Man of steele, p.1

Man of Steele, page 1

 part  #10 of  Daggers & Steele Series

 

Man of Steele
 


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Man of Steele


  MAN OF STEELE

  A Daggers & Steele Mystery

  ALEX P. BERG

  Copyright © 2017 by Alex P. Berg

  All rights reserved. Published by Batdog Press.

  ISBN 978-1-942274-28-5

  No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, except by an authorized retailer or with written permission from the author. For permission requests, please visit: www.alexpberg.com

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents portrayed in this novel are a product of the author’s imagination.

  Cover Art by: Damon Za (www.damonza.com)

  Book Layout: www.bookdesigntemplates.com

  If you’d like to be notified when more Daggers & Steele content is released, please sign up for the author’s mailing list at: www.alexpberg.com/mailing-list/.

  Table Of Contents:

  Chapters:

  1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43

  About the Author

  1

  I believe in all sorts of wild notions. I believe in elemental magic and mind control and necromancy. I believe in the existence of griffins and unicorns and dragons, and that vampires, werewolves, and other superhuman creatures walk among us. I have good reason to. I’ve seen them all firsthand.

  I also believe in things that run contrary to observation, like in fate or the existence of almighty gods or the usefulness of differential calculus. I believe in both the inherent good nature of man and in our species’ ever-present duplicity, as contradictory as those things might seem. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find out I’d been lied to—but I was.

  Our rickshaw pulled up under an awning of red and gold brocaded cloth. A red rug stretched from the foot of the sidewalk to a pair of heavy golden doors, one flanked by two young men in matching black uniforms trimmed with red and gold satin.

  I glanced at the sign over the doors. “Hold on… The Empress of Welwic? You said Quinto invited us to dinner.”

  “He did,” said Shay. “A fancy dinner, here at the Empress. Why do you think I forced you to dress up?”

  I glanced at my suit, cool gray in color with prominent black stitching and a black silk border along the lapel. It was one of the ones I’d kept following our gambling sting aboard the luxury cruise liner, the Prodigious. I wouldn’t be caught dead in it normally, certainly not in the waning days of summer, but Shay had insisted.

  “A fancy dinner, sure,” I said. “This is beyond that. More like voluntary extortion.”

  Shay batted her eyes at me. “You know I love you, Daggers, cynical attitude and all, but don’t ruin this. By all accounts, the Empress is one of the three best restaurants in New Welwic, and as much as I enjoy the dives we normally dine at, it’s not as if I’d turn down an invitation like this. Besides, Quinto must’ve been planning it for months. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get reservations here?”

  Shay gave me one of those sly smiles she and I both knew I couldn’t resist. Her chocolate brown hair, ever so slightly curled, draped lazily over her shoulders, ending at the top of her strapless yellow gown. Her azure eyes shone more brightly than usual, brought to life by a touch of mascara and eye shadow. I should’ve known something was afoot as soon as I saw her donning makeup.

  “I won’t be too much of a sourpuss, I promise,” I said. “I’m more surprised is all. Quinto’s never been much of a gourmand.”

  “He may not be,” said Shay. “But who’s to say Cairny isn’t?”

  One of the doormen approached the rickshaw. He tipped his cap and held out a hand. “Miss?”

  Shay lifted her skirt off her feet with one hand and took the man’s assistance with her other. The remaining doorman opened the golden gates for us and stood to the side as we walked in.

  I locked my jaw into place to avoid looking like a yokel. The ceiling stretched three stories above us, a curved golden dome inlaid with gemstones that looked suspiciously like rubies from my vantage point. A frieze depicting scenes from popular mythology wrapped around the base, hand-carved in painstaking detail despite the fact that no one would ever get close enough to it for it to be worth the bother. Red velvet sofas lined the walls, interspersed with ten foot paintings in golden frames. As I took it all in, my wallet hurled a curse and punched me in the thigh.

  A maître d’ nodded to us as we approached his station. “Sir. Miss. Your names?”

  Shay saved me the ignominy of fumbling for the right words as I gawked at the surroundings. “Shay Steele and Jake Daggers. We’re with the Quinto party.”

  The maître d’ made a note on a sheet hidden by the lip of his kiosk and smiled. “Wonderful. Welcome to the Empress. If you’d be so kind as to follow me.”

  He beckoned and turned, leading us down a hallway whose arched ceilings were as golden and brilliant as those in the foyer but only two stories high instead of three. I spotted dining halls past doorways adorned with red velvet drapes, but rather than usher us into one of them, the maître d’ stopped in front of a glass-paneled door.

  He opened it and extended a hand. “Enjoy your evenings, sir. Miss.”

  I was through the door before it occurred to me that I didn’t know where I should sit, but as my eyes adjusted to the darkened room, I managed to figure things out. To my right I found a table with place settings for twelve, each of them arranged with a tumbler and a wine glass, a trio of plates, and more pieces of silverware than there were ways to consume food. A few tall, round tables also populated the room. At the nearest one, I saw a familiar couple.

  “Daggers. Steele. You made it.”

  Detective Gordon Rodgers set his drink upon the tall table and extended a hand. I shook it and clapped my longtime pal on the back.

  “Rodgers. Good to see you. And Allison. How long has it been? Three months?” I gave Rodgers’ wife a friendly hug.

  “Try six or seven,” she said. “Last time we got together was in the middle of winter. Remember that awful grapefruit sorbet? Hi, Shay. It’s been too long.”

  My partner hugged Allison as I pulled away. “Daggers probably blocked it out, but I remember. It was grainy and bitter. Yech. Anyway, how are you? You look fantastic.”

  It was true. I’d always considered Allison a bit of a Plain Jane, with her collarbone-length brown hair, soft-featured face, and slight figure, but the scarlet dress she’d picked out masterfully used layers of bunched fabric to give her curves that weren’t really there.

  “This?” said Allison offhandedly. “Oh, I just picked it out.”

  Women… “No need for modesty. Shay’s right. You look great. You make Rodgers look like he rolled out of bed.”

  “Hey, now,” said Rodgers. “I dressed up, same as you. The only difference is I make my suit look good.” He adjusted the lapels of his charcoal blazer for emphasis, flashing me one of his trademark white smiles.

  “As if that’s something to be proud of,” I said. “With your blonde hair and baby blue eyes, you could make a potato sack look good. The fact that I look good is a miracle.”

  “Oh, it’s not a miracle,” said Shay. “Hard work on the part of one of us, more like.”

  Allison smiled. “It always is. You think Gordon looks this good without my help?”

  I gasped, covering my mouth. “You pick out his clothes for him? He’s had us thinking for years that his sense of style was innate.”

  Rodgers held up a hand. “I get pointers on color coordination, that’s it.”

  “Sure you do,” I said with a wink. “So where are Quinto and Cairny?”

&nbs
p; “They disappeared in back,” said Allison. “Said they needed to check on some things.”

  “Isn’t that what the wait staff is for?”

  Allison shrugged. “Beats me.”

  Shay gestured toward the table. “Who else is coming?”

  “No idea,” said Rodgers. “I was under the impression it was the big guy, Cairny, and the four of us.”

  A waiter wearing black pleated pants and a matching jacket emerged from a door at the room’s side. He offered a platter, a quartet of champagne flutes bubbling merrily atop it. “Ladies. Gentlemen. A drink?”

  Rodgers and his wife waved the man off, pointing to their half-finished beverages on the table, but Shay accepted one. “Don’t mind if I do. Thank you.”

  The waiter gave me a nod. “Sir?”

  I lifted a hand. “No thanks. A cocktail, though? An apricot whiskey sour, if you could.”

  “Certainly, sir. We use Glendale whiskey unless otherwise requested.”

  I nodded my approval, my wallet leg continuing to ache as the man left. Glendale? What did he think I did for a living, embezzle money from the working class?

  Shay snickered and shook her head. “You’re losing your touch, Daggers. You had champagne right in front of you, not to mention a captive audience, and you didn’t make a single crack about spoiled grapes.”

  “This place is too fancy for thinly veiled sarcasm,” I said. “Trust me, if I were smoking an imported cigar, I would’ve blown the smoke into all of your faces while disparaging the champagne’s insufficient vintage. All in a drawling, condescending tone of voice, to be sure.”

  “You may have lost weight since the last time I saw you, Daggers,” said Allison, “but it’s good to see your sense of humor hasn’t gone anywhere.”

  “Some things never change,” said Shay. “It’s alright. I love him all the same.”

  She smiled, melting my heart in the process.

  I smiled back. “I would, you know. Change. If you wanted me to.”

  “You already have,” she said. “But I’d hate to lose your running commentary on life, the universe, and everything in between. I can’t imagine how boring my days would grow without it.”

  “Oh, it wouldn’t be so bad. Trust me. I know.”

  I turned, not having heard the door open behind me. I couldn’t believe who stood there. “Captain Armstrong. What the hell are you doing here?”

  “Hopefully about to enjoy a fine dinner, same as the rest of you,” said the old bulldog, his hair a little thinner and grayer than the last time I’d seen him. Much of the latent tension in his jaw and brow had melted away. Even his trademark jowls seemed less prominent, mostly because he wasn’t actively frowning.

  He gestured to the woman beside him. “Daggers. Rodgers. You remember my wife, Lizbeth. Steele, I don’t think you’ve had the pleasure.”

  The short, gentle-faced woman beside him seemed the antithesis of everything I remembered about our old Captain—mild, calm, and on the rounder side—and though I was sure I’d met her at some point over the past decade, I couldn’t for the life of me recall when. Maybe at a police ball.

  “Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Armstrong,” said Steele, taking her hand. “I have to imagine you’ve been loving having your husband around these past few months.”

  “For the most part,” she said with a smile. “He can get underfoot as often as he helps, so it’s a mixed bag. But he seems to be enjoying himself, which is all I could’ve hoped for.”

  “Turns out forced early retirement was the best piece of ill luck that could’ve befallen me,” said the Captain. “Not that I realized it at the time, but since leaving the precinct, I feel like a twenty ton weight’s been lifted from my back. My doctor jokes I might’ve regained some of the ten years stress and lack of sleep cut from my lifespan. And all it took was freeing myself from your overflowing font of aggravation, Daggers.”

  “That’s me,” I said. “I’m like a fountain of youth in reverse. The less of me you experience the longer you live. But as great as that is to hear, that doesn’t explain—Captain Knox?”

  I was about to ask what Captain Armstrong was doing here, but the arrival of Captain Knox left me even more befuddled. Our diminutive current captain, wearing a forest green dress that accentuated her faded copper hair, joined the party, arm in arm with a handsome silver fox who was about my height and looked far more comfortable than me in a suit.

  “Evening, Detectives,” said Knox with a tip of her head. “Abe, nice to see you here as well. Everyone, this is my husband, Richard.”

  Introductions and handshakes abounded, but I was a little behind the eight ball. I glanced between my former and current captains. “The two of you are friends? And there are no…hard feelings?”

  Captain Armstrong frowned at me. “Come on, Daggers. The police chief pushed me out, but it wasn’t without my input. You don’t think Beverly and I failed to meet before she took over the department, do you?”

  I gave them a blank look.

  Captain Knox chortled and shot Abe a sly smile. “Often, a lack of an answer is as good as the real thing. To be fair, he never asked. Not that I provided an opportunity. I’ve kept him busy.”

  “Or the city has, at least,” said Rodgers. “No shortage of murders since you left, that’s for sure, Captain.”

  While I struggled to grasp the congeniality shared between my two captains, a new pair arrived. Together they about outweighed the entire party assembled to date: Quinto’s brother, Felix, as tall and broad as his older brother but a few pounds trimmer, wearing a snazzy purple suit and striped tie, and next to him, Quinto’s mother, a full-blooded troll with tusk-like fangs, roughly seven feet tall and tipping the scales at a good four or five hundred pounds. Her long black hair had been curled into a neat updo, and though she looked awkward and self-aware in the flowing indigo gown she wore, she smiled and nodded nonetheless.

  “Norma,” said Shay, gathering her wits quicker than the rest of us. “And Felix. What a surprise to see the two of you here.”

  The big troll woman joined the group. “Yes, well, I’m surprised to be here, to be honest. It’s been a while since I’ve travelled to the city. I’ve forgotten how crowded it gets. After so many years in Aragosto, it feels suffocating. Hard to believe I used to barely notice it.”

  “I don’t think we’ve met. Captain Beverly Knox.” She extended a hand. “You’re Detective Quinto’s mother, I take it?”

  I tugged on Steele’s elbow as the rest of the assembled parties shared introductions. “Shay?” I tilted my head toward a corner.

  She followed my lead, bringing her champagne with her. “What is it?”

  I spoke quietly. “Did you know about any of this?”

  She shook her head. “No. I thought it was going to be us, Quinto, Cairny, Rodgers, and Allison.”

  “Right. So Captain Armstrong? Captain Knox? Quinto’s mom? You see where I’m going with this, right?”

  “I know. It’s exciting.”

  I blinked. “Exciting? How could you be cavalier about this?”

  Shay blinked and stared at me.

  “Quinto’s getting promoted,” I said. “We’re the senior detectives at the 5th. That means he’s getting transferred to a new precinct. I can’t believe Captain Knox didn’t say anything!”

  Shay lifted a brow. “Daggers… I don’t think that’s what’s happening.”

  “No? Well then how—”

  A deep-throated “Ahem!” cut me off. I turned to find Quinto standing in front of the table, dressed in a rich dark suit that draped his considerable frame. His left arm wrapped around Cairny, who was dressed in a spectacular gown—black, of course—that flowed down her body in a waterfall of satin. For once, she’d done more with her hair than let if fall over her shoulders, pinning it up and adorning it with pink and purple flowers. A smile stretched her painted lips, as did one for Quinto, whose mismatched buckteeth were on full display.
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  “Welcome, everyone,” said Quinto. “Gosh, it’s good to see you all here. It warms my heart to know we have such a great group of friends and family. I only wish Cairny’s folks could’ve been here, but they had out of town matters that kept them away.”

  “I’m sure I could’ve persuaded them if I’d known,” said Cairny with a grin.

  “You could’ve, but that would’ve defeated the purpose of all of this, wouldn’t it?”

  Rodgers held his hand out as he shot his partner a perfect smile. “Well, go on. It’s pretty clear we’re not here for a run of the mill friend’s dinner. Lay it on us.”

  Quinto took a deep breath. “No point in dallying, I suppose. As you all know, Cairny and I have been dating for a while now. We’re best of friends. Partners, intellectually and physically. I’ve never met anyone as amazing and inspiring and insightful as her, and as crazy as it would’ve seemed to me even a year ago, I can’t imagine spending a day of my life without her.” He glanced lovingly at Cairny. “Thankfully, it turns out she feels the same way.”

  Cairny extended her left hand. It sparkled more than I’d remembered. “Quinto proposed. I said yes.”

  Shay squeaked and leapt forward to give her friend a hug. “Oh, Cairny! Quinto! I’m so happy for the two of you. This is fantastic!”

  Everyone surged forward, inundating Quinto and Cairny in a flood of congratulations, hugs, and friendly pats on the shoulders. I stood there, bewildered, letting everyone take their cracks at the newly-engaged pair while I fought off my embarrassment.

  Engaged… Of course they’d gotten engaged! Only a dolt like me could’ve failed to see it coming. Even with Shay’s continued guidance, I couldn’t shake my blind spot when it came to interpersonal relationships.

  Waiters came in with more champagne, including the one who’d previously taken my order. He handed me a whiskey sour as Quinto and Cairny ushered people toward the place settings.

 
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