At a fast food restaurant, Port of Subs, on a late evening in early spring in Fabulous Las Vegas, four strangers sat by themselves eating food, drinking coffee, or just taking advantage of the wifi from next door. They weren’t alone—other patrons shared the restaurant, including a family with noisy kids, and the counter was manned by a coterie of surprisingly short-statured staff. But it is these four strangers who will figure broadly in this story, little as they may have wished it.
Garth Baldursson was a tall, gawky grad student on his way home from a meeting of The Society for Creative Anachronisms. He had stopped at Port of Subs because he was hungry, and the food there was cheap. With him he carried a long, thin case that might have been mistaken for a musical instrument such as a keytar, but instead held something that was unlikely to make much music, except perhaps the singing of metal against metal in the crossing of blades. Yes, it was a sword.
Harg Bullock was a hulking private investigator who sat alone in a corner booth with his back to the wall and his eyes on the door. He had come here for a cup of fifty-cent black coffee, so much cheaper than the frou-frou stuff sold at the Starbucks next door. He was tired of chasing cheating spouses, tired of being broke, and tired of stupidity. Unfortunately, he wasn’t likely to get a break from that last one any time soon.
Alan Stanford was an ordinary-looking man dressed in neutral colors. He sat with his arms spread on the table, eating his meal. He, too, had his back to the wall and kept a wary eye on the room. A man of many secrets, he was soon to learn even more.
Reggie Hallow was a slight, absent young woman who sat with her laptop, using the Starbucks wifi while sitting in an environment more suited to her people-watching proclivities. She wore a hand-knit shawl of fluffy pink yarn with a hanging fringe that dangled from her arms and pooled in her lap, and her hair was tied with many glittering crystals and tiny braids. Her theoretical, academic lifestyle was about to become significantly more practical and immediate.
Suddenly, the door burst open, and in swaggered of group of very short gangstas. They waved pipes, chains, baseball bats. Among the six, one seemed to be the most aggressive, waving a sharp knife. “Longtooth!” he yelled. “You cheated last night, but we’ll fight fair now. I’ve come for you, Longtooth! Face me!”
Reggie’s eyes widened, immediately recognizing Kobolds from her studies of the other world. With her eyes opened, she now recognized that each of the workers in this restaurant was a Kobold, too. One of the them had moved to the back, and the lights switched off, though the emergency lights flickered on soon after.
“I’ll fight in the dark!” the tiny gangsta shouted. “Come and fight me, Longtooth! I’ll kill all the pinkies in here if you don’t!” He grabbed a nearby woman, a helpless civilian, and held the knife against her.
As the Kobolds moved out to attack anyone nearby, Reggie slid down under her table. Alan, on the other hand, pulled out his concealed XDM snub nose gun and began shooting. Harg knocked the closest Kobold unconscious with a single punch. Garth, seeing an opportunity for creative anachronisms, retrieved his sword from its case.
The staff also moved, helping the other patrons escape through the door, beginning with the family with children. Longtooth still refused to approach, and the knife-wielding Kobold, chattering with rage, stabbed the woman he held. She slumped to the floor.
Reggie could not hide with that going on. She climbed from under the table, her hands open and empty, and told him that she only wanted to help the injured woman. Without waiting for an answer, she approached and knelt down to apply pressure to the woman’s wounds, all but daring the Kobold to try to hurt her. It wasn’t the smartest thing she’d ever done, but she didn’t care.
Another Kobold hit her with a baseball bat, but it was a glancing blow. Meanwhile, Alan shot a Kobold who rushed his table with such skill that its head just disintegrated. And Garth, wielding his sword with lethal intent for the first time in his life, sliced it through the aggressive Kobold, killing him where he stood. Longtooth knocked out the Kobold who had struck Reggie with the baseball bat, and as quickly as it had begun, the fight was over. One Kobold tried to escape, but Harg chased him down and defeated him easily.
In the aftermath, Longtooth introduced himself to the four who had intervened in the fight. Reggie was excited to meet a real live Kobold and wanted to know if it was clan dispute. He explained that they had simply been testing their strength with things like fights in the parking lot.
She nodded wisely. “Ah, many cultures do things like that. It makes sense that this is one of them. Maybe I can write a paper!”
Garth stared at her with wide, disbelieving eyes. “Many…cultures?”
Harg, meanwhile, had been going through the wallets of the fallen Kobolds. He found seven dollars and was very happy with that haul.
Longtooth said that he didn’t really have time to explain, but he needed them to leave and let them deal with the bodies, the police, and so on. He gave them all business cards with the name “Quarrel” and a phone number. On the front of each was the name of a used bookstore in a nice part of town, The Tattered Cover. “Quarrel will explain everything you need to know, but for now, you must leave.”
Outside, moving toward the parking lot, Reggie and Garth began to talk. He was all for just getting on the bus and going home, but she had to ask, “Well, aren’t you curious? I’m very curious. And if I were you, and didn’t know about any of this to begin with, I’d be even more curious. How can you know that something like this exists and not be curious?”
Garth felt a little sick. He had just a killed living thing. And though that thing apparently wasn’t a human, it still bothered him a great deal. With his eyes opened to the strangeness in the world, the glamours no longer worked on him. He was now aware that there was something odd about Harg’s teeth. And Reggie’s ears. Deeply unsettled as he was, his home and bed sounded more appealing than ever. “I should catch the bus and go home.”
“Well, I suppose you could do that,” Reggie said. “Or you could come with me. I’m going to The Tattered Cover right away. Now that you know that strange things exist in the world, will you really be able to rest until you know the truth?”
After a little more persuasion, Garth admitted that she was right. He agreed to ride with her in her tiny Smart car, though it was a rather cramped and uncomfortable experience. Especially since she insisted on listening to AC/DC with the tinny speakers cranked as high as they would go. Garth hated AC/DC.
The Tattered Cover was a nice store with many books, though the history and science sections were a tad thin, while the mythology and occult shelves were full to bursting. Quarrel worked among the stacks, a black human in an eccentric outfit that included an open robe and parachute pants. On his belt, he wore a few tools that Reggie recognized from her grandmother’s collection of arcane artifacts. She went directly to him and introduced herself, followed by the other three.
Speaking with a smooth Caribbean accent, Quarrel invited them all back to his office. He explained about the alternate dimensions, how there was a world next to theirs, to the left, that had no magic, and another world, to the right, that was full of magic, and this world was in the middle, with some magic and many doors. Garth and Alan didn’t know what to make of it, while Harg and Reggie simply nodded along, Reggie occasionally offering a clarifying fact like the annoying know-it-all she was.
The crux of it was that Quarrel was member of a group that called themselves The Magical Better Business Bureau (though they did laugh at their own name, of course). Members of the MBBB were citizens who had come from the other world and now were doing their best to make their lives in this one. While the knife-wielding Kobold, Krristu, and his clan were less civilized, Longtooth and those like him were good members of the community who had legal jobs and paid taxes. Unfortunately, they sometimes had problems that could not be solved by the usual routes. And so Quarrel kept his eyes open for those who might be willing to help.
Like them, the four soon learned. If they were willing, Quarrel might now and then have a mission for them to do. There would be pay, though not always in cash. Reggie was happy simply with the offer of unlimited access to the bookstore, which she had somehow never found before in all her searches for the strange and arcane. (“Well, we don’t exactly advertise,” Quarrel demurred.) Harg was all gung-ho as soon as he heard the word “pay.” Alan, as a concerned citizen, felt that he should learn more about these possibly dangerous illegal immigrants. And Garth, as Reggie had guessed, simply couldn’t contain his curiosity now that he knew such things existed.
It so happened that Quarrel knew of someone who needed their help right away.