Mirkin Topp and the Hair of the Dog

A NaNoWriMo Novel by Phil Gardner

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I live in Brighton, work for the NHS, and write endless stuff online.

Chapter Three

‘The Bitch & Butt’ was a small pub at the end of a dingy alley on the western bank of the River Feenix. It had formerly been a golfing attraction aimed at tourists, before harsh reviews, the absence of more than three holidaymakers a year, and some cruel graffiti had rebranded it thus, and forced the management to diversify into the sale of alcohol to cover their losses. As a business, the place had gone from strength to strength. Its reputation, however, had plumbed new depths, and it now stood as proud recipient of the Melee Gourmet Dining Guide’s ‘Roughest Drinking Hole’ award for the tenth consecutive year. If it was any more of a dive, patrons would need a wetsuit to get in.

The landlord of ‘The Bitch & Butt’, Hairy Steve, was an uncompromising man with a passion for home improvements. He had left no stone unturned in his quest for the perfect living space, and could often be found sitting out on his state-of-the-art decking, nose in a book of wallpaper samples, feet resting gently on a stack of MDF, the sound of a home-made water feature tinkling quietly nearby. His home was never less than immaculate, a shrine to good taste, fusing modern chic with traditional style in a breathtakingly dynamic fashion, and old Hairy wouldn’t have it any other way. Never had Phillysia seen such a house-proud individual. Sadly though, Steve didn’t live at the pub, so down at ‘The Bitch & Butt’ it was flock wallpaper and dodgy carpets all the way.

Mirkin and Bray entered through the main door, Mirkin striding forward more keenly than his stunted friend, who showed the kind of reticence not seen since the arrival of the Gourmet Dining Guide judging panel. Showing his chum a similar level of consideration, Mirkin held the door open and repeated the advice he’d imparted to the food critics:

“Mind the jagged glass on the door, avoid breathing in too deeply, and don’t worry if your feet stick to the carpet – that’s normal.”

“Thanks,” muttered Bray, a little less than wholly grateful for his friend’s advice.

Mirkin marched up to the bar where Hairy Steve stood engrossed in a catalogue of bathroom fittings. He looked up.

“Ah Mirkin! Ocean blue or spring flowers, what do you think?”

“Are we talking cocktails?” asked Mirkin.

“No, colour schemes. I’m re-tiling the bathroom,” replied Steve.

“Oh. Well I say flowers then. I feel nauseous enough when I enter my bathroom, without being reminded of the sea everywhere I look.”

“Spring flowers it is then,” said Steve, closing the catalogue. “You on your own today?”

“Nope,” said Mirkin, “I have this little fella with me.” He reached down and lifted Bray so that his head popped up over the edge of the bar. “Now you see him…” said Mirkin cheerfully, before dropping Bray from view, “… now you don’t!”

Bray swore violently in a dwarven tongue with which Mirkin was thankfully unfamiliar.

“I wish I had a dwarf of my own,” said Steve wistfully.

“They’re hours of fun for all the family, there’s no doubt about it,” agreed Mirkin.

Bray made a mental note to wreak a bloody and terrible revenge on his elven companion at the earliest opportunity. For now he merely called Mirkin the illegitimate son of a loose-moralled canine, in a rare and liltingly beautiful dialect of old dwarf-speak which had been all but forgotten in the northern reaches of Phillysia.

“So what can I get you?” asked Steve, putting down the bathroom fittings catalogue.

“I’ll have a flagon of your finest foaming ale, my good man,” said Mirkin confidently, as he reached down, scooped up Bray, and sat him on the bar between them. “And a glass of milk for the little chap.”

Ignoring his taller associate, Bray turned to Steve. “I’ll stick with the ale, thank you,” he said.

Mirkin ruffled Bray’s hair. “Do you want a packet of crisps?” he asked.

Bray ignored him once more, and turned back to the hairy publican. “Have you heard,” he said, “there’s a royal death warrant out on Topp’s life.”

“Funny you should mention that,” said Steve, “we did have a couple of guards in here earlier, asking after you. I wondered what it was all about. I told them you’d drowned in the River Feenix, diving for kippers.”

“Thanks mate,” said Mirkin, “you’re a rock.”

Bray looked incredulous. “Diving for kippers? You don’t get kippers swimming about in the river.”

“Don’t listen to him, Steve,” Mirkin interrupted, “he claims there are no hippos in there either.”

Steve shook his head. “That’s what happens when you can’t wade in more than two feet from the shore without getting out of your depth. He has no idea what might be lurking in those waters.”

Bray looked indignant, but chose not to pursue the matter. He stroked his beard thoughtfully and tried to remember how he and Mirkin had ever become friends.

Hairy Steve fetched the drinks and set them on the bar. “On the house, boys,” he said, “as a token of my commiseration and sympathy on your upcoming deaths.”

“Mirkin’s the one about to die, not me,” said Bray.

“That’ll be two-fifty then,” said Steve.

Bray handed over the money, momentarily jealous of his friend’s imminent execution, before realising that he’d made it up, and getting excited about the mystery all over again.

“Let’s go and sit on that table over there,” Bray said to his pointy-eared companion.

You can sit on the table,” replied Mirkin, “I’ll sit on the chair.”

Drinks in hand, they made their way over to the least grubby table on the far side of the saloon bar and sat down. Placing his drink to one side in an attempt to minimise the destabilising effect of the missing table leg, Mirkin noticed an unpleasant pool of drying gunk nearby. Its colour appeared unique, yet strangely familiar.

“Hey!” he cried, “So this is where I was sitting last night! It’s all coming back to me now!”

Bray examined the chunky puddle on the table. “Don’t tell me – cottage cheese?” he asked dubiously.

“I’m not sure,” replied Mirkin, “but whatever it is, I think I have sole rights to its manufacture.”

The pair sipped their drinks. Well, Bray sipped his drink. Mirkin downed his in one. But the fact that he’d made it last the entire journey from the bar to the seating area, constituted sipping in his book.

“You have to say,” said Mirkin, saying something he felt he had to say, “it’s lucky my house doesn’t appear on any maps, isn’t it. Otherwise those guards would’ve caught up with me hours ago.”

“I know,” agreed Bray, savouring his ale like a vegan would savour a veal sandwich, “but on the downside, you haven’t had any mail delivered for three years now. That mapmaker has a lot to answer for.”

“True. But it wasn’t his fault really. The haddock fumes were particularly strong that day. You can’t blame him for deciding to go home and do the street from memory. And let’s not forget, property prices soared after he drew in that wooded glade where the fish-boiling factory should be.”

“I know,” said Bray knowingly, “though I’ve heard the ramblers can cause a bit of an obstruction down by the factory gates in mid-summer.”

“Hey, anyone who can get as far as the factory gates in mid-summer without passing out, is alright in my book.”

“Which book is that?”

The Ramblers’ Guide to Fish-Boiling Factories,” replied Mirkin. “It’s a work in progress. I’m going for the Christmas stocking filler market.”

“Oh right,” replied Bray, taking another mouthful of ale.

As the pair continued to discuss the finer points of self-publishing, the main door of ‘The Bitch & Butt’ opened, and two figures quietly entered. Their striking attire of helmets, swords, and sparkly tunics emblazoned with the words “That’s Magic!” marked them out clearly as royal emissaries of King Pip the Fantabulous. They slowly surveyed the interior of the pub, before their gaze settled ominously on a certain elf and his dwarven drinking companion in the far corner.

Hairy Steve saw the men, and promptly feigned a dizzy spell, seeking sanctuary behind a box of pork-related bar snacks, and attempting a surreptitious coughing fit to alert Mirkin to the approaching guards.

It didn’t work. Engrossed in a diatribe on the literary world’s deep seated prejudice towards fish-based tourist guides, Mirkin was blissfully unaware of the burly figures making their way towards him.

Bray spotted them first. Excitedly, he raised his hand to attract their attention. Mirkin turned and saw the guards, gasped in shock and attempted to steady himself on the table, which promptly collapsed under the influence of its low leg count.

The guards kept coming. Mirkin sat transfixed and open-mouthed. Attracted by the pungent aroma within, a bluebottle flew past his lips and down his throat. It was the second solid meal he’d had that day. His nutritional levels were soaring, but it did little to calm his nerves. Attempting to appear nonchalant whilst surrounded by bits of broken table, Mirkin began whistling out of tune. Bray meanwhile, was busy waving cheerfully to the oncoming hit men, and considering whether royal etiquette precluded him from buying them a drink.

Wishing he still had a table to hide beneath, and wondering why Hairy Steve didn’t go to a doctor about his cough, Mirkin began to cower nervously, as the two fearsome guards approached his position. Towering over him (and towering over Bray considerably more), the guards made their way to within a foot of where the two friends sat…

… before walking straight past, and on to the neighbouring table where Elfy Alfie and his mate, Pint-Sized Pete, were enjoying a quiet drink.

“Mirkin Topp,” said the first guard with considerable gravitas, “we’ve been looking for you...”

Elfy Alfie looked quizzical.

“Quick!” said Mirkin in a hushed voice, “Let’s get out of here!”. He stood up and took a step towards the door. Nearby, the guards were struggling to believe the story being offered to them by a couple of innocent drinkers.

“Elfy Alfie?” said the second guard, “Do you really expect us to believe that? I’ve heard some made up names in my time, but that one takes the biscuit.”

Deciding it was perhaps best to refrain from mentioning his own name, Pint-Sized Pete chose instead to politely suggest to the guards that they might have better luck shifting their enquiries to the next table. Or what was left of it. The beefy royal aides turned just in time to see an overweight elf attempting to creep out quietly in a pair of steel-capped bovver boots, while a bemused dwarf sat amongst the rubble of a three legged piece of furniture.

“Stop right there!” cried the first guard.

“Mirkin, you’re alive!” shouted Hairy Steve, in a convincing piece of dramatic acting, the like of which had not been seen since his tearful acceptance speech at the Gourmet Dining Guide’s annual awards ceremony. “It’s a miracle! The wanton kippers of capricious fortune shall not have you! Praise be to the benevolence of King Pip the Fantabulous!”

Mirkin stopped and turned to face the guards. “Are you talking to me?” he said, looking around innocently.

The second guard spoke sternly. “You are Mirkin Topp, last of the four ‘Topps of Ackapulko’, professional street entertainer and one-time kebab shop cabaret act?”

“If this is about child support,” replied Mirkin, “I’d just like to state for the record that the kid doesn’t have my ears.”

“And I think you’re on shaky ground using the word ‘entertainer’,” chipped in Bray.

“And ‘professional’,” added Steve.

“The king wishes to see you, Mr Topp,” the second guard continued.

“I think I’m free next Wednesday,” said Mirkin helpfully.

“Now,” said the guard.

Realising there was little point arguing with a couple of giants in spangly jumpsuits, Mirkin gave in. Clambering over a jagged table leg, his progress hampered by the tacky carpet beneath his feet, Bray hurried over to stand shoulder to shoulder with his condemned friend. Well, shoulder to knee. But it was an act of unswerving solidarity nonetheless.

“Can I come along too?” asked Bray. “I’ve always wanted to see the royal dungeons. I hear they have rats the size of dogs.”

“That’s an urban myth,” replied the first guard, “but we do have dogs the size of rats. The king breeds Chihuahuas in his spare time.”

“Oh cool,” said Bray, easily impressed.

“But you can’t come, I’m afraid,” added the guard. “We have another fugitive to round up. We’ve been knocking on his door all morning, but there’s no sign of him. He probably headed for the hills and a new life as a travelling gigolo the moment he heard we were after him. At least I hope so. We accidentally burnt down his house searching his loft with a flaming torch.”

“I’ve told you, that wasn’t our fault,” said the second guard to his colleague, “these thatched rooves are a fire hazard. He should’ve gone for the Super-Storm 2000. My builder swears by them. Well, he used to.”

“Oh,” said Bray. “So who is this chap?”

The first guard pulled a small piece of parchment from a pocket in the side of his tunic, and examined it. “A dwarf by the name of Bray,” he said. “Do you know him?”

The colour drained from Bray’s usually ruddy face. “The name rings a bell,” he said, and promptly fainted.

Mirkin scooped up his squat friend and gently rocked him like a baby. “He’s so easily overcome. It’s the soft-hearted dwarfish temperament. And the fact that he doesn’t have home insurance.” He looked up at the guards. “But I think you have your second fugitive, gentlemen.”

Pleased with a job well done, the two royal guards happily ticked off the second name from their list and escorted Mirkin, still cradling the unconscious Bray in his arms, to the door.

“In the name of sweet charity, don’t go near that river!” cried Steve, refusing to let an arrest get in the way of some poignant amateur dramatics, “The kippers aren’t worth it!”

The guards ignored him, and led Mirkin through the door, snagging their tunics on the broken glass as they left.