal. This lasted right until he got toward the end of the alley and saw the four local toughs lounging there.