Short Story by Dan Abnett
The Strange Demise of Titus Endor
Contunuing our special SFX Summer Of Reading season we have something very special for you – a short story from acclaimed Warhammer novelist Dan Abnett. He’s also just announced that he’s writing this year’s Christmas Doctor Who novel from BBC books, provided the script for the Warhammer 40,000 movie Ultramarines, has written for both Marvel, DC and 2000AD, and has authored his own original novels for Angry Robot.
This short story originally appeared in Hammer And Bolter, a download-only fiction magazine from The Black Library, bringing the worlds of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 to life. Hammer And Bolter showcases all of Black Library’s new authors and has full stories by established guys such as Abnett as well.
The Strange Demise of Titus Endor
The city was a hollow, failing place that was trying to turn its fortunes around, so it was apt that Titus Endor should wash up there. He’d long since lost the lustre that had made him one of the ordo’s rising stars. Like a counterfeit coin, his value had been exposed as short weight. None of it had been his fault, just circumstances.
Titus Endor took another drink, and reflected that life could be worse.
It had seemed to have been winter for two or three years. Snow fell all the time, but the city streets were so warm and busy, nothing lay for long. Slush filled the gutters, and the edges of the kerbs were crusted with polished deposits of old grey ice. Tiny snowflakes freighted the air, caught in the streetlights. They drifted like random thoughts, or disconnected clues.
The city’s name was Marisberg. Or perhaps it was Chericoberg, or Zsammstadd? They were all alike, the brute towns clinging to the oily edge of Karoscura’s western continent. The drifting clues had dragged him from one conurbation to the next, from one drab residentiary to another, and they all blurred into one: the same streets, the same sallow faces in the street lights, the same bars and dining halls, the same smell of wet rockcrete, the same snow. He walked alone, after hours, ate alone in eating rooms where the other tables were stacked with chairs, made calls and asked questions, and reviewed the notes he’d scribbled in his copy books.
There were a lot of copy books. He disliked dataslates, and never threw his papers away. They formed the bulk of his luggage. He always made sure he had a spare crown or two to tip the next poor concierge confronted with the task of lugging his possessions from the street to a newly rented room.
Gonrad Maliko had been a professor of ethnic diversity at Sarum, specialising in taboos and stratified eating. Endor had a potted biography of him written out in one of the copy books. In another, a green-covered book marked 435, were the case notes of Maliko’s crime, a shameless affront on Eustis Majoris involving eleven sub-adult males.
Endor had almost snared Maliko in the arctic city of Cazzad, but the timing had been out, and the tip-off too vague. None of it had been his fault, just circumstances.
Titus Endor had inherited the fondness for symphonic music from his first master, the late Hapshant. Hapshant had been a real character. Installed at a bar, in the late evening, a glass in his hand, Endor would riff tirelessly about Hapshant. ‘Believe you me, a real character,’ he would say to his conversation partner, usually the barman, or any solitary drinker with a spare seat beside him. ‘Mad as a fiddle, in the end,’ Endor always added, tapping his brow, ‘worms in the head, you see.’
Endor remembered the days, a long time ago, when he would patiently wind up the old voxcordian Hapshant took with him wherever he went, to play some old wax disc of crackling symphonic music to help his master think. Endor had been Hapshant’s pupil, Hapshant’s brightest pupil. As an interrogator, he had served Hapshant right up to the end of the great man’s life. There had been two of them, actually, two interrogators, Titus and his friend Gregor. Tight, they’d been, best friends in service and out. Titus, though, had always been the one with a luminous future, because Gregor was too serious and charmless. They had both become inquisitors, and stayed friends. Until, that is, an unfortunate business some years before, a misunderstanding that Gregor had not seen fit to overlook. None of it had been Endor’s fault, just circumstances.
His fondness for the classical repertoire had come from Hapshant. Attending the performances at Marisberg’s Theatricala was therefore not a drudge for Titus Endor. He would arrive at the great, gilded palace, its high windows lit by a thousand yellow globes, brush the snow off his shoulders and take a drink in the bar before the start of the performance. The grandees would come and go, in their frock coats and silk scarves, their gowns and tires, and he’d watch them professionally. Sometimes his copy book would come out of his coat pocket, and he’d scribble a note or two.
The auditorium was painted crimson, with scarlet upholstery and gold woodwork. When the house lights came down, it was like being seated in the ventricle of a heart, a red cavity pumping with sound. He sat in the stalls, never in the same seat. His folded programme and his rented opera glasses lay in his lap.
Maliko’s contact had the use of a private box, to the left of the stage. Endor watched it, night after night, seeing through his glasses the faint brass gleam of the inhabitant’s own opera glasses in the dark balcony as they caught the stage light.
He identified the box: number 435. No matter how early he rose from his seat and went to the street door, he never managed to catch the occupants of 435 leaving the Theatricala. This rankled with him, though it was never his fault, just circumstances.
Liebstrum, his interrogator, had been missing for several days. Endor had sent Liebstrum to the palace of records in Zsammstadd to collate material on Maliko and his associates. The man was overdue, probably padding out his task so that he could waste time in the stews of Zsammstadd, on expenses. Endor had thought Liebstrum a promising candidate when he’d first met him, but lately he’d begun to fancy that Liebstrum was an idler, with no appetite for the hard work the ordo demanded. He wondered if he’d ever find himself signing the paperwork approving Liebstrum’s advancement to full rosette. He doubted it.
The orchestra began the overture, a great swirl of busy strings and strident horns. Zoramer’s Oration, one of Hapshant’s favourite works. Endor settled back, and glanced from time to time at the private box, noting the occasional flash and glimmer of raised opera glasses, the only hint of habitation.
His head ached. The volume of the music didn’t help. His head had ached a lot recently, and Endor put that down to the damnable climate he had been forced to endure in the prosecution of the Maliko case.
The stage was bathed in a limed light from directional lamps. As the red curtains spurred back, the dancers came out, performing in front of a hololithic drop of mountains and coppiced woods, in which dwelt a ruined temple or two, halcyon and timeless.
The woodwind section woke up with vigour, and the gauzy dancers swirled, soft and white as snow flakes. One took his attention immediately. Slender, she soared, faultless in her footwork, her arms expressive and immaculate. Her hair was drawn back tightly in a bun, and her face was as implacable as a death mask, powdered white like ivory, with cheek bones that aspired to the perfection of mathematical symmetry.
Endor moved his glasses away from her powerful, springing thighs, and watched the private box. Light on brass. Other eyes were watching her too.
After the performance, he took himself to a bar on Zeik Street, a bright, sparkling hall of mirrors and crystal chandeliers. It was bustling with patrons from the Theatricala.
‘Your pleasure, master?’ asked the uniformed barman.
‘Grain joiliq, with shaved ice, and a sliver of citrus,’ Endor requested. It had been his favourite tipple since the early days, since that place off Zansiple Street where he and Gregor had gone to wash away the day’s efforts. The Thirsty Eagle. Yes, that was it, The Thirsty Eagle. Ah, how the memories eroded.
His drink arrived, served on a paper mat. The joiliq was substandard, and too warm. The ice had melted prematurely, and left the citrus wind adrift in a disappointing floe.
He drank it anyway and ordered another. His headache had eased.
The room was full of loud voices and busy discussion. He thought about calling Liebstrum, but didn’t want to endure the impotence of another recorded message.
He ordered a third drink, and sat back on his stool to survey the room. Almost everyone was male, dressed in dapper evening wear. There was something rambunctious and fraternal about the gathering, like a coterie of men drawn together in some exclusive club. They roared at one another’s jokes, and slapped one another’s backs. The few women present were wives or courtesans, and acted like magnets, pulling crowds of attentive males in around them.
Karoscura needs women, he had noted in his copy book. He had underlined it, and given the note two exclamation points. Like many colony worlds building their economies on mineral wealth, Karoscura had advertised for specialist workers, promising to pay travel costs and set up expenses, in order to attract a professional labour force. Men had flooded in from all parts of the sector, drawn by the attractive salary dividends. The womenfolk of Karoscura had been eclipsed. It was reckoned that males now outnumbered females ten to one in the cities of the oily coast.
Endor missed female company. He’d never had any trouble in that department. In the past, his charisma, his looks and his professional status had all combined to win him the attention of any woman that took his eye. Karoscura was like a siege. There weren’t enough supplies to go around.
He went back to his lodgings. Liebstrum was not there, and hadn’t called. It seemed to Endor that his piles of copy books had been disturbed, and rearranged. He started to sort through them. Had someone been in his room?
He woke late, bathed and shaved. He saw his reflection in the mirror. We all grow older, he told himself. His face seemed drawn and lined, and there was a sickly pallor to it. Too much winter light, Titus Endor told himself.
His hair had been grey for a while now. He tied it back, out of convenience. There were distinguished scars on his face, the footnotes of a lifetime of battles. The biggest scar was on his leg, out of sight. Endor still wore the jagged saurapt tooth on a black cord around his neck. Gregor had dug it out of him, just after Endor had driven the beast off. Brontotaph, that had been the place, Brontotaph. How long ago now?
They’d been good friends, the best, close like brothers, until the unfortunate business some years before, a misunderstanding that Gregor had not seen fit to overlook. None of it had been Endor’s fault, just circumstances.
It was sad. Endor missed his old friend. He wondered what had become of Gregor. Nothing much, he doubted, Gregor had never promised to anything.
Looking in the mirror, Endor toyed with the tooth. According to the lore on Brontotaph, he was damned. Even after death, a saurapt continued to stalk its prey, so the legend went, especially a prey item that had escaped or evaded its jaws. The spirit of the saurapt was out there, tracking him. One day it would find him at last, and strike, and balance the books.
Titus Endor laughed out loud. He saw himself laughing back at him. Plenty of ghosts stalked him, and a bestial reptilian predator was the least of them.
An inquisitor had to be rational about such things.
He wondered where Liebstrum was.
The tooth hung around his neck like a penance.
Titus Endor paid a man to let him into the Theatricala during the day. He prowled the upper galleries, looking for the door to box 435. There was no box 435. The gallery halls were dressed in red velvet carpet and scarlet wallpaper, like aortal tubes. The air smelled of stale lho-sticks. There was a 434 and a 436. His lingering fingers traced the soft red wall, hunting for a secret or concealed door.
Liebstrum had not returned. Annoyed, his mood made worse by a nagging headache, Endor sent a damning report via courier to the ordos. In his lodgings, a glass of joiliq in his hand, he leafed back through his copy books, trying to build some kind of pattern.
435. Gonrad Maliko. The reflected flash of opera glasses in the shadows. The girl. The girl, the slender dancer.
He thought about Gregor from time to time. Endor had always been the bright one, handsome, cunning, bound for glory. Gregor had been a dutiful type, a hard worker, stolid and solid.
‘I wonder where you are now, my old friend?’ Endor asked the empty room. ‘I was always Hapshant’s favourite, and look at the career I’ve built. What have you ever done?’
The unfortunate business still nagged at him. Endor had been put in a tough position, a damn tough position. Several of his prior cases had been placed in review. Details had been distorted and accusations trumped up, all of it so petty-minded and political. He’d had no choice, in the end. When the Ordo Malleus had suggested his transfer, he’d taken it. They’d told him Gregor had been up to no good, and that if Endor helped to set his old friend back on the straight and narrow, the case reviews would be dropped. Endor hadn’t been spying. He had just been keeping an eye on his old friend. None of it had been his fault, just circumstances.
He went to the next show at the Theatricala, and then to a club, and then became mixed up in a group of Navy noncoms on shore leave. He’d followed them to the next bar, an off-street den, a dance parlour. There were women there, in an abundance at odds with the global statistics, women a man could dance with.
The dance was called the zendov, and it was as erotic as it was formal. The dance had evolved, Endor was told, because of the imbalance of men and women, a street dance of the lower classes originally popular in bordellos. Zendov allowed a man the opportunity of spending five or ten minutes with a woman, intimately. Zendov clubs were the most popular dives on Karoscura.
He took another few drinks, and then he saw her, the girl, the slender dancer. She was standing at the mirror-plated bar, smoking a lho-stick and contemplating her dance card. He hadn’t recognised her at first, because she was wearing a leopardskin cloche and cape, and a gold dress, and had changed her makeup from the fierce white of the ballet. But her posture took his eye, the balance of her legs, the confidence in the set of her head, and he realised who he was looking at.
He introduced himself, and offered to buy her a drink. She regarded him distantly, and then asked his name. Her accent was thick.
‘Titus,’ he replied.
She marked it on her card. ‘The fifth tune from now, Master Titus,’ she said, adding, ‘amasec on ice.’ Then she walked away, and took the embrace of a noncom for the next dance.
He was perplexed, until he saw the way of it. Most of the women in the bar were dancers from the Theatricala. They supplemented their wages by partner-dancing at the zendov bars, efficiently exploiting Karoscura’s paucity of female companionship. No wonder the clubs were popular. No wonder the clubs paid the girls well for after-hours dancing. They brought the men in, men so hungry for a five-minute intimacy with a woman while the music played, they’d stay all night, waiting their turn, and drink well in the meantime.
When his turn came, she found him at the bar.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked as she led him onto the dance floor.
She seemed surprised that he should care. ‘Mira,’ she replied.
The music began. Endor had watched the dancers closely, and had learned the steps. His mind worked that way. He took her in a close hold, and turned her about the floor, between other dancing couples. Glittering glow-globes rotated above them, casting down a blizzard of light like snowflakes.
She was close to him, taut, radiating heat. He felt how hard and sinewy her body was, how rigid. She was tiny, but all muscle. She smelled of cologne, but it did not mask the heat of her, or the residue of old ballet makeup, hastily removed, or the slight odour of sweat. She had come straight from the Theatricala, probably changing in a backroom in a hurry.
Sweat, hard limbs, the stale aroma of lho-sticks. He found it intoxicating. Pulled close to her, he noticed she had an old scar along the nape of her neck, just below the hairline.
The tune ended.
‘Thank you, Mira,’ he bowed. ‘Your amasec awaits at the bar.’
‘My card is full. I will come over later.’
He looked disappointed.
‘Where did you learn to dance?’ she asked.
She scowled. ‘I don’t like liars. No one learns to zendov in an evening.’
‘I’m not lying. I watched and learned.’
She narrowed her eyes. They were hard eyes, in a hard face. ‘You’re not very good,’ she said, ‘but you know the steps. Perfectly, in fact. You’re too rigid, though. Your shoulders are too tight.’
He bowed again. ‘I’ll remember that. Perhaps you might educate me in the finer points of the dance?’
‘Sorry, my card is full.’
‘No room, not even at the end of the night?’
The music had begun again. A Navy officer was waiting for her, impatient anger in his face.
‘Amasec,’ she said. ‘Perhaps, at the end of the night.’
In the zendov clubs, the end of the night meant dawn. The queues of men danced the girls into exhaustion. Heading from the bar to find the washroom, Endor saw three or four shoeless girls in a back hall, smoking lho-sticks and dabbing at bleeding heels and swollen toes.
He went out into the snow, and searched for a public vox-station. He called Liebstrum’s number, and got the message service.
‘Where are you?’ he shouted. ‘Where are you?’
Two glasses sat on the bar. Joiliq in one, diluted with slowly melting ice, and amasec in the other. It was four-thirty.
‘Titus,’ he corrected, looking around. What he saw made him forget the throbbing in his temples. ‘My name is Titus.’
The girl nodded. ‘Sorry. This for me?’
He smiled. She took up the amasec and sipped.
‘A last dance, then, yes?’ she asked.
‘I’ve been waiting.’
There was a look in her eyes that told him how much she despised the men who waited to dance with her.
She led him to the floor. Her body was as hard as before, but now she was cold. There was no heat in her. The fragrance of lho-smoke and sweat had dulled into a thin, unhealthy smell.
‘Loosen your shoulders,’ she said, as the music began. ‘Turn your head. No, too much. Turn it like this. And swing out. Yes. And back and back.’
‘Am I getting it?’ he asked. He felt like he was dancing with a corpse.
‘Your footwork is fine. Excellent, actually. Your back is still a little stiff. Turn out, turn out, that’s it.’
‘You’re a good teacher.’
‘I do what I’m paid to do, sir.’
‘Every day is a long day,’ she whispered, her head against his chest. She looked up at him sharply. ‘Please don’t tell the bosses I said that. They’ll dock my pay.’
‘I won’t,’ he smiled, rotating her neatly. ‘I know how long your day’s been. I was at the Theatricala. You are a fine dancer.’
‘This pays better than the classical shit,’ she said. She stared up at him as they spun and re-addressed. ‘Have you been following me?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I just came here and saw you.’
‘And learned the zendov.’
He chuckled. ‘Something like that. Men must follow women all the time on this world. There are so few of you.’
‘It does become a problem,’ she admitted.
‘So they follow you? Watch you?’
‘I suppose they do,’ said Mira.
‘Who watches you?’ he asked.
‘You do,’ she said, ‘and everyone else.’
They swung and re-addressed, then promenaded again.
‘How did you get the scar?’ he asked.
She flinched. ‘I hate it when men notice that.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Will you tell me how you got it?’
‘I got it years ago. That’s all I want to say about it.’
He nodded, spinning her. ‘I’m sorry I asked. We all have our scars.’
‘Isn’t that the truth?’ she agreed.
The number ended. He stepped back and looked at her.
‘Please, please don’t ask me for another,’ she said quietly.
‘A last drink, then?’
‘I’m dead on my feet, Master Titus.’
‘Might I be first on your card tomorrow, then?’
‘It doesn’t work that way. Come along tomorrow, and we’ll dance again.’
She walked away. The band was packing up. Endor went to the bar, where the barman was washing the last of the glasses.
‘Grain joiliq, with shaved ice, and a sliver of citrus,’ Endor requested.
The barman sighed, and fixed the drink. When Endor looked around, the girl had vanished.
It was light when he got back to his residentiary. Snow was fluttering down out of a sky that was white and opaque. He tossed his copy book onto the desk, took off his jacket and fell down on his bed.
He dreamt of Hapshant. There were worms coming out of his tear ducts. Endor tried to wipe them away. Gregor shouted at him, telling him he was a fool. Hapshant went into spasms, his heels kicking on the hardwood floor.
The knocking persisted. It was suddenly late in the afternoon. Endor sat up, fully clothed. The knocking came again, not Hapshant’s heels at all.
He went to the door and opened it.
Liebstrum stared at him.
‘Why?’ he asked.
‘Well, hello to you too,’ replied Endor.
Liebstrum pushed past him into the room. ‘Throne of Terra, Titus. Why? Why do you keep doing this?’
‘Doing what, exactly?’
‘Calling me. Calling me with these messages and–’
‘Where have you been?’ Endor asked.
Liebstrum turned and looked at him. ‘You’ve forgotten again, haven’t you?’
‘Forgotten what? Interrogator, I believe you have been singularly derelict in your duties these last few weeks. I’m afraid I’ve been forced to send a report of admonition to the ordos and–’
‘Not again. Again with this,’ Liebstrum sighed.
‘Again with what, interrogator?’
Liebstrum pulled out his rosette. ‘It’s Inquisitor, Titus. Inquisitor.’
‘Four years ago, on Hesperus. You elected me yourself. Don’t you remember?’
Endor frowned. ‘No, I don’t.’
Liebstrum sat down on the bed. ‘Throne, Titus, you have to stop doing this to me.’
‘I don’t follow.’
Liebstrum looked up at him sadly. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Hunting Gonrad Maliko. You know that. Keep up.’
‘We captured Gonrad Maliko five years ago. He’s serving life in the penal colony on Izzakos. Don’t you remember?’
Endor paused. He wandered over to his desk and poured the last dregs of a bottle of joiliq into a dirty glass. ‘No, no, I don’t remember that. Not at all.’
‘Oh, Titus,’ Liebstrum muttered.
‘Maliko is loose. He’s here, and he’s loose. I have a lead, a girl in the Theatricala, and box 435–’
‘Stop it! Stop it now!’
Liebstrum rose from the bed and approached Endor. ‘Show me your rosette,’ he said.
Endor took a swig of his drink and pulled his wallet out of his pocket.
‘Look. Do you see, Titus?’ Liebstrum asked, opening the leather wallet. ‘There’s no rosette in there. You were disavowed, three years ago. They took your warrant away. You’re not an inquisitor any more.’
‘Of course I am,’ said Titus Endor, ignoring the bald patch in the wallet where his rosette had once been sewn in. ‘I’m operating under Special Circumstances.’
Liebstrum shook his head sadly. ‘Titus, I’ve tried to help you, Throne knows, but you’ve got to stop calling me. You’ve got to stop pretending.’
‘Pretending? How dare you!’
Liebstrum walked towards the door. ‘This is the last time I come running, you understand? The very last time.’
‘No, I don’t understand. I am affronted by your manner, interrogator. Maliko is still out there.’
Liebstrum turned to look back one last time. ‘No, Titus, he really isn’t.’