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Chapter 6 Dwarf Walks Into A Bar

THE LOWER ELEMENTSMulch Diggums strolled through Haven's Market District, feeling more relaxed with every step. The Market District was a lowlife zone, as much as you could have a lowlife zone on a street which boasted two hundred cameras and a permanent LEP cabin on the corner. But even so, criminals outnumbered civilians here eight to one. My kind of people, thought Mulch. Or at least they used to be before I threw in with Holly.

It wasn't that Mulch regretted teaming up with Holly, but sometimes he did miss the old days. There was some-thing about thievery that made his heart sing. The thrill of the snatch, the euphoria of easy money.

Don't forget the despair of prison, his practical side reminded him. And the loneliness of life on the run.

True. Crime wasn't all fun and games. It had minor downsides, like fear, pain and death. But Mulch had been able to ignore those for a long time, until Commander Julius Root had been killed by a criminal. Until then it had all been a game. Julius was the cat and he was the elusive mouse. But with Julius gone, returning to a life of crime would seem like a slap in the face to the commander's memory.

And that's why I like this new job so much, concluded Mulch happily. / get to run around behind the LEP's back and consort with known criminals.

He had been watching talk shows in the Section 8 lounge when Foaly had come cantering in. Truth be told, Mulch liked Foaly. They knocked sparks off each other whenever they met, but it kept both of them on their toes, or hooves, whichever the case may be.

In this instance, there had been no time for tomfoolery, and Foaly had brusquely explained the situation above ground. They did have a plan, but it hinged on Mulch's abil-ity to find the pixie smuggler Doodah Day and bring him back to Section 8.

'That's going to take some doing,' noted Mulch. 'The last time I saw Doodah, he was scraping dwarf gunge off his boots. He doesn't like me very much. I'm going to need leverage.'

'You tell that pixie that if he helps us out he's a free fairy. I'll go into the system myself and wipe his record.'

Mulch raised his shaggy eyebrows. 'It's that important?'

'It's that important.'

'I saved this city,' grumbled the dwarf. 'Twice in fact! Nobody ever wiped my record. This pixie goes on one mission and poof, he walks. What do I get? Seeing as we're handing out wishes.'

Foaly stamped a hoof impatiently. 'You get your exor-bitant consultant's fee. Whatever. Just get on this. Do you have any way to track Mister Day down?'

Mulch whistled. 'It's going to be devilishly tough. That pixie will have gone to ground after this morning. But I have certain skills. I can do it.'

Foaly glowered at him. 'That's why you get paid the big bucks.'

In fact, finding Doodah was not going to be quite as devilishly difficult as Mulch had pretended. The last thing Mulch had done before waving a cheery goodbye to Doodah Day was to slip a tracker pill down his boot.

The tracker pills had been a gift from Foaly. He liked to pass redundant equipment to Holly to help keep the agency afloat. The pills were made from a baked adhesive gel that started to melt as soon as you popped it from its foil case. The gel stuck to whatever it was touching and adopted its colour. Inside was a tiny transmitter that emit-ted harmless radiation for up to five years. The tracking system was not very sophisticated. Each pill left its signa-ture on the individual foil cases, so the case glowed when-ever it detected the signature radiation. The brighter the glow, the closer the pill.

Idiotproof, Holly had quipped, issuing the pills.

And idiotproof they were proving to be. Barely ten minutes after leaving Section 8, Mulch had tracked Doodah Day to the Market District. By the dwarf's reckoning, his quarry was somewhere within a twenty-metre radius. The most likely place was the fish bar across the street. Pixies loved fish. Especially shellfish. Especially, especially protected shellfish such as lobster. Which was why Doodah's smuggling skills were so much in demand.

Mulch crossed the street, adjusted his expression to fear-some and barged into Happy as a Clam as if he owned the place.

The bar was ostensibly a dive. The floor was bare boards and the air stank of week-old mackerel. The menu was written on the wall in what looked like fish blood, and the only customer appeared to be asleep in a bowl of chowder.

A pixie waiter glared at him from behind a knee-high counter.

'There's a dwarf bar down the street,' he said.

Mulch flashed him a toothy grin. 'Now that's not very hospitable. I could be a customer.'

'Not likely,' said the waiter. 'I never saw a dwarf pay for a meal yet.'

It was true. Dwarfs were scroungers by nature.

'You got me,' admitted Mulch. 'I'm no customer. I'm looking for someone.'

The waiter gestured at the almost deserted restaurant. 'If you don't see him, he ain't here.'

Mulch flashed a very shiny LEP temporary deputy badge that Foaly had issued. 'I think I might take a closer look.'

The waiter ran out from behind his counter. I think you might need a warrant to take one more step, cop.'

Mulch brushed him aside. 'I'm not that kind of cop, pixie.'

Mulch followed the transmitter's signal through the main restaurant down a shabby corridor and into the restrooms, which were even shabbier. Even Mulch winced, and he burrowed in mud for a living.

One cubicle had an 'Out of order' sign on the door. Mulch squeezed into the pixie-sized space and quickly located the secret door. He wormed his way through into a far more salubrious room than the one he had just left. There was a velvet-lined cloakroom box, staffed by a rather surprised pixie in a pink dress.

'Do you have a reservation?' she asked haltingly.

'More than one,' replied Mulch. 'For starters, do you think it's a good idea to put the secret entrance to an ille-gal restaurant in a toilet? It didn't fool me, and I think I lost my appetite.'

Mulch did not wait for an answer. Instead he bowed under a low lintel into an opulent main restaurant. Here dozens of pixies were tucking into steaming plates of shellfish. Doodah Day was alone at a table for two, crack-ing a lobster with a hammer as if he hated it.

Mulch walked over, ignoring the surprised glares from other diners.

'Thinking about someone?' he asked, lowering himself into a tiny pixie chair.

Doodah glanced up. If he was surprised, he hid it well.

'You, dwarf. I'm imagining that this claw is your fat head.'

Doodah brought the hammer down hard, splattering Mulch with white lobster meat.

'Hey, watch it! That stinks.'

Doodah was livid. 'That stinks! That stinks! I've taken three showers. Three! And I can't get the stink of your mouth offa me. It follows me like my own personal sewer. You see I'm eating alone. Usually I got me a table full of buddies, but not today. Today I smell like dwarf.'

Mulch was unperturbed. 'Hey, easy, little guy. I could get offended.'

Doodah waved the hammer. 'You see anyone in here caring how you feel? Offended or otherwise.'

Mulch took a deep breath. This was going to be a hard sell.

'Yeah, OK, Doodah. Point made. You're a real wise guy. A ticked-off wise guy. But I got an offer for you.'

Doodah laughed. 'You got an offer for me? I got an offer 138

for you. Why don't you get your dwarf stink outta here before I crack your teeth with this hammer?'

'I get it,' said Mulch testily. 'You're a tough little guy, and mean too. And a dwarf would have to be crazy to mess with you. Generally I would sit here for a couple of hours, trading insults. But today I'm busy. A friend of mine is in trouble.'

Doodah smiled broadly, raising a glass of wine in a mock toast. 'Well, dwarf, here's hoping it's that slippery elf Holly Short. 'Cause there's nobody I would rather see up to her pointy ears in something dangerous.'

Mulch showed his teeth, but he wasn't smiling.

'Actually, I've been meaning to talk to you about that. You attacked my friend with a multimixer. Nearly killed her.'

'Nearly,' said Doodah, raising a finger. 'Just scared her is all. She shouldn't have been chasing me. I just smuggle a few crates of shrimp. I don't kill anyone.'

'Just drive.'

'That's right. Just drive.'

Mulch relaxed. 'Well, Doodah, lucky for you, your driv-ing skill is the very thing stopping me unhingeing my jaw and chewing on you like one of those shrimp balls you got there. And this time who knows which end you'd come out.'

The bravado instantly drained from Doodah's face.

'I'm listening,' he said.

Mulch reined in his teeth.

'OK. So, you can drive anything, right?'

'Absolutely anything. I don't care if Martians built it, Doodah Day can drive it.'

'Good, because I got an offer for you. I'm not particu-larly happy about it, but I have to run it past you anyway.'

'Go for it, Stinky.'

Mulch groaned internally. Their little band of adventur-ers needed another smart-ass like they needed ten years of bad luck.

'I need you for one day, to drive one vehicle, for one trip. You do that and you have amnesty.'

Doodah was impressed. It was an impressive deal.

'So all I gotta do is drive and you wipe the slate?'

'Apparently.'

Doodah tapped his forehead with a lobster claw. 'This is too easy, there's gotta be a catch.'

Mulch shrugged. 'Well, it's going to be above ground and there'll be a lot of armed Mud Men chasing after you.'

'Yeah?' grinned Doodah through a mouthful of lobster juice. 'But what's the catch?'



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