"So just so we are clear, you want us to find your cat", Spade repeated again.
"Yes, dear. His name is Tom. And he is a big brown tabby. One of his ears droops a bit on the left side," the prospective client rambled as she pushed forward a small but fine painting of a very fat cat. The cat was unremarkable except for its size and an oversized emerald brooch on its collar.
The elderly lady that sat across from Spade in their somewhat crowded office seemed sincere and genuinely worried. She was dressed in a long brown dress with fine trims that had been patched over many years. Jewelry that glistened in shine but not in worth. She may have been an ancient beauty but those days were long past. In some ways not the traditional femme fatale of the great detective stories, but in other ways, exactly what you would expect for most detective jobs. She had just shown up early in the morning, introduced herself as Agnes, made plenty of small talk and eating several complementary stale pastries before ending at a missing cat.
"Mam, we are a detective agency," Ace said exasperated.
"A highly reputable detective agency," Spade interjected.
"Exactly, and as such, I don't see..." Ace started.
"... how you could have turned to anyone but us," Spade continued abruptly, "We will find your cat, or at least try our best for minimum three days. And ..."
Ace pulled on Spade's chair and he swiveled away from the client for a short partner one-on-one. Agnus took her cue to patch up her makeup with a worn mirror.
"What are you doing?", Ace whispered.
"Our job. We need clients and we need money to stay afloat," Spade added.
"What happened to fighting the good fight and cleaning up the Racks?", Ace asked.
"That is still the plan. We just need to get the word out, do some lower-end jobs," Spade replied.
"And for that you want to take advantage of a poor old lady?", Ace whispered sternly.
"Look. She needs help, or at least she just needs someone willing to hear her out. No one else would give this the time of day," Spade said.
"Fine," Ace said sternly.
"We need at least one paying job, Ace. But it is just the two of us, so I won't take it without your approval," Spade replied.
"I said, fine," Ace repeated.
Spade swiveled the creaking chair back and Agnus looked back up with a small.
"Is everything ok, dearies?" Agnus inquired of the two so-called detectives.
"Everything is perfect. Just some administration," Spade replied with a toothy smile. "So you said the cat's name was Tom?"
"Yes, although I always call him Honeybun. He has been with me for thirty years."
Spade looked up from his note taking. Cats didn't live that long, did they? He glanced at Ace but she just shrugged.
"And when was the last time you saw him?" Ace asked.
"Two days ago. He left for his evening walk but hadn't returned for bed. It is so unlike him."
"Has he been missing before?" Spade followed.
"Oh, never. He goes exploring often, but always is back at least before the next morning," Agnes rambled, "I am so worried. He has many enemies, you know."
Ace and Spade looked at Agnes with raised eyebrows.
"And who might these enemies be?" asked Ace hesitantly.
"There are these three no-gooders down the street; Spike, Fang and Butch."
"These sound like dogs, Mam," said Ace.
"Dogs, they certainly are! Their boss hardly keeps them on a leash and they just wander around assaulting everyone," Agnes raised her voice in frustration.
"Does Tom have any spots that he frequents often? A favorite hiding place or something," asked Spade.
"Not that I am aware of. But I just let him go on his little adventures. Tom appreciates his quiet time," Agnes replied, "You know how men are, free spirits and all." Agnes gave a knowing glance to Ace, who sighed in reply.
"Alright, I think we know enough to start our search. We will require a small down payment and I am afraid with a missing euhm individual case such as this, we cannot guarantee results, only our best efforts," Spade said.
"Don't worry. I know you will do your best. You seem like such nice kids. Will this be enough for the down payment?", Agnes asked as she pushed forward five whole gold coins.
Ace gave her hobgoblin partner a stern look, but Spade just smiled, "That will do just fine.”
So stood Spade, former Skyrifle and keen investigator, with his partner Ace, a magical creature with the power to don any face and grant some wishes, in the middle of the Racks. This is what they had been preparing for, their first case. Someone had asked them to track down a cat, and a cat they were determined to find. Their sharp senses were tuned to the environment. Eyes scanning around for threats, both humanoid and feline. Rain drizzling down in torrents. Their quarry would stand no chance against these somewhat seasoned veterans of detective work.
“And just how in the name of the many Gods are we supposed to find a cat?” exclaimed Ace as the rain soaked her clothes.
Spade shrugged. They walked along the street where Agnes lived. It was a typical street for the Racks, half wooden structures falling to bits, half stone buildings that has seen better days. This was where the poorest of Himmin lived.
"The Racks are huge. There are so many hiding places where a cat could fit," Ace continued.
Spade shrugged again. They passed a butcher, if it could be called that. Meat of all shapes and sizes hung out in the rain. A lowly fat goblin sat sleeping under a makeshift tarp.
"Tom is a super common name. I am not going to go around shouting Honeybun either. And cats are not exactly known for listening anyway," Ace said exasperated.
Spade shook his head in silence. The two detectives passed a bar closing down. Drunk patrons complaining about the rain but the owner remained adamant that he wasn't running an inn. The drunks shambled away without direction as they had nowhere else to go.
"Are we supposed to just ask people if they've seen a big droopy-eared cat with an emerald brooch?" Ace shouted to the world.
"I hate that damn cat," said the man from a small stall near the side of the road. The stall featured a miserable collection of misshapen breads and pies. A weathered cloth hung overhead, sheltering his wares from the rain. A large sign invited the people of the Racks to taste Henry's mystery pies.
Spade stopped and pointed.
"Excuse me what?" Ace asked the human whom they surmised to be Henry.
"Ye be talking about that cursed cat. Everyone knows that brown menace," replied the provider of pastries.
"How so?" asked Ace.
"It keeps stealing pastries from my shop. And not only from my shop. I hear that it is also a frequent unwanted customer of Glenda's flower shop. Not to mention poor Audrey's necklace," the shopkeeper continued.
"What happened to the necklace?"
"Apparently the damned cat snuck in, and stole the necklace right out of her jewelry box in her room. While she was asleep! If the cat hadn't knocked over two vases and a mug on his way out, she wouldn't even have seen the filthy thief," said the man, followed by a spit to the ground.
"We are talking about a cat, right? This cat?" Ace showed the small painting of Tom the Cat, borrowed from Agnes.
"That is the bastard, alright. Don't know what you want with it. But I wouldn't mind skinning it and boiling it into a fine meat pie,” the shop owner replied.
"And when was the last time you saw the cat?”, Spade asked.
"I don't know, a few days ago, I guess," said the shopkeeper, "Seems to drop by at least once a week."
“Alright, thanks for your information,” Ace replied.
“No worries. And if you find that cat. Do me a favour and give it a kick for me," the man called out as the two investigators continued on.
“So we now know that it has a fixed territory,” Spade mumbled as they walked.
“How so?” Ace asked.
“Well. We just passed the bakery. Agnes’ house is over there. And the flower shop is on the parallel street,” Spade pointed to the row of decrepit houses and made a square motion.
“And that helps us how?”
“Given the excessive weight of the cat, it couldn’t have gotten very far. It might have a nest or lair nearby. Look for marks or signs of a cat,” Spade continued. Both detectives carefully looked around them.
“Ha, something like that!”, Spade exclaimed with a smile. He jumped on to a crate and pointed at the tell-tale scratches of a cat climbing a window. The window was attached to one of the nicer buildings in the street. Nicer being a relative term, as none of the houses in the Racks looked like the place that any sane person would live. But this was a larger house with a coloured but faded paint job on the outside. It seemed to also have functional blinders, also a rarity in the Racks.
“It seems like our feline friend frequents this establishment,” Spade pointed out.
“Or any other cat,” Ace replied.
“I think our feline friend is quite territorial," explained Spade, "Have you seen many other cats here?”
“Or a very large rat,” said Ace.
“Hmm, yes, that could be,” sighed Spade.
“I also heard that there are crocodiles in the sewer,” said Ace.
“I don’t think those climb windows," Spade retorted.
“Just pointing out that it could be anything,” said Ace.
“Yes, we will just have to hope for good luck. It’s been on our side so far. With a bit of luck the cat we seek is simply somewhere inside …” Spade looked closer at the sign in front. It promptly featured a very buxom lady in various stages of undress. “… The Skanky Boudoir”
“Well, good luck with this,” Ace patted Spade on the back.
“Wait, what? But you are the talky person.”
“I’ll keep looking around outside, while you use your detective skills in there,” replied Ace.
“Yes, but I sure wish that there was someone else who could go and ask some questions,” Spade said carefully.
“Do you really want to waste your one wish a day on this?” Ace replied.
“No, but,” Spade said., “Do you really expect me to go in there and ask around?”
“Do you want to solve this case?”, Ace retorted.
“Yes, but…,” Spade started.
“Well, then go in there and talk to the ladies," said Ace, "Don’t tell me, you're afraid of them?”
“You know I am not great with people, and these are …," started Spade.
“I am sure they are very nice ladies, or men if you are so inclined.”
“But still, it’s not something…," continued Spade.
“Spade, it will be good practice for you,” explained Ace.
“Practice for what exactly?”, asked Spade.
“You’ll find out!” and Ace pushed Spade through the faded pink door.
A little bell rang as Spade tumbled into The Skanky Boudoir. The notes felt drawn out and Spade felt very aware of himself as he stood amongst an array of dark velvet stuffed pillows and worn beige curtains.
"What is your pleasure?", a voice called from behind the curtains. It was sultry and inviting. You could not tell if it was a man or woman.
"Umm, I am looking for a cat," Spade called out to the distant voice.
"I assure you, all our girls are quite the wild cats," The voice almost purred in reply.
"No no, a real actual cat," Spade said meekly.
"Sir, we don't do that here," the voice said sharply, breaking character.
Spade regretted all his life choices that brought him to this.
"No, no, I have been hired to find it," Spade blurted out, his cheeks turning red.
"Well, then you can tell your patron to fuck off," the distance voice responded sternly.
"She's just a kind old lady who misses her companion," Spade tried to explain.
"I don't care if she's Daghda reincarnated, we don't do that here."
Spade strained his head thinking how to get out of this mess, and spoke very carefully, "It's her real cat and we think it ran into the building. Nothing weird."
"Ooh, why didn't you just say so," the distant voice responded.
"It's a big one, with a droopy ear and an emerald brooch," explained Spade.
"Alright, let me go check with the girls," the voice had returned to their cheerful demeanor.
Spade heard the muffled sound of footsteps somewhere in the maze of curtains, followed by the shouting and yelling of several colorful phrases. His ears were turned as he heard the description of a stuck-up hobgoblin who lost a cat being passed along. He really hoped that no one would enter the building as he waited in the lobby. Soon enough, a new set of footsteps approached and a heavily-made-up orc woman appeared.
"Are you the one that's looking for Sweetums?", the woman asked as she saw Spade trying to retreat into a curtain.
"Sweetums? I am looking for a cat called Tom."
"Oh, I don't know his name, Silly. Cats can't talk," the Orc woman answered.
"Well, I suppose that's true," Spade replied, “And you are?”
“The name is Precious. I’m the big money maker here."
He showed her the picture of the fat cat with the broach.
"Yup, that's Sweetums alright. I'd recognize those deep eyes anywhere.”
“Ok, fair enough,” said Spade.
“And he gives the sweetest little kisses," explained Precious, "He’s just the sweetest cat there is."
"Great, where is he?" asked Spade.
"Oh, not here, Honey," replied Precious.
"When did you last see him?", asked Spade.
"He usually comes by every week or so. He climbs through my window and snuggles in my bed. Last I saw Sweetums was a few days ago. But I had to chase him off because I had a client. He doesn't do well when I have a customer," explained Precious, "Did something happen to my poor sweety?”
“Let’s hope not, do you know where he went next?” asked Spade.
“Silly man, How should I know? Sweetums is a cat,” Precious talked down to this idiot who clearly didn't understand how cats worked.
“I know, I know. But did you see anything or did, “ Spade shuddered “Sweetums seem to favour a particular direction?”
Precious thought long and hard.
“No, not that I know of. Although, I mean, I don’t know if it’s important.”
“Mam, even the tiniest thing could lead to the successful recovery of Sweetums,” continued Spade urging her on for at least one clue.
“Well, when he drops by, he usually has little presents for me. You know how cats are. Little trinkets, flowers, meat pies …"
Spade walked back out of the Skanky Boudoir towards a grinning Ace. His cheeks still felt red and he was desperately trying to cover his face.
“Next time, you do the talking,” Spade said drowsily.
Ace just smiled, “Any leads?”
“Some, but this is one weird cat,” Spade stopped before he could continue as three very burly bugbears approached the two detectives.
"Hey, you two!" yelled the biggest bugbear, "Are you the ones who have been asking around about the fat cat?"
"We are just looking for a cat, sir. We don't want any trouble," replied Ace.
"Who hired you?" asked the second bugbear with a particularly sharp tooth sticking out of his jaw.
"Who wants to know?" responded Spade, stepping a bit closer.
The three bugbears looked like they were part of one of the many gangs of the Racks. They were scary looking enough that they could have been a gang on their own. If they were part of a gang, they were doing well for themselves. The clothes were decent for the standards of the Racks and they wore small trinkets that signified some wealth. Spade did notice a few scratches on their faces and hands, maybe made by a cat recently.
"The name is Spike", said the larger bugbear, " and these here are my friends Fang and Dutch. So now that the pleasantries are over, I'll ask you again, who hired you?"
The names immediately rang a bell in Ace and Spade's memories. Contrary to the prior conversation with Agnes, these were decidedly not dogs. This case was getting stranger by the minute.
"I'm afraid that's confidential," Spade said as a matter of fact. There were principles to follow, even if they were on just getting started. He wasn't scared of some would-be hoodlums.
A stiff punch hit Spade on his jaw and he fell to the ground. Ace dropped down and found that he was luckily still alive but unconscious. Spade was never one who could stand up to a beating. The bugbear with the tooth, who Ace guessed was Fang, cracked his fist.
"Alright, we surrender," Ace responded dryly, "What do you want to know?"
"Grab them," Spike said with a smile.
When Spade awoke several minutes later, he found himself handcuffed to a chair. Ace was nearby in similar restraints. They were in a dark small room and there was plenty of noise from the other side of a flimsy door. Based on the shabby wooden walls, they were still in the Racks. Most likely just down the street from where they had been taken by Spike and his gang.
Spike entered and the door revealed one of the many gambling dens in the Racks. It was crowded by all manner of humanoids and plenty of dice games to keep them occupied. The bugbear was carrying a simple platter of food and drink. A large loaf of bread and some kind of mead.
"So start talking," the large bugbear said as he picked up a large knife from the tray.
"I think there has been a misunderstanding. We were just hired by an old lady to find her cat." Ace tried explaining calmly.
"You are some kind of mercenary company then?"
"No, we are detectives from the Ace 'n Spade's detective agency," Ace said proudly.
"Is that some kind of guard? We don't take kindly to guards here." Spike spat on the floor.
"We aren't affiliated with any watch or whatever. We are private individuals who get hired to find things."
"Like cats?" Spike asked with a curious frown.
"Well no, this is an odd case. Although we haven't really had any other cases before, so who knows what a normal case for us will look like." Ace rambled.
"Hmm," Spike seemed to process the information given to him for a moment. "How about you work for us then? Find the cat and bring him back here."
"Can I just ask," Spade interjected, "why do you want the cat?"
"Ah, the investigators at work." Spike turned to the other detective. "So, are you the brains of the operation?"
"I think it's more accurate to say we share about half a brain," Ace replied, "given our recent successes."
"So what were you saying about the cat? Did he steal from you or something?" Spade tried to get the gang leader to start talking.
"It's not the cat we want. It's the husband," Spike responded with a heavy sigh. "He owes us quite a pretty penny, see. Bad gambling problem he had. Couldn't pay up anymore. But he disappeared a year ago without a trace. The old lady Agnes won't tell us where he is."
"And so you want to take her cat instead? I feel like you skipped a few steps," Ace said.
"What do you take us for?" Spike yelled back "We tried everything else. The old lady is stubborn and refuses to talk. I had Fang watch the house for almost a month and no sign of the guy. And I have my boss breathing down my neck about the outstanding debt."
"Sounds like a tough situation."
"You don't know half of it. At one point, we discussed taking Agnes in and putting the screws on her. But none of my boys wanted to do that to an old lady. We got principles, you see. Take a cat, that's more in our league.”
“But you managed to catch the cat once, right?” asked Spade, noting the visible cat scratches on Spike’s hands.
“Aye, we had him as he wandered out of the Boudoir. But he is a slippery bastard. Clawed at us like hell. Wouldn’t take the fish we offered him. Ran off before we could catch him again. No clue where he got to now.” The bugbear rolled up a sleeve to show off even more scratches. One looked particularly deep and wasn’t healing well.
“Cats can be quite a handful like that,” Ace added.
“Yeah, we aren’t equipped for this sort of thing. But the way I see it, you might. As the professional cat catchers, you are.”
“We are detectives, Mr Spike,” Ace replied.
“You find things for people right. I want you to find that cat for me and bring it.”
“I am afraid we are already otherwise engaged,” Spade said, “ And we aren’t in the business of betraying our clients.”
“That’s too bad. And I am afraid that if we cannot see eye-to-eye on this, I am going to have to ask Fang to come in here and try to persuade you. We might not hurt old ladies, but we have no reservations against cat detectives," spoke Spike with a broad grin.
"Just give us a minute, Mr Spike, " Ace replied.
"Very well, I'll leave you two to discuss for a moment. I can understand it's not an easy choice to make. But you know, people with principles don't last long here in the Racks." Spike placed down the tray of food on a distant shelf, along with the keys to their manacles, far outside of the reach of Ace and Spade. A reminder of the promise of freedom. The door slammed closed and Ace and Spade were left in silence.
"Alright, I think we heard enough," Spade said.
"Got an escape plan ready?" Ace asked.
"Several. Glad they always underestimate us," Spade replied.
"To be fair they did knock you out for real," Ace added.
"Yes, well. We can't win them all."
"So the plan?" Ace asked.
"Simply enough. I wish those keys over there were in my hands," Spade said.
"That's not fair. Then I have to do all the work," Ace groaned, "But your wish is my command."
Ace's eyes glowed purple for a second. It was subtle, but Spade had seen it happen many times before. He didn't really understand it, but apparently some distant ancestor of Ace was a djinn, one of those magical creatures that trick you into making wishes. But instead of granting any wish, Ace was a bit more limited. She could do maybe two little things per day. No free wealth or immortality. But moving a key from a shelf that she could see, definitely doable.
A purple glow surrounded the key on the shelf and it floated over to Spade's hand. A click later, Spade and Ace were free.
"Now to make our way out of here," Spade told his partner.
He felt around until he found a loose panel in the wall. Most buildings in the Racks were in various states of falling apart and this one was no different. Just a little nudge and shove and the panel came out. The two detectives moved the panel as silently as possible and climbed out. They found themselves in an alley behind the gang's shady casino. No one seemed to be around, so they placed the panel back and snuck away.
"Too bad we can't see their faces when they discover we have disappeared without a trace," Ace exclaimed when she thought they were far enough away to not be found or overhead.
"Hah, yeah. We certainly showed them," Spade replied.
"Can't believe they thought that leaving the key in the same room as us. They were practically asking us to escape," Ace continued.
"And we got a lot of useful information. With your charisma, and my wits, we are basically unstoppable," Spade said, "And - Ow!"
"Ow?" asked Ace.
"Ow!" cried Spade as he collapsed on the ground, clutching his leg.
Ace sped to his side and had a closer look at the strange contraption that had trapped Spade's left foot. It was a grotesque metal claw with a bit of meat dangling from a string. It also had a small bell that ringed with each jerk of Spade's foot.
"I wish someone would get this off of me," Spade exclaimed with clenched teeth.
"Nope, too difficult," Ace replied, "Where did this thing even come from?"
Ace had a closer look at the contraption. It was old and rugged. The device had definitely seen many years of use. It seemed designed for catching small animals, like rats. Though why it had a bell, she wasn't so sure.
"Ha, got another one!" a guttural voice exclaimed from the distance.
Ace saw a bulky goblin with a bloody apron approach. The goblin was carrying a very large meat cleaver. He was grinning madly until he saw poor Spade in the trap.
"By Brigantia, not another idiot," the goblin said deflated.
"Um, could you help my friend?" asked Ace, trying to top Spade's screams.
"Fine fine," the goblin retrieved a large rusty wrench from an invisible back pocket. He then hit the trap a few times, each time with another one of Spade's whimpers, until the claw sprang open.
Ace helped Spade back to his feet, "Much appreciated, Mister?"
"No need to be so formal, lass. They call me The Slaughterman." replied the goblin.
"That's an unusual name?" asked Ace.
"Oh, don't worry. I just run the local butchery, see," replied Slaughterman with a large grin, "I think I might have some bandages lying around for your friend. You best follow me."
Ace supported Spade under his arm and Spade limped through the alley. After just two left turns through alleys, the Slaughterman took them through a rickety back door. The room beyond was cold, but more importantly the smell was heavy. It was a thick and rich aroma, but not in a good way. A light hint of wet dog with a heavy helping of spices and herbs. As soon as Spade and Ace entered, they heard the telltale scratches and shrieks of several startled animals.
"We run a complete operation here," explained Slaughterman, "from the raw materials to the finest cuts. Well maybe not the finest, but certainly affordable."
"And the traps in the alley?" asked Spade as he sat open a deep crimson work bench while the goblin retrieved some materials.
"Fresh produce, of course," answered Slaughterman, "Plenty of demand for rat and other critters. Plenty of supply around here. It's all basic economics."
"I see." Spade clenched his teeth as Slaughterman tied his leg in a mostly clean bandage. The bandage seemed to be covered in a thick substance that Spade couldn't identify, but it had a similar strong smell as the rest of the shop. Though he was a bit wary of where the goblin had gotten it, it felt a bit better just having it on.
"So why were you two snooping around back here," asked Slaughterman, "ambush for some kind of robbery or just a normal drug deal?"
"No," replied Ace, "We are detectives. We were looking for a lost cat."
Ace showed the goblin the picture of Tom the cat. The goblin peered closer, squinted his eyes and looked a bit to the side.
"You wouldn't happen to have seen him?" asked Ace.
"To be honest, maybe. But before I show you anything. You should be aware that everything that gets caught in my traps is fair game, and that most of my customers don't know the difference between a cat and a rabbit. Especially when the head is off."
The Slaughterman waved at the detective duo to follow him as he entered another room of the butcher. From the sounds and the smell, this was where the livestock was being kept. It was an amalgam of creatures in cages, most rats. Large rats, small rats, white rats, brown rats, and a bit of everything. There were some creatures that didn't seem like rats but they were too poorly kept to be identified as any kind of known animal. As they walked past, the Slaughterman banged on some of the bars with his cleaver to quiet some of the louder creatures. Ace and Spade would have felt sorry for them, but they all looked completely rabid. The goblin continued to the back of the room.
There a lone small cage stood. Or what was left of it. The bars had been mangled beyond comprehension. It was as if the inside had exploded, bending the metal outwards.
Spade knelt down and felt at the bars. They were sturdy. He wasn't sure if he could bend even one, let alone all of them. Whatever did this was terrifying.
"I didn't see nothing," said the Slaughterman, "I put the cat in there. It was howling like mad. Had to put it separately as it was spooking the other ones. And then just a few hours ago, there was the noise." The goblin stopped and shuddered as he remembered. "When I came to check, the cage was like this. The cat was gone, and so was my lucky apron! I really have no explanation."
Spade examined the pieces that were left. No sign of wear or tear, they were just mangled by some supernatural force. Something shiny did catch his eye. Among the scrap was a familiar brooch. But the emerald within had been scattered into tiny shards.
"Ace, these are magic runes, right?" Spade held up the broken brooch.
Ace looked closer at the item. Small but detailed inscriptions were placed along the outside of the brooch. These were powerful, but no longer active. "This used to be a magical time alright. Something to do with transmutation if I would have to guess."
Spade smiled, "I think I've solved our case and I know what happened to our dear old Tom."
"You sure you got it?" asked Ace.
"Almost certain," replied Spade.
"We don't want a repeat of the other times,” said Ace.
“Don’t worry, I got this,” clarified Spade.
"Remember when you accused Old Toby, that did not end well,” Ace continued.
"It is nothing like that, I'm pretty sure I have it right," said Spade, "but it wouldn't hurt to go confirm a few things with our dear Agnes."
Ace and Spade both stood warily in the living room of their client. Both felt uncomfortable about what they had to tell the old lady, but saw little other alternative. Agnes reentered the room with a tray of cookies and tea. She sat down opposite the two detectives in a chair dressed with lace.
“So you mentioned you had some questions for me?” said Agnes as she started pouring out the tea.
“Yes, mam,” said Ace, “We have been doing some investigating and we have several leads. But we just want to double check some things with you before we proceed.”