The address Andy gave me led to a diner in Greasetown called Mama’s Cooking. The Greasetown district definitely lived up to its name—the whole neighborhood smelled like cooking oil gone bad. Tumbleweeds of wadded-up newspapers and burger wrappers rolled past grimy-looking storefronts with bars on the windows. I saw no statues or shrines—but the slit-pupiled eye of Tynok, God of Thieves and Cutpurses, winked at me from nearly every alleyway and lintel in a variety of spray-painted colors.
Themia and Her servants were definitely not welcome here—although I did catch a few crossed-sword tags for Her black sheep daughter Nemesia. Vengeance ruled where justice did not.
Before getting out of the car, I peeled off my Justix jacket and replaced it with a spare leather one I kept in my trunk. I also held my blessed oak and concentrated until it shrank down to the size of a match, then I tucked it into the side of my cheek. That way it wouldn’t be found with a cursory search, but I’d still feel its vibration if someone lied.
Mama’s Cooking was sandwiched between a boarded-up grocery store and a shop selling dubious natural remedies. Not a living creature in sight, except for a single seagull that regarded me with a beady little eye before returning to peck at a discarded cone of fries. A bell jangled as I entered the restaurant, although few people were there to welcome me. Just a gnarled old man eating soup in a corner booth and a stringbean of an Outlander kid with a wispy adolescent moustache wiping down the counter.
“Fryer’s broken,” the kid announced before the door finished swinging shut.
“That’s a shame,” I said. “Bill’s mighty hungry.”
The kid blinked and subtly relaxed out of his tense, hunched posture. His eyes focused. On closer inspection, he was older than I’d first assumed—twenty, maybe twenty-one.
“We might have something in the back,” he said. He pulled out a key from around his neck and unlocked the door behind the counter, ushering me inside.
Walking into the backroom of the diner was like transitioning from night into day. The kitchen was spotless and clean, every dish and cooking implement neatly stacked and ordered. I noted two enormously muscled men in kitchen whites who were probably eyeballing me as closely as I was eyeballing them. Neither one of them looked like they could boil an egg.
Past the kitchen was a tiny, wood-paneled office. The man sitting behind the old oak desk stood up as I entered. He reminded me of a soft-spoken sitcom dad. He wore a linty red cardigan over a dress shirt, with khaki slacks and polished dress shoes. He pushed a pair of thick tortoiseshell glasses back up the brim of his nose as he extended a hand for me to shake. This guy had to be Partridge.
“Good afternoon,” the man said. “Don’t mind Dick.”
Before I could ask, one of the so-called chefs came up behind me and began a startlingly efficient body search. I slipped my oak from my cheek to under my tongue. Thankfully, Dick didn’t go that far.
“Can’t be too careful,” the man in the cardigan said. He even had the voice of a sitcom dad—calm, soothing, reasonable. Just a man running a perfectly normal business dealing in the cast-off playthings of gods.
“She says she’s here about Bill,” the kid said.
“Thank you. You can go back to the counter and let the adults talk.” Partridge dismissed the boy with a jut of his chin.
Keeping mum, I cast an eye around the man’s office. Nothing here looked especially incriminating or out of place. A mug of pens. A few stacks of paperwork. An ancient fax machine. The only piece of personality was a green porcelain pig on the corner of the desk. It looked familiar for some reason, although I couldn’t quite place it.
Partridge turned back to me. “And how is Bill?”
I remembered Andy’s advice. Be indirect. “. . . Bill’s taken a sudden interest in bird watching. Kestrels, in particular.”
From behind me, I heard a startled murmuring from the goons in the kitchen.
Partridge crossed to the door and closed it against the unhappy muttering.
“Of course, of course,” Partridge said. “We cannot apologize enough for this unfortunate incident. Bill has always been a loyal customer, so to show our apologies and our appreciation, when we recover the merchandise Bill is welcome to it at a significant discount.”
My mind scrambled to keep up with this new information. Recover the merchandise? “Bill . . . is perhaps a little curious as to how this incident occurred.”
“His curiosity is...