The Deschutes Sasquatch

C. Auguste Dupin didn’t like the idea of spending the day tramping around the woods instead of sleeping in the sun.

Except his human, Poeville librarian Penny Copper, wanted a picnic by the falls with her boyfriend, detective David Clemm. If Dupin wanted sardine crackers, chicken, he needed to go with them.

Not the best way to get lunch. Especially when sasquatch might lurk in the woods.

🔍

In all his years in Poeville, C. Auguste Dupin preferred the warm sunny places to sleep, like the hill beneath the Reed Moore Library, to the dark woods that climbed the hills around the town.

He yowled his protest again to this excursion, which so far amounted to walking up mossy-smelling trails beneath trees that dripped cold water on his fur. What happened to the picnic? What happened to the treats?

Ahead, his human, librarian Penny Copper, touched the arm of detective David Clemm.

“A second, David. Dupin doesn’t sound happy.”

At last, someone was paying attention! Dupin stopped and sat down, taking advantage of the moment to chew away some of the sweet sap that stuck pine needles to his paws.

“I told you he wouldn’t like it,” David said.

For once Dupin agreed with the human. As humans went, David wasn’t entirely disagreeable, and Penny liked him. He did have the unfortunate mannerisms of a raven, looking quickly around him, his long black coat floating around him as he moved. Despite that, he had a rational mind and listened to Penny.

She came closer, crouching on the trail. Her new boots smelled of leather oil and rubber. Not at all like the sleek shoes she usually wore. Today she wore blue jeans over her long legs and a fuzzy flannel shirt, with the sleeves rolled partway up. Again, not at all the sort of thing she usually wore, although somewhat appropriate for day hikes.

Her long fingers scratched through Dupin’s fur around his neck. The purr, entirely unbidden, welled up from his chest.

Dupin pressed against her fingers and reached a paw up to her messenger bag, where she’d hidden away the treats.

She laughed, like a clear mountain stream. “You devil! You just want a snack!”

Of course! As if he was going to climb through the woods without proper nourishment!

She held up a finger. “One now. You can have more when we stop for lunch.”

One? Hardly —

Penny pulled the plastic sandwich bag from the messenger bag she wore over her shoulder. A rich oily scent escaped. Sardine crackers, a gift from Penny’s Auntie Dido. Quite possibly one of the best foods on Earth, and Dupin regularly frequented the restaurants and cafes along Poeville’s main avenue.

She took one of the golden triangles from the bag and held it up, between thumb and forefinger. Thumbs, the key to the advantages humans held.

Dupin meowed. He pawed the air in front of her hand, claws carefully retracted.

“Here you go, then, since you asked nicely.”

Penny put the cracker down in the dirt and pine needles.

Dupin blinked. Was she seriously expecting him to eat from…

It smelled so delicious. Oily fish, mingling with the garlic, and other seasonings. His mouth opened, inhaling, drawing the delicious scent up along the top of his mouth. He crouched, taking in more.

“Is he going to take all day?” David asked.

“He likes to savor them,” Penny said. Her hand ran down the fur on his back.

Dupin ignored it. He closed his eyes. Dirt or not, pine needles or not, he wasn’t leaving the cracker there for the ants and other crawling things.

He bit into it, the light cracker crunching delightfully between his teeth. Perfection. Exquisite. The flavor intensified the odors released, and yet two bites later, the cracker was gone.

A pine needle stuck in his mouth. He pawed it from his face. Then he rose, butting his head against Penny’s knee. He meowed.

“No more, not right now,” she said.

The plastic bag disappeared back into Penny’s messenger bag and she stood. She tapped her thigh. “Come on, Dupin.”

She walked on up the trail to where David waited. Dupin rose and trotted after.

“Don’t you worry that he’ll run off?” David asked.

“No.” Penny laughed. “Dupin won’t leave me.”

He might if there wasn’t the promise of more crackers and more food. The scent of chicken escaped from the basket David carried.

“It isn’t much farther, in any case,” David said. “Another quarter mile or so to the falls.”

A quarter mile? Dupin growled softly and padded after the humans. Maybe he should have stayed home back in town. At least there he could have picked up treats from the cafes, followed by a nap on the benches near the library.

The trail continued, seeming without end, twisting and climbing through the forest. Tall cedars and Douglas firs rose above them, some of immense girth. Ferns clogged the spaces between, spores tickling Dupin’s nose. Passing a clump of blackberry vines, he heard rustling beneath the thorny vines hanging thick with dark berries and paused.

Penny stopped, plucking a thick berry from the bush. She popped it in her mouth. “Oh, these are good. We should pick some for lunch.”

David came back with the basket. He opened the lid and brought out a shiny blue enamelware mug. “Here, we can use these.”

While the humans picked berries and chatted, Dupin turned his attention to necessary cleaning. All sorts of things were sticking in his fur. Dirt, dust and pine needles stuck to him along with stray seeds.

Whatever had rustled beneath the vines was gone. Not that he was of a mind to chase it anyway.

A voice called out, from up the trail. “Help!”

David rose quickly, setting down the mug he had half-filled with berries. “Did you hear that?”

Penny sat down her berries too, dark purple juice staining her lips. “Yes.”

“Help! Help me!”

David turned to Penny. “Stay here.”

Good idea. Dupin crouched, watching the trail, ready to bolt if it became necessary.

Before David had gone more than a few steps up the trail a man came running around the turn up ahead. He was pale, thin and shorter than David, wearing a blue hoody, jeans, and sneakers. His eyes were wide, white with dark pupils. He sort of looked like a panic-stricken dog.

Dupin crouched lower, a growl crawling from his throat.

David held out a hand. “Hey! What’s wrong?”

“God!” Sobbed the man, skidding to a stop. He half turned and pointed up the trail. “You have to help me! It took her!”

Then Penny was moving forward. For a human, she was ordinarily pretty smart, but Dupin didn’t think this was a good idea. Not at all.

The man gestured frantically back up the trail. “Please! Help us! It took her!”

“I’m a police officer.” David held out his hand, the other still close to the gun he carried. “I’ll help, I need to know what happened?”

“Mary, my fiancé, it took her off into the woods! We have to go!”

Penny reached David’s side. “What took Mary?”

“It’s a, a, what do you call it?” The man pressed his hands to his face and groaned. “A sasquatch! That’s it, you know, Bigfoot? It took her!”

Dupin blinked. He’d grown up in the library, following Penny to work every day. He’d spent plenty of time looking at the books as humans read them, sitting on the tables, and backs of the chairs.

Sasquatch, 001.944 by the Dewey decimal system. Although there were plenty of humans that didn’t agree with that classification, Dupin had never any reason to think there was any reality to the stories.

He licked at his paws, dealing with the absolutely impossible task of keeping them clean. What this really meant was that no one was going to be focusing on feeding him. Not until he helped them figure out what had happened.

Dupin rose and trotted forward, catching up to Penny. She was right about that, at least. He wasn’t going to leave her.

“A sasquatch?” David exchanged a look with Penny.

“I know,” the man groaned. He dropped his hands. “You think I’m crazy. I get it. We still have to save her!”

“What’s your name?” Penny asked.

“Albert, Al. Payne.” The man took a step back. “We can’t just stand here!”

“Okay, okay.” David pulled his phone from his pocket. His face darkened in a scowl. “I don’t have a signal. Penny?”

She was already checking her phone. “No, I don’t.”

Dupin breathed in deep. The man’s sneakers were muddy, even though the path was dry. They smelled of marsh muck and algae. He’d been somewhere wet, the Deschutes river wasn’t far through the woods. The sound of it carried through the woods.

“Penny, head back to the car and see if you get a signal there. If not, drive out until you do. Call the station, get us some more help up here. I’ll go with Al and look for Mary.”

Penny shook her head. “Let’s go see where it happened first, otherwise no one will know where to look.”

“Yes,” Al said. “Come on. I’ll show you!”

He spun and started back up the trail at a run. David scowled, but ran after him.

Penny looked down. “Dupin, stay.”

Then she was running too.

Stay? Alone in the woods, where a sasquatch had reportedly attacked a human?

Dupin chased after them.

🔍

The spot wasn’t far ahead, up around a bend, and then down into a wetter area where a tiny trickle of a stream ran through the cut down to the river.

“Mary! Mary!” Al yelled into the woods, cupping his hands around his mouth.

Dupin slowed. David and Penny spread out around Al, looking at the scene. Ferns had been trampled. Mud was oozing into footprints along the stream.

Al dropped his hands. He pointed at the mud. “See! You can see the tracks!”

Dupin followed David and Penny to the edge of the path, where the stream passed through a culvert and then entered a marshy area overgrown with plants. The tracks in the mud were filling slowly with muddy water. The smell was the same as Al’s shoes, full of decay and algae.

Near the path were several smaller tracks, parallel and then joining a larger set of tracks. Much larger, easily twice as large.

Penny had her phone out. Taking pictures. David rose and grabbed Al’s arm. The smaller man jerked away.

“We have to find her!”

“What happened, Al?” David asked, his voice calm. “The more information we have, the better equipped we’ll be to find her.”

“God, I can’t believe this is happening!” Al pressed his hands over his mouth for a second, then dropped them, taking a deep breath. “Fine. We were walking. Just a day hike, you know? Mary said it’d be fun. And it was okay until that thing came out of there!”

Al pointed at the thick bushes choking the wet area off the trail.

“A sasquatch?” Penny asked.

“There was a god-awful stink. I thought there was a skunk around or something and was telling Mary we should go back when it charged out of the bushes. It was huge and hairy, taller than you.” Al looked at David. “It grabbed her and took off back that way. I tried to follow, but the mud, it sucked at my feet. I almost lost my shoes getting back to the trail.”

Dupin crouched at the edge of the path. There was a stink, clinging to the bushes near the edge of the path. He sneezed. It could be a skunk, he’d encountered them a few times when they came into town, looking for food.

Yet a sasquatch? The woods extended back from here, connecting back to larger wilderness areas all the way to the national forests. Dupin sat back and licked his fur. In between licks, he studied the scene.

Something had crushed the ferns around the path. Spores in the air tickled his nose. Branches had been broken on the bushes, and reeds lay crushed into the muck.

“Okay,” David said. “Penny, go back until you can get a call out. Al and I will stay here, and keep an eye out.”

“We have to look for her!”

David touched Al’s arm. “If we go out there and get lost, then we’ve made things three times harder for the teams. We’ll get people out here. We’ll search for her.”

Al moved to the edge of the trail, cupping his mouth again. “Mary!”

Penny moved closer to David. Dupin paused in his cleaning. Going back made sense.

“Be careful,” Penny said. “I’ll come back as soon as I get through.”

She leaned close and pressed her lips briefly to David’s.

Then Penny turned and headed up the trail, tapping her thigh. “Come on, Dupin.”

Back down the trail again? At least they were heading back in the direction of the picnic basket, and away from the Sasquatch, if it existed at all.

Maybe Penny would remember to feed him when they got to the car.

🔍

The trip back down the trail went surprisingly quick. Dupin’s hair was on end the whole way, watching the woods around them.

Was it possible that a sasquatch was out there? Did it eat cats? Surely, if it took a whole human it wouldn’t want a cat, but what if there were more than one?

Or he was being a skittish kitten about the whole thing? The far more reasonable explanation was that Albert Payne was responsible for the woman’s disappearance, and was telling the sasquatch story to misdirect them all.

If Penny was concerned about the possibility of a sasquatch, she didn’t show it. Her long stride ate up the ground, stopping only to pick up the picnic basket when she reached it. Fortunately, it remained unmolested by whatever lurked in the woods.

As she walked, she kept checking her phone, searching for the elusive signal that would let her call for help.

When the trail head came into view, Dupin raced forward to Penny’s bright red VW Beetle. Penny reached the car a moment later.

She made an exasperated noise, almost like his own growls. “Still no signal!”

She turned back to face the trail.

Dupin reached up, pawing at the car door. He meowed to get her attention.

Penny looked down at him, her pretty face lined with worry. “I don’t want to leave David up there alone, but I don’t see any other choice. We have to get help.”

Exactly. Dupin pawed at the door again.

“Okay. We’ll head back to town until we get a signal. Then I’ll stop and call.”

Gravel crunched beneath Penny’s boots as she walked around to the driver’s side. The car beeped, and she opened the door. Dupin jumped up into the seat.

“Move over, Dupin,” Penny said.

He jumped into the passenger seat, turning in a circle to face her.

She tilted her seat forward and put the picnic basket, and her messenger bag into the back seat. Then she shoved her seat down and got in, slamming the door.

Dupin inhaled deeply. In the closed confines, away from the woods, the smell of fried chicken was even more enticing. He turned and jumped into the back as Penny started the engine.

The messenger bag was shut, but not strapped. He nosed at the flap.

Penny turned around, her arm reaching across to the passenger seat. She glanced down. “Stay out of the food, Dupin.”

Stay out of the food? It was torture! And why let it go to waste? Not for the first time, he wished that he had the ability to converse with humans. It’d be so much easier.

Denied the food, he did the sensible thing, the only thing to do under the circumstances. He turned in the seat, between the basket and the bag, and settled down. He closed his eyes and inhaled the rich, spicy aromas and drifted off.

🔍

The rumble of the tires on the road slowed and stopped. Awareness returned and Dupin opened his eyes thin slits without moving.

The car had stopped. The sky out the window was mostly clear, broken only by a few fluffy clouds. Penny was on the phone, her voice urgent.

“That’s right. I’m heading back there now. No, I won’t wait. Detective Clemm is alone with that man, who is mostly likely the one responsible for her disappearance.”

A low purr rolled through Dupin’s chest. There was a reason he followed Penny. She displayed the best traits of both humans and cats. The story of a sasquatch wasn’t going to sit well with her either.

Her head nodded. “That’s right. Hurry.”

She hung up and twisted around, looking in the back. Dupin opened his eyes wider, so she’d know he was awake. And not getting into the food, even though his stomach felt as if there was a bottomless pit beneath him.

“I got through,” she said. “We’re going to head back. Hopefully, David is fine.”

The detective could take care of himself, even if he did need their help from time to time to solve a case.

Today looked like one of those days. Dupin yawned wide, showing his teeth. Penny wasn’t even looking, she had the Beetle in gear and was turning it around in the street, heading back to the trail.

Dupin closed his eyes. If he was going to tromp around through the forest again, without food, he was going to need to rest.

🔍

This time Dupin didn’t sleep deeply, only dozing, listening to the sound of the car. He recognized the speed bumps as they turned into the drive for the park. The rattle of gravel, as Penny swung into the parking area.

Although he hadn’t moved a muscle, he was poised and ready the instant Penny opened the door. He darted out, slipping behind her seat, and jumped down onto the gravel drive.

“Dupin! I wanted you to wait in the car this time.”

He looked up at her. Really? Why do you think I jumped out so fast?

He walked away a few steps and looked back. Penny sighed, and lifted her seat, ducking inside for a second before she came out with her messenger bag.

She slung that over her shoulder, then popped the hatchback and shut her door. She went around to the back and came out with the blue and white first aid kit she carried. She opened the messenger bag and stuffed the kit inside.

“Okay, then Dupin. You’re going to have to keep up.”

He turned in a circle, then started for the trail. Behind him, Penny chuckled.

“I’ve never known another cat that likes walks as much as you!”

Walks meant more treats. Even if it did mean following a trail into sasquatch-infested woods. Sooner or later, he’d get Penny to give him more of the sardine crackers she carried. Not to mention the chicken back in the car.

The faster they found the missing woman, the faster he’d get fed.

When they reached the spot in the trail by the stream, there was no sign of either David or Al. The muddy prints were hardly anything more than oval mud puddles now.

“David?” Penny cupped her hands to her mouth. “David! Where are you?”

Dupin sniffed at the ground, picking up traces of Al’s mucky shoes and David’s oiled hiking boots. The scent trail went on up the trail, not into the muck.

He meowed and trotted on up the trail.

“Dupin! Don’t you run off too!”

He heard Penny’s fast steps behind him, and before he could dart aside, her hands slipped beneath his belly and hoisted him into the air. He fought the urge to grab on, and instead, let his body go limp and boneless.

“Dupin!” Penny fought to keep her grip, and pulled him up against her chest. She cradled him close, with her arm beneath his body.

“I’m not having you run off too,” she said.

Penny bent at the waist, studying the ground. “I can’t tell if those tracks are old or new…”

She moved back, looking up and down the trail at the tracks. Dupin lay limp in her arms, waiting. The dry dirt and pine needles didn’t show much of an imprint, but Al’s tracks showed bits of mud.

Penny straightened. “Let’s go up the trail a little way. They may have heard something.”

The trail went up, turned left and dropped down again around a flaking outcrop of stone. A cedar grew on top of it, roots twisting and climbing down the rocks like a nest of snakes. The trail ahead continued generally down slope, heading for the river on the other side of the next ridge.

It was empty. A crow cawed from a treetop nearby and took off flying. Penny looked up too, following the bird. Crows were scavengers, maybe it had seen something from up among the tree tops?

Penny bent and put Dupin down on the ground. “Come on. You can walk, just don’t run off.”

Walk? Why had she assumed he wanted to walk? Being carried was just fine.

She didn’t wait. She started off down the trail at a brisk walk. Dupin blinked, then rose and ran after her. He meowed.

Penny looked back, shaking her head. “You could have stayed in the car. We’ve got to find David.”

He caught up and streaked past her, then slowed and meowed again. Penny neatly side-stepped around him and kept going. Dupin flicked his tail.

This was a bad idea. The farther they went from the crime scene, the less likely they were to be found when the police finally showed up.

That didn’t stop her. She kept going, calling out David’s name now and then. Or maybe just letting the Sasquatch know where they were.

The trail dropped down into a valley until it reached a small wood bridge crossing the stream. Then it turned and rose sharply, switch-backing up the slope to a ridge line, and over that before descending again toward the river.

The roar of the river was louder now and the air smelled wetter. Dupin trotted on after Penny.

“David!” Penny paused listening, then called again. “David!”

A crow cawed again from somewhere among the trees. The river rumbled on. No other voices came out of the woods. It was as if the two men had been swallowed up by the forest.

Dupin’s hair rose. Maybe there was a sasquatch, one that wasn’t opposed to attacking humans. Unlikely, maybe, but their absence put him on alert. He slowed down, ears listening for the slightest sound.

Penny started moving fast again, down the trail, each footfall loud as she charged down the hill.

He raced after her. After all, it wasn’t only the sasquatch he had to worry about. What other predators might be in the woods? He’d seen books on bears, whether or not they’d go after a cat wasn’t clear. Coyotes would, but hopefully, Penny’s yelling would drive off most of the predators.

After a couple switchbacks, Dupin saw the river below, jumping in white rapids down over rocks. It was much more vigorous here than the slow-moving river that passed through town, attracting people to the water in hot weather. Odd creatures.

“David? David!”

Nothing no answer.

Penny slowed her pace and finally stopped. The river continued beneath them, and the trees dripped with water. Dark cedar boughs bent low to the ground and leaned out over the river. The air was cool and damp.

Dupin pressed close to Penny, rubbing against her legs. He meowed, eyeing her messenger bag.

She ignored him, hands on her hips, turning in place as she studied the forest. “Maybe we should go back? Wait for the police?”

He meowed his agreement. She looked down and smiled a small, worried smiled, her forehead creasing.

“I don’t know where they’ve gone. David knew better to run off into the woods with that man. For all we know, he did something to her, and now has David.”

Dupin bumped against her legs again. Her reasoning was sound, although she’d also run off from the crime scene. Going back made sense. Eating more crackers, even more sense.

He turned around her legs and went a few steps back up the trail. Penny lingered, looking down toward the river. Dupin stopped and meowed.

“Just a second, Dupin. I thought I saw something.”

Of course, she did. Dupin meowed again to no effect. Penny was off, heading down the trail to the river.

He ran to catch up, slipping off the trail through the underbrush to cut across the switchback. Wet ferns dragged across his back. It was going to take forever to get clean when they were done.

It didn’t take long before Penny reached the bridge across the river. This wasn’t a rickety wood bridge across a foot-wide stream. The bridge was made of thick metal girders, with a concrete deck and pine needles drifting along the sides. A few weeds grew out of the V shapes where the girders came together.

The whole thing vibrated from the river below. Spray drifted across the bridge, leaving the concrete damp.

Dupin stopped at the edge of the bridge. He didn’t have any interest in going out on it. Penny didn’t hesitate.

She stopped halfway out, clutching the side of the railing. “David!”

This time it wasn’t a call, but a scream that set Dupin’s hair on edge. He growled, still not sure what she was screaming about. She was moving, running his way, back off the bridge.

Dupin scurried out of the way and looked downstream.

A man lay face-down beside the river, his black coat dragging in the water. David. The other man was there, Al, but he was running away downstream, splashing and stumbling along the river.

And there was a third person. A woman, naked and pale lying on the rocks next to David.

Penny was picking her way down the steep slope beneath the bridge, following a rough path that led down to the narrow, rocky beach.

It wasn’t safe. He followed her to the top of the trail and balked. He meowed.

Penny looked up, her eyes wide and wet. She held out a palm toward him. “Stay! Stay there!”

Turning away, she scrambled down the last few feet, splashed through a small pool, and ran to David’s side.

Dupin sat down. He didn’t really want to go down there anyway, that close to the raging river? What if he somehow fell in? Aside from the getting wet, he’d get washed downstream.

Al was gone from view, around the bend in the river. Now, if he fell in, it might not be so bad, since apparently he’d had a hand in whatever happened to the woman and to David.

Dupin licked at his foreleg, cleaning away the dust and pine needles stuck to his fur. Every few licks he looked up to see what Penny was doing.

She reached David. Dupin paused long enough to see David stir and push himself up. So he was alive? That was good, at least for Penny. Dupin went back to cleaning.

The other police would arrive soon, and then they’d take over all of this. He switched paws. After this, the picnic was most likely canceled, which meant going home. Then, maybe Penny would remember to feed him and after that he could spend the afternoon sleeping on the window seat.

David got to his feet and stopped Penny from going to the woman. He shook his head. Their voices floated up, indistinct against the roar of the river. At one point Penny pointed downstream, obviously indicating which way the culprit had gone. David started that way, and she grabbed him, holding him back.

A few more words and David looked up the path, his eyes locking on Dupin. Blood ran down from his dark hair. Dupin looked away, focusing on cleaning his paws again, starting to groom his face as well.

🔍

When the other police came stomping up the trail, Dupin slipped beneath the ferns along the river bank and watched from his hiding place.

Penny and David were still down the steep slope, watching the body of the woman. She had to be dead, and David had refused to leave her. Probably concerned that scavengers would get her. A crow cawed from the branches above the river, one of three or four that fluttered from tree to tree above.

The police came in great numbers, wearing uniforms and not, along with rescue personnel in bright vests. Everyone became very excited when David and Penny called out.

Ropes were thrown down, and the two of them helped out of the river gorge. Two emergency medical techs immediately went to work on both, covering them in blankets, checking David’s head wound.

“I’m fine,” Penny said. “I didn’t fall or anything.”

While the EMTs worked, police officers listened to Penny and David’s statements.

“The suspect is Albert Payne, late twenties,” David said, wincing as the EMTs worked on his head. He went on to finish describing Al to the policeman taking notes, and several others listening.

“He ran off downstream,” David concluded a minute later. “We need to find him and bring him in.”

“We’re on that now,” the other policeman said. “We’ve got people out there to intercept him. Did he assault you?”

“I don’t remember,” David repeated. “Like I said, we followed the trail through the woods, until we came back to the trail. When we got to the bridge, we saw the body. The last thing I remember was climbing down the bank. The suspect was behind me, but I might have slipped, I don’t know.”

“Take it easy,” the EMT said. “You’ve at least got a mild concussion. You really should have that looked at in the hospital.”

“I’m fine,” David insisted. “I was first on the scene. I want to finish this.”

It was easy to see why Penny liked the detective. Hearing louder voices, Dupin turned his head to see what was going on.

A group of people from the coroner’s office approached the edge of the drop-off, and the steep path down the bank. Dupin shrank back further under the fern. Unfortunately, the movement caught the eye of the man in front.

He was a big man, with white hair and a face more wrinkled than a Shar Pei. He was wearing a dark blue rain jacket with the word CORONER across the front, hanging open to accommodate his ample belly. He tapped the shoulder of the younger man with him.

“There’s a cat here!”

Penny pushed through the crowd of police and other personnel on the bridge. “He’s with me.”

The man looked at her, grinning. “You brought your cat to a crime scene?”

“We weren’t planning on finding a crime scene,” Penny said. “The plan was a picnic.”

Dupin rose and stretched his legs out, sinking them into the loose ground while he yawned.

“He’s a big one,” the man said. “My late wife used to keep cats.”

“His name is C. Auguste Dupin,” Penny said. “He’s very smart.”

Dupin settled back. Obviously, he wasn’t smart enough to avoid getting dragged into all of this.

“That’s a great name for a cat,” the man said. He offered his hand. “Ethan George, coroner.”

Penny shook the man’s hand, smiling. “Penny Copper, librarian.”

Ethan laughed. “Pleasure to meet you. Maybe you’ll give me luck getting down this bank!”

Dupin closed his eyes as they laughed.

Then Ethan was calling to the officers milling around, to hold ropes and help him get down the bank without breaking his neck. A jovial fellow, but ill-equipped for climbing up and down steep paths strewn with loose rock. As the big man descended, Dupin rose and wandered over near the edge, sitting next to Penny’s legs, to watch.

David came over to stand beside Penny on the other side. “You’re free to go, they’ll ask if you need to update your statements later.”

Penny was looking past the coroner making his laborious descent, to the body beside the river. “That poor girl. What do you think happened?”

“I don’t believe that a sasquatch carried her off, if that’s what you mean?” David said.

“No, but why would he make up such a story?”

“He’s trying to create reasonable doubt. Next, he’ll say that he didn’t actually see what it was, maybe it could have been a bear.”

“I haven’t heard of bears dragging off a grown woman,” Penny said.

“Maybe not, but he’ll play the grieving victim and claim we’re trying to blame him. If he sows enough doubt with the jury, who knows?”

Dupin listened to the conversation with interest. Penny enjoyed watching shows on television that dealt with these sorts of situations. They were much more enjoyable in a warm house, with a belly full of food than sitting out in the dank forest.

Around them, the police and other humans were briskly getting on with the search for the fugitive, while down below the coroner and his assistants dealt with the body. Dupin watched them move around, carefully noting evidence found. All of it would later feed into the case.

Fascinating on television. Less interesting under these conditions. He bumped against Penny’s leg and meowed.

She said, “I think Dupin is telling us he’d rather go home. Poor kitty hasn’t had his lunch.”

She touched David’s arm. “And you took a blow to the head, you probably shouldn’t be out here either.”

He touched her side. “You should go. This isn’t exactly a place for a civilian or a cat. I’m fine. Really. Unless I start having concussions —”

Penny swatted at him the way Dupin batted at his cat toys.

“Hey! No hitting the injured man.”

Penny stopped. Obviously some sort of human courtship ritual. Dupin closed his eyes rather than watch more.

“We can stay,” Penny said. “Right Dupin?”

Of course. Because it was so much fun starving in the wilderness with either a sasquatch or a potential murderer running around loose in the woods.

Down by the river, Ethan directed the others to load the body into a slick black bag.

Hands touched Dupin’s sides. He started and relaxed as he smelled Penny’s familiar clean scent. She scooped him up, tucking him up in one arm. With the other, she reached around into her messenger back and he perked up.

Penny brought her fist out of the bag and her long fingers unfurled, revealing two sardine crackers on her palm! She held her hand flat in front of his head.

“Since you’ve been so well-behaved,” she said.

Dupin inhaled the rich odor and carefully picked one of the crackers up from her palm. It crunched very satisfactorily between his teeth, the rich fishy taste flooding his mouth. Crumbs fell on her palm. He licked them up, his tongue rasping across her salty smooth skin. Bare skin, one of the odder things about humans.

The second cracker disappeared as quickly as the first. When he was done, Penny stroked his head.

“What do we do now?”

David pointed down the slope where the coroners were beginning to hoist the body up from the river. “I want to find out a preliminary cause of death, look at anything else they found. Hopefully, someone will catch up with Al Payne before he gets far.”

“He can’t get too far going down the river, it’s too rugged.”

“He might fall in and drown,” David said.

If no one was going to leave until they caught the man responsible, then it only made sense to help them. Dupin squirmed in Penny’s arms and she responded by setting him gently on the ground.

He shook himself, then sat and started cleaning his paws again, while he considered the facts in the case.

The woman, Mary, was dead, cause yet to be determined even though it looked more and more like murder.

Her fiancé, Al Payne, claimed that a sasquatch had carried her off. When David discovered the body, Mr. Payne had either assaulted the detective, or not. In any case, he had run off when Penny arrived.

Fleeing didn’t necessarily imply guilt. Dupin knew better. Sometimes fleeing was entirely appropriate.

The quickest way to verify Mr. Payne’s story, then, was to determine if there was something, or someone, else out in the woods beside those present. Either other potential witnesses, or assailants. With big feet or not.

Dupin stopped cleaning and stood. The coroner, Ethan George was huffing and puffing, as several police officers and rescue personnel heaved on the ropes to help him up the trail. He reached the top with a red face and sweat dripping down his brow.

David extended his hand, and helped the coroner up the last step.

“Thank you, I don’t want to do that every day!” Ethan squinted up at the bandage on David’s head. “You’re the one that found her? You were down there too?”

“I was,” David said. “Any thoughts about it? Do you know what killed her?”

Ethan grunted. “I think the broken neck may have had something to do with it.”

Dupin looked over at the steep drop.

“A fall?”

Ethan’s shoulders shrugged in slow big rolls. “Hard to say until I get a better look. She’d been in the water and her clothes were gone. She might have drowned and the break came later.”

Ethan’s shuffled his feet closer to the detective. “Is it true, what they’re saying? The man with her claimed Bigfoot did it?”

“We don’t need to spread that right now,” David said.

Ethan waved a hand. “I’m not telling anyone! I just don’t believe it. Bigfoot is a gentle creature. I ever tell you about the one I saw when I was younger?”

David shook his head and patted Ethan’s arm. “No, and first chance I get, I want to hear it. Right now we need to get after this suspect.”

“Of course, of course. Stop by later and maybe I’ll have more about the cause of death for you.”

“Thank you.”

As David turned back to Penny, and the coroner huffed and walked off escorting the body, Dupin slipped away through the remaining personnel. A lot had left, off to search downstream for the suspect.

No one was going upstream. Yet, if the body went into the water upstream and washed up down here, there might be more evidence. And the falls were upstream, that’s where Penny and David had planned on having their picnic.

He walked to the end of the bridge and sat down, looking back through the crowd at Penny. She was still talking to David. Then she looked down, checked the other side and turned. Now she realized Dupin had left her side.

As soon as her eyes met his, Dupin rose and walked on up the path.

If she caught him, she might carry him back to the car, so Dupin moved at a fast trot on up the trail. All of his keen senses alert to the sounds in the woods. The chatter of the people on the bridge fell away. A finch flitted away through the undergrowth. He tensed, then moved on.

No time to chase birds right now.

So far everything had carried him farther from lunch. Sooner or later the police would catch up with Al Payne. Maybe he was guilty, maybe not.

Penny’s footsteps sounded loud on the path behind him. There was another pair too. He glanced back, and as expected, both Penny and David were following at a fast walk.

“Dupin! Come here!”

He almost did. His stride slowed and then he darted up the slope, slipping beneath the damp ferns off the trail, up to the next switchback. It was steeper going straight up, but shorter.

“Dupin!”

At the trail, he looked back again. Penny and David were running now, with difficulty, up the slope, around the switchback. Running uphill was harder on them. He hurried on up the trail.

David said something, the words indistinct. Dupin ignored them and continued up. It made sense that Al Payne and his fiancé would have gone to the falls. Maybe she fell there. Her clothes might be there.

He cut across the next switchback, slipping under and around a cedar tree growing out of the decaying trunk of an older tree. An orange, sour-smelling, salamander slipped away through the decaying bark beneath the trunk.

It didn’t take long to get upstream to the falls. Dupin pushed out of the underbrush onto the last bit of trail. His fur was wet, with pine needles and other debris stuck to it. He was a mess.

And there was something bright green on the edge of the trail, near the bridge.

Dupin kept an eye out for any sasquatch lurking nearby and walked slowly near the bridge. The roar of the water beneath drowned out other noises. There was a flat area off to the side of path, clear of undergrowth, with three picnic tables. A log fence ran along the drop off to the river beneath.

The bridge itself was built of big riveted girders and a concrete deck slick with spray from the falls. It was right near the bridge, on the right side of the trail, where the green whatever it was, was hung up on the bushes just past another log fence.

A woman’s dress, Dupin saw when he got closer. Torn, caught on the branches past the fence.

“Dupin!”

He looked back. Penny, breathing hard, was coming up the trail with David behind.

“Why’d you run off?” Penny asked, approaching slowly. She held her hand out, holding a sardine cracker.

That was more like it. He licked his lips and meowed, but didn’t move closer.

Penny came forward several steps, and that’s when David said, “What’s that?”

Finally! Dupin rose and walked to Penny while David went over to the dress.

David didn’t touch it, looking at it, and then calling to the other police on a walkie-talkie he must have borrowed.

Dupin didn’t care about that. He’d found the clue, and he wanted his reward. Penny crouched and held out the cracker.

He sniffed deeply. Delicious. Wonderful! There was a reason that Penny’s Auntie Dido was one of his favorite humans, and it wasn’t her yippy dog Patches.

With her other hand, Penny scratched his head. “Good kitty! Is it her dress, David?”

“Looks like. They’ll send a team up to get photos, and pick it up.” David came back and stood above them.

Dupin ignored the detective as he bit into the cracker.

It was gone too soon, leaving only the lingering taste. He licked his lips and moved away from Penny, studying the area. The dress was there.

“I guess he wanted his picnic by the falls,” David said.

“It’s a beautiful spot,” Penny said.

Dupin ignored them both, listening carefully. It was hard to hear anything over the roar of the falls, but he focused on the bridge and the woods beyond. Something made his whiskers tingle. It wasn’t only the vibration of the falls.

It felt like someone watching him.

His whiskers drew back. He slipped away from Penny and David, and moved quickly to the end of the left side of the bridge and crouched beside the thick steel girder.

The fury of the waterfalls below vibrated up through the concrete into his paws.

“What’s he doing now?” David asked.

Small rocks crunched as the humans came closer.

“I don’t know,” Penny said. “He’s been acting spooky since all this started.”

Who wouldn’t, with a potential sasquatch attack? Dupin watched the forest across the bridge. Something had moved, he was sure of it.

Whatever was over there was watching them.

The sensible thing to do, the smart thing, was to turn and head down the trail. Get all the way back down, to where the cops waited, and then keep going until he got to the car.

Penny reached for him. He felt her hands brush his fur and he slipped forward, out onto the bridge.

“Dupin,” Penny said. “Don’t run off again!”

A branch cracked ahead in the woods. A dark shape moved behind a large stump. Dupin broke into a run. He raced across the bridge onto the trail on the other side.

There was another picnic area, this one on the right side of the trail, but the movement came from the left, up the slope. Dupin slowed, watching intently.

There. A brown furry shape rose and slipped behind another tree. It was big. Sasquatch? Dupin’s ears flicked back. He growled a warning at whatever was up the trail.

“There’s something up there,” David said as both he and Penny came up behind Dupin. “He sees something.”

Dupin growled another warning as the shape moved. Penny gasped.

A creak of leather, a snap, and Dupin looked up to see David holding a gun, pointed at whatever was up the slope.

“Come on out now! Hands in the air where I can see them!”

Would a sasquatch follow orders? This one moved, obviously trying to keep trees between it and David.

Dupin slipped away from the detective, and angled around up the trail. He left the trail and moved beneath the ferns.

“Dupin?” Penny called softly.

Dupin ignored her. Whatever it was, David didn’t have a clear shot, and it was trying to climb higher, using the brush and trees as cover. It was noisier now, crashing through brush.

“Stop right there!” David said.

Bigfoot wasn’t listening.

Running now, Dupin gained ground and got farther up slope from the beast. It’d all be worth it, if they could leave and go home!

He jumped up on a fallen tree trunk above where the sasquatch crawled through the bushes. It hadn’t seen him yet. The fur was dark brown and long. It scrambled ungainly at the slope, trying to climb higher, its head down.

It slipped and fell face first against the slope.

“Damn it!” The sasquatch said.

A sasquatch was unlikely. A sasquatch that swore in English? Very improbable. Dupin waited until it was almost upon him. Metal glinted through the fur along its back. A zipper?

This wasn’t a sasquatch, it was a man in a costume!

Dupin growled and hissed at the man.

“Oh hell!” The man stood, lost his balance and stumbled back, hairy costumed arms waving.

Dupin’s ears laid back and he growled again at the fanged, rubbery face.

“Freeze! Poeville police! Stop right now!” David’s voice carried clearly through the air.

The sasquatch’s shoulders slumped, but he raised his hands in the air.

David had moved up the trail. He was closer now, with a clear shot of the man. Dupin settled back, still watching the man carefully, but it looked like something the detective could handle.

“Take off the mask, slowly.”

The man did as he was told, revealing a disappointingly normal human face. His face was round, with reddish cheeks and blond hair. He tossed he mask to the ground. Tears filled his blue eyes.

“It was an accident, I swear!” He sniffled. “I loved Mary! We were just trying to scare away Al.”

“Slowly turn around,” David said. “What’s your name?”

The man turned to face David, arms still up. Dupin rose and walked along the tree trunk. Penny had come up the slope and stood behind David with her arms tightly crossed.

“John Harper. You have to believe me. It was all an accident! Al, he’s obsessive. He kept going on about how they were going to get married, and wouldn’t listen when Mary said she wasn’t ready to get married. She tried to break it off, and he wouldn’t listen.”

“So you decided to dress up like Bigfoot?” David asked.

John nodded. Dupin sneezed from fern spores and jumped off the tree trunk, picking his way among the bushes to rejoin Penny.

The suspect just kept talking.

“Yes. I mean, it was Mary’s idea. Al believes in that sort of thing. And UFOs, ghosts, whatever. It was a prank.” John moaned. “No one was supposed to get hurt! I was going to carry her off, scaring Al away. She thought the next time he might get the message.”

“So what happened?”

John lowered his arms.

“Hands up!” David snapped.

Penny bent and scooped Dupin up. He settled back in her arms, content for the moment, and watched.

John’s hands shot up. His voice shook and turned blubbery. “After I carried her off, Al ran away screaming. We came up the trail. We were playing around by the falls and she fell, that’s all. She was there, and then she wasn’t! I couldn’t believe it. I ran down the trail, I tried to find a way to get to her, but I could see she was dead already. And then I heard voices. Al’s and others.”

His voice broke for a second. He wiped his nose with a hairy hand. “I freaked out. I ran up here and hid. I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have hurt her for anything. You have to believe me.”

“I’ve got to take you in,” David said. “You’ll have a chance to explain what happened. Okay?”

John’s bottom lip stuck out. He nodded, tears streaming down his face.

Humans made things complex. Dupin purred against Penny’s chest. At least now they could finally go home and eat!

🔍

Evening sunlight streamed through the window onto the window seat at home. Dupin lay stretched out full length, muscles sore from all the running and climbing, but his belly was comfortably full for now.

Penny’s phone rang.

He opened one eye, watching her pick it up. “Yes? Oh, they picked him up too? Did you hear back from the coroner? A fall, so Harper was telling the truth?”

She was quiet for a while.

Dupin closed his eye. Of course the man was telling the truth. The police would run around and confirm their stories, talk to friends and family.

In the end nothing would change the fact that the poor woman was dead. Some people would refuse to accept the facts of the case.

There’d probably even be those that still believed a sasquatch was out in the woods. Dupin stretched out sore legs, too tired to even clean his fur again. Who knew? Maybe there was. He wasn’t planning on any more picnics to find out.

🔍

8,386 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 102nd short story release, written in March 2013. This story takes place after the events of The Murders in the Reed Moore Library and my novel The Task of Auntie Dido.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Endless Worlds of Sorrow, a story set in the Moreau Society Universe.


Creative Commons License
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Placer Crime

Beau Clayton loves the hustle of Eureka Gulch. Men swarmed to the growing town, caught in gold fever. A perfect place to begin a new life, build a new library, and bring culture to the new community.

Twice now his love of detective stories led him to help solve crimes. Sheriff Mullins wants help again with a dispute over a claim.

Trouble is, the story the miners tell sounds impossible.

💀

Gold fever wasn’t an illness. The people of Eureka Gulch didn’t lie around in their beds moaning with sweaty brows. They did puke in the streets, mostly outside of any one of the twenty some-odd saloons and similar establishments that had sprung up faster than the miners could dig out the ore. If anything gold fever made them stronger than normal men; the sound of hammers never stopped in Eureka Gulch these days.

Yes, things were happening and Beau Clayton was right in the middle of it all. Thanks to the generosity of Mr. Creasor, owner of the Creasor hotel and other valuable properties, and the support of Ms. Emily Collins, Beau’s public library was getting a proper building after spending the past weeks in a log-base tent. The new construction was going up conveniently right across the road from the current tent library. The support came in part thanks to his help in resolving questions in a couple unfortunate deaths.

He was thin, of average height, with a dark charcoal suit, patched and worn. He wore a bowler hat over dark hair. His face was clean-shaven with high cheek-bones, a strong jaw and dark, intelligent eyes hidden under a deep brow. A thoughtful face, turned now to the building going on across the street.

Beau sat in a split log chair, sanded now to prevent splinters, with a copy of The Strand in his lap. It had only just arrived on the last stage up from Spokane with the camp’s mail, and Beau was quite excited to see it contained a new story by none other than A. Conan Doyle, “The Story of the Beetle-Hunter.”

He hadn’t started reading yet, choosing to savor the moment and he was distracted by the sight of the walls of the library going up. Built with strong timbers and then raised up. Down came the hammers! A flurry of nails driven into place and in moments the walls stood erect on their own.

He was the only one paying any attention to the library’s construction. All around the camp new buildings were going up. General merchandise stories, druggists, clothiers, mining supply companies, and of course, the saloons that the temperance movement couldn’t touch out here.

Each day he took a walk through the streets, marveling at the growth in the town as the population swelled in anticipation of the opening of the south half of the Colville reservation for mineral claims. Yet again those hopes had been dashed, a week earlier on June 8th, when the anticipated announcement had failed to come.

The mood in the camp was tense, swollen to bursting with dreams of getting rich. Thousands had poured into the region from all over. Sooners spotted claims out in the country, not legal claims yet, but there were many out there waiting for the word. The hotels were full, the women’s boarding houses and the drinking establishments alike were busy with customers. The merchants couldn’t keep enough shovels and picks in stock to meet the demand. Many men dreaming of their own claims had turned instead to working the already richly proven mines in the north half, like the Republic and Lone Pine claims. Everyone waited for word from President Grant that the bill had passed.

This was all a long way from his father’s established law offices and the courtrooms where he practiced. There had been a letter too, among the post, from his father’s firm. The letter sat unopened next to his coffee cup, on the stump beside his chair.

The Strand or the letter? Which to read first? With the Strand the outcome was already decided. He would enjoy reading the magazine. With the letter? That outcome was also already decided. There wouldn’t be any good news coming from that letter.

When he had broken the news of his decision to head north and establish a library, his father had thought him mad. So did everyone else. Who threw away a legal career in one of the most exciting cities in the west? Spokane was a center of activity and prosperity. It benefited from its placement, from the natural resources surrounding it, and the stream of men moving north to places like Eureka Gulch and Idaho. It was a modern city, full of modern ideals, and was a good place for a law firm to prosper.

Had Beau wanted to pursue that career, his future would have been secure. Instead he had thrown it to the wind to establish a library. A mad dream, yes, perhaps. Yet he was absolutely convinced, to the depths of his soul, that reading was the ultimate key to prosperity. He had always enjoyed reading. Everything, anything that he could get his hands on. It came to him that he could do much more good in the world by encouraging others to read. By offering books to all, and classes in reading, he could have far more impact on people than his father ever had in his law firm. Making the wealth of human knowledge available to everyone, what higher calling could there be? Surely that was better than the role of a lawyer!

Try telling that to his father who saw most common people as barely a step above illiterate savages. Given the examples of humanity that he saw in his practice, that was hardly a surprising attitude. When it became clear that Beau really meant to leave the firm and pursue his mad dream, his father had threatened to disinherit him. For all he knew, that was the contents of the letter. It’d be like his father to serve official notice that he had been disinherited.

Stuff it all. He’d left that behind and didn’t need the reminder. Beau left the letter untouched.

Across the street, the men working on the library swung down from the beams. They dropped their tools and walked away down the street. Beau pulled his pocket-watch out. Past noon already. They wouldn’t resume their hammering until later in the afternoon, when it began to cool slightly. This would be a good time to get some reading done. Or would be, except that sheriff Mullins was making his way down the street toward the library. The sheriff’s attention was clearly fixed on Beau, although his eyes still watched everyone around him. He nodded congenially to those he passed, his clear blue eyes catching everything with a hawk-like intensity. His long mustache and sharp nose emphasized the hawkishness of his face. He was young, but there was nothing green about the sheriff. He had that look on his face as he got closer.

It was a look that said Beau wasn’t going to get a chance to read his magazine. He set it aside and stood as the sheriff strolled up, boots kicking up dust.

“Mr. Clayton.” Mullins extended his hand.

Beau shook. The sheriff’s grip was strong. “Sheriff. Looking for something to read?”

Mullins’ lips twitched. “I haven’t finished the Tolstoy you gave me to read. Maybe I should have waited for winter.”

Beau chuckled. “Maybe.”

The sheriff turned and looked across the street. “The new library is coming along.”

“Yes. As fast as they work, we’ll be moving the books in before long. Ms. Collins is already arranging a ribbon-cutting ceremony.”

Mullins stroked his mustache. “She is a fine lady. It’s hard to credit the doctor with such a daughter.”

Dr. Collins was an odd man and maybe slightly too fond of whiskey for “medicinal purposes” to be considered strictly professional. Ms. Collins had mentioned that the loss of her mother had changed him. Hardly surprising.

“I think her late mother deserves much of the credit.”

“Just so,” Mullins said. He looked like a man at a loss for words.

“You didn’t come by to discuss Ms. Collins,” Beau said. “And since you’re not looking for another book, there must be another reason for the visit.”

Mullins stuck his thumbs behind his suspenders. “Yes. I did have a reason, although seeing the library going up, I see that there’s little point in raising the matter.”

“Sheriff, you might as well tell me since you came down here.”

“Okay, then. I will. I was thinking of asking if you’d like a deputy position. I could use someone smart and educated to keep me from making a fool of myself.”

“You don’t need me for that,” Beau said. “No one would make the mistake of thinking you a fool.”

Mullins’ blue eyes sparkled. “Maybe not. I still could use someone like you, if you weren’t busy running a library, that is.”

Beau glanced at the letter from his father’s law firm. A sheriff’s deputy? No, he wasn’t really suited to that either. He looked back at Mullins.

“You’re right, I’ve got a library to run. And you need men that can shoot straight and break up fights. That’s not me.”

“Of course. Sorry to trouble you.” Mullins started to turn.

“Sheriff?”

Mullins turned back around.

“I would have time to consult, from time to time, as needed.”

“Consult?” Mullins rubbed his chin.

“Reading isn’t the camp’s favorite vice, although my storytelling sessions have attracted a fair share of miners interested in hearing something other than the Bible. What I mean, is, if there are problems that require someone smart and educated, I expect I’d have time to assist.”

“As it so happens, I’ve got a dispute between some men right now, that could use some expert advice.”

“A dispute?” Beau scooped up the letter and pocketed it. The Strand he left on his chair. “Tell me more.”

💀

Beau’s borrowed mare bounced him in his saddle as he followed Mullins along the San Poil. The river was still high from the flooding a couple weeks earlier, but down from that torrent. The water was mostly clear now, instead of the muddy, foamy froth that had rushed down the river bed during the storm.

Other than the sound of the horses’ hooves on the packed trail, once they were away from Eureka Gulch, a quiet fell. The sort of quiet that city men never knew. It still struck Beau when he was away from the bustle of Eureka Gulch just how quiet it was in this wilderness. The sound of the shallow river flowing over the rocks, the bright bird song off in the trees that shaded the river bank, and little else. Truthfully, it was a bit unnerving. Beau watched the woods carefully. Would a bear make a noise before it attacked? What about wolves? There was probably more to fear from half-savage sooners that camped out in the wilderness waiting for the chance to strike gold when the south half opened. Not to mention the Indians from the reservation. Twelve tribes, including Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce, and some men were bound to hold grudges. Either way, the quiet made him uneasy.

“How far are we going?” He asked Mullins.

The sheriff’s gelding clopped along in an unhurried  fashion. The sheriff twisted around to look back. “Not far now. Not as far south as that trouble we had.”

That trouble being the murder of one Indian, and the attempted murder of both the Mullins and Beau. Fortunately a fate they had avoided.

“Just up here, around this bend.”

Around the bend revealed a wide sunny bank stripped of plants and a good deal of dirt. Two men sat on piles of dirt. Panning gear, a rocker box, and shovels had been left lying on the ground while the men ate what looked like a rabbit roasted over a small, almost smokeless fire. Horses were tethered further up the bank. Both men were dressed in dirty clothes, worn and patched. They were skinny, with deep-sunk eyes and similar long faces. They might have been brothers, although the one on the left had deeper creases in his face, less hair and what there was of it tended to gray. A father and son, then?

The older man dropped his tin plate and stood up. The younger slowly followed. Dark eyes glanced at Beau and back to the sheriff.

“Sheriff,” the older man said. His few teeth were yellow and long. “You find that thief yet?”

Mullins’ reined in his horse. “Not yet, Mr. Higgins.”

A scowl deepened the lines on the man’s face. “What’re you doing back here, then?”

Mullins gestured at Beau. “I brought my consultant down to hear what happened. This is Beau Clayton, he’ll be helping me out.”

“Consultant?” The younger man said.

“That’s right,” Mullins said agreeably. “You just tell him your story.”

Mr. Higgins spit, a high long arc that splashed into the slow-moving river. “Couldn’t you jus tell him yourself, instead of riding out here?”

“I could,” Mullins said. “Except I want him to hear it from you so he can ask questions if he wants.”

“I’ll try not to waste your time,” Beau said.

The young man laughed, which earned him a scowl from the other. Mr. Higgins hitched his thumbs in his suspenders.

“Fine. What happened, Mr. Clayton, is that a dirty con man took our money and left us an empty claim.”

Clayton looked at the torn up bank above the river. “You bought this claim?”

Mr. Higgins nodded. “Yup. Paid twenty dollars for it. We were working our way down stream looking for a place to work when we came across a man here. He only had a shovel and a small pan, not much equipment, but we could see the gold in the pan as we rode up.”

“So you offered to buy his claim?”

The younger man spoke up, his tone bitter. “No. We didn’t. Would’ve moved on. Should have done.”

“Yeah, we should’ve done so. My son told me as much, but I didn’t listen. He had the gold right there in his pan. Told us he was finding it much harder work than he had thought, and wanted to go back to making shoes, and wondered if we’d like to buy the claim. He even dug out some more ground and washed it right in front of us, showing us the gold.”

Beau recognized the story. “So he took the gold he had already found, your money and left you with the claim.”

“Right,” Mr. Higgins said. “I feel the fool. He was gone on his donkey and we got to work. We found a few small flecks, nothing more. By the time we stopped, he was long gone. I sent my son up to talk to the sheriff.”

“And I brought Mr. Clayton to consult on this,” Mullins said.

“What’s so confusing about this?” Mr. Higgins said. He jabbed a finger at the dig. “There’s no gold here!”

“I’ve read about cases like this,” Beau said, trying to calm the man down. “The con man loads a shotgun with a small amount of gold and shoots it into the ground. Then he pretends to discover the gold but lacks the means to realize the claim himself so sells it off to someone else.”

Mr. Higgins shook a finger at Beau. “See! That’s what happened! He shouldn’t be that hard to find, sheriff! Mark told you what he looked like!”

Mullins tipped his hat up. “Yes, he did. Why don’t you just tell Mr. Clayton and be done with it?”

Clearly, Mr. Higgins was reluctant to say anything. He rubbed his jaw, and spit again with great accuracy into the river.

“Jus tell him Pa!” Mark Higgins said.

“Fine!” Mr. Higgins squinted up at Beau. “He was small, a dwarf. Odd-looking, his face wrinkled but somehow he didn’t really look old. He wore a funny coat, square and red, worn and patched but dressy, with a ruff round his neck and lace at the ends of the sleeves.”

Beau rocked back on his horse. Surely, the man wasn’t describing what it sounded like.

Mr. Higgins went on. “Also had buckles on his shoes, a leather apron and a cocked hat on his head! That’s the way he looked, I tell you!”

Mr. Higgins’ jaw clenched, as if he dared Beau to dispute him.

“And you said he rode off on a donkey?”

“That’s right. Man that size, he’s not going to ride a horse, is he? Ask around, you’ll find ‘em and get our money back!”

Everyone was looking at Beau, Mullins and the miners. Was this a joke? Mr. Higgins certainly didn’t look like he was kidding, and less likely to have read Yeats.

“Forgive me, Mr. Higgins, maybe I’m misunderstanding something. Are you saying that this man was a leprechaun?”

“Leprechaun!” Mr. Higgins scowled. “I never said that!”

“No,” Mullins said. “You didn’t call him that, but this is why I asked Mr. Clayton to come down and talk to you. He’s setting up a library back in Eureka Gulch, he’s an educated man and I thought he might recognize what you were describing.”

The younger Higgins surged to his feet, hands clenching into fists. “What are you saying? My Pa told you what he looked like!”

Beau held up a hand. “I didn’t mean any offense, son. A man named Yeats compiled a book ten years ago on fairy and folk tales. The  man you describe sounds like a leprechaun, the one-shoe fairy.”

Mr. Higgins turned to Mark. “Get it.”

Mark turned fast, nearly tripped and scrambled across the uneven ground to the other side of the fire where he rummaged in their gear. He ran back holding something in his hand and gave it to his father. Mr. Higgins turned and offered it up to Beau.

It was a shoe. Beau took it. The shoe was leather and well-made, narrow at the tip with a silver buckle across the top. It looked new. The smooth leather didn’t show any signs of wear. There was little dirt on it, mostly from the miners’ hands. He passed it on over to Mullins, who turned it over in his hands too.

“Where was this?” Beau asked.

Mr. Higgins pointed over to a log near the dig. “Found it over there, figured he left it.”

Mullins said, “You didn’t mention this before.”

Mr. Higgins shrugged. “Didn’t see no point. Might be worth something, we don’t get our money back. You mind?”

Mr. Higgins held up his hand.

Mullins  glanced over at Beau.

Beau shrugged. Keeping it wouldn’t help them find this man, leprechaun or not. Mullins tossed it down to Mr. Higgins.

The man caught the shoe. “So, sheriff? You gonna look for ‘em or not?”

Mullins laughed. “I’ll keep an eye out for a little man in a red coat on a donkey. If I see him, I’ll ask about your money. My guess? He’s moved on already.”

“Figures,” Mr. Higgins said. “Just our luck, you know?”

“Keep the shoe,” Beau said. “Maybe it’ll turn out to be lucky when the south half opens.”

Mr. Higgins held it up, looking at it. “Maybe so.” He pointed the shoe at Beau. “You believe us?”

“Mr. Higgins, I’d be delighted if we found this man you talk about, I’d have many questions for him.” That much was true.

💀

The ride back to Eureka Gulch passed mostly in silence as the day wore on. Beau mulled over the story in his mind. The miners hardly seemed the sort to make up such a story. And what about the shoe? It was real enough, quality craftsmanship. Just one shoe. What did that prove? Mr. Higgins could have heard the stories about leprechauns, but why make up the story? What would it gain him, except ridicule if word got out?

Riding over the last hill, the town lay beneath them. Mullins reined in his horse and fell in beside Beau.

“You’ve been quiet,” Mullins said. “What do you think of their story?”

“The details are right,” Beau said. “The obvious answer is that they set it up themselves. Except I don’t get the sense that Mr. Higgins would deliberately lie about what they saw. He seemed genuinely angry about the money he claims he lost.”

“That’s my sense too.” Mullins chuckled. “A leprechaun, though? Running a scam like that?”

“It’d fit. According to the legends they are fond of pranks, gold and drink. A town like this? They’d be right at home. You might want to start looking for him in the saloons, sheriff.”

Mullins laughed. “I’ll keep an eye out. Somehow I doubt I’ll have much luck.”

They reached the rode and headed on into town. The noise of Eureka Gulch washed over Beau, a welcome change from the quiet out in the wilderness around town. He touched his hat.

“Thank you sheriff, that was an interesting diversion. I wish I was more helpful.”

“You’ve helped plenty,” Mullins said. “Thank you for your time.”

“You’re welcome. I’m always happy to help.”

Their paths separated. Beau rode back to the livery and left the horse. He was on his way back to the library when he spied a familiar, and welcome sight coming down the street ahead.

It was Emily Collins, the lovely daughter of Dr. Collins. She wore a simple blue hat, with a white ribbon, over her dark hair and a plain but neat blue dress. Today she also wore white gloves. She smiled warmly as he approached, then wrinkled her tiny nose when he got close.

“Mr. Clayton, you are covered in dust! What have you been doing?”

“The sheriff and I rode out to talk to a couple of miners, victims of a prank at a placer mine.”

“Prank?”

He doubted the sheriff wanted stories of leprechauns spreading around the camp, but the rest of it didn’t matter. “A con man discharged gold from a shotgun into the San Poil river bank, then panned it out of the ground, thereby proving that there was an easy deposit of gold to be found. He sold the claim to the miners and left with the gold and their money.”

“The lure of gold does attract all sorts of men,” Ms. Collins said. “Any chance that the sheriff will catch the man responsible?”

“Perhaps,” Beau said. “His description was distinctive.”

“I hope he is caught. We don’t need thieves around here!”

“Better the sheriff catch him before anyone else,” Beau said. “The men around here tend to believe in a very swift form of justice at the end of a rope.”

“I would hope that they would respect the order of law.”

“As I would,” Beau said. “Would you like an escort?”

Ms. Collins’ smile widened. “I would. I’m returning back to my father’s house for supper. Would you like to join us?”

Beau’s stomach rumbled in response. Ms. Collins laughed.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

He smiled in return. “I do apologize, the sheriff took me away before lunch.”

“Then you must join us. I insist.”

“It’d be my pleasure.” He brushed at the dust on his clothes. “If I’m not too dusty?”

She laughed. “We will manage.”

Beau gestured and they walked on down the street.

Ms. Collins was just telling him about the progress on building the new school when he saw a small gray donkey tied up outside of one of Eureka Gulch’s many saloons. “The Cobbler’s Tankard,” according to the sign.

His heart nearly skipped a beat. He touched Ms. Collins’ arm. “Excuse me, one moment.”

“What is it?”

It was a mad, impossible thing, but he had to see. “I need to see a man about a book.”

He hurried off to the saloon. The donkey was covered in long hair, and wore a tiny leather saddle. There was a rolled blanket across the back, and bags of goods strapped to the small beast. The stock of a shotgun stuck up out of the rolls.

Beau went on past, up onto the wood porch, and shoved open the door. The interior was dim and smelled of smoke, beer, bread and meat. His stomach growled again. Behind the bar the bartender, a gray-haired man gone wide around the middle, leaned on the bar and watched him over a drooping mustache. Other than the bartender, there were only a few men, sitting alone or in small groups around the rough wood tables in the place.

None were wearing red jackets or a cocked hat. He got a few glances in his direction, standing in the doorway, but most were more interested in their drink or food. He turned, feeling foolish, except for the fact of the donkey outside.

Back in the shadowy corner, light glinted on metal. His eyes began to adjust and he made out the small shape of a man at the table. He made his way across the room, expecting something, anything except what he saw when he reached the table.

A wizened face peered up at him from the dark shadows beneath his cocked hat. Thick whiskers ran down the sides of his jaw. Dark eyes looked back at him. The man’s coat was red, with golden embroidery and rows of shiny buttons. Just as Mr. Higgins had described, there was an Elizabethan ruff around the collar and lace on the ends of the sleeves.

“Ye been lookin’ for me?” The man said, his voice high-pitched.

“The sheriff is looking for you,” Beau said. “About a claim you sold to some miners.”

The man, Beau couldn’t think of him as a leprechaun, leprechauns didn’t exist, lifted his glass and drained it down. He clunked it down on the table and belched.

“That’s what I think of de sheriff!” His dark eyes glittered. “What business is it of yers?”

“He asked for my help.” Beau took a breath. “Why don’t you come with me back to the sheriff’s office? We’ll straighten it out there.”

The man stood up on his seat, which put him nearly at Beau’s height. He sneered. “I don’ think so.”

He reached into his coat and pulled out a silver snuff box. He opened the lid and offered it up to Beau.

Beau lifted his hand. “No, thank you. I really think —”

The man took a pinch of the snuff and flung it at Beau. The dust hit Beau’s face with the rich scent of tobacco. He coughed and the dust tickled his nose. He sneezed explosively and heard the man laugh. He sneezed again, then a third time before he recovered. He rubbed a hand across his face and looked for the man.

He was gone. The table was empty.

Beau spun around. None of the other customers were paying him any attention, and there was no sign of the little man.

He rushed to the door and burst outside. There wasn’t any sign of the man, and the donkey that had been tethered outside was gone. Ms. Collins stood right outside of the saloon looking up at him. Her eyebrows raised.

“Mr. Clayton, are you quite alright?”

“Did you see where he went?”

“Who?”

“A little man, in a red coat…” How foolish did that sound? Beau stopped himself before he could continue. The leprechaun — what else could describe him? — was gone.

“Little man?” Ms. Collins said. She looked up and down the street. “I didn’t see anyone. Does this have to do with the man the sheriff was seeking?”

Beau looked down at her. If he chased this, he’d look crazier than he already did. He smiled. “Yes, but I must have been mistaken. I thought I recognized him from the description, but he’s not here.”

“Okay. In that case, should we continue to my father’s house? He does get grumpy if his supper is late.”

Beau descended to the street. He took her arm. “Supper sounds fantastic. Don’t let me delay things any longer.”

“Very well.”

They started walking. Beau decided not to mention this to the sheriff. The library was getting built, no matter how crazy it might seem to his father. He touched his jacket and felt the letter. Later, he’d read that and see what news it contained. For now, tonight he wanted to enjoy a meal with the lovely Ms. Collins and Dr. Collins, safe from troubling news or meddlesome leprechauns.

There was enough gold fever in Eureka Gulch without chasing after fairy stories!

💀

4,721 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 71st weekly short story release, written in July 2013. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story The Greatest Gig.

Sooner Murder

Beau Clayton left behind the job of a lawyer with the family firm to head out west and bring books to the gold miners and their families.

He set up in Eureka Gulch, planning to convince the booming gold-mining town to support a library. Helping expose corruption hadn’t been part of the plan.

Now the new sheriff wants his help solving a murder — when he would rather enjoy a picnic or a good book.

Beau Clayton, first appearing in Two for Death returns for another mystery for lovers of books and westerns.

🔍

The quiet on the hill was very welcome. No shouts of whiskey-drunk miners. No pounding hammers. None of the frenzy of Eureka Gulch as thousands gripped by gold fever filled the region. Here, above it all, one got a sense of the idyllic peacefulness of this region.

Beauregard Clayton’s gaze fell not on the rolling green hills and forests, but on his companion for this picnic. Ms. Emily Collins, sitting smartly in her plain blue dress, her motions as she unpacked the picnic basket, graceful. She carried grace about her, this daughter of the town doctor. And sharp wits. He was, without a doubt, quite besotted over her.

Their horses moved slowly away across the hillside, chomping at the plentiful grass.

“It is really lovely up here, isn’t it?” Ms. Collins unwrapped tins of roasted chicken, potatoes and even a carefully packed mason jar with gravy. There were even fresh golden biscuits.

Easily the most perfect day since he had come in on Mr. Gerlick’s pack train with his books to set up a public library. And get away from a future spent working in his father’s law offices. The population in Eureka Gulch continued to swell with miners and merchants, all anticipating the opening of the south half of the Colville reservation for mineral speculation. New buildings went up daily. Thousands of men, “sooners” spotted claims in the south half in anticipation of the day. The sounds of hammering never stopped and the Prohibition Party was drowned out beneath a sea of spirits that spewed from the numerous drinking establishments in the new town.

With all the commotion, this chance to get away with Ms. Collins above the noise and dirt was most welcome. He had worn his least dusty suit and bowler hat for the occasion and still, he knew, looked a bit of a mess. He was grateful for the company, and the food. As yet the town leaders had not agreed to fund his library. His own funds, mostly spent on his books, were dwindling. If things continued this way he would either have to stake out his own claim or pack up the whole idea of a library. He might try selling the books, but he’d likely have more luck with that in Deer Park or even back in Spokane. If it came to that, he might as well return to practicing law. If his father would even let him return to the practice.

“Mr. Clayton?”

That was the second question that Ms. Collins had asked. Beau took his hat from his head and ran his fingers back through his hair. “Excuse me, Ms. Collins. I’m afraid you’ve caught me drifting away in thought. There will be no more of that! I’m here, and yes, it is lovely. I was just thinking of how nice it is to get away from the town.”

“It is quite busy,” Ms. Collins said. She handed him a tin plate and fork. “Please, dig in. I know how men like to eat.”

“I do appreciate this, Ms. Collins. I haven’t had a decent meal in weeks!” He helped himself to a chicken leg, and a big piece of breast meat, piled on potatoes, poured the thick brown gravy across and added a couple biscuits. More food than he usually ate in a couple days.

Ms. Collins added food to her own plate as well.

The rich aromas added to the perfection of the day. The chicken was favored with rosemary and delicious. A rare treat that even pulled his attention from his companion. He had finished the leg and one of the biscuits before he looked up and caught Ms. Collins’ bright smile. Her eyes sparkled with delight.

She laughed sweetly. “Don’t stop on my account!”

Beau was about to answer when the sound of hooves rapidly approaching caught both of their attentions. Their horses heads came up. Beau’s gelding snorted and snapped his tail.

“Who could that be?” Ms. Collins said.

Beau stood up and faced south, down the slope where a cloud of dust was kicked up by the rider’s horse. Whoever it was, they were riding the horse hard. The rider corrected its path to bring it straight on at Beau. Ms. Collins gathered herself to her feet and stood beside him. She took his arm in her hands. Beau pressed his hand briefly to hers and smiled, what he hoped was a reassuring smile even as his stomach tightened.

He didn’t carry a gun. He had never fired a gun in his life, so even if he had one it would prove of little use.

“We’ll see what he wants soon enough. Do you recognize him?” Beau said.

“I don’t.”

He didn’t either. At this distance, the man’s features were indistinct and shaded somewhat by the broad brim of his hat. A bushy beard and mustache further shrouded his features. He wore a plain shirt, dark pants with suspenders. Beyond that, there wasn’t much to see at this distance. He could have been any of hundreds of men in the camp working the north half mines, or planning to spot his own in the south half. As far as the man’s horse, it was dark colored with a blaze of white down its forehead.

“Stay here,” Beau said. He patted Emily’s hand again and stepped forward, not content to wait for the rider to reach them. It was clear by this point the rider was coming for them, for whatever purpose there was in it.

Tall grass brushed against Beau’s legs. It didn’t take long before the rider reined in his horse to a stop in front of Beau. Dry dust blew around them in a slow-moving cloud that tickled Beau’s nose.

“You’re the library fellow, right?” The man asked.

Up close the fellow had the rough look of many of the men, hollow-eyed and thin with dirt ground into his pores. His horse was out-fitted for the rough country with bags and a rifle.

Beau touched his hat. “Beauregard Clayton, friend. I run the library.”

The man grunted. “Jack Little. Sheriff Mullins sent me out to find you.”

“The sheriff? What for?”

“What’s this about Mr. Little?” Emily asked.

The man touched his hat. “Ms. Collins. Sorry to interrupt your afternoon. The sheriff wants to see you, Mr. Clayton. He wants you to take a look at something.”

“This whole business sounds odd to me,” Beau objected. “What is this all about?”

“There’s been a murder.”

Emily made a noise. “A murder? Where?”

“In the south half, miss. An Indian has been killed, they’s claiming a sooner did it, and the sheriff wants Mr. Clayton here to look at the body.”

“Me? Why I’d think that Ms. Collins’ father, Dr. Collins, would have more business looking at the body than a librarian.”

Jack Little grinned, which wasn’t a pretty sight given he was missing more than one tooth and those that remained were yellowed and stained. “Ask me, I don’t see the fuss.”

“Over a man dying?”

Little spit into the dirt. “Happens. Men go scratching underground they die too. That sheriff, he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing out here. He heard that you had something to do with that business with the old marshal, guess he thought you might be useful. You coming or not?”

Sheriff Mullins was a young man. Unmarried. Came up on Gerlick’s pack train a few weeks back. He’d been deputy down in Spokane, if Beau remembered correctly, before coming out to take over as sheriff. New to the job, he probably wanted advice.

Beau turned around to Emily. She was standing, lips pressed together in a bit of a smile. She inclined her head. “A man has died, Mr. Clayton. If the sheriff believes you would be of assistance, than we’d better go, hadn’t we?”

“If you’re coming, let’s get on with it,” Little said. “I get paid the other half when we get there and I want to get on over to the boarding house before dark. Told my brother I’d meet up with him there.”

With that last Little leered at Ms. Collins. She turned away, color riding up in her cheeks. Beau took a step closer to Little’s horse. Little’s head snapped around, his dark eyes as fixed as a hawk.

“Don’t do anything stupid, mister,” Little said. “Get your things and we’ll go.”

Emily was already gathering up their interrupted picnic. Beau clenched and unclenched his fists, then went to help.

🔍

The dead man wasn’t far south of Eureka Gulch, but Beau wouldn’t have found the place on his own. Little led him up into the rocky hills above the Sanpoil river, following the bed of a small stream that trickled down through the rocks. The hill was steep enough that they had to dismount and lead the horses.

Beau’s legs burned with the effort and already ached from the day’s riding. He hadn’t ridden much since coming north. He was thankful, at least, that Emily had agreed to stay in the town rather than follow them on out to the site of the crime. She was strong, but the terrain in the south half was much more rugged than that in the north. It wasn’t hard to see why the reservation was split, leaving the Indians with this challenging land, as unfair as that was to those people. First the north half was opened for settlement and now there were men all throughout this part of the reservation lands spotting claims. What was going to be left for the Indians when they were done digging out the gold?

Little pointed up the slope. “Just over that ridge there.”

Beau didn’t have breath to comment. The ridge was up a particularly steep portion of hillside covered with loose pine needles and rocks that slipped away beneath his feet. His horse snorted and turned away across the hillside. Beau almost fell, but for his grip on the reins. The horse pulled back with his eyes wide and nostrils flaring.

Beau moved close to the horse and patted its neck. He ran his hand along the strong muscles. “Shh, boy. It’s okay. Okay.”

Meanwhile Little had led his uncomplaining horse around them and tackled the treacherous slope at an angle, working his way across and up to the ridge rather than trying to go straight up. Beau brought the his horse’s head around and followed. Apparently seeing the other horse ahead settled his horse’s nerves and there was no more trouble as they climbed up to the ridge.

Even so, by the time they reached the top, Beau’s legs and lungs burned. The air, clean and fresh with the sun-warmed scent of pines, did nothing to sooth his lungs. He would have liked to rest except Little was continuing on and there were other men visible now, just down the way where the ridge dropped down slightly. Three of them, with horses. Two were sitting on boulders near the horses, until they saw Little and Beau approaching and came to their feet.

Indians. They weren’t dressed that differently than the men in town, in worn clothes, dirty and as unwashed as any other man. Their faces were dark, expressions shrouded. The one on the right was older and wore a battered wide-brim hat. The younger man at his side had a bare head with dark hair that caught the sunlight.

Beau pulled off his hat and took out his handkerchief to mop at the sweat gathered on his brow. The air was growing warmer by the hour with not a single cloud visible in the blue sky above the trees.

The man that came forward to meet them was sheriff Mullins. He was young, with straw-colored hair and deep blue eyes that skipped past Little to fix on Beau. A long mustache covered his top lip, but his chin was beardless and recently shaved. His clothes were in good condition, dusty from the ride out, but well-cut. He wore a wide-brim hat that further shaded those dark, penetrating eyes. Young or not, Mullins gave the impression of a capable man.

Little stopped near Mullins, and said something that Beau couldn’t hear. The sheriff gestured to where the two Indians stood.

“Mr. Clayton?” The sheriff called.

Beau approached, feeling the weight of the other men watching him. He extended his hand. The sheriff shook, his grip tight and palm rough. Clearly the sheriff was accustomed to hard work.

“What can I do for you, Sheriff?”

Little moved off to the side, not near the Indians, standing on his own with his horse.

“We’ve got a dead man, and I’d like to get your opinion on the circumstances.”

“I’m not a doctor. I don’t have any medical training. I’m not clear why you’d like my opinion.”

Mullins looked hard at Beau and spoke in a low voice. “These two say that a white man killed their friend. Maybe a sooner. I don’t see that as likely.”

“That a white man would kill an Indian?”

Mullins ignored the question. “You’re an educated man, Mr. Clayton. You’ve got your library, your books. Mr. Creasor and others have told me about that business with the demon horse. I want a clear mind looking at this.”

It didn’t sound like a good situation, but Beau’s curiosity was piqued. Unlike the sheriff, he didn’t have any trouble imagining that a white man might have killed an Indian. Men like that had rounded up the various tribes and stuffed them onto the reservation, and now were opening up the south half for miners to come in and dig out the gold. It wasn’t that long ago that Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce had been escorted out here by the cavalry. Only last year he had gone to Washington D.C., there were bound to still be problems and tensions between white men and the Indians. And between the twelve tribes thrown together on the reservation. There’d been plenty of words written on that subject.

“I’ll look, although I don’t promise to shed any light on the matter.”

Mullins nodded. “That’s fine. I’m not asking anything more than that.”

“Where’s the body?”

The sheriff turned to the waiting men. “This is Mr. Beau Clayton. He’s going to take a look and give us his opinion.”

The younger Indian scowled. Beau resisted the urge to take a step back from that gaze. “Another white man?”

Mullins stepped forward. “Mr. Clayton is a librarian, an educated man. He’ll give us his honest opinion and then we’ll decide what to do next.”

The older of the two nodded and gestured off to the side.

Beau’s gaze slid across the rock and grasses to a small crease in the ridge, the start of a gully, where reddish rocks lay exposed. One in particular gleamed white in the sunlight and looked wet.

He blinked and it wasn’t rock that he was looking at, but a skull. What he’d taken as a pile of rocks in the crease was in fact a body. The victim lay tumbled, half-covered almost in pine needles and dirt so that his dirty gray clothes almost looked like rock. Had looked like rock a moment ago, but now that Beau had seen the body he couldn’t miss it. All this time that they were talking he hadn’t realized that they were so close to the body. Fat black flies twisted in the air, and when he inhaled he picked up the faint slaughter-house smell of the corpse.

How observant was he, that he had missed it?

No one commented on the fact. Beau took off his hat and mopped his face again with the sweaty handkerchief. Everyone was watching him. He walked forward, watching the dusty ground. There were boot prints and other signs of people, many of them on top of each other. Scuff marks in the pine needles. A clump of grass smashed and bent as if someone had stepped on it.

A big black and yellow wasp buzzed around Beau’s face. He brushed it away with his hat.

There were more long scuff marks and blood splashed and soaked into the ground near the body. A struggle, obviously. Bright shards of broken glass lay on the ground. Beau crouched and picked up a piece with a torn label. Whiskey. The ground beneath the pieces was mostly dry, apparently the bottle wasn’t full when broken. It would evaporate, of course, but maybe not so fast. He couldn’t be sure but if they had some more whiskey he could pour it out on the ground and observe how fast it evaporated. If that was even relevant. If he was a brilliant man, like Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, he’d already know the answer. Even the blood, splashed on the pine needles where it sparkled like rubies, or soaked into the sandy ground, must speak volumes about what had happened here.

Beau rubbed his chin. The illiterates must feel this way when studying a page in a book! There was information here, unfortunately it didn’t tell him much. He lacked the education to read this properly. And the sheriff had called him an educated man?

He considered begging off, and quitting. Yet there were four pairs of eyes watching him and pride forced him back to the task. Whatever he could make of this, he’d share, let the sheriff do with it as he wanted.

The body, which he had avoided since seeing it for what it was, lay tumbled in the small ditch, a gully of the sort where snow melt had cut into the ridge to expose rocks. The gully was dry at this time of the year. A whole swath of ground was disturbed down to the gully, the pine needles and dirt scattered, and dark splotches of blood marked the ground in a line to the body.

Like a wheel that has rolled through a puddle, leaving wet spots behind it.

The man had rolled down the gully. His wounds bleeding and depositing the blood with each turn in the dirt. That also accounted for the fact that the body was liberally covered with pine needles and dirty, stuck to his clothes and skin because of the blood as he rolled into the gully.

Dead, then, or at least senseless as he rolled down the slope.

Reluctantly, Beau studied the man himself. An Indian, like the other two. His braided hair flung back, a whole patch of skin torn up on his scalp to expose the wet bone beneath. That was the bright patch that had caught Beau’s eye when he first saw the body. Up along the right side of the man’s head the scalp was torn up. A nasty wound that would have likely bled a considerable amount. His dark lined face was slack, the tongue protruding slightly, red with blood. His eyes stared vacantly at ants gathering in the dirt around the body. The slaughter house smell was stronger here close to the body.

Beau’s stomach heaved and he turned his head away, closed his eyes and hastily pulled out his handkerchief to press over his nose. His stomach heaved again, reminding him of the time he had gotten sick after eating at a questionable establishment on his way to Spokane. This time, fortunately, he didn’t vomit the remains of the picnic Emily Collins had prepared. One of the men chuckled. He didn’t need to look to recognize Little’s voice.

As Beau’s stomach settled he turned back to the body. Clearly the wound to the Indian’s scalp was obvious, but the bone was solid and intact, not crushed. He leaned closer.

An explosive shout rang out behind him. Beau twisted around and saw the younger of the Indians glaring at him, the other holding his arm. Sheriff Mullins’ hand was on his pistol. Little was holding the stock of the rifle in his horse’s saddle bags.

“Mr. Clayton,” Mullins said easily, “I don’t think he wants you to touch the body.”

Beau lifted his hands. “I’m simply looking for clues about his killer.” He didn’t want to touch the body, but if he couldn’t it would limit what he learned. “I don’t mean any disrespect.”

The older Indian spoke. “Okay.”

The younger moved and the other turned, snapping out words in their native tongue. Beau’s curiosity flared. Had their language been written down? What would it look like? He knew French, Latin, of course, and German, but those were all related. How would it be to study a language that wasn’t connected to those?

The younger man settled back. The sheriff took his hand from his pistol. “Go ahead, Mr. Clayton.”

“I’ll be careful,” Beau said. “I want to help find out what happened.”

“We know what happened!” The younger Indian snapped.

Little spit in the dust, his hand still on the rifle stock.

Mullins’ hand touched the pistol as he lifted his other hand. “Whoa there, now! Mr. Clayton will be respectful, but he needs to look at the body.”

The elder gestured. “Okay.”

Beau turned back to the body. His pulse throbbed in his neck. He swallowed and tried not to think about the four pairs of eyes drilling into his back as he studied the body. Other than the head wound, there wasn’t any obvious wound he could see. As gruesome as that wound was, could it have caused the man’s death? How was he to know? He wasn’t a doctor, not even a drunken doctor like Emily’s father. He studied the wound.

There was a sharp line of blood across the lower part of the skull and it nicked across the man’s ear. A small piece was missing. The edges there were clean, the line in the bone narrow. Whatever had made that mark had a sharp edge.

Beau rocked back on his heels. Another wasp circled his head. More would come, and flies, the longer the body lay here. A blow to the side of the head, with a knife, maybe? Then in the struggle the man’s braid was pulled, tearing up the flap of skin that exposed the bone? Maybe. Possibly.

Gently, not looking back but feeling the others watch him, Beau rolled the man’s body as best he could as the man was already stiffened in death. The arms clutched at his mid-section and there was considerable blood and dirt stuck to the front of the shirt. Some ants dropped away from the mess, slow and sticky with blood.

Grimacing, Beau picked at the cloth and found several slices, about two inches long in the shirt. Even to his eye it was clear the man was stabbed, repeatedly, as if the killer had gone into a frenzy. He counted the wounds. Seven, in all, slicing through the shirt and into the man’s chest and abdomen. Three alone in the vicinity of the man’s heart.

Carefully Beau let the man down.

He stood up, brushing his hands with his handkerchief and walked back to Mullins. He pulled his hat off to mop the sweat from his forehead.

“I believe they are telling the truth,” Beau said, his voice pitched low. “The attacker was most likely a white man.”

Little spit again into the dirt.

Mullins eyed him. “What makes you think that?”

“The wounds are clean and sharp. He was stabbed repeatedly. Neither of them has blood on them, or a knife that I see. Even if they did, would they have a knife of that quality?”

“What about the scalping?”

Beau shrugged and twisted the hat in his hands, running his fingers along the brim. “I don’t know if any of these tribes scalped people, but if they did I expect they’d be better at it. Though the cut is sharp, it’s along the side of the head, and the edges of the flap are torn up. I’ve never seen anyone scalped, but in reading accounts of the process I believe they usually start at the front cut around all the edges peeling back the skin as they go. This looks like a single cut and then the scalp was torn upwards, suggesting the man was already dead or dying on the ground at the time.”

“Is that all?”

Beau shook his head. “No. The smashed whiskey bottle.” He pointed at the broken glass. “That was probably used first, striking the man to render him senseless. Then he was stabbed seven times, at least three of those near his heart. I expect he fell and in his death spasms, rolled into the gully. When he came to rest there, I expect his killer decided to try a hasty scalping, perhaps to take a trophy or to deflect suspicion on to the Indians.”

The sheriff was silent. The Indians watched them both. Beau had kept his voice low, they may not have heard everything that he was saying. Little had produced a flask from somewhere and was sipping at its contents.

“Whiskey.” The sheriff rubbed his jaw and pushed past Beau. He walked over to the broken glass and fished among the pieces for those with bits of the torn label. He spaced them out in his hand and showed them to the Indians.

“Do you know any white men who sell this whiskey?”

The elder said something to the younger man, who scowled but nodded. “We know him.”

“Then that’s the man I want to talk to.” Mullins looked down at the body. “You’ll take care of him?”

“Yes.” The elder’s voice was firm.

“What’s the man’s name?”

Expression and color drained from the younger man’s face. Only then did Beau hear the crack of the gunshot. A red spot bloomed in the front of the younger Indian’s chest. He sank to the ground, the elder kneeling with him, holding him.

Little held his rifle steady. He shook his head and spit into the dirt.

“I can’t have you going after my brother, sheriff. It’s nothing personal, just the way it is. Toss your piece onto the ground.”

Beau stood very still, and very aware of the sun shining on Little’s gun. “This the same brother you were meeting at the boarding house?”

The sheriff snapped a look at Beau, but said nothing.

Little grinned, showing his disgusting teeth. “That’s right. You’re a smart one, all right. Figured out pretty much what happened, except the part where that buck tried to stiff my brother what he owed him.”

“It’s against the law to sell whiskey to the Indians,” the sheriff said. “That’s why you were on the road. You weren’t down here spotting claims, you were selling to the Indians!”

Little laughed. “Me and my brother, we think any man has a right to drink, savages too. Not our problem if they can’t handle it. My brother said that one of ‘em had got away. He never does anything right. I was coming back to fix things up, when you came along. Figured I’d play along, for a time.”

It was in Little’s voice. He meant to kill them all. Beau hadn’t made it this far in life without running into men like him, who would kill to get what they wanted. His own father defended men like this. That was a part of the job Beau hadn’t cared for at all. It wasn’t the future he wanted. Until now he had thought that setting up the library, maybe even courting Emily Collins, was going to be his future.

“I couldn’t be sure what you’d do about it, just damn savages. Hell! Some men, they’d buy us a drink! But not you and this librarian. Toss the piece, sheriff.”

The humor had drained from Little’s voice. As soon as Mullins tossed the gun, it was obvious that Little was going to shoot him. Beau and the elder Indian would be next, but the elder was focused on his slain companion.

Beau’s hat was still in his hands. If he was going to die anyway? He flicked the bowler at Little and rolled forward. There was a shout, and the loud crack of the rifle but nothing hit him. He came out of the roll right in front of Little and lunged up to grab at the rifle.

Little cursed.

They struggled over the gun. Beau held on. He loved books, but crates of books were heavy. He wasn’t a weakling. He wrenched the rifle around and caught Little across the jaw with the stock.

Stunned, the man fell back a couple steps.

Beau stumbled, trying to catch his balance.

Little yanked a long knife from his belt. The wicked edge caught the light.

“Don’t do it!” Sheriff Mullins shouted. His pistol was out and pointed right at Little. “I’ll put you in the Earth, God help me. Drop the knife!”

Beau brought the rifle up to his shoulder and steadied it, aiming at Little’s chest. The dirty fabric was wet at Little’s arms from sweat. The man swore and tossed the knife into the dirt. He sagged.

Mullins kicked the knife back. The elder looked up at them all, watching.

Mullins said, “You got him?”

“Yes,” Beau answered, holding the rifle steady despite the pounding in his chest.

The sheriff approached Little, still with the pistol ready. “Show me your hands!”

Little extended his hands. “Hell, sheriff. It isn’t like they didn’t deserve it! That Indian, he tried to steal from us. My brother was justified.”

“Not in my book,” Mullins said as he fastened handcuffs on the man. “Now you’re both going before the judge on charges of murder as well as illegally selling whiskey to Indians.”

Cuffed the fight had gone out of Little. The sheriff bound his hands together with rope too, doubly making sure the man wouldn’t escape and tied the other end of the rope to his saddle.

“You’re going to make me walk?” Little protested.

The sheriff’s gaze was cold. “No problem for me if you want to be dragged.”

Beau lowered the rifle. His arms burned he passed it over to the sheriff.

“Thank you, Mr. Clayton. They were right about you, you’ve got a sharp mind for this kind of thing. I may call on you again.”

“I rather hope we don’t have more of this happening.”

Mullins shook his head. “If that was true, I’d be out of a job.”

“I guess so.”

The sheriff walked over to the elder Indian, who laid down his dead companion and rose, facing the sheriff.

“Do you need help with them? I can dispatch some men when I get back to town.”

“No.”

“He’ll get justice for this, and his brother.”

The Indian gazed past Mullins at Little. His gaze was as hard and hot as the sun pounding on Beau’s neck. Despite the heat, Beau shivered. That was a look that he never wanted directed at him.

Mullins tethered Little’s horse to Beau’s and then led the way down the mountain. Beau followed, leading the two horses, until they were back down on the valley floor. Then they switched, the sheriff tied Little’s horse to his own and made the man mount up, hands still bound.

“Try anything, and I’ll shoot you dead,” Mullins said.

“I don’t doubt it,” Little replied dryly.

So arranged, they rode back to Eureka Gulch.

🔍

The next morning Beau sat on his split log chair at the opening to his library tent feeling every ache in every muscle of his body. A cup of black tea and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds sat on the stump beside his chair. He was unaccustomed to so much riding. The library wasn’t much, yet, a tent building with a low wood frame and rough wooden shelves for his books. A small cot at the back provided him a place to sleep. His new sign, still oozing sap, hung from a post in front of the library.

“Library.” The sign’s letters rough and chiseled into the wood.

Around the library Eureka Gulch rang with the noises of humanity. Of horses and hammers, men laughing and a shrill giggle from the boarding house down the street. When he had purchased this spot it was near the outskirts of the new town, and already there were more buildings past the library as the town swept out like a wave.

Turning, he saw the slim form of Emily Collins making her way down the street in her practical gray dress. A few curls had escaped her hat, and she smiled warmly on her approach. In her hands, she held a book clasped tightly.

“Mr. Clayton, I’m relieved to see that you returned to us intact from apprehending that man.”

“I believe it was the sheriff that apprehended him.”

“That’s not what I hear from the sheriff.” Her lips curled in a wide smile. “Something about a hat, I believe?”

Beau’s neck burned. “I simply offered some observations, that led to conclusions. Little gave himself away in the cowardly murder of an unarmed man.”

“And the sheriff arrested his brother in the boarding house, I’m told. Apparently the man was so drunk that he didn’t realize what was happening until the sheriff had him in jail, absent the bloody clothes he had left on the floor.”

“I heard that as well. Good for the sheriff. About time Eureka Gulch had an effective lawman.”

“And about time that Eureka Gulch had an effective librarian.” Ms. Collins extended the book. “I finished this one, what do you recommend next?”

Beau took the book. “I have just the thing.”

And he did.

🔍

5,504 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 65th weekly short story release, written in June 2013. I meant to get it posted last week and couldn’t get to it. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Your Eyes.

Hidden Nests

Lilly wanted undemanding companionship and found it with her two chickens—Patti and Wendy. They provide the best eggs and entertainment watching them running around the yard.

When Patti disappears in the woods she suspects the local cats in her disappearance and sets out to discover the truth.

She never imagined the story appearing on the front page of the Deschutes Valley News!

A story for fans of cozy mysteries and free-range chickens.

🔍

Chicken Cracks Case, the headline read across the front page of the Deschutes Valley News. Lilly liked that one the best, it even had a good picture of Patti, and decided then and there in the line at the Foodmart that she would find a frame and put it up on the wall in the front room. The girl at the register hardly looked old enough to run a register with her black braids forming loops around her ears.

Lilly put the paper down on the little table thing with that machine people used for credit cards. She’d even seen people use those cards to pay  for something like a newspaper, ridiculous.  “How much is that, dear?”

“Fifty cents, ma’am.”

Ma’am. When had that happened? Lilly clucked her tongue softly and pulled out the small beaded change purse she had made down at the classes they held at the library. The black and clear beads sparkled, but it was the small red beads on the comb of the chicken that really caught the light.

“That’s pretty,” the girl said. “Where’d you get it?”

“I made it.” Lilly stroked the front of the purse. “That’s my girl, that’s Patti.”

“You named your chicken patty?” The girl smiled. “Really?”

“Why? I like the name, it was my dear aunt’s name.”

The smile vanished as quick as a snake into a hole. “Oh, sorry.”

Lilly waved a hand, then snapped the purse open. “Don’t worry about it dear.” She dug out two quarters, a Delaware and a Texas, and held them out. She nodded at the paper. “That’s my Patti too.”

The girl took the coins and looked at the paper. Her smile flickered back to life. “Oh, I saw that. It must have been so scary! How did it happen?”

Lilly looked around. No one in line, it wouldn’t take long to tell anyway. “Well, the reporter didn’t get the whole story, you know. This is what happened.

🔍

Patti’s a barred rock hen, or a Plymouth hen, but she’s called barred rock on account of her black and white feathers. I have a little place just out of town, past the railroad tracks. It isn’t much, only a couple bedrooms but since I live by myself that’s one more bedroom than I need. But sometimes my son comes for a visit and brings my grandson, so it’s nice to have then. My house sits on a little more than an acre of land but all along one side and the back it is wooded and overgrown. I pay a kid to mow the rest of it.

I don’t do much with all that space. I’ve never had a green thumb. I thought about getting a pet but I can’t stand dogs with their running around and jumping and barking all the time. Plus you know what dogs will get into, disgusting animals. Cats aren’t much better and the way they look at you, sometimes I feel like they’re imagining that they are lions and are curious how we might taste. So I decided that a chicken or two would be about perfect. They’re pretty easy to take care of and unlike dogs or cats they’d actually do something useful and provide eggs. Those so-called free range eggs you’ve got here go for almost four dollars a dozen! I can’t afford that much and they aren’t much better than the cheap eggs that have almost no color to them at all.

Over at Mike’s Feed and Seed I picked out two little barred rock chicks. Nothing but little balls of mostly black fluff back then. I named them Patti and Wendy, from Peter Pan. The feed store sold me everything I needed to raise them up, even a coop with a little fenced in yard.

Right off the bat I could tell them apart. For one thing Patti was always the smartest. She jumped on top of the feeder first, she came when I called her first and pretty soon it was clear that she was the boss. Wendy, poor thing, is about as bright as an earthworm.

We got along fine, three hens living on my little place. The girls grew up and started laying me the nicest eggs you’ve seen. The coop has a little door at the back where I can get the eggs out and most mornings that’s my breakfast. You can’t get fresher eggs than eggs fried up in a skillet the very morning that the chicken laid them!

But all this trouble started a few weeks back. I let the girls roam my property during the day, but they always come back to the coop at night and they always lay their eggs in the nest box, usually before I let them out. Then all of a sudden there was only one egg in the nest box and I noticed that Patti had run off somewhere.

Of course I thought right away that she must have gone into the woods, usually the girls did go into the woods during the day. Cooler there, I suppose. I wouldn’t have worried except she didn’t come running when I went out the back door. Most of the time if I went out the back door they come and then I throw them some scratch corn. They tear up the grass some but I don’t worry much about that.

When Patti didn’t come I went looking for her. Wendy, poor dear, was in the coop’s fenced yard but she hadn’t found her way out the little door yet. That first day I found Patti under their favorite apple tree right at the edge of the woods. She’d made herself a little nest there beneath the tree in the grass. Chickens can get broody, so I took her egg and carried her back to the coop. I kept them both locked up for two days so that she’d give up on the idea of making a nest in the woods.

At first that seemed to work fine but two days later she disappeared into the woods again.

I looked but Patti wasn’t back under the apple tree and she didn’t come when I called. I did see the big ginger tom cat from Mr. Aiken’s house next door. He slinked off quick when he saw me coming until he got over the fence. I never liked that cat, always strutting around like he owned the block. Mr. Aiken walks like that sometimes too, thinks he’s something important working at the bank. I don’t know about him, but that tom cat probably fathered most of the unwanted kittens in the neighborhood. I’d suggested before to Mr. Aiken that he get the tom fixed and the way he looked at me, you’d think that I’d suggested he get his own parts snipped!

I worried that maybe the tom had gone after my Patti, and when she didn’t come back that night I was scared he’d killed her.  The next morning I put on my yard boots and went out to look for her. Poor Wendy was fussing in the coop, I could tell she was worried too, especially being all alone.

I went up the hill first past my fruit trees. It isn’t much of an orchard, mostly apple with a few pear and cherry trees thrown in bit I usually get a few pies out of it all. There’s a path back up there into the woods and I few times I’d seen the girls go up that far from the house.

I called out, here chick, chick, but she didn’t come. I didn’t hear a peep out of her. The only thing I did hear was a soft meow and the slinky black and white female from the house on the other side of the woods came strolling out of the trees as if she owned the whole place. She had that self-satisfied look that cats get when they think they’re being especially clever. She sat right down there and started licking her paws clean. I couldn’t see if there was any blood on them, but it made me terribly worried. I tried getting into the woods but those blackberry vines grow all over there and I couldn’t get through. The whole time that cat watched me as if mocking me. I became convinced that she had killed Patti. So convinced, I’m ashamed to say, that I picked up a stone and threw it at her.

Of course I didn’t hit her, my aim isn’t that good. It didn’t even scare her. She sat and watched the rock fly past and then several seconds later she picked herself up and strolled off through the blackberry brambles as if she didn’t have any care in the world!

I was of a half-a-mind to go around the front to my neighbor’s yard but the people that live over there, they never seemed like the friendly types. Some nights I’d heard them scream at one another, the husband and his wife. He’s a whip thin guy with sunken eyes. Every morning he’s out running past my house down the street, wears shorts no matter what the temperature. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in anything else. The first few times that I saw him go past when I was outside I called out a friendly hello. You know what? He never even so much as looked at me, just grunted and kept going. His wife was such a frail looking thing, all pale skin and even skinnier than her husband. She liked to wear lots of jewelry, but you could tell it wasn’t anything special. Anything bright must have caught her eyes the way bright things attract crows.

It was the fact that they weren’t all that friendly that stopped me from going around that day. After I couldn’t get through the berry brambles I decided to wait and see if Patti’d come back on her own that night.

Even when it got dark she didn’t come back. I was just about convinced that one of those cats had gotten her. I could tell Wendy was worried to, in her own dim way. That night it rained and then I felt really bad, because if she wasn’t dead that meant she was sitting out there in the rain somewhere. She might have gotten up in a tree and gotten some shelter, but I couldn’t hardly sleep for all my worrying.

The next day I got up early and drove into town. I bought myself a pair of pruning shears, the little ones, over at the feed and seed. I also got myself a pair of gardening gloves. Then I went straight home and went up the hill to those berry brambles. I had my cell phone with me in case I fell or twisted an ankle, the shears and I dressed in sweats that I didn’t mind getting dirty. I snipped and snipped those berry canes out of my way. They were good gloves I had gotten at the store, for twelve ninety-nine they had better be, and I didn’t get stuck at all but sometimes the thorns did catch on my sleeves. After I got past the canes to the trees it was a little easier. I snipped little branches and was able to get back into the woods for the first time.

There was a path of sorts but it was dark back under there and rain still dripped from the branches above. Now and then small branches or brambles blocked my way and each time I snipped and shoved them out of the way. I called for Patti but she didn’t answer. Pretty soon the path started down the hill. It went around two boulders almost as large as me and a big cedar tree that leaned over them. I almost didn’t even see it but as I went past the shape of the eggs caught my eye.

Patti! Except she wasn’t there. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled under the low-hanging boughs of that tree, breathing that rich cedar smell and a sort of musty smell beneath that. Right between the rocks, beneath the tree was a small nest and three eggs. I recognized the eggs, those definitely came from Patti. There were even a few of her feathers in her nest.

But not my girl. That convinced me that the cat must have gotten her and left nothing but a couple feathers. I picked up her eggs and slipped them into the pouch on the sweat shirt I was wearing.  I was about to leave when I looked up and there, deeper between the rocks beneath that tree I saw a human skull looking back at me!

That gave me a fright! I almost screamed it scared me so much. I think in situations like that you discover what you’re made of and I looked at that poor unfortunate woman’s skull. One side was all bashed in and the critters hadn’t left but a few scraps of meat on her bones. Her head had fallen forward but I could just see beneath the leaves and needles heaped on her a bit of a necklace catching what little light there was. I didn’t touch it, I know better than that, but it made me think. It looked like something the neighbor’s wife might fancy and I hadn’t seen her in a good while. Him, I saw every day, out running. But I usually saw her coming or going in that little Nissan she drove.

Well, just thinking that was enough for me to crawl out of there very carefully. When I got out I took out my cell phones and called the police.

“This is Mrs. Burges, I’d like to report a murder, please,” I told the dispatcher.

“Ma’am, are you in danger?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” I told him. “Not unless my neighbor finds out I found his wife.”

“Where are you?” he asked.

“I’m in the woods behind my house. I was looking for my chicken but I’ve found a body instead. I did find a nest near the body, and I’m sorry, I took the eggs before I saw the body. It looks like it has been covered up but I could see the skull and it is all bashed in. There’s a necklace like she wore. That’s how I recognized her.”

“Can you give me your full name and address?” he asked.

So I gave him all of my information and told them what I knew, that I hadn’t seen my neighbor’s wife in some time and that she liked cheap jewelry. I only had to see those delicate cheek bones and I knew it had to be her body. The police dispatcher told me he’d have units out right away to my property.

“Well, you should send them to my neighbor’s property too, or how else are you going to arrest him?”

“The officers will take care of everything when they get there Mrs. Burges. You should go home and wait for them,” he said.

I agreed. I was sure that the cat I’d seen was just as murderous as its owner. It must have killed Patti and ate her. At least he didn’t eat his wife. And I planned on going home. I didn’t want to get any more mixed up in that business than I already was, but as I started back I heard a chicken squawk.

I recognized Patti’s squawk right off, plus Wendy was back home safe in her coop and this was much closer. I picked my way on down the path and realized that this part of the path was much easier to walk. The branches didn’t block it. At one point I stepped to the side to avoid stepping in a muddy section and saw a well-formed sneaker print in the fresh mud. I felt a shiver run through my limbs. It had to have been made that morning, because the rain last night would have ruined the print!

I hurried on and in a short distance I reached my fence only to find a gap had been snipped through the wire. On the other side was my neighbor’s property and the woods soon gave way to clear ground. I stepped through and went right to the edge of the woods, hiding behind a clump of hazelnuts. You know what I saw?

Him! My neighbor, the runner, carrying Patti upside back toward his house! He’d killed his wife and now he was going to kill Patti too!

Well, I wasn’t going to let that happen.

I marched right out there after him but he was fast. Must come from all that running. I lost sight of him when I had to detour around an old rusted heap on his property. When I made it around that I saw him down the hill, behind his house with Patti dangling upside down. Worse than that he pulled out a knife!

I yelled at him. “Hey! That’s my chicken!”

He jumped but he didn’t drop Patti or the knife. He scowled at me. “I found it on my property. I don’t see a collar on it.”

“Who puts a collar on a chicken? Point is, that’s my chicken,” I told him and marched right down there into his yard.

Now, that might not seem real smart but I couldn’t let him kill Patti and I didn’t think he’d go and do something stupid like killing me over a chicken. I stuck out my hand.

“Now hand her over!”

He looked at Patti and then looked at me and then he shook his head. “Even if she was your chicken you shouldn’t let her go on other people’s property. Seems to me that you forfeited any right to her when she came over here. And you’re trespassing.”

“She only came over here because you cut my fence,” I said. I knew right then that wasn’t the right thing to say. He hadn’t put it together where I’d come from until I said that.

His eyes narrowed and he pointed that knife at me!

I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared. My heart beat so fast that I thought it’d burst. But I was also plenty mad.

“How dare you! How dare you point a knife at me! You’re nothing but a chicken thief and a bully!”

Things might have gone really bad right then but my cell phone rang. He lowered the knife when I took out my phone. He couldn’t know who was calling, but it made him rethink what he was doing I expect.

“Mrs. Burges, this is the police dispatch. I wanted to let you know that the police are nearly to your house.”

“Don’t come to my house,” I said. I looked at my neighbor. “I’m at the neighbor’s house, that’s 423, and he’s threatening me with a knife.”

“Hey!” He shoved the knife in his belt. “Don’t say that!”

“Please hurry,” I told the police. I covered the phone with my free hand. “That’s the police, I’d recommend you hand over my chicken now.”

“You called the police over a chicken?” he asked.

I didn’t answer, I just held out my hand, and when he gave me Patti back I cradled her in my arm. Poor dear, her beak was wide open as she panted. She must have been so terrified to be hanging upside down and threatened with a knife.

“Tell them I gave you your chicken back,” he said.

It was about right then that the police cars pulled up in front of his house. I didn’t answer him. I just walked around his house out into the front. The dispatcher was still on the phone. “I see them now, they just pulled up.”

“Are you still in danger?”

My neighbor had followed me into the front, he had a sullen look on his face but he wasn’t threatening anyone with the police right there. “I don’t think so, no. Thank you.”

He spread his hands out when the police came through the gate with their guns drawn. “Hey, I gave her back her fucking chicken!”

I looked back then and smiled at him. “Oh, I didn’t call them about my chicken. I called them about your dead wife up the hill on my property.”

I think they call that expression dumbstruck.

 

🔍

Lilly shrugged. “There wasn’t much to say after that, the paper got the other details correct. It looks like he killed his wife after she threatened to leave him. He didn’t want her body on his property, but he wanted it close by. I think he figured no one would find her there and he was probably right, I wouldn’t have found her if it hadn’t been for Patti.”

There were other people in line now but they all had smiles. Lilly picked up her paper and held it up so that everyone could see her chicken that had led her to the body. Maybe not on purpose, but without her his wife wouldn’t have been found at all.

The girl at the register shook her head. “That’s amazing.”

“Of course since then Patti won’t go near the woods,” Lilly said. “I think getting grabbed by a murderer scared her too much. But she’s laying her eggs again.”

Lilly looked at the picture again on her way out. Yep, before she went home she was going to go over to Target. They’d have some affordable picture frames there and then the front page of the paper was going right up on the wall.

🔍

3,619 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 58th weekly short story release, written in February 2011. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Candle’s Bridge.

Headless Server

Just coming out of an ice age, the alien world of New Anchorage promised Neil and Cassidy plenty of cold cases to solve.

Private detectives with Reach-wide licenses, they came to New Anchorage for a different sort of adventure – and find a chilling mystery.

If you love science fiction mysteries, alien planets, and exotic cuisine, check out Headless Server.

🔍

Breakfast came on a cerulean ceramic platter, covered with a matching ceramic lid decorated with cartoony examples of native New Anchorage wildlife. The server was cold-adapted mod-sapiens, a surprisingly cute girl with really big manga-style eyes, dark bangs hung above her eyes but downy white fur covered the rest of her face. When she blinked, it showed her double eyelid.

Neil smiled at her as she slid the platter onto the small polished stone table between him and Cassidy. Their server gave him a brilliant smile back, as bright as the hidden New Anchorage sun. Then she lifted the lid from the platter.

Breakfast bounced up from the platter. The menu had said eggs and bacon. Instead dozens of orange balls, each the size of a cherry tomato, popped, a snapping-fingers sort of sound, and bounced up and down. A whole jumping, popping, crowd of them. And the smell, it was a spicy, peppery odor with a hint of apple. There were also long blue things coiled on the platter that twitched and jerked, apparently in response to the bouncing balls.

“Joy,” the server said, favoring him with a wink of one big eye.

Cassidy kicked him beneath the table.

Neil fought back a wince and smiled at the server. “Thank you.”

She turned and skipped off. Her short red apron did nothing to cover her furry backside and long, tight legs.

Another kick hit his shins.

“Ouch!” Neil looked at Cassidy. “You didn’t have to kick me.”

Cassidy’s right eyebrow raised. “You didn’t have to ogle the waitress.”

Unlike the server, Cassidy was cyber-sapiens. Mostly unmodified base DNA with sensory and nervous system augmentations. Ten years together as partners in the detective business and in private, and he still found her beautiful and compelling. She had a full figure and dark wavy hair, and an adventurous streak that excited him.

It was her idea that they eat breakfast at this place. It was a small restaurant on the river-side strip, the sort of place where they might pick up cases. The dim interior held a dozen tables, plus seats along the bar. Most of those were occupied, bundled up locals hunched over their coffee and food. Two of the other tables were in use, by a couple of old cold-adapted mod-sapiens. It didn’t look like the sort of place that attracted tourists. Not that New Anchorage had many tourists. Most that did come were relic hunters. But so far Cassidy hadn’t found them a planet that was crime free, so their Reach-wide licenses were still useful. After a month here, business had been slow, but Cassidy’s optimism never let up.

The orange ball things were slowing down. They popping noises were decreasing and the jumps weren’t going as high. Some of them were starting to look wrinkled.

“This is eggs and bacon? Are they alive?” he said.

Cassidy caught one of the bouncing things between two fingers as it popped up and tossed it into her mouth. She chewed, swallowed and smiled. “Nope. Not anymore, anyway. That’s what they say. It’s steam escaping that makes them jump. They’re better before they deflate.”

He poked at one of the blue things. It twitched like it was going to wrap around his finger and he jerked his hand back.

“And those?”

Cassidy jabbed one with a neatly manicured nail. The blue thing whipped up and coiled around her finger. Neil’s stomach rolled as she lifted her finger to her mouth, her lips sliding around the finger and the blue thing. She sucked on it, her eyes on him the whole time, and sucked it right off her finger. It uncoiled bit by bit and disappeared into her mouth. She chewed with relish.

“Hmmm, that’s delicious. You’ve got to try it. It tastes like pesto chicken. Garlicky.”

Neil eyed the whole twitching, bouncing mess of a breakfast. “I don’t know.”

“They aren’t alive. Not really. They react to heat, residual cellular activity, that’s all. The steam from the balls activates them. Or the heat from your finger. I’m not letting you leave until you try them.”

In the ten years that they’d been together, Neil had heard similar statements many times before. Cassidy was always the more adventurous one. She picked out their destinations, a new planet each year, while he tagged along. Solving crime across the Reach.

This year was New Anchorage, a barely habitable, cold world where the day-night cycle took a whole month. Not a place he would have picked to spend a year. Experts said it was coming out of an ice age, but temperatures wouldn’t get anywhere close to comfortable for at least three hundred years. Standard, not New Anchorage years, which lasted ten standard years. It was the ice age that had eventually doomed the native, now extinct, civilization.

“Come on, you have to,” Cassidy said.

He reached out to pick up a deflated orange ball and his finger brushed one of the blue wormy things. It coiled swiftly around his finger. The touch was drier than he had expected and cool.

Cassidy grinned. “Go on. Try both.”

She’d never let him live it down if he didn’t. Neil lifted both up, closed his eyes, and shoved them in his mouth. He nearly bit his finger, pulling the blue thing off with his teeth. He wasn’t making it look sexy, he was just trying not to gag. The blue thing was thrashing in his mouth, trying to coil around his tongue.

He bit down to stop it. Juices filled his mouth. And Cassidy was right. It did taste sort of like pesto, with the orange thing adding a peppery and apple taste to the mix. The texture was firmer than chicken or pasta, not exactly rubbery, but chewy. He chewed quickly to stop the thing from moving and swallowed.

It wasn’t so bad, really. He caught one of the orange things that hadn’t quite stopped bouncing. It popped in a hot rush when he bit into it. That was better. The peppery steam helped clear out his sinuses.

A scream from the back interrupted their meal. Neil stood up, so did Cassidy, as the cute server backed out of the kitchen area. She screamed again and fluttered her hands in front of her eyes, like she couldn’t decide whether to cover them or to look.

The locals stood up off the bar stools and crowded up to the edge. A big man, the fur on his face long and trailing down a hairy chest, reached across and touched the server’s shoulder.

“Bethany, what wrong?”

Neil edged closer to the crowd, but held back. Maybe she’d seen a spider or a mouse or something. If they had those here, or their equivalents.

“Dixon, in the freezer,” she said. Her arm pointed for emphasis.

Dixon? With a name and a reaction like that, it didn’t sound like a spider had scared her. Neil moved closer and pulled his badge. He held it up.

“Detectives. May we help?”

Bethany turned, fixing her big eyes on him. She rushed to the edge of the counter. The locals fell back, turning to face him.

“Yes, sir. Please do,” Bethany said.

Cassidy was beside him, her own badge in her hand. She held the shield out toward the locals. “Case claim, then. We’ll investigate.”

A case claim meant that the local governmental body couldn’t just throw them off the case without paying a nominal fee. Cassidy always did look after the business side of things. She was great at getting reluctant municipalities to pay up, which helped them make enough on each planet to afford moving on to the next.

“Show us Dixon,” Neil said.

The freezer was a simple box at the back of the place. Lacking insulation, it used the ambient temperature outside to keep things frozen. It was neat. Clean plastic boxes lined the shelves. There were whole cartons full of those orange eggs, not bouncing right now. The one thing that didn’t belong with the body lying in the center aisle. It’d be face-down, if it still had a face. The bloodless neck was pointing at the door.

Bethany, and the two cooks, crowded in behind them.

Cassidy went in first. Her implants would film the whole scene, record environmental factors, and document everything that they did. She walked over to the left side of the body and worked her way around to the other side. Her breath fogged the air. They’d left their heavy outer gear in the airlock on the way in. Neil picked up a large can of some sort of pickled vegetable and dropped it on the floor in front of the door.

The server, Bethany, stood in the doorway wearing nothing but her red apron and watched. “Doing what?”

“Just want to make sure the door doesn’t shut on us,” Neil said. He wasn’t going to take any chance, even if it was unlikely that they would all decide to shut him and Cassidy in the freezer.

He turned his attention to the body. The air in here was cold. Freezing, well-below freezing. Cassidy stood opposite, hugging her arms.

“Let’s make this fast,” he said.

The body was another cold-adapted colonist, just like the girl. White fur covered the body. This one also wore a red apron, apparently that was the unisex dress code at the restaurant. Neil walked around the body, following the path Cassidy had walked, watching for anything of interest. Standing at the feet, the view was uninterrupted by the apron, and the body was clearly male. He completed his circuit to end up beside Cassidy.

To Bethany, he said, “His name was Dixon?”

“Uh huh. Yes.”

He didn’t want to be indelicate, but he said, “How do you know it’s him?”

“Dixon worked last night,” Bethany said. “Just he and I covering shifts with Lalia off. And I recognize him, we see each other this way.”

Of course they did. The aprons didn’t cover their backsides, so that’s what she would normally see. It was an obvious thing. He moved on.

He looked back at the cooks. “Were either of you working last night?”

Both men shook their furry heads. The tallest of the two, with a round face that gave him a teddy bear look, said, “Taylor, he cooks night. Does morning prep.”

Neil looked at the crates of the orange eggs. “Has anyone been in here this morning?”

All three of them shook their heads. The cook who hadn’t spoken yet broke his silence. “Taylor loads cooler.”

He turned and pointed back into the kitchen. There was a big refrigerator.

“I come in,” Bethany said. “Starting lunch prep and find Dixon.”

Cassidy said, “Where do we find Taylor?”

He would have been the last person to see Dixon, and right now the most likely suspect.

“I get address,” Bethany said. “Don’t wanna be here, anyhow.”

She shoved between the two cooks. Cassidy moved into the doorway. “Come on, I will take your statements, while my partner works.”

Slowly, the two furry cooks left Neil alone, trailing along with Cassidy. That was the thing about ten years together. They each knew what the other needed. And right now, he needed privacy. The next part of the investigation made some people uneasy.

Plus it was damn cold and he wanted to get done without having to answer questions while he was working. And Cassidy’s enhancements made her a natural lie detector. She could take their statements, and she’d know if they were lying or not. Their thin covering of fur wouldn’t change that. He had his own work to do.

He started back at the neck, absent a head or blood. He bent close and inhaled deeply. No odor. The edges were clean, precise. All the tissues were cut in the same fine line, which had passed right through the spinal column between the vertebrae without cutting bone. Some sort of molecular blade? That would account for the lack of tearing and the precise nature of the cut, but the whole inside of the freezer should have been sprayed with Dixon’s blood and there wasn’t a drop.

That suggested he was killed elsewhere. But why kill the server at all? And if you did kill him, why bring the body back to where he worked and leave it in the freezer?

Neil leaned closer, looking the severed ends of the major veins and arteries. They had a puckered look. He pulled gloves out of his pocket and pulled them on. They didn’t do anything to help warm his hands. His teeth chattered. He had to get out of here soon or freeze.

He poked at the tissues. They were soft, pliable beneath his finger. That was weird. The body wasn’t frozen. He bent closer and probed at the carotid. The cut was clean, level with the cut through the rest of the tissues, rimmed with a fuzzy white substance he had taken for frost. Down inside the artery was more white stuff, completely clogging the inside. It pulled in the sides, causing the puckering that he had noticed.

Neil rocked back on his heels. What could cause that? Not an ordinary cut, and why wasn’t the body frozen if it’d been in the freezer since the night before?

He stood up and moved to Dixon’s side, and crouched again. It was time to roll the body over and see what else there was to see. If he found anything interesting, he’d call Cassidy to document it. He ran his fingers along Dixon’s arms. The tissue was soft to the touch, not exactly warm, but definitely not freezing. He continued on down the arm and discovered that Dixon’s hand was cupping something. It was small, hidden in the shadow between his hand and his thigh.

Neil didn’t disturb it. He wanted Cassidy recording before he moved the body and uncovered the object. It also gave him a reason to get out of the freezer. He walked out into the warmer kitchen. Cassidy was talking with the heavier cook. He caught her gaze and she excused herself.

When she reached him she said, “What did you find?”

“He’s not frozen,” Neil said softly.

“What?”

“Come see for yourself. I want close-ups of the neck, there’s something odd there. And he’s got something in his hand that we’ll see when we roll him over. I wanted you there for that.”

Neil glanced back into the kitchen area, past Cassidy. The cooks were talking amongst themselves, and Bethany. Many of the locals were crowded around too. It wouldn’t be long before they all started wanting answers. With the case claim filed, they’d also have the local law down here soon too. Some jurisdictions would just pay the fee to get them off the case. Sometimes that was okay, but this time he wanted to dig deeper. There were just too many things that didn’t make sense.

“Any trouble with them?”

She shook her head. “All of them are shocked. I don’t think they have a clue about what happened. I did get a picture of Dixon.”

“That’ll be helpful if we find his head,” he said. “Let’s get this done before we get interrupted.”

They went back into the freezer together. Cassidy bent down to get a good look at the neck wound.

“That’s weird. It’s like all of the capillaries have been sealed with that white compound,” she said, moving around to join him at Dixon’s side. “Some sort of clotting agent?”

“What could do that and prevent any blood from spilling?”

“Beats me.” She knelt beside the body and pulled on her gloves. “Let’s see what else we’ve got.”

Neil joined her on her right, closest to whatever Dixon had in his hand. Neil put one hand on Dixon’s wrist to keep it pinned to the body, and the other on Dixon’s side.

“You get the shoulder and we’ll  roll him up and over,” Neil said. “On three. Two. One.”

They both pushed and lifted. The body came up, but it was loose and floppy. Not frozen, and not stiff with rigor. As it rolled, Neil got a look at the thing in Dixon’s hand.

It looked like dark wood, a deep reddish material laced with a grain. Except the grains in the object were white and seemed to snake beneath the polished surface. At three points the white lines joined together and continued out of the object, extending down where they pierced Dixon’s hand beneath his index and little fingers, and at his wrist.

“Hold it,” Neil said. “Can you see this?”

Cassidy leaned close to him. Her warmth was welcome. He wanted to huddle close to her, preferably with both of them in some deep hot spring or pool, without anything on, just to get warm again.

“I see it,” she said. “Whatever that is, it looks attached. What do you think?”

“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that he’s got that white stuff around his wound, and this thing is connected to his hand and wrist.”

She leaned across him, still holding Dixon’s upper body. He wanted to press against her warmth, but the situation made that awkward. And there was no telling what that thing was doing to the body. At least they were wearing gloves.

“If this is biological we have to close the place down and file an alert,” Neil said.

“It doesn’t look biological,” Cassidy said. “I’m not getting organic readings from it. And in the infrared there are markings on the object.”

“Native? Is it a relic?” The ice age had buried and ground up most of the native civilization’s artifacts, but relic hunters were still digging up pieces that had survived.

“Looks like it to me,” she said. She smiled at Neil, even though her lips were starting to turn blue. “This could be a big break for us.”

Neil pushed the body further up. “I don’t see any signs of trauma to the front of the body.”

“Wow.” Cassidy’s eyes widened, irises huge and dark, the way they got when she looked into the infrared. “He’s still warm, Neil. There’s a pulse!”

He shivered and it wasn’t only from the cold. “How is that possible?”

“I don’t know. It’s slow, wait,” she said. She stared intently at the furry chest beneath the apron.

Neil’s legs were beginning to cramp. He didn’t feel anything in the wrist he was holding. Not that he doubted her, but how could the server be alive without his head?

“There! Almost two minutes between beats. It’s faint, but there.”

“Put him down.” Neil said, lowering the body with her help.

When the headless server was back as they’d found him, Neil stood up. He took Cassidy’s elbow. “If there’s a pulse, does that mean he’s alive? Without a head, isn’t he sort of brain-dead?”

“I don’t know. We don’t know anything about that relic. Or where his head is. We’re going to need help on this one.”

“Fine. Let’s get out of this freezer, and contact the local medical responders. We’ve got a case claim, amend it to include the relic.”

She didn’t move. “Should we get him out of the freezer?”

Neil shook his head. “We don’t know what that would do to him. Maybe being nearly frozen is part of it, sort of a hibernation thing.”

“I don’t think their mod includes hibernation.”

Teeth chattering, Neil shrugged. His toes were feeling numb. “Either way, we need to go and find this Taylor that was working last night. He was probably the last one to see Dixon alive. Or intact.”

Cassidy finally moved out of the freezer. Neil followed her out, and moved the can away from the door. He told the cooks and Bethany to stay out of the freezer while Cassidy contacted the medical responders and filled them in on what had been found. From the sound of it, they didn’t want to believe her at first. After confirming her universal license and with an image of Dixon’s body, they jumped into action and would be on site within minutes. She gave them strict instructions to leave the native artifact alone, until they knew more about its origin.

With that done, Neil and Cassidy headed out to find Taylor. The best thing about leaving, was getting to put on their cold-weather gear. Neil dialed up the suit’s internal heating to the max.

🔍

New Anchorage was a relatively new colony, that had garnered interest primarily because of the extinct civilization. Conditions were considerably harsher than those experienced by its namesake. Habitable definitions had been stretched by the colonial administrators, in Neil’s opinion, as they stomped into the big geo-thermal-powered warren where Taylor lived. Ice fell from their boots into the melt grate at the entrance while jets of air blasted off the ice clinging to the outside of their suits. By the time they got through the jets their suits were dry. Neil pulled down his face mask, but kept the rest of the suit on. He still hadn’t warmed up.

Taylor’s apartment was on the third floor down, the fifteen door in a stained and chipped corridor that smelled of smoke, food and urine. A half-dozen fat mod-gen cats lounged around the corridor, basking beneath the light tubes bringing in reflected sunlight from outside.

“Why are there so many cats in this colony?” Neil said, not for the first time.

Cassidy grinned at him. “You just don’t like cats.”

That was true. Neil stopped in front of Taylor’s door and pushed the call button.

No response from inside. Neil pushed the button again.

This time something thumped inside.

He looked at Cassidy. “Did that sound like someone in distress to you?”

“It did,” she said.

Their license gave them limited rights to enter private dwellings, unless they thought there was risk of deadly harm coming to someone inside. Or that the dwelling was an obvious crime scene. Given that they’d come here to talk to the last person likely to have seen Dixon with a head, Neil was pretty sure they had cause.

Cassidy moved to the other side of the doorway. He took up position beside the panel. They didn’t carry weapons, but that didn’t mean that someone inside wouldn’t be armed.

He entered his license code into the panel. It flashed green, confirming and recording his authorization, and opened the door.

“Private detectives,” Neil called. “We’re unarmed, and coming in. We are recording.”

At least Cassidy was recording. Which meant he went first with his hands open and out to his side.

It wasn’t a large apartment. Not much more than a rectangular box that extended from the hallway to the enclosed sun balcony on the far side of the room. These were compact dwellings, with features that folded out from the room. Right now there were two people in the bed that was taking up most of the room.

And there was a mod-sapiens head on the steps beside the bed that led up to the sun balcony. Neil looked at the head and she looked back. The head belonged to a woman with fine features, covered in soft fuzz. Her eyes were open, fixed on him, and her mouth moved.

Red lips mouthed the words, Help me.

One of the native artifacts, just like the one that Dixon’s body held, was attached to the head’s neck.

The people in the bed finally stirred. One of them sat up, a woman with rather large, and firm, shaved breasts. She rubbed her eyes and then dropped her hands to blink at Neil and Cassidy.

Except the head had masculine features, and dark eyebrows.

Cassidy nudged Neil with her arm. “Umm, Neil?”

“Yeah?”

“That’s Dixon’s head.”

“That’s not his body.”

The head on the steps rolled her eyes, and then looked sideways, glaring at Dixon.

The other person in the bed groaned and sat up with his eyes squinted shut. He was unmodified, with golden skin and wavy blond hair. He would have looked more at home on a sunny beach than New Anchorage. He yawned.

“Man, what time is it?”

The woman with Dixon’s head jabbed the guy in the side. “We over slept!”

Neil looked at Cassidy. “Dear, would you contact the authorities?”

“Already doing it, honey.”

🔍

Local law arrived in five minutes along with a medical response team. Cassidy shared their files, billed the colony the usual fees for the case. Given that no one was actually dead, Neil agreed that they bill the case as a kidnapping and assault, rather than murder. That, plus the claim they’d filed on recovering the native artifacts, meant that the New Anchorage was going to turn out to be one of their more lucrative planets. This was a discovery that would have the medical establishment salivating for more research.

Dixon stopped in the doorway as they were going to lead him away. “We weren’t going to keep her body. We hired her for the night, that was all. Once we got up we would have switched back, and Taylor would have taken my head back to my body. We just slept in.”

The med techs carry were carrying out the woman’s head at that moment and she started mouthing curse words at Dixon. It was less effective without lungs to give them voice.

“Why all this?” Neil asked.

Dixon glanced at Taylor, being questioned over by the bed and lowered his voice. “Taylor, he’s into women, you know? Once I knew what those things could do, I talked him into trying this.”

Dixon’s voice became wistful. “It was worth it, you know?”

He was led off and Neil stepped out with Cassidy. One of the fat mod-gen cats rubbed against his leg. Cassidy pulled him close and planted a kiss on his lips.

“The lengths people go to for love,” she said.

He kissed her back. She had a point. He’d come to a frozen planet for her, and would follow her wherever she wanted to go next.

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4,384 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 48th weekly short story release, written in October 2013. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Flame Breaker.

Dumping Ground

A crime fifty million years in the making challenges Special Agent Alex Marks.

In the isolated town of Republic in rural Washington state fossil hunters uncover a barrel with a body inside and none of the clues make sense.

If you love science fiction mysteries, check out Dumping Ground.

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The dry wind kicked up dust from the dig site as if to mock any attempt to contain the crime scene and maintain evidence. Alex Marks, FBI Special Agent Marks to the folks around here, snapped his fingers at a couple county sheriff deputies standing nearby.

“Howdy, think you could get us some tents or something to cover the crime scene with before the wind blows everything away?”

The two deputies looked at each other, shrugged and ambled away. Alex couldn’t decide if that meant they were actually going for the tents or not. At thirty-five he had seen all sorts of local law enforcement and some were pretty good. He hadn’t made up his mind about these guys yet. He knew that they only saw the suit. They didn’t see the guy that liked to kick back and watch the game with some buddies. That was expected and he was okay with that, so long as they did the job he needed them to do.

Right now he wanted to take in the crime scene. It was in a cut in the earth across the hill. A fossil dig site, with pine trees on the hill up above, and the town of Republic laid out below him, mostly along the highway 22. The site itself showed signs of lots of people having been back and forth through the area. The chance of getting anything useful was slim. More than anything what struck him was the quiet. He’d seen the briefing. Small population, minimal traffic, and a short distance to the Canadian border. But the fossil dig site was public. The killer wanted the body to be found. There were acres and acres of national forest just outside of the town where the killer could have stashed the body, not to mention all of the abandoned mines scattered throughout the county. Someone put the body here for it to be found.

Ten feet away the county sheriff, mid-fifties, runner-thin man with his hair buzzed short, was talking to a gray-haired old woman in a stained yellow t-shirt. Alex walked over to join them. The sheriff nodded and gestured at the woman.

“Special Agent Marks, this is Martha Brown. She volunteers down at the fossil museum. She’s the one that called me when the tourists uncovered what we’ve got over there.”

Over there was ten feet further, right in the side of the dig. A black barrel with a clear toxic warning symbol on the side sticking out of the hillside. Martha’s eyes were red and she wiped at her eyes.

“How could they do that? Dump it in our dig site? What’s going to happen, Roy? That’s what I want to know? Are they going to shut us down?”

The sheriff patted her arm. “Why don’t we let these folks do what they do and worry about that later. We don’t even know what we have here.”

She sniffled but nodded and started to move away. Alex spoke up. “Just a sec. You haven’t seen anything unusual up here lately, have you?”

“No, nothing, and I’m up here every day. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for someone to bury that up here. But the rock flaked away, and there it was. I don’t know how they got it in there. I removed a beautiful Alnus parvifolia from right above it yesterday. How could they have buried it without disturbing the fossils?”

“I don’t know about that,” Roy answered. “We’ll let the folks with bigger budgets figure that one out.”

“Thank you,” Alex said.

He walked toward the site. Roy stuck with him. They climbed up the slope and then Alex saw the barrel up close for the first time. It looked like any other barrel designed to hold toxic waste. Though corroded with time the toxic warning symbol was still visible on the side. The top of the barrel had been removed and inside he could see the curve of a skull. The bulk of the barrel was still stuck in the ground. Despite what Martha said he didn’t see what was so hard about digging a hole and dropping in the barrel, then covering it up. Doctor Marcus Hodgens stood beside the barrel brushing along the line where the barrel disappeared into the earth with a long bristle brush. He looked more like a surfer than a scientist, but Alex had worked with Marcus before and knew that there wasn’t anyone better to investigate the site. He looked up with his watery blue eyes when Alex and the sheriff walked up.

“We’ve got a mystery here, Alex.” Marcus grinned. “This is the sort of thing that hits headlines.”

“A dump site? How’s that news?” Alex asked.

Marcus shook his head. He pointed the brush at the barrel. “Look at this.”

Alex walked closer and looked at the place Marcus pointed to, where the barrel vanished into the earth. It took him a second but then he realized what Marcus was getting at. It wasn’t loose earth and broken rock around the barrel. It was stone. Unbroken stone that pressed right up against the barrel. He looked up and found Marcus grinning at him.

“Any idea how they cut the rock perfectly to fit this barrel?”

“Sounds like a lot of work to go to just to hide a body.”

“I’ve seen people do weirder things.”

“I’m sure you have,” Marcus said. “But that’s not the most important detail. Look at this.”

Marcus pointed to a ridge that ran around the exposed section of the barrel. Alex had seen things like it before.

“So?”

Marcus ran his brush back along the ring until it disappeared into the stone at the back of the barrel. “See? The stone is formed around the barrel. There’s another ring further down on the barrel. The rings make it easier to lift the barrels. But if someone dug a hole so that they could put the barrel in the would have had to — “

“Cut it to the size of the rings,” Alex finished for Marcus.

Marcus nodded. Roy looked at them both, then focused on Alex. “So what does that mean?”

“It means that the stone had to form around the barrel,” Marcus said, grinning widening. “And this particular stone formed something like fifty million years ago.”

“Fifty million years ago?” Roy took off his hat and rubbed his jaw. “Come again?”

Alex felt that empty feeling in his gut that told him this case was trouble. He looked into the barrel where the skeleton of a man sat with just the top of his skull visible. The wind blew dust that tickled Alex’s nose, but other than the sound of the wind and the murmurs of people gathered the whole place seemed quiet. Like they were all holding their breath.

“You’re telling me that this barrel and the man inside have been buried here for fifty million years?”

Marcus tapped the rock with the handle of his brush. “We’ve got lots of tests to run, but my initial observations suggest that this rock hasn’t been disturbed until our fossil hunters cleared away the layer right above the barrel.”

🔍

Alex walked into the Spokane lab hoping that Marcus had better answers for him now than he had forty-eight hours ago. Marcus had called him to the lab to go over the evidence. Before Alex filed anything he wanted some answers that explained how a barrel for toxic waste ended up in a hillside, embedded in rocks fifty million years old.

Marcus was wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt and khaki shorts beneath his lab coat. His feet were bare. That was normal for him, something about humans didn’t evolve wearing shoes so why should he wear them in climate controlled labs? He was at a long examination table bent over the skeleton from the barrel. When Alex walked in he looked up, brushing back his blond hair.

“Agent Marks, thanks for coming. This is really, really amazing!”

Alex stopped beside the table containing the skeleton. It didn’t look normal, he bent closer and looked at the bones. The color seemed wrong to him and the texture. It reminded him of something.

“You see it, don’t you?”

“Why don’t you tell me what I’m seeing?”

Marcus took a big breath. “He’s fossilized. This is a fossilized human.”

“Fossilized, in a toxic waste barrel? Did someone try hide a theft? Take him out of some exhibit?”

Marcus shook his head. He turned around and picked up a stainless steel tray. He held it out to Alex. Alex didn’t take the tray or touch the items on the tray, each labeled with numbers. It looked like bits of glass or rock, some metals. Nothing that he recognized.

“What are those?”

“Those are pieces of what I believe was an iPhone, or maybe an android, something like a Galaxy. We’ll have to do more analysis before we really know. The components have mostly broken down. Do you have any idea how long that would take?”

“Let me guess, fifty million years?”

“Not that long, but a long time. It doesn’t give us an exact age. But there’s more. This skeleton, he’s a modern human. There’s even a collar bone repair that used a new technique. Instead of plates screwed to the broken bones it uses a variant of a Chinese finger puzzle to hold the bones together. There are a couple very small screws to help make sure it stays in place but it does a much better job of holding the bones together while allowing some flex without breaking the way plates break. That allows patients —”

“Marcus. What are you trying to tell me?”

Marcus took a deep breath. His broad face split into a goofy grin. “Well, we’ve got a paradox. A modern day man that was fossilized in a barrel found in fifty million year old rocks.”

“Then it must be a hoax.”

Marcus laughed.

“What? What’s so funny? Obviously it can’t really be a man from fifty million years ago, can it? You said yourself, the medical procedure was current.”

“I don’t think you get it. To fake something like this? I can’t even begin to figure out how that could be done. The details, the barrel, the way the rock had formed around it — did you see what we had to do to get it out? And that was being careful.”

“But it could be done.”

Marcus shook his head. “I don’t see how.”

“Maybe not, but it’s the only possibility. And if it is a hoax, is this even a murder? You said this is a fossilized body. Couldn’t it be a fake?”

“It isn’t fake. You’re still not getting it Alex.”

Alex shoved aside his irritation. “Look, I just need to know what we’re dealing with right now. Do we have a murder or a hoax? Let’s focus on that right now.”

Marcus turned and picked up a folder. He handed it across the skeleton to Alex. “Oh, we’ve got a murder alright.”

“A murder, and the body is fossilized?”

Marcus pointed at the report. “Take a look.”

Alex opened the folder. “Nathan Tolliver, forty-three, married.” Alex looked at the fossilized remains on the table. “Are you telling me that these fossilized remains belong to Tolliver?”

“Yes!” Marcus leaned on the table for a second and then pushed back. “Alex, we’ve matched the dental records along with the details of the surgical procedure. And what’s even more interesting? Elena Tolliver, his wife, reported him missing three days ago.”

“Where?”

“Chicago.”

Alex looked at the summary in the folder. Nathan Tolliver, reported missing three days ago, but that was after he had already been missing for two days. The local police wouldn’t take the case until then but Elena had reported him after he didn’t come home from work.

“Alex, there’s evidence that he was shot. Close range, from a .45. I found the slug in the bottom of the barrel. We’re running ballistics now. Also, from looking at the bones it seems he was dumped into a vat of toxic waste. There are high levels of lead and other contaminants in the barrel and on the bones.”

“In three days?” Alex closed the folder and looked down at the bare skull. “So how did our Mr. Tolliver end up fossilized in a toxic waste barrel after three days? What did he do?”

“This is awesome. He worked for a company called TachWorks that bills itself as green waste disposal company.”

“TachWorks?”

Marcus grinned. “Tach, as in Tachyons? As in time travel theories?”

“No.”

“But—”

“No.” Alex picked up the folder. “There’s a better explanation.”

“For how a man disappears in Chicago and three days later is uncovered by fossil hunters in a remote dig in Washington state?” Marcus crossed his arms. “Dude, I’m all ears for this one.”

Alex shook his head. “I don’t have the answer yet, but I will. It looks like I’m going to Chicago.”

🔍

Alex didn’t like how the meeting with TachWorks was going. Or not going. After being greeted in the lobby he had been led to this glass-walled conference room over-looking an atrium in the center of the building and left. The table was glass and the chairs black mesh. The whole thing suggested transparency but he didn’t think that was what he was going to get from the people working here.

After ten minutes of waiting, right before his patience ended, he saw several people walking to the conference room. Two men, and a woman. One of the men looked like the man in charge. Tall, thin with a runner’s build, mid-fifties, he walked quickly and the others looked strained to keep up the pace. The woman had her hair back in a complicated French braid, young and carrying too many files. An assistant, maybe. The other man was late thirties, all sharp angles and cold eyes. Lawyer. Alex could smell him.

Alex spun his chair around to face the door. The delegation came into the conference room and the thin man went immediately to the head of the table. The other two took chairs across the table from Alex.

“Special Agent Alex Marks,” the young woman said to her boss.

The lawyer leaned forward, interlaced his hands and smiled. “Agent Marks. I’m Saxton Thompson, representing the legal interests of TachWorks. What can we do for you today?”

Their boss hadn’t said anything yet. He leaned back in his chair with his fingers steepled together.

Alex ignored the lawyer. “Jonathan Hanson, I’m here about the disappearance of one of your researchers. Nathan Tolliver.”

Saxton spoke up. “Mr. Hanson has no knowledge of Mr. Tolliver’s whereabouts. When he failed to report to work for three days in a row without contacting TachWorks his employment was terminated.”

Still talking directly to Hanson, Alex continued. “I’d like to take a look at Mr. Tolliver’s workplace and interview his co-workers.”

“Mr. Tolliver’s workplace has already been cleaned out and reassigned,” Saxton said. “And any investigation will require a —”

Alex stood up and leaned toward Hanson. “You’re being awfully quiet, Mr. Hanson. While your flunky over there wastes my time. We’ve found Mr. Tolliver, murdered. This is a murder investigation and I can make it as minimally disruptive as possible or I can shut down this whole operation and bring in teams to look into everything. It’d be much better if you cooperate.”

Hanson rose to his feet as well. After a second both the young woman and Saxton also stood. Saxton opened his mouth but Hanson held up a hand and the lawyer closed his mouth.

Hanson’s eyes were hazel shot through with flex’s of green. They studied Alex’s face. “Murdered? How?”

“Shot, put in a barrel of toxic waste and buried. Not well, obviously, or he wouldn’t have surfaced so soon.”

Hanson’s eyes narrowed for a moment. “And you think that his death is connect to the company. Why?”

“That’s what I’m here to find out.”

“Mr. Hanson?” Saxton sounded concerned.

Hanson held up a hand and Saxton fell silent. “What do you know about the work we do here?”

“Only what is public knowledge. You run a waste-disposal company that has consistently underbid your competition and you are aggressive in seeking out new customers. We’ve already identified the barrel as being consistent with those that are used by your company.”

“And many other companies.” Hanson held up a hand. “But I can see why, in your position, that it looks suspicious. Come. I’ll show you around myself to make sure you get full cooperation.”

The young woman spoke up. “Mr. Hanson, your afternoon —”

“Cancel everything April. Reschedule. Agent Marks?” Hanson gestured for him to go first.

Alex took him up on the offer and went to the door. For a man like Hanson to take a personal interest in this case was very fascinating. He obviously wanted Alex to believe that the company had nothing to do with Tolliver’s death. But why go to such efforts? Why not just tell his people to cooperate and then get back to his job? It suggested there was something else going on here.

They left the conference room and, at Hanson’s suggestion, went directly to the lab where Tolliver had worked. It was located on the third floor of the building, taking up a large corner of prime space. When they walked in they were immediately greeted by loud music being played over speakers. Two men in lab coats were arguing in front of them but broke it off when they saw Hanson come through the doors with Alex. The air smelled of ozone but Alex also smelled rotting vegetation and something sulfuric in the air. The men were both young and wore lab coats over street clothes. Hanson introduced them.

“Dr. Varen Patel.” Alex shook his hand. Good grip, but Patel looked like he could be early twenties, but a doctor already, so he might be older.

“Dr. Clarence Ford.”

Wide, wide smile from Clarence and he offered his fingers instead of a hand-shake. Alex took his hand and brought it up for a quick kiss across the knuckles. Clarence laughed happily. “Oh, boy, this is one dishy FBI agent. Call me Charley.”

Alex noted the twitch of Patel’s lip. He looked disgusted. Hanson kept his face better controlled but he too looked uncomfortable. All of which told him that Charley must be pretty good at his job if they put up with his flamboyant act. And it was just a feeling but he didn’t think that Charley behaved like that when he was comfortable.

“Dr. Patel and Dr. Ford worked with Dr. Tolliver,” Hanson said. He turned to look at the two men. “I want you to cooperate with Agent Marks’ investigation. Answer his questions and let me know when you are finished. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Dr. Patel said.

“Right.” Charley took Alex’s arm. “Sorry about that little tiff you saw when you came in. We just were having a difference of opinion about how to run a stress test on the barrels.”

Hanson nodded. “If there’s nothing else you need, Agent Marks?”

“Not right now, thanks. I’ll let you know.”

“Of course.” Hanson nodded and left the lab.

Alex stepped away from Charley. “Okay. Let’s talk about Tolliver.”

🔍

After his many years on the FBI, Alex trusted his gut when it came to talking to people, and it seemed to him that Charley, the flamboyant researcher, was using that to cover up for what was really going on in the lab. He probably thought that if he was really over the top it would make Alex uncomfortable. Which meant that he had something to hide.

Alex pointed to the chairs at the nearby workstation counters. “Please, both of you, have a seat.”

Dr. Patel took a seat first. Charley flounced dramatically over to the chair and threw himself into it. “You do know that we didn’t have anything to do with what happened to Nathan, don’t you?”

“How would I know that, Charley? We haven’t even talked about it yet.”

“Because we’re scientists. The last thing we’re likely to do is kill someone.”

Patel’s eyes widened. “Wait a second, Nathan is dead?”

Alex nodded but he kept looking at Charley. “How is it that you knew he was dead and Patel here didn’t?”

“Maybe,” Charley waved his finger in the air. “Because I’m in touch with the grapevine around here? April, Mr. Hanson’s assistant, told her friend Beth on the fourth floor, who called me to find out if it was true. Of course I don’t know anything about how he ended up dead, but obviously it wasn’t us.”

“I did not kill Nathan,” Patel said. “I respected him as a scientist.”

“And of course I couldn’t kill anyone. Not even a fly. So you’re wasting time here, but hey, I don’t mind.”

“Who has access to the waste barrels that your company uses to store toxic waste?”

Charley whistled. “That’d be a big list. I mean there’s all of the research staff, that’s us and all of the other teams. We’ve each got our thing that we work on. And of course all of the shippers and movers that have to collect the stuff, and take it to storage. Plus anyone in management, I mean it isn’t like they aren’t going to have access to it.”

“Fine. What about his last day here? Did anything unusual happen? Anyone around that shouldn’t be? Did he act unusual at all?”

“Yes,” Dr. Patel said. “Nathan seemed very nervous. I remember because I asked him what was wrong. He didn’t want to talk about it. But we didn’t really see much of him.”

“No, because he was always working on his special project. He’d disappear for hours at a time,” Charley added.

“Special project? What was that?”

Dr. Patel shook his head. “He said it was secret. Something he wasn’t able to talk about, he had signed an NDA.”

“Non-disclosure agreements? Is that standard?”

Charley shrugged. “Sure, for some of the things we do. Especially if there are patents or regulatory hurdles to get through. They don’t want anyone talking about that stuff. I figured they had him on something like that.”

“Anything else unusual that you’ve noticed?”

Patel and Charley looked at each other. Alex waited while they figured out their non-verbal cues. Patel finally looked back at Alex. “I don’t know if it means anything at all, but I noticed a change in the out-going shipping manifests.”

“What does that mean?”

“The same amounts of waste were being collected,” Patel said. “Only the amounts going to our storage facility dropped by almost twenty percent. I asked Nathan about it because he had been doing some work on routing plans. When he saw that he got upset.”

“When was that?”

“The day before he disappeared,” Patel said. “After he disappeared I wondered if it had any connection but I don’t see how it could.”

“I need to see what Nathan was working on. Where did he do his secret project work?”

Patel shook his head. “You’d have to talk to Mr. Hanson about that, we don’t know and don’t have access.”

Alex got up. He shook his finger at the researcher. “And see? I thought we were getting along so well. But then you go and do that. Now you’re going to show me where Nathan was working when he disappeared.”

“I don’t have access!” Patel held his hands out. “Please, you must ask Mr. Hanson.”

Through it all Charley sat still, any flamboyance gone. Alex looked at him. Smiled. “Charley. How about you? You’ve got access, don’t you?”

Charley jumped up off the chair and bolted for the door. But before he got there the door opened. Mr. Hanson walked in trailed by Saxton and April. Charley froze. He looked around but it had to be clear that he didn’t have anywhere to go. Alex grabbed his arm and propelled him back to the chair.

🔍

Alex crossed his arms and waited for Charley to say something.

“Clarence?” Mr. Hanson said, his tone cold. “What’s going on here?”

Charley looked around at everyone watching him. No one looked like they wanted to help him out. Finally he sagged in the chair. He put his hands on his knees as if to brace himself. “All he had to do was keep quiet. I mean, it isn’t like it even matters, you know?” He looked over at Mr. Hanson. “He insisted on coming to you with his results. We argued. I told him that he needed to do more tests. He wouldn’t listen. Mr. Hanson, he was going to shut down the entire program. I needed the bonuses you had promised.”

Mr. Hanson stepped closer. He towered over Charley. “What did he find out?”

“It sounded crazy, you know? But that’s what we’ve been dealing with here.”

“Cut to the chase,” Alex said. “What happened?”

“He wouldn’t listen. We were out in the parking lot and I begged him not to report his results until later, just hold off a few months —”

“Until you were paid your bonus?” Mr. Hanson asked.

Charley nodded. “He refused. I keep the gun in my glove box. I just snapped and grabbed the gun. I shot him. I couldn’t believe it had happened so fast. He just went down. I got him up into the car and then I went around to the docks. I off loaded him into a barrel and then slapped a test label on it so that it would go through to the lab. Those are full of toxic waste. No one was going to touch it. I put it through the phase shift and just like that he was gone.”

“You murdered him?” Patel jumped up off his chair as if he thought Charley was contagious. He moved over to stand next to April.

“Phase shift?” Alex asked.

Charley had covered his face. His shoulders shook. Mr. Hanson answered. “That’s TachWorks new discovery. We’ve found a way to shift the toxic waste out of phase with the planet, gravity doesn’t hold them and the planet’s own motion leaves them behind. They can’t interact with normal matter and they’re left behind in space.”

A laugh escaped from behind Charley’s hands. He uncovered his face. “That’s what we thought was happening. Nathan figured out that we had it all wrong. We were shifting the barrels in time, and they could interact with normal matter. He found an article about a die-off discovered in the fossil record. The researchers couldn’t figure out what caused this patch of ocean to have a die-off. Turns out it was caused by barrels we sent through. We caused that dead spot.”

“Through time?” Mr. Hanson asked.

Alex felt chilled. “So he really did go through to fifty million years ago? You sent him.”

Charley took a deep shuddering breath. “Yes. But don’t you see? It doesn’t matter. How can it matter? If we send the waste that far in the past it can’t possibly harm us.”

Patel spoke up. “And if the toxic waste we send prevents some species from evolving?” Patel’s voice rose. “You could wipe out the human race without even meaning too!”

Alex shook his head. He moved forward and took Charley’s arm. “I don’t know about that, but I do know you confessed to murdering Nathan Tolliver.”

As Alex led Charley out of the building in cuffs he thought about the barrels of toxic waste poisoning the past, jeopardizing the future. If they really wanted to deal with it they should find a better answer than burying it and crossing their fingers that it wouldn’t cause a problem later.

But that was a job for someone else.

🔍
4,645 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 47th weekly short story release, written in November 2010. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Headless Server.

Death in Hathaway Tower

The Hathaway’s held Hathaway Tower for fifteen generations, one of the older families in the Towers of Stone and Metal.

Young Emily Hathaway, the last surviving member of the family, continues their traditions. Like this dinner party, playing hostess to fascinating guests like brave Mr. Bailey who had spent time among the Salvagers.

A scream interrupts dinner, a body in the library, and a mysterious visitor makes this a dinner party to remember.

1

The whole party was enjoying the silky smooth lemon custard while Mr. Bailey related his experiences beyond the wall surrounding the Towers of Stone and Metal, when a shrill scream came from the library.

All conversation ceased. The candle flames barely flickered. The long dining hall was silent. Eight pairs of eyes in the room fixed on Emily Hathaway, the host of the evening. She was twenty, and no taller than she’d been at thirteen, though she had a more shapely figure now. Tonight she wore a shimmery gown of elvish silk, the color of fresh green leaves, that complemented her flaming red curls and matched her eyes. So pale was her skin, and so delicate her features, that some suggested there was elvish blood in her family. Unlikely, given that the Hathaway’s had held Hathaway Tower for fifteen generations, but she had some of that look about her.

Mr. Bailey coughed into his napkin. Beside him his wife clung to his arm.

Emily lifted her chin. Across the room her butler, and troll, Clasp, stood unmoving against the wall. He was a big gray-skinned figure in a dark kilt with the traditional sash, a slash of scarlet weave, across his chest. She locked her eyes on his tiny black eyes. A twitch of her head and Clasp moved like a boulder breaking loose on a mountain. Thunderous footsteps carried him across the timbered floor to the heavy oak door leading to the library. He pulled it open and disappeared through, shoulders brushing the frame on each side. The door banged shut behind him.

“Never mind that,” Emily said, “Likely one of the housemaids frightened at her own shadow. Mr. Bailey? You were talking about your time among the Salvagers?”

Mr. Bailey was her late father’s friend and the years had stripped away his handsome features along with his right ear. The scar stretched from there down across his cheek and through his lips. He tended to drool when he ate. Or spoke.

He opened his mouth to talk when the door banged open again and Clasp’s crashing footsteps returned. Emily apologetically smiled at her guests. Tall and regal Mrs. Watersmith turned her freshly powdered face to her escort for the evening, the handsome and young Mr. Dempsey, and whispered something.

Clasp’s massive head came down close to Emily’s own. She smelled grilled onions on his breath.

“A body, Miss. In the library.”

She kept her face controlled, even managed a small apologetic smile that would have made her father proud had he lived to see it.

“If you’ll excuse me? I’ll only be a moment.” She rose to her feet. The gentlemen at the table rose as well, Mr. Crane struggling to heave his bulk up. He shook the whole table in the process. His napkin tumbled onto his plate.

Emily followed Clasp, forever a child in his shadow. He stood twice her height, a moving mountain. As a small girl she had climbed those craggy heights, much to her mother’s annoyance. After the fever took her mother in the night, and Emily became the lady of the Hathaway Tower, she had left such things behind.

A body? In her library? She wished for those lost days when she wasn’t the last Hathaway.

Clasp held the library door for her and she steeled herself as she went inside.

There was a body, curled up on the mammoth-skin rug in front of the fire. Emily saw that first, right off, unable to miss it.

That wasn’t all. Anna, one of the house maids, stood just inside the library, not looking at the body but turned away. Her arms clasped her thin body as her shoulders shook.

Most shocking of all was the man that stood across the room from her. He was tall, nearly as tall as Clasp but lithe. His skin, like hers, was pale and unmarked. He wore bright green leather shorts but his chest and arms were bare. The black hilts of his knives rose above his belt on each hip. A band of silver circled his neck. A green cloak billowed around him, fastened with green leather straps to his wrists, bare ankles and thick shoulders. A long white braid, decorated with knobs of bone, stone and wood trailed down around his neck, across a hard chest, all the way down past his navel.

Piercing green eyes above high cheek bones met her gaze and didn’t look away when she took in his pointed ears. She looked back to his eyes.

He was beautiful and impossible. Not a normal man at all, but an elf. And elves never came to the Towers of Stone and Metal.

Emily looked up at Clasp. “You didn’t think to mention the elf?”

Dark eyes blinked down at her, but the troll was mute.

Frustrated, she looked back to the elf. “I am Emily Hathaway, lady of this tower. Is your business here concluded, sir?”

She glanced at the body.

The elf’s green eyes were still on her. He moved with the grace and power of the great scaled cats from Mr. Bailey’s stories. Two quick strides to stand at the edge of the mammoth-skin rug.

“I did not kill this one.” His voice and cadence sounded musical, as if he was singing the words.

Elves were seldom seen, even outside the wall surrounding the Towers. Not that the wall stopped them. Elves were said to be stronger than ten men. Some said that they had the ability to fly and most agreed that elves were only seen when they wanted to be seen. There were stories of elves seducing humans, men and women both, although she always credited that to human fantasies. Why would an elf seek out a human? It was said that elvish beauty was unmatched, true as far as she could see. In any case elves didn’t come past the wall out of choice, remaining above human affairs unless humans attempted to revert to their old destructive ways of the forgotten ages, in violation of the Treaty.

Looking at him, Emily’s heart ached. He was so beautiful, more so than she would have imagined. She steeled herself. She wasn’t some elf-struck little girl. She was the lady of Hathaway Tower and it seemed most unlikely that the body on her rug and the elf in her library were unrelated. She crossed to the other side of the rug and faced the visitor.

“If not you, then who?”

He looked at her as if he could see right through her. She shivered and refused to look away.

He turned away first, looking down to the body. “I tracked this one here, it was already dead.”

It. Emily forced herself to look down. The corpse scarcely filled out the suit it wore, like a child playing dress up. Where exposed, the limbs were wrinkled and deflated in great pink folds as if the insides were sucked away. There was a shiny, almost oily look to the skin. Most shocking of all was the face. A dear face she recognized, though the skin there too was slack and wrinkled, particularly around the bruised neck. Strangled, apparently.

It had her father’s face.

Emily lifted her head. The elf was watching her, as was Clasp, but she looked instead to the portrait above the library fireplace. Her father, in a formal black suit stood beside a chair where her mother sat in a deep iridescent blue gown. It looked like the same suit the body wore, perhaps stolen from his rooms? In the painting her father’s face was relaxed and happy. A square, handsome, kindly face on a man fond of laughter. The same face, more or less, as the body on the mammoth rug.

There was only one possibility.

“A goblinman?”

“A shifter, yes,” the elf said. “Killed while imitating the man in the painting. Have you seen this man?”

“He’s my father, and he’s been dead a year.”

“Shifters usually mimic the living, stealing their lives away.”

“Perhaps it meant to, not knowing he was already dead.”

Emily turned. “Anna?”

Anna sniffed. “Yes, Miss?”

“You screamed?”

A quick nod. Anna was only fourteen, fostered from the Vail Tower. Emily waited for more.

“I came in, meaning to check the fire before the party moved to the library. And, it was there, just as it is.”

“You didn’t touch anything? You didn’t see anyone?”

Anna shook her head twice.

“Good. Go have Mrs. Cormandy gather the staff in the kitchens. Everyone is to stay there and have their dinner until Clasp dismisses them. Understood?”

“Yes, Miss. Thank you.”

Anna hurried across the room. The elf moved around the mammoth rug to Emily’s side. Clasp stepped between her and the elf. It was a brave and loyal thing to do. Even with his bulk, Emily didn’t believe that Clasp could stop the elf if he wanted to do her harm. She put her hand on Clasp’s arm. His hard skin was hot and comforting beneath her hand.

The elf’s eyes watched Anna disappear through the door. “That was foolish, the other one, she may be.”

“Other one? You mean another goblinman?” Emily fought back her irritation. “You might have mentioned that first.”

The elf’s brow wrinkled as if he hadn’t considered that.

Leaving him confused, Emily looked up at Clasp. “Take the body and store it below. Lock it in one of the wine cellars. Secure the tower. No one leaves or enters without my permission. Rejoin us once you’ve finished.”

“Yes, Miss.”

Clasp moved between her and the elf, stooping to pick up the goblinman’s body. It looked like hardly more than a badly dressed doll in his arms. Seeing her father’s face on the thing had shaken her, but she was the lady of the tower and there was apparently another goblinman on the loose.

Carrying the body, Clasp disappeared out the same door Anna had used. The elf moved closer, and she smelled something like a fresh rain in the forest. He lifted his hand, but didn’t touch her.

“I must find the other goblinman.”

“Why? Why are you after them? And do you have a name, sir elf?”

She was testing him. Her father had told her stories of elves, when she was a girl. He always said that they guarded their names.

“I pursue the goblinmen known as thieves and killers. My common name is Brookwind, Lady Hathaway.”

Not his private name then. She was disappointed, but not surprised. She tilted her head up to look at him. She wanted to run her hand over his braid, and along the smooth pale skin. She clasped her hands together.

“How do I know you aren’t the other goblinman?”

Brookwind’s right eyebrow arched upwards. Emily felt heat creep up her neck, either from the foolishness of her question or from being close to him.

She fought down the feeling. “My guests must be getting anxious. I need to get back to them and tell them something.”

Brookwind touched the hilt of his knife. “I can force the goblinman to reveal itself.”

“How?”

He shrugged. “Pain forces shifters to reveal themselves.”

“I’ll not have my guests or staff tortured!”

“If the goblinman has replaced one of your people, then that person is most likely already dead. If I don’t capture it, others also will die.”

Brookwind moved across the room in an instant. His hands seized her upper arms and his cloak billowed around them. Her mind froze. She drew a breath and he released her left arm.

His finger went to her lips, pressing gently. He stared into her eyes as if he was looking into her, through her.

She inhaled and that rich forest scent was there, clinging to him, and beneath it something warm, yeasty, like fresh baked bread. The strength of his hand on her arm was like steel, but the finger on her lips was soft.

Looking into his eyes from this close, they weren’t only green but shot through with specks of gold and blue like a sunlight sky seen through leaves.

His breath was a warm breeze on her face. Her heart hammered in her chest. She reached out with her free hand and placed her palm flat on his muscled chest, as smooth as a sea-polished shell, to steady herself.

He jerked and twitched away like a skittish horse. She stumbled without him there.

“What was that!”

Brookwind bowed his head. “Lady Hathaway, my apologies. A soul search is an intimate thing, yet I had to know if you were the goblinman in disguise.”

Soul search? What was he doing? What did that mean?

“And?”

“I do not believe you are the other one.”

She trembled and took a deep breath to steady herself. “Can you do this with the others, to find the goblinman?”

“No.” His answer was flat, final, like a rock cracking.

“No?”

Brookwind shook his head. His long braid rolled across his chest. “It is not done with outsiders. Only those we are drawn to.”

Oh. Emily’s thoughts skipped on that. Her skin on her hand, arm and lips still tingled where they had touched. He was drawn to her? What did he mean?

She rubbed her hand where she had touched him as if she could rub out the feeling and made her decision.

“Come with me.”

“Where?”

“I will introduce you to our guests. A special surprise for them, and we will determine if any are goblinmen in disguise.”

“How will you do so?”

“I’m the lady of Hathaway Tower. I know my guests.”

“A shifter adept is skilled at imitating others. If it had access to the victim it may have absorbed memories as well.”

“Even so.” The whole thing about absorbing memories disturbed her. “I will know. And if it is not one of the guests, then we will investigate the staff, although I find that less likely.”

“Why is that so?”

“The staff know their own habits and duties. They would see if anyone was behaving oddly. It’d be easier for the goblinman to infiltrate the Towers by replacing someone with more position. As the one had attempted to mimic my father.”

Brookwind pressed his hands together in front of his chest and then spread them apart. “As you say.”

2

Emily went through the door into the dining hall first, with Brookwind following. As soon as she entered the men at the table rose, Mr. Crane struggling once more to rise. She watched their faces most carefully as they saw Brookwind coming in behind her.

Of the men, all showed surprised. A small smile played on Mr. Dempsey’s thin lips, like a kid spying a jar of candies. Mr. Crane gaped like a gasping fish landed on the shore. Drool dribbled from poor Mr. Bailey’s torn lips and he turned very pale. He reached to the table to steady himself. The last gentleman rising slowly at the table, was old Mr. Mumford. He beamed with open delight and ran a liver-spotted hand through his white hair.

The women showed equal surprise. Mrs. Watersmith pursed her lips and tilted her head. “My, he’s a big one, isn’t he?”

Mrs. Mumford giggled in a most girlish manner and grabbed at her husband’s other hand.

Mrs. Bailey’s red lips formed a round ‘o’ of surprise, while across the table the formidable Mrs. Crane pressed her hands to her plump cheeks.

“Friends,” Emily said, mustering her enthusiasm. “Tonight we have an honored guest from beyond the wall. He goes by Brookwind. If you’re all quite ready, we can retire to the library for drinks and conversation. I’m sure we’re all quite fascinated to hear from someone that lives beyond the wall.”

She looked to Mr. Bailey. “Not that your stories aren’t equally fascinating, Mr. Bailey.”

He dabbed at his dripping lip. “Not at all. Not at all! Even in my journeys, the chance to converse with the elvish folk is a rare treat. However did you manage this?”

Emily favored him with a sly smile and then stepped to the side and gestured to the open door. “If you please?”

Mr. Dempsey tossed his napkin onto the table and stepped back. “Alas, Lady Hathaway, I must bid an early night. Please forgive me.”

Mrs. Watersmith’s head snapped around and fixed on Mr. Dempsey. “Mr. Dempsey, what can you possibly be thinking? Of course we must stay!”

Mr. Dempsey’s smile faded as he turned to Mrs. Watersmith. He was sweating as he leaned close. “I have that case to prepare, you must remember it. The evening has already gone on too long.”

“Case?” Mrs. Watersmith gave a brittle laugh. “You are my escort for the night, are you not?”

“Yes.”

She raised her chin. “Then we shall go, when I say we shall go.”

While they argued the Baileys went on through into the library, Mrs. Bailey lifting her hand as if she was going to touch Brookwind when she went past. Under his gaze, she lowered her hand and Emily was glad of it.

Why? What business is it of yours if she touches him?

She shook her head. It wasn’t her business, and she was still glad. That didn’t bear much examination.

Instead she watched her guests.

The Mumfords went on in, with Mrs. Mumford giggling as they went past. Beatrice Mumford was the youngest of three daughters from the Porter family and was always a bit silly. She had married well, to Anthony Mumford, the heir to Mumford Tower. When it came to Towers, size did matter as much as placement and Mumford Tower was one of the Seven central towers that rose up on the hill next to Hathaway Tower.

The Cranes followed and then finally Mrs. Watersmith went on through with Mr. Dempsey following along much like a boy following his mother to the market.

Emily noticed Brookwind’s eyes following young Mr. Dempsey. She knew that he was a lawyer from Watersmith Tower. By all accounts good at his job, at least until he caught Mrs. Watersmith’s eye. If rumors were true, she pitied him. He was handsome with his blond hair and blue eyes, and yet as he passed Brookwind he looked little more than a child.

She hesitated before following and looked up at Brookwind. His gaze was still fixed firmly on the young man. She reached up and touched his jaw.

He turned his head, instead of jerking away, so that her hand slid along his cheek. Blushing, Emily lowered her hand.

“Your goblinman isn’t Mr. Dempsey.”

“He wanted to leave, when the others wished to stay.” Even in his musical tones, she heard the confusion.

“It wasn’t a case that he wanted to work on. He had planned to meet the girl that he is in love with tonight.”

Brookwind glanced into the library and back and remained silent.

“He’s here at Mrs. Watersmith’s behest. She’s the lady widow of Watersmith Tower. He can’t refuse her commands. If he was the goblinman he would have used the excuse of the case to leave. What does he care about Mrs. Watersmith’s opinion? If he was the goblinman it wouldn’t matter, and yet he stayed.”

“None of the others attempted to leave.”

Emily clasped her hands tightly. “No.”

“Then it could still be this Mr. Dempsey.”

She almost laughed at his confusion. “Of course not. If it was him, it wouldn’t have drawn attention to itself by attempting to leave before the others.”

“He is not the shifter because he tried to leave, and also because he stayed?”

“Exactly. Now, you must distract our guests with conversation.”

Brookwind’s eyes widened but she wasn’t going to give him a choice. She walked into the library.

3

Clasp had already returned and was pouring a brandy for Mrs. Bailey. She was setting on the antique moleskin love-seat with Mr. Bailey. The Cranes had taken up the matching couch, its ancient cushions sinking low beneath their combined weight. The Mumfords had the other couch, with the stiff floral cushions. Both Mr. Dempsey and Mrs. Watersmith were on the stiff-backed floral love-seat, but there was a wide chasm between them.

That left the two great lizard skin chairs at each end of the gathering. Emily touched Brookwind’s arm, giving him a nudge to the seat at the head of the gathering, with its back to the great fire where they’d found the body. He moved with fluid grace to the chair, his cloak billowing around him with each step. He was absolutely magnificent. She went to the chair at the other end where she could sit facing him and watch her guests.

“Will you be staying long?” Mr. Bailey asked Brookwind.

Brookwind sat perched on the edge of the chair, with his hands resting on his knees. He shook his head when Clasp offered him a drink. Then he actually smiled, an expression that brightened his face considerably.

He shook his head. “We don’t build dwellings of stone. We move with the seasons.”

“Yes, of course,” Mr. Bailey said. “In my travels outside the wall I guested one day in an elvish camp during a storm. It was marvelous. I don’t believe I’ve ever eaten so well.”

Mr. Bailey laughed and nodded to Emily. “With no insult to our gracious and beautiful host.”

Emily shook her head. “None taken.”

Clasp came around to Emily’s chair. She rose and took a few steps aside with him.

“Are the staff gathered? Are any missing?”

Clasp shook his head as he leaned close. “All accounted for, Miss.”

“Good. Thank you.” It seemed unlikely that any of them were the goblinman, but there must be a reason for the goblinman to stay. She touched his arm and returned to her seat.

“I thought we were to call them Gaians,” Mr. Mumford said.

Mrs. Crane leaned forward, sloshing her brandy. Crumbs from a small cake tumbled from her lips. “Gaian? Why do you say that, Mr. Mumford?”

Mrs. Mumford snorted. “Because some of us are polite enough not to insult our guest with slang.”

Mrs. Crane blinked in confusion and looked at Mr. Crane. He patted her arm. “Elves, dear. They don’t like being called elves.”

Brookwind pressed his hands together and parted them. “Words only, blown away with each breath. Truth resides in actions, not words.”

“Very gracious,” Mr. Bailey said. Brandy dribbled from his lip. “In any event, it was marvelous. Beautiful structures were strung between the trees in such a way that I hardly felt the storm at all. They had this wine as sweet as honey and as refreshing as cold spring water. I’m afraid I must have drank too much. When I woke the next morning it was to the birds singing and the sun shining in my face, but the camp was gone as if it had never been.”

“Perhaps you dreamed it,” Mr. Dempsey said.

Mr. Bailey laughed and lifted his glass. “Perhaps!”

“I say,” Mr. Crane said to Brookwind. “Mr. Bailey has entertained us with tales of the savage saurian beasts and the not-men that live in the wilds beyond the wall. Are the wild lands really so fierce?”

“For such as you, yes.”

Mr. Bailey traced the line of his scar with one finger. “You only have to look at me, to see that!”

Emily had sat silent through their banter, gauging their responses. Mr. Bailey was his usual self, including that gesture with the scar. He brought it up frequently, and his encounter with the raptor that had nearly taken his head off.

The Cranes were their usual jovial selves, flushed with drink and food in equal measure. Mr. Dempsey, she had already ruled out, looked uncomfortable sitting next to Mrs. Watersmith. She sat quite stiff and tall, sipping her drink the way a bird might dip its beak to drink. For her, that was normal.

On the other couch, the Mumfords were whispering to one another, following the discussion of what to call Brookwind. As far as Emily was concerned, elf was perfectly polite.

Of the whole party, only Mrs. Bailey was quiet. In fact, she hadn’t said a word most of the night. Mr. Bailey did tend to go on at length, but she’d been particularly quiet since the break just before desert.

In the awkward moment following Mr. Bailey pointing out his scar, Emily spoke up.

“I quite forgot to mention that the scream earlier was my housemaid discovering a body.” She pointed past Brookwind. “Right over there, in front of the fire.”

She watched their reactions carefully. Everyone tried speaking at once, except Mrs. Bailey who shrank closer to her husband.

Mr. Dempsey rose to his feet. “Have you called the constables?”

Emily shook her head. “Our friend Brookwind was pursuing the victim, apparently a criminal from beyond the wall.”

“Here?” Mrs. Crane squeaked.

Mrs. Watersmith rose to her feet. “Mr. Dempsey, please escort me back to Watersmith Tower at once!”

The Cranes both tried rising at once and the entire couch tipped forward. They fell back into the cushions, their brandy sloshing from their glasses. Pieces of cake tumbled down Mrs. Crane’s front.

Mr. Crane recovered first and leveraged himself up. Once on his feet, huffing hard, he helped Mrs. Crane out of the couch.

“We’re going too!” he said when he finally got her up.

Mr. Mumford shook his head. “Fools. We’re staying right here where it is safe. At least until the constables arrive and provide an escort!”

Emily rose to her feet. Across from her Brookwind also stood.

“I’m afraid I can’t let anyone leave, quite yet.”

Mrs. Watersmith looked down her nose at Emily. “You can’t keep us here!”

“Oh, I think our guest is quite capable of ensuring that no one leaves.”

Mrs. Watersmith darted a glance at Brookwind and took a small step closer to Mr. Dempsey. The young man placed himself in front of Mrs. Watersmith.

“Look here,” he said. “You can’t mean you’ll force us to stay!”

Still seating, Mrs. Bailey huddled against Mr. Bailey’s arm. He patted her hand.

Emily smiled at Mr. Dempsey. “By the Treaty, I have no say in this, it is an elvish matter.”

“Gaian,” Mr. Mumford muttered.

Brookwind looked over the others to her. “You know who the shifter is?”

“Shifter?” Mr. Bailey stood up. “I say, do you mean that the killer is a goblinman?”

Mrs. Bailey squeaked and grabbed at Mr. Bailey’s leg. He stumbled and barely avoided spilling his drink.

Emily gazed across at the others. Maybe she was elf-struck. She’d happily gaze into his eyes for hours and hours. Of course there was a killer to deal with. She smiled.

“Of course.” She pointed at Mrs. Watersmith. “She is the other one!”

“I saw her!” Mrs. Bailey shrieked, springing to her feet and clutching Mr. Bailey by the shoulders. “I saw her!”

Mr. Dempsey turned and Mrs. Watersmith snarled, her once-regal face twisting, and struck him with a back-handed blow that knocked him aside. She ran toward the servants’ door.

Brookwind vaulted over the couches and in a few swift strides caught her well before she reached the door.

“Unhand me!” She yelled.

A obsidian blade was in Brookwind’s hand and pressed to her powdery neck. She went very still.

Mr. Crane and Mr. Mumford were helping Mr. Dempsey to his feet as Emily walked over to face the impostor. Clasp’s bulk was a comforting presence behind her.

“It’s okay, Mrs. Bailey,” Emily said. “She won’t be harming anyone else. What did you see?”

Mrs. Bailey, clutching Mr. Bailey’s arm, peeked at them.

“Before desert, Mrs. Watersmith went to the powder room. Then I decided to go, and on the way, I saw her with herself going into the side hall! And one of her was wearing a man’s dinner suit! It was only a second, and I thought my eyes must be playing tricks on me. By the time I got back, she was sitting with Mr. Dempsey at the table. I thought I might have imagined it, except she kept looking at me.”

Mrs. Watersmith’s breath hissed between her teeth. Emily went to Mrs. Bailey and touched her arm.

“Thank you. I had noticed that she had freshly powdered her face when she returned, not just a touch-up, mind you, but she was entirely powdered even down her neck and hands. That seemed unnecessary, but at the time I didn’t think much of it.”

Emily walked back to face Brookwind and the impostor. “You can drop the disguise. You’ve given yourself away more than once.”

Mrs. Watersmith’s face wrinkled and sagged like collapsing bread. Her eyes rolled up, and when they came down the irises were pink shot through with red. Her mouth puckered and she sneered at Emily.

“You wouldn’t have figured it out if that fool hadn’t imprinted on her also!”

“Maybe,” Emily said. “If you hadn’t killed him and left the body you might have gotten away with it.”

“I didn’t have time,” the goblinman hissed. “I didn’t expect the elf!”

“You truly believed you could elude me?” Brookwind sheathed his knife, keeping a tight grip on the goblinman’s arm. He pulled the silver necklace free and wrapped it around the goblinman’s wrists, behind its back. The silver band constricted like a snake.

“I was more interested in your actions,” Emily went on. “You didn’t remember Mr. Dempsey’s other appointment tonight. Leaving early would make you stand out, so you insisted on staying. At least until I broke the news to everyone else. You were the first to want to leave then, when there was a good excuse. But the Watersmiths and Hathaways have always been allies. The real Mrs. Watersmith would never have left me here to deal with this alone.”

Mr. Bailey patted Emily’s shoulder. “We wouldn’t leave you, dear.”

The goblinman wasn’t looking at any of them now. Its gaze was fixed on the floor. Emily stepped in front of him. “Where is she?”

Then it looked up. “Why?”

“To save yourself pain, why else?”

Brookwind pulled up on the silver binding the goblinman’s arms. Its breath hissed between its lips.

“Closet!”

Emily turned to Clasp. “Find her, make sure she’s unharmed.”

The troll nodded and thumped off.

Emily looked up at Brookwind. “You’ll take it, now?”

“Yes. Thank you, Lady Hathaway.”

His gaze lingered for a moment, his beautiful eyes on hers, and then he moved away with the goblinman over his shoulder. The door banged behind him and she was left alone with her guests.

4

Emily stood alone on her balcony enjoying the cool night wind through her thin night gown. It was late, already well past midnight. Hathaway Tower dropped away far, far beneath her. Around her tower stood the others, including Watersmith Tower where Mrs. Watersmith was recovering from her ordeal after being rescued from the closet.

There was a soft sound behind her, like that a cat might make. She didn’t move until she felt the heat of his skin and his forest scent touched her neck. She turned and gazed up at his beautiful face.

“Are the stories true then, you can fly?”

Brookwind smiled.

“What happens to the goblinman now? Is it dead?”

His smile faded. He shook his head. “Death is not enough, for justice.”

Emily stepped close and raised her hand. Her fingers hovered above his bare chest. When he didn’t pull away she lightly touched him. The muscles jumped beneath her finger tips but he stayed.

“You came back,” she said, “why?”

Brookwind pushed closer. He ran his hands lightly along her hair as he gazed into her eyes. His eyes caught the dim light and gleamed. “The soul search, you called me back.”

Was it possible? If she was elf-struck, could he feel the same about her?

She licked her lips, watching his eyes. “What now?”

He picked her up and carried her inside.

5,334 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 40th weekly short story release, written in June 2013 at a workshop on the Oregon Coast while listening to Metric’s Gold Guns Girls. It doesn’t really have much at all to do with the story, I just kept writing with the song on repeat.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRtd8ArvH_s&w=400]

The story went on to sell to WMG Publishing, to appear in Fiction River: Fantastic Detectives (Fiction River: An Original Anthology Magazine) (Volume 9)

Fiction River is a great anthology series. Check it out for more terrific stories. I was thrilled to be included (plus my story was next to Kevin J. Anderson’s story in the contents, so that was fun). Later on I wrote Astrasphere set in the same world.

Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing a novel, Europan Holiday, now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my horror story Bed Bugs.

Magic is Life

Cameron hates the intrusive little gods that did nothing to save the lives of his wife and son. He distrusts their motives and insistence on worship.

That doesn’t mean that he can ignore an official summons to investigate a crime scene, one that will lead him to questions he’d rather not ask, and a new partner he doesn’t want.

1

The headache was a sign from the little gods, those shriveled pricks, those intrusive, callous weasely bastards —

Careful, Cameron. Wendy’s voice, sweet and high, like the perfect note of a harp. As if she was still there. Careful, Cameron. What if they heard?

What if, indeed?

Cameron shoved the heels of his hands against his gritty eyes until he saw spots of blue. He scraped the slime of the night from his tongue with his teeth and grimaced. Why had he woken up anyway?

The bell had sounded. The tiny brass bell that sat above the hearth on the mantel. Mrs. Book’s bell.

Cameron sat up, the mattress squeaking beneath him as he moved. The tiny flat, nothing more than a single room that smelled of the Chinese restaurant downstairs, was apparently empty. Even in the dim dawn light from the open curtains (he had closed them last night), he could see that. Outside, Three Rivers, called the new heart of the Northwest, was waking up to honks and clatter, the sharp snap of a casting chased by a smattering of applause. Some street magic, entertainment for the busy workers on their way to the office, the store or the train.

Past dawn, what time was it anyway? Cameron groped for his watch on the nightstand. The heavy gold band slipping comfortably around his wrist. His Father’s Day gift from Wendy and Peter, one of the few things he had kept. The display was dim, faded. He blinked. Damn, hadn’t charged it last night.

A deep breath. Ignoring the headache that pounded on the inside of his skull like miners hard at work, Cameron extended his index finger to the watch face and concentrated. A dog barked outside. A child wailed. He ignored all of that. Drew in breath and focused.

He panted between clenched teeth. A deep blue glow filled the veins on the back of his hand, the light turning the surrounding tissues a deep reddish purple. Breathing faster now, he pushed and the blue glow swam down his hand, tracing his veins around his finger. It burst out, that flash of pain like popping a pimple, the tiny splash of relief, and dripped down into the watch.

In the watch the blue glow lit up the face. Dark numbers swam into focus. Seven thirty-eight already, too early to get up. Wendy was the one who got up early. The seconds counted away.

The bell sounded again, sharp and insistent.

 

“I heard,” Cameron grunted, turning to the hearth. Was that a bit of burgundy disappearing behind the Urn? He caught glimpses, best not mentioned.

The mantel was a massive dark beam, stained by soot and age. The Urn was tall and dark, lovingly polished to a shine. Nearby, the brass bell gleamed. And this morning, behind the bell, propped between it and the wall, a folded piece of paper, sealed in a dab of cherry red wax.

Shit on toast! A summons. An official, report your ass to work summons. Praise the fucking little gods.

Cameron stood up, running his hands down his rumbled black suit coat. He pulled the tie free on his way to the hearth, tossing it in the wicker basket next to the cold stones, and pulled a clean one from the brass hooks driven into the front of the mantel. The paper of the summons was crisp and somehow cold to the touch, but there was a cinnamon toothpick tucked in the top. That was from Mrs. Book.

He took that, put it between his lips, shoved the summons into his pocket, and grabbed the badge and gun from where they lay on the mantel. Shoes were by the door. Coffee on the way, wherever it was the summons was sending him.

A glimpse of broken glass and an open place between buildings. A flash of green trees blowing even without wind, leaves ripped free and spinning, edges charred.

His headache stabbed at his temples again, driving the vision away in a wash of red. The room spun around him. He braced himself on the door frame.

Not good then. Uptown, that open space with the tall gleaming spires rising around. Something bad had happened.

2

Bad was an understatement. That much was obvious when Cameron arrived on the scene, pushing his way through the crowd gathered around the scene. That was the first sign it was bad. Crowds didn’t stick around unless there were gory bits to look at, and this was big crowd. Mostly business types in expensive suits worth more than he made in a month. Men and women who took their success as proof that they were favored by the little gods.

Maybe they were, he sure the hell wasn’t. Cameron held up his badge. “Excuse me! Make room! Make room!”

The crowd was reluctant, but he was determined. Funny, since he didn’t really want to get to other side of this mass of humanity. When he finally broke through the very first thing he saw were the white backs of the Priesthood.

That was the second thing that told him this was bad. The Priesthood shouldn’t be here. Not on scene like this. A half dozen of them knelt at points around the perimeter, hands clasped in front of their bowed heads. It was more than praying to the little gods. The waves of compulsion coming off them kept the crowd back more effectively than any crime scene tape ever did.

Each wave was like whispers in his ears, telling him to move back. Look away. Forget what you saw.

Cameron sucked on the chewed cinnamon toothpick, rolled it around with his tongue and sucked on the other end. That last bit of the compulsion pissed him off. Did the damn arrogant priests ever consider that there might be witnesses in the crowd? People that they needed to talk to? If the compulsion drove them off, made them forget what they saw, how effective was this investigation going to be?

He ignored the compulsion. His peculiar talents helped. He shoved through it, and stepped out away from the crowd.

The third bad thing was the scene itself. Shoving the compulsion aside made his head ache more, like an ice pick behind his eyes, but it gave him clarity.

The place was a fucking mess. Rubble and blown glass. Tattered cloth. Bodies covered in dark cloths, he skipped over those right now. The Lunar Cafe was, had been, one of those upscale coffee places, the sort that served really good coffee, not the burnt brew he’d gotten from the cart at the train station. This place catered to the Three Rivers elite, business types that worked in the surrounding spires.

Something had blown it up. Few people channeled that sort of destructive magic. Flashes of pain hit his nerves. Screams assaulted his ears. Cameron grimaced. A glimpse, that was all. No detail.

Inside the priests’ line, the place crawled with first responders. Constables, healers, and fire charmers moved around the scene. And more members of the Priesthood, standing straight and gleaming white vestments. They were calling out all of the stops on this one, why? An itch like a sneeze building warned him from going closer. What hadn’t he seen yet?

Cameron rolled the toothpick in his mouth, barely a hint of the cinnamon flavor remained. Only one way to find out. He’d have to go closer to the scene.

He’d barely taken a step, when a group of the constables moved, and a lean tall man stepped away, pale eyes fixed on Cameron. His suit was expensive and perfectly tailored. The little gods had to be fucking with him now. The man was chief constable Noah Redfield, and at his side was one of the Priesthood, a woman, one of the maters, with long straight red hair. Young, her face pale and flawless, but dusted with freckles like fairy dust. She was so bright in the sunlight. And she was also looking at him. Too late to turn back now.

“Chief,” Cameron said, as he reached them. This far into the scene the smoke and stink of burnt flesh stabbed at his senses, making his head pound more.

“Cameron,” Redfield said. “I see you got the summons.”

“Praise them,” the mater at his side murmured.

The chief glanced at the mater and continued. “We need you on this one.”

“I barely got any sleep last night,” Cameron said. “It looks like you’ve got all the help you need here.”

“I asked for you,” the mater said. Her voice was deep, throaty. “The Chief says that you see things, surely a gift from the divinity.”

More like a curse. Cameron, Wendy’s reproachful tone was faint in his thoughts.

“Of course,” Cameron said. “Anything I can do to serve.”

“This is mater Elizabeth,” the chief said. “She’s been appointed liaison in this matter.”

She took a step forward, her intense green eyes searching his face. Looking for what? Awe? Worship of her precious little gods?

“This investigation must go without flaws,” she said. “If people were to learn of the victim, it would cause great distress.”

Victim? Four bodies lay beneath sheets outside the destroyed cafe, and there were more dark sheets inside.

“You need to show him,” Redfield said.

Cameron held up his hand. “Wait a second.” He pointed at the kneeling priests. “They need to stop what they’re doing first. How are we going to canvas witness statements, if they’re driving off our witnesses and making them forget?”

Mater Elizabeth shook her head. “There’s no need of any canvasing. Better for all that this incident go unremarked. You’ll understand when you see.”

He held his ground. “If we can’t investigate properly, how do we build a case? I am assuming you want the person responsible caught?”

“We know who is responsible,” she said. “The investigation will be brief. The witness statements are not needed.”

“Work with the mater,” Redfield said. “You’ll understand.”

Understand that the Priesthood was screwing with the investigation. And who got the blame when it went bad? Not those chosen by the little gods, that was for sure.

“Please,” she said.

It was the please that got him moving. In his experience the Priesthood didn’t ask nicely. The fact of the please told him two things. One, that he already knew, was that the case was serious. But she could have taken it different, commanded him, rather than asking. That told him something about her, something he hadn’t known.

A red-haired child ran through a field, sunlight setting her hair ablaze. Her laughter was deep and full, she looked over her shoulder

“Constable?”

Cameron stirred. “Yes, okay. Show me.”

She moved with steady grace into the crime scene, as if somehow apart from it, while he crunched along like a clumsy ape. The debris field fanned out from the cafe. The blast had turned glass to tiny bits. Splintered and charred wood littered the ground among the bodies.

That glimpse, of the child, that had been her, mater Elizabeth. A happier time in her childhood. Before being adopted into the Priesthood?

The mater stepped out of the sunlight into the smoky shadows inside the cafe. Cameron followed.

Right there, near the right side of the room, that’s where the blast came from. A glimpse of heat, shearing his skin. Cameron jerked and his breath hissed between his teeth. Elizabeth turned, her pale freckled brow wrinkling.

“Are you well, Constable? Do you need me to pray to the gods for you?”

“I’m fine.” Cameron moved past her, pointing unnecessarily at the blackened scorch marks. “That’s where the blast originated.”

There were bodies nearby, dark mounded shapes on the floor surrounded by debris. A large one, and a much smaller one next to it. Cameron bit down on the toothpick, breaking it in half. He took it out of his mouth and shoved it in his pocket. His eyes skipped across that smaller shape and away.

“Is the one responsible one of these?” He gestured at the other bodies in the cafe. A blast like that, enough magic to cause all of this, was probably equally fatal to the one responsible. Even if he hadn’t died, it would have taken years off his life.

“No,” she said.

“No? You know that how? Did they tell you?” His words came out harsher than he meant.

No need to define who they were. They might not show themselves often, but they were always around. Watching. Intrusive little bastards when you didn’t want them, and useless when you did. Like this.

Elizabeth’s eyes watered, just a bit. Shit on toast! This had to be upsetting for her too. Cameron shook his head.

“I didn’t mean —”

“It’s not that,” she said. She took a deep breath, composing herself. “This wasn’t a magical attack. The ones responsible weren’t here at all.”

She moved before he could frame the questions that piled on his lips. She walked to the bodies nearby, crouching beside the smaller one even though her vestments dragged on the sooty floor. Cameron wanted to look away, and couldn’t. Elizabeth pulled the dark cloth back.

Peter. Not a glimpse, a memory. Peter’s face ashen, except the flecks of blood on his plump cheek. It’d been dark that night, not sunny like now.

Cameron stabbed his eyes with his finger and thumb, squeezing on the bridge of his nose. He looked again.

This wasn’t Peter. The features were fine and sharp, masculine despite the beautiful fair skin. Not a child’s face at all. One side torn and bloody, ragged with bright bits of metal. Shrapnel from the explosion. Adult proportions, in a height no more than thirty inches tall. A tiny, delicate man wearing a earth-brown tunic. The upper tips of his ears bent slightly outward and down, just a bit. Long fair hair spilled out around him, turned reddish-brown with blood.

One of the little gods, dead. A brownie, probably one that lived here in the cafe, looking over the place and its patrons. Dead. As dead as any of the other victims.

Cameron did get a glimpse then. A brown satchel, something inside irresistibly flashing inside, with tiny green glints escaping like sparks from the satchel. A tiny fair hand undoing the clasp and then a green flash too bright to look at. He squinted his eyes closed and turned away.

“You saw it, just then, didn’t you?” Mater Elizabeth asked.

When he looked she was standing again, the body at her feet covered once more.

His head pounded like the little gods themselves were knocking on his skull. His tongue tasted of ashes and soot. The light from outside was bright, blinding, hiding everyone else even though he could hear them out there.

“Yes,” he croaked. He coughed, and tried again. “Yes. A glimpse, that’s all. I don’t see much.”

“Enough, to confirm what we think?”

“Which is?”

“An explosive device was planted, set to go off the minute that it was opened by, by the victim. Loaded with salt and silver.”

“I don’t know. It was only a glimpse, but I saw his hand,” a nod at the body, “opening the clasp. At least I think it was his hand, it’s hard to say. That’s all I got.”

“Can you try again?”

“Maybe.” Cameron rubbed his lips. He went to the body beside the little god. “Who’s this?”

“A member of the Priesthood, Pater Samuels.”

Cameron crouched, and flipped back the corner of the blanket. Charred and blackened skin, red beneath, was all that was left of the pater’s face. Lips burned away, teeth exposed in an endless scream. The same sort of shrapnel embedded in the charred skin. He was burned much worse than the little god. Cameron pulled the cloth back over the pater’s face.

“How was he identified?”

“His signet ring,” Elizabeth said. “Merely unfortunate that he was caught in the blast.”

Cameron rotated without rising and with a flat hand, gestured out from that spot to the others. “The explosion went that way. Presumably unfortunate for all of them too. Any other members of the Priesthood? Any gods?”

“No. All of the others were customers or staff or those passing. None of that is relevant. Someone set a device to kill the god of this establishment.”

The blast had radiated outward, blowing apart the tables and chairs as if insubstantial, burning —

heat and flames brighter than the sun. Deafening. Glass fragments everywhere

Cameron shook off the glimpse. “You said you knew who was behind this?”

“Unbelievers. We thought they were harmless nonconformists, obviously that’s not the case!”

“Unbelievers?” He rubbed his head, thinking about the possibility. “What would this gain them?”

“Nothing,” Elizabeth said. “It will, however, cost them a great deal!”

“It’s a place to start,” Cameron said. “I know a guy we can talk to, but you follow my lead on this.”

“As you wish. Shall I drive?”

“After you,” Cameron said. Last thing he needed to do was pour more magic into a car.

3

As it turned out, Elizabeth wasn’t offering to drive the car herself, and what more should he have expected from someone serving the little gods? That she should pour her own life’s magic into the machine? Of course not, there was a man to do that, hawk-faced Kevan that took the wheel while they rode in the back.

Wesley Sheldon lived in a shabby loft in a converted warehouse down on East River Bank. Two years ago Cameron had helped Sheldon get over a counterfeiting operation turning out fake IDs. Sheldon was an open unbeliever, which basically made him ape-shit crazy. Cameron got being pissed at the little gods, but in a pissing contest a human was always going to lose. Besides, it wasn’t like the little gods were fucking made up or something. Maybe they usually went without being seen, but the small body on the floor made it clear that they were real flesh and blood. The dying, that was new.

Inside the building’s lobby was cracked tile, stained by the passage of feet over the years, and a whole wall taken up with brass-fronted mailboxes. Cameron didn’t bother with the lift, running that sort of thing was a waste of magic. He headed for the stairs instead. Elizabeth followed him up without comment. It was only to the third floor. There, a long hallway stretched out in front of them, apartments on either side. Stained concrete floors, dirty and scuffed with age, smelling faintly of old piss. Light came from weakly illuminated bulbs hanging naked down the middle of the hallway. Whoever did their lighting wasn’t expending much energy for it. Who could blame them?

“This man will help us?”

“If he knows what’s good for him. He may have some names, people we can talk to, to get the person responsible.”

Wesley lived all the way at the far end of the hall. He opened the door at Cameron’s second knock. Wesley looked like he had goblin blood in his family line somewhere, he was short, warty and covered in wiry brown hair that stuck out from everywhere, his nose and ears included, as if it couldn’t get far enough away from his head.

“Constable!” Wesley licked his lips, wringing his hands. His eyes went to Elizabeth and he gulped. He bowed deep. “Honored mater, please, please come in.”

Cameron went in, forcing Wesley to scurry back. The place was a labyrinth of boxes and papers, stacked on every available surface. Elizabeth lingered in the doorway, her hands pressed together, as she took in the view.

“What is all of this?”

“Historical research!” The sweep of Wesley’s arm nearly upset a pile on an overloaded table.

The cat piss smell was stronger here and Cameron saw other eyes watching them. Cats. Many cats, tucked in between or on the stacks. Slitted eyes watched them both.

The bridge of Elizabeth’s nose wrinkled slightly. Cameron caught a glimpse of her dismay, carefully contained, and took the lead.

“Wesley, there was an explosion up town. Non-magical, what can you tell me about that?” He didn’t say anything about the victim. That wasn’t knowledge that the Priesthood, or the constables, would want spread.

“Explosion!” Wesley turned and scurried around a pile. He picked up a small fluffy black cat and scratched behind its ears. The cat sat contentedly in the crook of Sheldon’s arm, purring. “Nothing. Nothing. What would I know about explosions? I’m a researcher!”

Elizabeth looked down her nose at the papers on the nearest stack. “Researching what, exactly?”

“Um, our history, that’s all. Not enough people are interested in our history.”

“Our gods tell us all we need to know of history,” Elizabeth said. “What else is there to research?”

Cameron reached out and placed his fingers on top of a teetering stack. “Who would know, Wesley? You talk to other unbelievers, you must have heard something?”

“I’ve heard nothing!”

Cameron gave the stack the gentlest nudge. It tipped, tipped and spilled, papers flying up in a brief flurry before they settled down. Wesley let out a yelp, then bit his bottom lip.

“How can you disbelieve, when the evidence is right before your eyes?” Elizabeth asked. “The gods actions are visible all around us, and they show themselves to the faithful. What is there to disbelieve?”

Wesley’s face screwed up and turned red but he was still biting his bottom lip and wasn’t saying anything. It wasn’t going to take long before his lip turned purple.

Cameron put his fingertips on the next stack of papers. It wobbled and Wesley’s eyes bulged. The place might look chaotic, but Cameron knew that the man had a system, and could lay his hands on any piece of paper in moments, if he wanted.

“We’re asking for a name. Someone we can talk to, and we’ll go, and you can go on with whatever you want to do. Give me something, Wesley. You don’t want to be the center of attention on this.”

With a sickly wet splat, Wesley spit out his bottom lip. He cuddled the cat close to his chest. “Eugene Hodgson, talk to him. Leave me alone. He might give you something.”

Where the windows were, in the reflections, Cameron caught a glimpse of an older man, at least in his mid-forties, elegant, surrounded by books.

Cameron lifted his fingers from the pages, leaving them intact. “Thank you.” He gestured at the piles. “You might want to do something about this, Wesley. It doesn’t look healthy.”

Turning to Elizabeth, he said, “Come on. The name is good. This Hodgson, can you get his info? We need to move quickly.”

“I’ll pray to the gods for you,” Elizabeth said to Wesley.

The short man’s face went pale beneath all the bristly hair. He swallowed and looked ready to faint. Elizabeth was already moving to the door. Cameron managed not to laugh and winked at Wesley as he left.

As the door closed behind Cameron, he heard Wesley wailing to his cats.

“That was wicked,” he said to Elizabeth. “You terrified him good. Put the fear of the little gods to him.”

Her lips tightened. “You should not refer to them as such, and I meant only well-wishes for that sad little man.”

It was okay to call the man little, but not her oh-so-precious gods. Cameron sighed. “How about a prayer for that information we need?”

“Oh, I’ve already done that,” Elizabeth said. “I’m sure the information will be forthcoming soon.”

4

Forthcoming, in fact the moment they stepped foot outside the warehouse. A flock of pigeons came over the edge of the roof and descended on them in a flapping storm of blue-gray feathers. Cameron raised his hands to ward off the flying rats, but the pigeons circled them and landed in front of mater Elizabeth. It was only when she crouched that he saw the pale tiny naked people clinging to their backs.

Nasty, sharp tooth little fucking gods, pixies!

Cameron! Wendy’s voice scolded in his thoughts. More distantly, Peter’s high giggles.

Not even glimpses. His imagination playing tricks on him. He rubbed his temples, waiting while Elizabeth knelt down in front of the pixie flock. One of the pigeons took off in a flutter, landing on her shoulder. She kept her head bowed as the pixies leaned close, whispering in her ear.

Elizabeth nodded.

The pixie’s head snapped over, snake-fast, nipping at her ear. Then it was sitting back on its bird, the nasty thing with red, red lips. Beady dark eyes narrowed, looking back at him.

Shit on toast. Cameron looked down. He didn’t need to piss off the fucking little gods. Not any more than he had obviously already done.

A loud flurry of flapping and the whole flock took off, swirled around them in a dusty rush and were gone. Something hit Cameron’s shoulder, and when he looked there was white pigeon shit running down his suit coat. He groaned.

“I have the information,” Elizabeth said.

She was standing. Her eyes flicked to the mess on his coat, but she didn’t say anything. Her red hair fell down around her face. He couldn’t see her ear.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” She smiled. “Shall we go?”

5

While Kevan drove the sleek white car, Elizabeth filled Cameron in on what the nipping pixie had shared. He listened, and tried using a tissue to clean the mess off his suit coat. A hopeless attempt, it was going have to go to the cleaners. Just another shitty sign from the little gods.

Eugene Hodgson, a professor of economics at the Three Rivers University, up in the university district along Crescent Lake. Tenured. Confirmed unbeliever.

“Confirmed how, exactly?” Cameron asked.

Elizabeth’s brow wrinkled. “The gods told me.”

Ah, right. The nippy, pigeon-riding shitty god, that one.

Cameron, Wendy would say, in her soft, disapproving, exasperated tone. Ice-picks stabbed the backs of his eyes. He rubbed the heels of his hands against his eyes, then dragged his hands down his face, yawning. His stomach rumbled.

“Are you unwell?”

He shook his head. “Fine. Let’s get this done.”

As the car pulled into the University parking, they found it blocked off, barricaded by constables and Priesthood vehicles. Their car was waved on through. Cameron twisted around, watching as the barricades were replaced. He turned to Elizabeth.

“What’s going on? What’s all of this? I thought we were just going to talk to this guy?”

“The unbelievers are behind this attack,” she said. “The Priesthood feels that our tolerance to heresy has gone on too long.”

“But you don’t know that Hodgson had anything to do with this!’

“Perhaps not, but we are taking no chances. We will listen to what he says.”

“And justice? Don’t the gods care about that?”

“Justice for whom? For the god brutally murdered? Or the other innocent bystanders, one of them a member of the Priesthood? Oh, I assure you, constable, they care.” Her voice deepened. “But they are vengeful gods. It isn’t wise to incur their wrath!”

For a while he had forgotten that she was a mater. Her harsh tone made it abundantly clear. Cameron rubbed his hands on his pants.

“And if Hodgson had nothing to do with this crime?”

The car stopped. “Then he will be set free, on notice that heresy does not go unnoticed, or unanswered.”

Right. Cameron followed her out of the car.

Hodgson’s office was elegant, book-lined and formal, much like the man that stood stiff-backed in front of them. His hair, oddly, was white, immaculately coiffed, as was his beard. Clear blue eyes looked at them.

“What is the meaning of all of this? I have classes to teach!”

Elizabeth looked at Cameron. Ah, the appearance of impartial investigation. Cameron pulled out a notebook and a small pencil. He flipped it open.

“Dr. Hodgson, there was an explosion this morning just after seven at the Lunar Cafe, uptown on 7th. People were killed.”

“I was nowhere near there!”

“And where were you?”

“At home, in bed. Alone.”

tangled white sheets, a slim, perfect leg sticking out, dark brown skin contrasting with the sheets. The curve of a bottom swelled the sheets. The woman turned, sheets spilling away from her smooth young skin like milk. A cascade of curly dark hair spilled across the pillows around her smiling face

“Alone? There wasn’t a woman with you? Young, a student? Beautiful dark brown skin, bright smile, curly hair?”

The muscles in Dr. Hodgson’s jaw clenched. “Yes, well, obviously you know that, or you wouldn’t ask.” He smiled. “Which also means you know I had nothing to do with the attack.”

“You’re an unbeliever!” Elizabeth said.

Dr. Hodgson nodded. “Yes, I suppose you could say that, which is also reason that I would never do what you suggest.”

“Meaning?” Cameron asked.

“Unbelievers, skeptics, whatever you want to call us, we believe in a reasoned life. How old do you take me for, constable?”

The white hair was striking, suggesting advanced age. “Forty-five?”

Dr. Hodgson shook his head slowly. “No. In point of fact, I am fifty-four years old, as of last March. As the years have passed I have used less and less magic in my daily life, and this is the result, a longer life. It is because of this, and other details, that I don’t accept everything that I’m told.”

Fifty-four! It was staggering to hear him say it. Cameron wrote the number down in his notebook, and that still didn’t make it real. But why lie? They could verify his age.

“Magic is life,” Dr. Hodgson said, looking at Elizabeth. “That what the gods say, correct?”

Dumbly, Elizabeth nodded.

“And yet I get by just fine without it. How many more years have I got? Ten? Twenty? Even more?” Dr. Hodgson shrugged. A small smile touched his lips for a moment. “The gods only know. I have no interest in shortening anyone’s life. I recommend you look at the evidence again, constable. Look to the cause, who the victims were, who might have wanted to harm them? It is only reasonable that the answers are there.”

The man made sense. Cameron touched Elizabeth’s arm. “Let’s go.”

She stepped aside with him. “Where?”

“Like he says. Back to the crime scene. Maybe the answer is there.”

6

The bodies were gone, taken away, but Cameron did have the reports as he moved through the scene. The other evidence remained, organized and sorted. A puzzle with a solution. Elizabeth stood near the boarded up front with her arms crossed. She’d been silent since they left the university. Fuming over what Dr. Hodgson had said?

Cameron was good at compartmentalization. It was one of the things that allowed him to function as a constable. And to function at all after the accident that cost him his family.

I’m worried about you. Wendy whispered, her breath touching his ear.

Except that was only his imagination. He wasn’t haunted. Certainly not by the ghosts of his wife and son. Memories, yes. Not ghosts.

Right now, he would focus on the case. That’s what mattered. The evidence was organized into a grid, taped out sections collecting related evidence together. Redfield had told them all to leave it, clear out until Cameron did his thing.

One square held all of the pieces of the device that had been recovered so far. Cameron crouched beside it, not touching anything yet, looking. A leather case, mostly gone to ash. Bits of twisted metal, some simple, others complex. Parts of a timer?

He tasted copper in his mouth, clinging to his throat. Glimpses came and went, but touching things made it worse. He rubbed his fingers together and picked up a melted lump with wires.

A watch face, green tendrils of magic reaching up from the palm of a hand, drilling deep into the device… The watch glowing in the darkness of the case as the clasp snapped shut.

“The timing device was a normal watch, magical, not mechanical,” he said.

Elizabeth stirred. “What does that mean?”

Cameron shook his head. “If other unbelievers are like Hodgson, they wouldn’t have used magic.”

He put it down and reached for the charred handle of the case. The sour taste was stronger. The pain in his head was blinding, and grew worse as his fingers touched the leather.

A hand reached for the case, white gloves, with a bright white sleeve, the edge embroidered in gold stitches.

Cameron jerked away, gasping.

Elizabeth crossed the room quickly, reaching for him. He scooted backwards on his hands and feet, his eyes on the sleeve of her vestment as it fell around her hand. Her hand was delicate, bird-like bones. Not the hand in the glove. That was a man’s hand.

“What did you see?”

He realized she had already asked, and was repeating her question.

“A hand,” he swallowed, squeezed his eyes shut against the pain. “White gloves, he was wearing vestments. Like yours.”

She stood up straight. Her voice shook. “You’re saying a member of the Priesthood did this? Why?”

“I don’t know. We’ll have to ask them.” He opened his eyes. The pain ebbed some. “We have to look at everything.”

“No.” Her head shook once, decisively. “They killed a god!”

Killed a god. If word got out people would panic. If the little gods could be killed, what else could happen?

The same little gods that had allowed his family to die.

You never liked them, Wendy’s voice admonished. Even before.

True. They were manipulative, sometimes cruel, and intrusive little bastards, controlling everything from behind the scenes. But he hadn’t felt such a cold hatred before the accident. The one time when they could have used their powers to do something good where were they?

“Constable? Are you okay?”

Boxes. Compartments. Maybe he wasn’t doing as good of a job as he thought. He pulled out his pencil and flicked through the debris in the square.

“Fine,” he grunted. “This was the watch.”

A lump of metal, shattered and melted. If you squinted, you could make out a bit of the band.

He poked through the rest. Other metal bits, shrapnel apparently put into the bomb. Discs, it looked like, small. Coins. Silver coins? He picked through the coins and found one less melted, bent in half, blackened on one side.

He picked it up. There was a woman, seated, a shield on the floor in front of her and worn letters up the side. United was the only word legible. At the bottom of the coin were two numbers ’18’.

It was a dime. An old one. He held it up to Elizabeth. She took it, turning it in her fingers.

“A dime?”

Cameron stood up, knees aching. “Yes. A silver dime. Dimes aren’t made with silver today.”

“Of course not!” She thrust the coin at him. “Why would we make coins out of a metal toxic to the little gods? It’s an offensive thought!”

He took it, and pulled an evidence bag from his pocket. He slipped the coin inside. “Does it remind you of what Sheldon told us? And Hodgson?”

“What do you mean?”

He held up the bag, shaking the coin inside. “Clearly dimes were made with silver content in the past. Why would they do that?”

“They wouldn’t! It must be a fake!”

His gut told him otherwise. He hadn’t gotten any glimpse from the coin, it didn’t always happen when he wanted, or it was convenient. And with his head hurting, he didn’t care. He slipped the bag into his pocket.

“Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, though, it takes us closer to our bomber. How did he come by the dimes? He had to get them from somewhere. We knock on a few coin dealers, we might get some answers. There can’t be too many places that deal in silver coins.”

7

Elizabeth had refused to pray to her gods for guidance. “They aren’t a business directory!”

Kevan pulled the car over at the third coin shop they’d visited. At the first two, the dealers had recoiled from the coin as if it was toxic for humans to touch.

Camera got out of the car. The sign across the face of the shop was Edgehill Coins. Gold bought and sold. Now gold, that was something the little gods fucking loved. Greedy bastards.

The other car door opened and Elizabeth got out. He turned. “You could wait, if you want.”

“No,” she said. “My presence might encourage truthfulness.”

It might at that. Cameron went to the door, and waited for her to catch up. He opened the door automatically, stepping aside to let her enter first.

“Welcome! Many blessings of the day…”

The voice trailed off as Cameron stepped inside the dimly lit store. As his eyes adjusted he saw the man behind the counter. A man, soft and baby-faced, still. Bright red pimples scattered like constellations across his forehead.

The man smiled at Elizabeth, looked nervously at Cameron, and back to her again, as if his dark eyes couldn’t decide which of them to address first. He focused on Elizabeth.

Probably smart.

“Ah, are you together? May I help you?”

“We are,” Cameron grunted. He went to the counter, and pulled out his notebook, letting his badge flash the guy. “Are you the owner?”

The young man nodded quickly. “That’s right. Rod Edgehill, it’s been in our family for generations. I’ve taken it over now that my father can’t run it.”

“Aren’t you young for such responsibility?” Elizabeth asked. “You must be blessed by the gods.”

A nod, jerking his head. “Yes, mater. We are blessed. The gods see that we receive the rarest, most precious coins and gems, and we pay appropriate tribute in return!”

“How long have you been running the store?” Cameron asked.

“A year now. I grew up here in the store, though, apprenticed to my father.”

Good enough. Cameron hauled out the evidence back and held it up in front of Rod. “You ever see dimes like this before?”

“No. It doesn’t ring any bells.”

The answer was too quick. The kid hardly even looked at it. He pushed it closer to Rod’s face. “Maybe you better take a closer look, son.”

Rod recoiled. Drops of sweat beaded on his pimply face. “I haven’t seen it before!”

Elizabeth, turned away from the counter, placing her hand on Cameron’s arm. “Another dead end?”

It wasn’t. Cameron shook her off, turning back to the kid, which was right when he bolted. He sprinted along the aisle behind the counter.

“Hell.” Cameron shoved the dime in his pocket and took off after the kid. “Hold it!”

The kid ignored him, disappearing through a beaded curtain that whipped around him.

At the end of the counter Cameron banged through the swinging gate marked No Admittance. He drew his gun and peeked around the corner through the swinging beads.

A back room, narrow, and empty. Cameron looked at Elizabeth, still standing where he’d left her. “Go out front! Keep an eye for him.”

He didn’t wait for an answer. He went through the curtain.

The work area was cluttered with tools and books. Ahead it turned, a set of stairs leading up, and the hallway continuing to the left. Cameron moved forward quickly, cautiously. Anyone willing to blow up a cafe probably wouldn’t worry about shooting a constable.

He hugged the wall where the hallway turned, then looked around, a quick look.

Empty. A long corridor, waste bins and an outer door swinging shut.

He ran to the door at a full sprint, and caught it with his foot. Peeked, out, weapon ready.

Rod, already a good distance down the alley running behind the store.

Cameron burst through the door and gave chase. “Stop! By order of the law!”

Edgehill wasn’t stopping. Damn him! He was younger and faster. Cameron sucked air and ran full out, his legs already burning. He shoved the gun back into the holster. It wasn’t like he was going to shoot the kid. He really needed to spend more time exercising.

Where were the little gods now? He was trying to solve the murder of one of their own, the least they could do was help out!

A delivery truck pulled into the alley in front of Rod. The boy tried to swerve and wasn’t fast enough. He ran smack into the front of the truck as the tires squealed on the asphalt.

No! Cameron didn’t have the breath to shout.

Rod flew back from the truck as batted into the outfield. He tumbled and rolled, landing hard in the alley. Foul ball!

If the fucking little gods caused this, killed this boy—

He couldn’t even finish the thought. He reached Rod moments later. The kid was lying sprawled on the asphalt, clothes scraped, blood on his face. He groaned and blinked up at Cameron, trying to shield his eyes.

Sucking air, Cameron put his hands on his hips. It looked like the kid would live. The delivery drive climbed down out of the truck, pulling off his baseball cap and wringing in his hands.

“Oh, gods! Is he going to be okay?”

Cameron flashed his badge. “Why don’t you do that? Pray to the gods to send us some help. Or better yet, run and get help.”

The driver pressed his hands together. “Of course! Constable. Of course!”

He dropped to his knees in the alley and bowed his head. “Please the gods, send us help for this injured boy.”

Cameron, shook his head, tuned out the litany and knelt beside Rod, who looked like he was trying to get up. Cameron put a hand on Rod’s shoulder.. “Don’t try to move. Wait for help to come.”

Rod groaned and lay back, sobs wracking his body. “I’ve ruined us!”

“How?”

Cameron heard sirens and an ambulance turned into the alley at the other end. Now the gods act.

“Merciful gods be praised!” The driver called out.

“How?” Cameron pressed.

“I bought the coins,” Rod said. He groaned. “Can’t be real, thought they’d have novelty value.”

“Who’d you sell them too?”

Rod coughed. “Didn’t. He came, the pater. Confiscated them.”

“How’d he know you had them? Did he give you a name?”

“No.” Rod coughed more, a ragged sound.

The medics ran up from the ambulance. Both were women, young and fair, but light and dark.

The one with the dark hair, and deep brown skin touched Cameron’s shoulder. “Constable, do you know his name?”

“Rod Edgehill,” Cameron said. He stood up.

Elizabeth was coming down the alley, walking quickly past the ambulance.

“Is he going to be okay?”

The blond woman was holding her hand above Rod’s head. A faint red glow surrounded her hand, and extended down to Rod. “Yes. We can heal his wounds.”

“Thank you,” Cameron said.

“Thank the gods, not us.”

Yeah, right. Cameron bit back the comment as if he was under Wendy’s both amused and disapproving gaze. He walked away, meeting Elizabeth before she reached the scene.

Her eyebrows drew in. “Why did he run?”

“He was afraid. He did say that he bought the coins for their novelty value, but a pater came to the store and confiscated them.”

“A pater? Who?”

“He didn’t know.” Both medics had their hands over the kid, magic spreading out in a fine mist of blues and greens. The blond closed her hands, rocked back on her heels and stood.

She came over to them. There was a red rash now on the side of her face. Stigmata from the healing.

“He’s going to need surgery. There are internal injuries.” She looked to Elizabeth. “With your permission, mater, we’ll take him to the Grove Hospital.”

Elizabeth nodded.

“He’ll live though, right?” Cameron asked. If the kid died, so did one of their clues.

“I believe so, gods willing. We’ve stabilized him, but it will take many sessions, with his body helping, to heal.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said.

The medic went back to help her partner load Edgehill into the ambulance.

Cameron shoved his hands into his pockets and started walking. His fingers found the chewed and broken toothpick. He ran the tip along the splintered wood, wishing he had a fresh one. Elizabeth kept pace at his side as they left the alley and started around the building back to the front.

“What now, constable? Didn’t you get any insights?”

“Glimpses.” When she looked at him, he explained. “I call them glimpses. They’re flashes of sensory details. The fire burning me, the hand reaching for the case, the glow of the watch. I don’t control it.”

“Of course not, the gods do.”

He snorted. “Then they’re capricious li—. Why do this? If they know who’s responsible, why not tell me? Or you at least?”

Elizabeth stopped catching his arm. “They don’t answer to us. It isn’t our place to judge them.”

The familiar old anger rose up, the smoke before the flame. He tried to push it back. “They’re vengeful gods, right?”

“They can be.”

“Then why not go get vengeance?” Cameron thrust his hands out to his sides and turned in a circle, looking up at the buildings. “Why don’t you go get vengeance?”

Again, Elizabeth touched his arm. Her lips pressed together as she looked at him. “What made you hate them so much? How have you gone so far from them?”

He started to deny it. But why? Here he had one of their maters, and she was listening. Why not lay it all out?

Careful. Wendy’s voice said, faint in the back of his mind. He pushed that away. No. I won’t be.

He shook his head. “Where do I start? I could say it was because my wife and son died. Would that make sense? That I blame the gods for their death? They could have done something to save them, and nothing.”

Her eyes closed for a moment and then opened, moist. “I’m sorry.”

Cameron shook his head harder. “Don’t. Don’t be sorry. Why should you? Yeah, the fucking little gods could have done something if they bothered. Had the car break down. Or something else, so at least when Wendy died, she wasn’t behind the wheel!”

Bleeding magic into the car, giving it life, until her own ended. Young, at twenty-five to go. Not unheard of. Hodgson’s words, his age, more than twice Wendy’s drifted in Cameron’s mind. He didn’t know what to do with that. He pushed it all away.

Because it wasn’t true. Their deaths cemented his hate, it didn’t create it.

Cameron stepped closer. “Think about it. They lie. We know they do.”

Elizabeth’s mouth opened, as if to protest. Cameron barreled on.

“They manipulative, greedy little fuckers! They demand tithes of food and blood and gold. They interfere in everything. We can’t do anything without them being in the part of it. If I’m out on a case and I need help, I have to pray that the gods will send it. And if they’re pissed at me? Then I’m screwed. So be it!”

He stopped, breathing hard.

“Everything you see,” Elizabeth said softly. “And yet you fail to see so much of the good they do. What about the simple tasks that they provide? Is there not a brownie or house elf that has done you a kindness?”

Mrs. Book. Cameron fingered the broken toothpick. Peter gave her that name, no idea where he got it from, but they’d all used it.

Elizabeth touched his arm. “Even if we don’t understand it, they have a bigger plan for us. You can’t turn to unbelief, constable. Without them, we’re forsaken.”

Her words, her face was sincere. He believed she meant well. Today, he wasn’t particularly swayed. “What about Hodgson? About his age, that rather than magic being essential to life, it is actually draining life?”

“He lied.” Elizabeth folded her hands together. “I’m sure any documentation he provides would prove fabricated. You know, as well as I do, what happens when people stop using magic.”

Headaches. Like the one that still pounded on his temples. Most people didn’t resist using magic, there was no reason to. It ran everything. It’d be difficult to function, without using it.

In his other pocket, he touched the plastic bag holding the dime. He pulled it out. “What about this?”

“A fabrication. Nothing more.”

Maybe, maybe not. “We know that they were used in the bomb. Edgehill said a pater confiscated them. How would the pater have known about the dimes? Why take them? And how did they end up in the bomb?”

“Without his help identifying the man claiming to be a pater, we may not find out the answers.”

Cameron shook his head. “There’s a pater we haven’t investigated yet. Pater Samuels. He was at the site of the blast. Maybe he was a random victim, or he may have been the target. Or the one responsible.”

“I don’t like where this is going.” She crossed her arms. “What did you have in mind?”

Cameron started walking again. “Let’s find out.”

8

Despite Elizabeth’s considerable reluctance to look into Pater Samuels, she agreed to let Cameron see his quarters and his office.

The Priesthood headquarters flagrantly declared the wealth bled off the people of the city. It was a massive, twisted cluster of reflective spires rising up out of the dense dark woods of Priest Park, at the heart of Three Rivers. The massive park stretched along a half-dozen city blocks, and another three blocks wide. The ground rose, a hill rising toward the heart, where the headquarters glimmered like something from another realm.

Cameron’s throat was dry as Kevan threaded the car into streets around the park, clogged with a mass of humanity. Merchants of all stripes sold from booths that spilled out into the streets. Pedestrians and cyclists moved through the crowds. Pilgrims lined the rugged stone fence surrounding the park, poor souls who came here to pray to the fucking little gods. Elizabeth seemed unaffected by the crowd, no doubt used to having them fawning over her.

Watching the crowds, Cameron’s disgust grew. Why should people do this? Why scrape and bow, leaving their offerings at the fence? Anything of value was more likely to get picked up by those that worked the crowd, than by any little god.

“Does this ever bother you?” He asked, looking at the young mater.

Her shapely eyebrows drew together in apparent confusion. “Why would it bother me? Don’t pilgrims have a right to petition the gods, and the Priesthood?”

“What good does it do?” Cameron waved to the tinted window, the people outside peering at the car, fruitlessly eager for a look at the priests inside. They’d sure be disappointed if they could see him.

“They’re the ones to judge if it does them good or not. We don’t ask them to come. It isn’t something we demand. They choose this. I’ve heard testimony from many of the faithful that the visit has help them, even that the gods have granted special favors.”

“To some, not all,” Cameron said.

“Yes. The gods select those worthy of their favor, just as they’ve chosen you.”

“Me? They’ve cursed me.”

“If you’ve been punished, then you haven’t learned the lesson the gods meant to teach. They granted you the gift of insight, constable. How well have you used it?”

He clenched his teeth. His headache was back in force, pounding at his temples. Hadn’t learned the lesson? Who gave them the fucking right? His temples pounded and he rubbed them, and his eyes. His tongue clung to his mouth. His gut churned. He hadn’t had anything since the coffee from the cart this morning.

“Are you okay?”

He blinked and looked at Elizabeth. The car stopped. Ahead of them the gate was opening. Priesthood guards kept the people back from the gate.

“Sure, it’s nothing,” he lied.

“You’re tired. We haven’t taken a break since this morning. When we reach the Spires, I’ll send for refreshments.”

Why’d she have to be so damn nice? “That’s not necessary.”

“It is. I need to you well to solve this case.”

“Why not ask the gods who set the bomb? Don’t they know?”

Elizabeth’s eyes were sad as she gave a little shake of her head. “They’re not omnipotent, omnipresent beings. They have great power, yes. And they could be anywhere at any time. That doesn’t mean they are everywhere, all the time. As you saw, one was present at the explosion.”

The car pulled through the open gate, leaving the gathered pilgrims behind.

Elizabeth leaned closer. “Don’t forget, constable, who the victims were in this crime. Maybe you feel wronged somehow by the gods, yet they lost one of their own, as well as the others that died.”

She leaned back, turning away. The rebuke tasted sour. Was she right? Was he letting his feelings about the gods interfere? So much for compartmentalization. He looked out as the car drove slowly into Priest Park.

He’d never been, and only had a vague idea of what lay beyond the tall stone walls. A forest at the heart of the city, with thick, twisted trees that rose higher than the walls.

It was all of that, and more. The dense forest cut off all sounds from the city surrounding the park. They might has well have been plunged into a massive wilderness, were it not for the road which snaked and twisted through the woods, with barely enough room to pass on either side. The trees above leaned together over them, like weary giants leaning on each other’s shoulders. The thick canopy shut out much of the light except a dim greenish yellow that filtered down through the leaves.

Yet, looking forward through the front, the road was bare cobblestones, free of any leaves or plants growing up between the stones. It was smooth, as if each stone was at the perfect height. The road rose and fell, turning and twisting through the woods as if laid only with the goal to avoid any trees at all. Likely true, living trees were originally homes for many of the gods.

Then the car went up over a small hill and down and the road was gone. Not covered. Not blocked or gated, simply gone. Kevan stopped the car. Just ahead the road formed a small circle of stones, hardly enough room to turn around, should they try.

A massive black oak squatted straight ahead, two dark trunks rising together into a twisted mass.

Cameron coughed, his throat dry. His head ached as if the fucking little gods were trying to claw their way out of his skull through the back of his eyes.

“Honored mater?” Kevan asked, turning in the driver’s seat to look back.

Faint blue wisps floated out of the woods. No more substantial than patches of fog caught in the light, but they swam through the air like fish, twisting and turning, circling the car.

“What’s going on?” Cameron asked.

Elizabeth reached for her car door handle. Cameron grabbed her other arm.

“You can’t go out there!”

She smiled, and opened the door. “I’m one of the Priesthood, who else should commune with the gods?”

Her arm, warm and smooth slipped free from his grasp as she pushed the door open and stood.

The wisps spun around, sweeping down at her in a swarm.

“Elizabeth!” Cameron yelled, lunging across the car seat.

She cried out and fell back, into the car. Cameron grabbed her under the arms as the swarm circle and came back. They weren’t aiming for her, they were aiming for the door!

Cameron grunted and heaved her across the back seat, across his legs into his lap. The wisps hit the car door en mass, and it slammed shut!

Outside the swarm circled around the car, slowing.

“Mater?” Kevan asked.

Her red hair was in Cameron’s face. She moved against him, extricating herself from the tangle. She blew hair out of her mouth and brushed it away. Her eyebrows drew together as she glared at Cameron.

“How, how dare you!”

Oh, frickin’ gods! “I was trying to get you back inside before they hurt you!”

Kevan was watching, his face dark.

Elizabeth’s mouth tightened, then she said, “It wasn’t up to you to protect me from the gods, constable!”

“Next time I won’t bother!”

Outside the wisps hand stopped circling the car. Instead they floated in place, right outside Cameron’s door. “What are they doing?”

He looked to Elizabeth.

Her glare faded. She took a deep breath. “Perhaps I misunderstood. It looks like they don’t want to speak with me.”

“If not you —”

Kevan gave a little shake of his head.

They meant him. Cameron groaned. “You can’t be serious! What would they want with me?”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Elizabeth said. “They didn’t make the road disappear for no reason, constable.”

Both of them, Elizabeth and Kevan, were watching him. Expecting him to get out there? With the little gods in the middle of their fucking magic forest?

He’d have to be crazy.

Of course, gods being what they were, they could probably get him out of the car if they wanted.

“Fine!” Cameron grabbed the door handle. “I hope they have a good reason for interfering with the case.”

He opened the door, slowly. The wisps floated and moved, like nothing more than a patch of ground fog, except illuminated from within by an icy blue light.

Cool air bathed his face. A drop of water hit his cheek. Cameron brushed it with the back of his hand and looked up.

A little god crouched on a twisted tree branch above his head. She was tiny, no more than a couple feet high, with mossy green hair pulled into two fluffy pony tails on each side of her head. Her skin was darker green. She wore a filmy light green tunic, belted at the waist, but falling open. Tears hung in her large yellow eyes, the whole things yellow with a tiny black pupil. A tear rolled down her cheek, across her button nose and hung there shining for a moment.

It fell. A tiny twisting drop. Blue wisps like fog swirled around him.

The tear drop splashed into his eye.

Cameron fell back.

9

It was October 4th, three years ago, almost eight o’clock and already dark on the road out of the city. The smell of burnt rubber hung in the air like overdone coffee.

Lights flashed nearby.

A glimpse of the past. No! Cameron tried turning away. He couldn’t move, bound by the sprite’s tear to see.

The car, broken, windows shattered, sparkling like icy on the cold pavement. It wasn’t ice that caused the accident. Wendy, her head down, dark hair covering her face, a mercy.

Until she lifted her head.

No, Cameron moaned silently.

Her face was pale and eyes dark, drooping, sad eyes, and yet a touch of a smile on her lips?

Cameron. It was her voice, though her lips didn’t move. We’re moving on, Peter and I. It isn’t time for you.

Why? Why now? Why couldn’t he come?

Her head moved, almost imperceptibly. It’s our time. Don’t blame the gods, we’re with them now.

It wasn’t fair! How could they go, and leave him alone?

You’ll join us, one day. Almost she smiled. In time.

I can’t. I can’t keep doing this. Not without you, what’s the point?

You’ll know that one day, too, Cameron. Believe.

This is a trick. The fucking little manipulative —

Cameron! It isn’t a trick. We’re with them now.

If that was true, why? Why her? Why take Peter, when he was so young?

This isn’t the time to explain. Look after Elizabeth. Look to the ring, Cameron.

Blue mists swept across his vision, blocking out Wendy, sweeping it away.

No!

10

Dark green leaves covered the sky above in a blanket of foliage. The green sprite still crouched on the branch, tilting her head to watch Cameron. He rubbed his eyes. The headache was gone. He was lying on his back, on the soft ground.

The sprite looked up sharply, looking at something else, beyond him.

Cameron rolled over, fingers digging into moss and leaves. The dark trunks of the Priest Park forest covered the mossy slope in front of him. At the top fingers of granite thrust out of the small hill, like the nose of a sleeping giant. He had the sense of something moving, dropping out of sight on the other side of the rocks, but his eyes may have just caught the dance of shadow and light from the canopy overhead.

There was a sound like laughter, familiar boyish laughter that sent a shock through his heart. He scrambled to his feet, moss and leaves falling from him.

His heart was beating so loud how could he hear anything! He listened, and only heard the thick canopy rustling above.

“Cameron?”

The voice startled him. He turned.

There was the car, sleek and black, out of place in the forest. The road continued on ahead as if never blocked. The massive black oak that had squatted in front of the car was somehow off to the side now, crouching, stooped, as if watching them from the craggy bark folds.

Elizabeth, gleaming white in her vestments, her red hair like an aura of flames around her pale face, stood beside the car. Her hands were pressed together in front of her chest.

“Are you okay, Cameron?”

He didn’t answer. Words spun in his head. What had that sprite done to him? He looked up at the branch above, but the green sprite was gone.

His dry throat cracked. He coughed. “I’m fine.”

The glimpse, the vision of Wendy, it couldn’t have been real, could it? A trick of the little gods? It didn’t feel like that. Her voice, it sounded like her. It was fading already. The details slipping away like a glimpse of the sun through the clouds.

He stomped down to the car.

“Pranks and games,” he said. “That’s all. Let’s go.”

Elizabeth didn’t protest. She got into the car, sliding across the seat. Cameron climbed in and slammed the door.

11

Whatever else anyone might say about the Priesthood, they served good coffee. Cameron sipped the piping hot brew, perfectly roasted, a hint of sugar, no cream. It slid smoothly down his throat as he looked around pater Samuels’ chambers.

Elizabeth was with him, and pater Bracken, a tall stooped fellow with a flat boxer’s nose.

“We’re happy to assist the investigation,” Bracken said. “Although I confess only the gods know what you hope to find here.”

Cameron didn’t comment. The pater’s chambers were earthy, natural, with wood paneling and shelves along one wall were filled with bound volumes. Mrs. Book would no doubt love this room.

There was a big desk, the back facing the windows that wrapped around that wall. The view out the windows looked down on the park below.

He moved around the desk. The chair looked expensive, big and imposing, leather-backed. No wheels. It sat firmly in front of the desk on four clawed feet.

Cameron sat. The desk itself looked old, but gleamed with polish. “This desk has been cleaned?”

“The gods grant us such favors,” Bracken said. “Many take great joy in such simple tasks.”

Mrs. Book came to mind. How many of the little gods were watching right now? Lurking behind books or curtains, observing everything they did. Thinking about it was like having fingers crawling up his spine. He pushed it aside and focused on the desk.

It was clean, spotless. A blotter, ink well and pen occupied the desk. Nothing else. Cameron grabbed the side door to pull it open —

The same room, at dusk. His hand extended out a signet ring, handing it to someone.

“Cameron?”

Elizabeth had moved. She was standing in front of the desk, her fingertips resting lightly on the surface. “Did the gods grant you a vision?”

Wendy. She’d said something about the ring. And Elizabeth. Whatever that had meant. He left the desk. “I was thinking we should pay our respects to the man himself.”

She grimaced. “Why?”

“Yes, indeed,” Bracken said. “What do you hope to gain by that constable?”

“I’ll see when I see him. He’s still at the morgue?”

“Yes,” Bracken said. “Arrangements have to be made.”

Cameron looked up at the pater. “And the god, the one that died, what happened to him?”

Bracken stood a little straighter. “The gods took him.”

Of course. Cameron headed out of the chambers. Elizabeth caught up with him and followed.

12

On the drive over to the morgue, Cameron stared out the window without paying too much attention to the buildings and people they passed.

His headache was gone, apparently cured by the sprite’s tear. Bottle that, and it could make a million.

The vision of Wendy, that was different than the usual glimpses he got of other places, other times. It felt like he’d talked to her and the thought twisted in his heart. Could it have been? Was what she said true, that she and Peter were with the gods, whatever that meant?

The laugh. That fair laugh in the woods. Real or imagined?

With the little gods, who knew? He didn’t, and he wasn’t about to ask Elizabeth about it. He could feel her fuming on the other side of the car, angry that he hadn’t explained his purpose.

He wasn’t sure of it himself.

Except he didn’t believe that the glimpses came directly from the gods. Maybe they gave him the ability, maybe they didn’t. Curse or gift, he got glimpses of things that maybe even the gods didn’t know. Elizabeth said as much.

13

The morgue was cold and sterile with a harsh chemical scent that did little to mask the scent of death. Beneath it all, was the odor of a butcher shop. The lights glowed bright, recently infused by somebody.

What if that was his job? Nothing but day in and day out, climbing ladders and pouring magic into the lights to make them work.

Dr. Hillman, the coroner, was stout and round, with a ruddy complexion and thin, oily black hair combed over his egg-shaped head. He moved with small prancing steps and spoke in a voice hardly more than a whisper.

He received them both in the main operating theater surrounded by slabs with covered bodies. His beady eyes glittered like wet raisins in soft dough as he held up a folded piece of parchment.

“An official notice!” His voice showed his delight. “From the gods themselves! I’ve prepared the body for your inspection, mater, constable, right this way.”

Someone had prayed to the little gods to let the coroner know they were coming. Apparently they were in a cooperative mood.

The body lay naked on the slab, charred and torn by the blast, stained by blood. Face a red ruin. Cracked red skin showed through the blackened areas. The shrapnel was gone, picked clean of the flesh.

Elizabeth pressed a finger to her nose and moved to stand near the head. Cameron walked around the coroner to get a clear view of the body.

Adult, white male. Approximately 130 pounds, slender. No real muscle definition. What was left of his hair was brown, darkened and charred, lighter on the back side.

“What are we doing here?” Elizabeth asked.

“Looking for clues, a glimpse of what happened?” Cameron walked around the body, then looked up at Dr. Hillman. “His personal belongings, do you still have them?”

“Yes, certainly,” Dr. Hillman said.

“Bring them, please.”

Cameron resumed studying the body. Something about it felt wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Finger. The ring. Wendy had mentioned the ring, and the glimpse he’d had, of giving the ring to someone.

The pater’s hands weren’t badly burned. They must have been above the table when the bomb went off, and it would have shielded them from the blast that caught him from below, at his side.

Where the bomb had sat.

Which suggested that the pater had placed the case beside his chair.

Why? Why would a pater blow up a cafe? And himself in the process?

Suicide bomber, but why? There wasn’t a reason, unless it wasn’t him.

“What are you thinking?” Elizabeth asked.

Cameron ignored her, bending to look at the man’s hands. The fingers were long, and slender. The nails were chipped and marked. Not from the explosion, there was dirt beneath the nails.

The tap, tap of footsteps on the stone floors announced Dr. Hillman’s return. He carried a card board box. “Here it is! All of his personal effects, I made the inventory myself!”

“Put it down here,” Cameron pointed to the counter at the side of the room.

Elizabeth came around the slab, her lips pressed together in a tight line of annoyance.

Dr. Hillman stepped back and Cameron poked through the box. The signet ring lay on top, in a small plastic bag along with some cash and a packet of cigarettes. Cameron grinned. That was it!

He picked it up —

A slice of fresh apple pie and a steaming cup of coffee sat on the table, the cinnamon-sugar smell of the pie vying for attention with the coffee. His stomach growled. He dug his fork into the pie and reached for the coffee with his other hand. A bright green glimmer caught his attention beneath the table. He turned, looking down

That glimpse, those hands were the hands of the man on the slab. It was more than a bit of dirt and worn nails. The man’s hunger gnawing at his gut had been familiar, a constant thing, never satisfied. Sitting in the cafe, eating and drinking with the rest of the people, that had been a treat. When people had looked at him, at the victim, it was with respect and quiet words to the gods.

Cameron licked his lips, almost tasting the coffee. The man was enjoying an opportunity to be someone else, for a time, the knowledge was in the back of his head that it was all temporary.

He hadn’t been thinking about being blown up. The look into the bag, that’d been surprise.

“Constable,” Elizabeth said. “Please tell me what you’re thinking!”

Cameron turned and pointed to the body. “That’s not pater Samuels.”

“His ring was positively identified. Are you saying that this man stole it?”

Cameron shook his head. Dr. Hillman leaned in close. Cameron picked up the box with the personal effects found on the body.

“Thank you, Doctor. We’ll need to take these.”

“Oh yes, of course.”

Cameron tucked the box beneath his arm, and with the other, pulled Elizabeth along. She made a noise of protest and pulled away, but continued to follow him.

14

Back in the car outside, they sat with the box between them. Elizabeth’s face was pinched with annoyance.

“Now will you tell me what’s going on?”

“Yes.” Cameron picked up the bag with the ring. “This is pater Samuels’ signet ring, you’ve identified it and are convinced it is genuine?”

“Yes, the gods identified it themselves.”

Okay, if the little gods said it, that must make it true. “My glimpses never give the full picture, but I saw this ring handed over to our victim in there. And I saw him eating and drinking in the cafe right before the explosion. It’s more than seeing, it’s like I am that person, experiencing things as they did. He wasn’t the pater, and he was surprised as anyone about to die.”

Few people going about their normal routines expected to die. It happened without warning. According to the little gods, people died when the magic ran out. But sometimes someone else helped that happen.

“I don’t understand. You’re saying that he gave the ring to this man? But that man in there was wearing vestments. He’s the right size. And on the basis of your glimpse, you don’t believe he is the pater?”

“That’s right.” Cameron tapped the bag, or more specifically, the cigarettes inside. “He must have had these in his pocket, on the side away from the blast. Do you know if the pater smoked?”

“I don’t know.”

“We should find out. It might be important. This is what I think. I’m guessing there’s no one that would report our victim missing. Your pater sent him into the cafe, dressed as a pater, in his vestments, with the ring, and with the bomb. If anyone talked to witnesses, they’d describe someone matching the pater’s description. That didn’t even happen, because your priests sent everyone away and made them forgetful.”

Elizabeth’s mouth tightened but she stayed silent.

“With the bomb set off, everyone assumed that he was dead.” Cameron fished in his pocket and came up with the bag holding the dime. “I’ll bet if we show a portrait of the pater to Edgehill that he’ll recognize the pater that confiscated the dimes. He wanted everyone to think he was dead, but not without sending a message.”

“But why?” Elizabeth’s voice was soft. “Why would he do all of this?”

“If I’m right, we’ll get a chance to ask him.”

“How will you find him?”

“I’ve got a hunch. He’d need a place to hide. Someplace to stay. What place is better than wherever our victim lived? He knows that it’s empty. If anyone sees him, he matches the general description of the man. He hides out until things quiet down and then he moves.”

“We don’t even know who he is,” Elizabeth said. “How will you find out?”

Cameron shrugged. “Can’t you ask the gods for help?”

She shook her head. “Not without a name.”

“We don’t need a name,” Cameron said. He waved the dime bag. “What about these? He might not have used them all. If they can pick up on the silver, it might lead us to him.”

Elizabeth’s lips parted in a slow smile. “That might prove possible. There are gods with an affinity for metals. One of them may be able to track the scent.”

“Good.” Cameron settled back against the car seat. He laced his fingers behind his head and closed his eyes. “Let me know when we’re ready to go.”

15

“Ugly. Rude,” said a strange voice, one rough and deep.

Cameron stirred, opening his eyes. He was still in the car, but one of the little gods was standing on the seat beside the evidence box, his head even with Cameron’s own.

The god was dark of skin, like lava rock, rough and covered in sharp burrs, so much so that he almost looked like rocks himself. His build was extremely muscular, every muscle showing in definition. The only thing he wore was a furry-skin wrap around his waist and crotch. Shriveled mole heads and hands hung from the bottom of the wrap like a decorative fringe.

It was his eyes, that were most telling. They glittered with an inner orange light, sparkling facets fixed on Cameron.

A dwarf. A genuine fucking dwarf.

Cameron slowly lowered his arms, careful not to move unexpectedly. “I’m Cameron —”

“I know,” the god said. “Call me Mal. Show me this coin!”

Elizabeth was still in her seat on the other side of the car. She nodded quickly.

Cameron held out the plastic bag with the burned dimes.

“Bah! Plastic! How can I do anything with plastic!”

“I thought —”

“I didn’t ask what you thought! Give it to me!”

Cameron fished the coin from the bag. It was light and cool to the touch. He held it out. Mal extended his hand, palm up. Cameron placed the coin gently in Mal’s hand, not surprised to feel warmth radiating up from the dwarf.

Mal peered at the coin. “Silver, mostly.”

Dexterous fingers spun the coin over as the god examined the sides. “Trace other metals.”

Mal flicked the coin at Cameron, who caught it. He slipped it back into the evidence bag. “Well?”

“Well, I can find its mates. Isn’t that what ya asked for?”

Elizabeth bowed her head, pressing her hands together. “Gratitude, wise one.”

Mal coughed and thrust the dime back at Cameron. The coin was warm to the touch. He dropped it back in the bag.

When he looked up, Mal was now in the front seat, standing with his legs spread wide and hands on the dash. He pointed. “That way!”

16

Following Mal’s turn-by-turn directions, even though sometimes they seemed to be going in a circle, eventually brought them to an older undistinguished apartment complex on the east side of the city. This was one of those places on the outskirts of a neighborhood. Cameron knew as you moved deeper there’d be duplexes, and then single-family homes of more middle-class families.

There were five buildings in the complex, each with a half-dozen apartments, none of the buildings over two stories tall. The city’s population had been decreasing for years, and a complex like this would have plenty of vacant units. The populations tended to come and go quickly.

It was the perfect place for pater Samuels to hide out. No one paid any attention to anyone else in places like this.

Mal tapped the side of his nose, the sound of it like a rock hammer tapping on rocks. He pointed at the building coming up on the left. “That one, second floor. The silver’s up there. The nearest apartment on the left.”

“Yes, Holy One,” Kevan said.

Cameron leaned forward. “Pull in here, behind this garage.”

Kevan did as asked without question, swinging the car around beneath the car port between garages. The structure would prevent anyone in the building Mal had identified from seeing the car. A Priesthood vehicle would likely send the pater fleeing.

“I’ll go in, identify him, and take him into custody,” Cameron said. “The rest of you stay here.”

“I don’t take orders from you,” Mal said.

Cameron refused to let the little god’s presence scare him off. “It’ll be better if I go alone.”

“Don’t ya worry about me,” Mal said. His chuckle sounded like a small avalanche. “Consider me backup. He won’t even know I’m around, not unless I want him to.”

Great. Another intrusive little god shoving his, no. Cameron stopped himself. He didn’t even need to imagine hearing Wendy’s voice. The god had a point.

He looked at Elizabeth. “Stay here, in the car.”

Cameron slid out of the car and walked around the garage. He adopted a slouch and shoved his hands deep into his pockets. No looking around, just a guy tired after a long day of work.

That much was true, at least.

The complex might be one of the most gods forsaken places he’d been lately. Usually there were signs that the gods were present, well-tended plants, or other small signs of favors from the gods. None of that was present here. The lawn was dying, the shrubs twiggy and weak-looking. The building itself looked old and tired, slumping in on itself, paint peeling and cracking. There were concrete steps leading up to the second floor, but the first was broken in two pieces and propped up with a piece of firewood shoved underneath.

As Cameron climbed the steps, he realized that he was alone. If Mal was around, the god wasn’t showing himself.

Dust and cobwebs gathered in the corners of the stairwell. The whole place felt abandoned, but Cameron believed the god that the dimes were inside.

He stepped to the side of the door and drew his gun. Then he knocked, hard, with his knuckles.

He waited. If he didn’t have to announce who he was, he didn’t want to until that door opened. The apartment was quiet. Then he heard a dull snick as a deadbolt was unlocked.

The door opened an inch.

Cameron pointed the gun. “Constable. Open the door all the way.”

A chain rattled. A man spoke. “Constable? What’s this about?”

The door opened wider.

The man was unarmed. Cameron moved into view, keeping the gun on the suspect. He pulled his coat back, to show his badge.

For someone at gun point, the man was calm, give him that much. His general build and height more or less matched the man in the morgue, minus the hunger and the chipped fingernails. He had the posture and the poise of a priest, even wearing a plain black t-shirt and blue jeans. His feet were bare, so he probably wasn’t planning on going anywhere.

Cameron moved into the apartment, and kicked the door closed behind himself, without letting the gun waver. He gave a little nod of his head.

“Move on, keep your hands visible. Are you alone here?”

The man sighed and did as he was told, backing up slowly, hands out at his sides. “You know I am.”

There wasn’t much to the apartment. A living room, with a ratty old red couch, slumping into the carpet. Black plastic trash bags, stuffed full, stood against the sliding glass door leading out onto a definitely unsafe balcony. Someone had been cleaning up.

Off the living room, a kitchen, with a bar between it and the living room and a small dining room. Straight ahead, past the kitchen, a short hallway which lead to three doors. Bedrooms, bathroom, and the according door along the hall on the right must be a closet.

“This is a gods forsaken place, isn’t it?” Cameron asked. “What’s driving them all away? Is it the company, pater Samuels?”

Samuels opened his mouth and closed it. He shook his head. “How’d you find me?”

“I can’t give away all my tricks,” Cameron said. “What would the other constables say? Why’d you do it? Why blow up a cafe?”

Samuels shook his head. “You don’t want to know, constable. No one does.”

“Know what?”

“Let’s say, I lost my faith.” Samuels pointed his finger at the gun. “Why don’t you shoot me now, constable? The gods you worship won’t let this go to a trial.”

Cameron held the weapon steady, and didn’t pull the trigger. “Why? What’s this all about?”

He pulled the evidence bag with the dime out of his pocket. “These dimes? They’re real?”

“Would you believe me if I said they were?”

Samuels moved, slowly, carefully toward the kitchen counter. He pointed at the piles of papers on the counter. “If you really want to know, constable, the answers are there. Documents preserved and copied over the years. The gods are deceitful. They lie. I couldn’t turn away from it anymore.”

“And for that, you kill innocent people?” Cameron shook his head. “That’s —”

“Innocent?” Samuels laughed. “The gods feed on people like that, draining them, making them worship, and —”

A loud crack sounded from the kitchen. Mal was on the counter, his rocky face twisted into a cracked grimace. He slammed his hand down on a stack of papers.

“That’ll be enough!” His voice was the roar of an avalanche.

The papers beneath the god’s hands burst into flames.

Cameron jumped forward and grabbed Samuels’ arm. He propelled him at the door. “Go! Come on!”

“Blasphemy!” Mal’s fist hit another stack and the papers combusted, rising up in a whirlwind of flame.

They reached the door. Cameron yanked it open and shoved the man through. Together, Samuels going first, they headed down the stairs. Cameron kept a tight grip on him, and the gun pointed at his back.

By the time they got down the stairs glass shattered in the building and flames leaped out to the roof. Elizabeth and Kevan were by the garage where they’d parked the car, looking up at the building going up in flames.

“Put your hands behind your back!” Cameron said.

Samuels complied. Cameron pulled the cuffs off his belt, slapping one, then the other on Samuels’ wrists. “I’m arresting in on the charge of murder.”

He read Samuels his rights, then shoved him further from the burning building. Maybe people were praying to the gods to send help, fire charmers or someone, but if so, no one was responding. When they reached Elizabeth and Kevan, Cameron looked back at the burning building. It was engulfed in flames, along with all of the evidence. If any dimes remained, they’d be melted bits by the time the fire finished.

“Pater Samuels,” Elizabeth said. “The Priesthood will demand an inquisition into your actions.”

“Of course they will.” Samuels turned deep, sad, brown eyes to Cameron. “Constable, my actions may have been unconscionable, but I was trying to send a message. To wake people up to the truth —”

A loud snap and a smell like sulfur hit Cameron’s nose. Mal stood in front of Samuels. The black asphalt at his feet bubbled and steamed. He pointed a stony finger at the pater.

“You’ll shut your gob, if you know what is good for you!”

Samuels glared down at the god. “Do what you will, since you do anyway!”

Mal glared and turned his gaze to Cameron. “Ya have done us a service, Constable. We won’t forget.”

The little god turned, around, molten tar sticking to his feet. “Bah!”

He stomped over to the ground and dove forward, vanishing into the earth without a ripple. The ground looked undisturbed. Across the lot, the building continued to burn.

17

By the time Cameron got home, banging through the door, he was bone-tired. He put his badge and gun on the mantel, along with a fortune cookie for Mrs. Book.

The intrusive little gods had made a mess of the case, no doubts there. The Chief didn’t care. As far as he was concerned, the guilty party was in custody, being turned over to the Priesthood as soon as they convened their inquisition. Cameron didn’t want any part of that, although he might be called upon to testify.

As far as the evidence went, that was thin. When he got back to the constabulary, the dime from evidence was missing. He must have dropped it trying to get Samuels out of the apartment building before it burned to the ground. None of that mattered with the former pater’s confession.

Still. Cameron dropped into his chair at the small table. He pulled containers of Chinese out of the bag, popping open the spicy fried rice, and unwrapping the chop sticks. His stomach growled eagerly as he dug in, eating from the box. Why dirty up dishes?

What had Samuels meant? Deceitful, yes, anyone would say that the gods spoke the truth to suit themselves. The dimes, if those were real, it suggested a time when silver was used in coins. Except every coin dealer he’d spoken to insisted that such a thing had never happened.

It sounded like more of Wesley Sheldon’s paranoid ramblings. It didn’t excuse what Samuels had done, but maybe the unbelievers were on to something.

Whatever it was, it had big caution signs all over it. The gods were also vengeful.

And yet, thinking back to his vision in Priest Park, was it possible that Wendy and Peter were with the gods? What if that was true? As disturbing as it’d been, it had sounded like her. And that laugh, hadn’t it sounded like Peter?

Maybe the gods lied. Maybe they also held the key to his reunion with his family. If so, what would he do to see that happen?

He could probably start by watching his language towards them. It’d make Wendy happy, anyway. That was a place to start.

14,656 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 17th weekly short story release. This story introduces characters and a world that I’d like to return to in the future. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Cameron or the little gods.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Farm of the Dead Things, the first of four stories that make up my Filming Dead Things collection. I’d originally published these as written by my pen name Tennessee Hicks along with the rest of the Dead Things series.

The Murders in the Reed Moore Library

Dupin expects simple things out of his day. A sunny spot beside the fountain to nap. His tuna delivered at precisely the right time by librarian Penny Copper. He didn’t expect someone to stuff bodies in the book returns and disrupt his entire day!

The only thing left to do? Apply his considerable intellect to the task of identifying the killer while guiding Penny to the answer.

1

On top of the hill, right above the green swath of lawn where C. Dupin liked to nap in the sun and watch the humans walk past, sprawled the Reed Moore library. Named, of course, after Reed Moore, the founder of the logging company Moore Wood, who built the long-house library for the town. The library sported massive logs that gleamed golden in the sunshine and a green metal roof. Soaking in the sunshine, the library looked like it enjoyed the warmth as much as a cat. Dupin stretched out a leg and took a long lazy lick off the long white fur on the back of his leg. He rubbed his leg across his face, then repeated the process on the other side.

There. Ready to go inside, just as soon as the librarian, Penny Copper caught up and opened the doors.

As she always did on sunny mornings, Penny had stopped at the fountain to read and eat an apple while Dupin lounged nearby. Sometimes she forgot all about opening the library and Dupin had to rub against her legs to remind her.

Today she remembered on her own and Dupin ran on ahead.

“Slow down!” Penny complained, but laughed.

Dupin sat down. It wasn’t as if he hurried. She walked towards him up the concrete sidewalk, a typical enough human although more slender than most, with short blond fur on her head. The rest of her was so bare that, like many humans, she wore clothing. In this case a dark blue skirt, white shirt and a blazer that matched the skirt. As humans went she looked as neat as a cat, which was saying a great deal. Dupin closed his eyes. He stayed that way until his whiskers picked up the breeze of her passing and the faint scent of apple tickled his nose. Then he opened his eyes and followed along behind.

At the library doors Penny pulled out her brass key ring and stopped. “Would you look at that!”

Dupin curled around her legs and leaned against the back of her calves. It was time to get inside where she kept a can of tuna. Anything else could wait.

Instead Penny actually walked away from him towards the book drop that crouched beside the doors like a big green toad. Books stuck out of the drop’s mouth and a few had fallen to the ground.

Dupin sat down. The end of his tail twitched.

Penny picked up the fallen books and pulled more out of the mouth of the drop. “If the drop is full, why not bring them back when we’re open?”

Dupin closed his eyes. He knew the answer, just as he knew all the answers, but if Penny really wanted to know she’d have to figure it out herself.

Except when he closed his eyes Dupin smelled something almost as interesting as tuna. He opened his mouth slightly and breathed in. Yes, nearby. It smelled almost like a freshly killed field mouse but stronger and greasier. Dupin stood up and followed the scent. It was coming from the book drop where Penny was still pulling out books.

Dupin crouched right beside the metal door in the side. Yes, indeed. Right there, just a small pool of blood had oozed out from inside the drop. Dupin opened his mouth wider and breathed in deep. It made his fur stand on end. This wasn’t a field mouse, gopher or bird. It smelled like a person. All sweat and chemicals with an under-scent of fire and smoke.

He backed away from the drop and a growl rumbled through his throat.

“Dupin? What’s wrong, silly cat?”

Penny bent down to stroke him, tucking the books she had gathered into one arm, but Dupin flattened his ears and didn’t look away from the blood. Finally she looked at the metal door and saw the blood herself. Her hand went to her mouth.

“Oh!”

She stood up and hurried towards the doors, the keys jangled on the brass key ring and her shoes made sharp knocking noises against the flagstones.

Dupin followed right on her heels.

Penny unlocked the door and, as soon as it opened a few inches, Dupin darted inside. He immediately felt safer surrounded by the rich smell of the library. He padded quickly across the lobby to the polished cedar service desk, crouched, and sprang right up on top. He turned in a circle surveying the library as Penny followed him inside.

With the hanging lights out shadows draped the library. To Dupin’s left was the children’s end of the library with the short shelves and a large open area at the center where Penny told stories. On his right the taller adult shelving, comfortable chairs and, under the wing, the computer lab. At a cursory glance all looked as it should but Dupin still had the scent of the blood in his nose and it kept his fur up. He needed his tuna, and some water, and a good cleaning before he would feel completely calm.

It didn’t look like Penny was getting his tuna. She put the books down on the counter next to a computer and picked up the phone instead.

Dupin padded across the counter, hopped over one computer keyboard, and batted at the coiled black phone cord. Penny shook her head and pulled the cord away from him!

That wasn’t right. It was too late to do anything about the man — from the smell it had to be a man — in the book drop. But she could still get Dupin his tuna!

“Police?” Penny pressed a hand to her chest. “This is Ms. Copper, at the library? There’s blood in my book drop.”

Dupin sat down, tail twitching.

“Right. Blood, on the ground from inside. Like something was bleeding.” Penny shook her head. “No, I haven’t opened it. I was taking out books that were stuck in the slot and Dupin noticed the blood. Yes, my cat. I came inside and called you.”

As if they could do anything about the man either, it was too late! Dupin stared at Penny. Tuna? Remember that?

“Yes, thank you. I won’t touch it.” Penny put down the phone and looked at Dupin. “What could it be? Do you think someone poured blood into the drop? Why would they do that?”

Dupin meowed and stood up. Time to worry about the tuna, and no, the blood hadn’t been poured into the drop. Beneath the blood he had smelled the salty, sour smell of a man and a whiff of decay. Someone put a dead man in the book drop as if he was an overdue book. It was too late to do anything about him. The police could handle getting him out. Dupin turned in a circle and looked back at Penny. Tuna!

Penny reached out and scratched his head with one hand. Dupin forced down the purr. Not scratches! Tuna!

“We should look around,” Penny announced. “Make sure nothing else looks out of place.”

No, not a good idea. Penny walked away from the counter into the back work area, which took her closer to the tuna. Okay, maybe a good idea. Dupin jumped down to the floor and walked quickly after her. He caught up, walked through her legs and headed towards the door to the staff room.

Dupin walked around the workstations at the center of the work area, past the rows of Coroplast boxes full of books along the back wall, into the staff room. Home away from home. Not much of a room with an old green couch marked with his claws, and a wobbly table and two scratched dark wood chairs. Dupin went to the cupboard where Penny kept the tuna and rubbed against the door. He arched his back and looked back at her.

Penny put her hands on the door frame and leaned into the room. Then she pulled back and walked away, her footsteps muffled by the short carpet.

He couldn’t believe it. She left. Without getting the tuna. Dupin stood still in shock. She actually walked away without getting his tuna out. Looking around the library could wait, he couldn’t!

Humans! If they didn’t have thumbs they’d be no use at all!

Dupin ran after Penny.

He caught up when she flicked on the light in her office. He rubbed against her legs and twitched his tail to catch her attention. Instead she ignored him, looking around the office as if the glass-topped computer desk, or the pictures of Mt. Rainier from her climbs, held some secret. Everything looked as neat as ever, but more importantly, it smelled fine. Dupin circled her legs again.

She sighed and walked away from the office, out of the work area altogether. Dupin was trying to decide what to do about it when Penny screamed! He crouched down and flattened his ears.

Why had she screamed? She was standing just out of the work area, behind the circulation desk. She had her hands pressed to her face now. Dupin rose slightly and opened his mouth. He breathed deep and picked up a faint sticky scent of decay, but mingled with it a floral smell. That wasn’t the smell of the man in the book drop.

Dupin padded up beside Penny. There, in the wood book drop beneath the counter he saw dark red curls, the top of some woman’s head. Another dead person in a book drop? What was going on? He smelled salt and looked up to see tears falling from Penny’s eyes. She sniffed and wiped her hand against her eyes. She took a deep breath and turned and headed back towards her office, nearly stepping on Dupin. Not that he’d be so slow as to let that happen.

He heard Penny in her office picking up the phone again. More calls to the police. Dupin walked closer to the drop and breathed deep. He didn’t smell any blood. The woman didn’t die the same way as the man in the outside book drop. Dead people in book drops, that wasn’t right. His fur rose up and he growled deep in his throat. Not right at all. Who hid their kills in a book drop? There had to be better places. Whoever did this put the bodies there for a reason. They wanted the bodies found. Why?

Penny sounded upset, almost yelling into the phone. Dupin walked closer to the drop but he couldn’t see inside. Just the dark red curls sticking up out of the drop. In the office he heard Penny put down the phone. He went over to the drop and rose up, putting his front paws against the wood. He opened his mouth and breathed in deep.

Death smells, he knew those from killing mice and birds. Stronger from the much larger human. It made him sneeze.

“Dupin!”

He tried to turn but he had been so focused that Penny was right behind him. She grabbed him before he could twist away and lifted him up into the air. Human thumbs! He didn’t fight. He just went limp. She marched across the work area, turned right and then held him just with one hand. She opened the metal door in the back corner and set him outside on the concrete ramp!

Dupin shook himself and started to turn and dart back inside but at that moment Penny pulled the door closed. Dupin stared at the gray metal in shock.

She put him out! Without his tuna?!

Dupin reached out one paw and drew his claws along the metal. He waited a second, then did it again. Nothing. Twice more and no response. Annoyed Dupin sat down in front of the door and used both paws, alternating. Scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch!

Penny didn’t come!

Dupin gave out a frustrated yowl and swiped at the door again. She actually put him out without his tuna because of dead bodies? Clearly she didn’t have her priorities in order. Which meant she was going to need his help to put things right. Dupin gave the door a final swipe.

First things, first. How was he going to get back inside?

2

Sirens screeched through the morning air. Dupin flattened his ears and looked towards the road. Police. He bounded off the concrete path into the dark space beneath the rhododendron bushes. Dried leaves crunched beneath his feet. He padded quickly away from the back door, slipping from one bush to the next. He caught a whiff of squirrel but didn’t stop. Out on the street the police sirens rang out again and again.

Dupin reached the corner of the building and broke into a trot as the police cars pulled into the parking lot. Uniformed bodies poured out of the cars. Vans pulled behind the cars and more people got out. So many people! He picked up the pace and made it to the front doors before any of the police or other humans even got close to the building. Dupin crouched beneath the bench along the left side of the walkway, near the black metal bike racks. It smelled of burnt tobacco beneath the bench and one stale bag of chips.

The library’s front door swung open. Penny’s shoes shuffled on the concrete as she edged away from the book drop. Dupin darted out from his place of concealment, like the shadow of a bird he flew across the concrete for the narrow open gap.

“Dupin!”

He sensed rather than saw her reach for him but she was far too slow. By then he’d already entered the library. He headed at first towards the counter area but that’s where the other body was in the other book drop. He swerved and headed instead towards the heavy padded chairs and one of his favorite spots beneath. Enclosed on three sides, but with an opening beneath the back, he liked watching people come and go in the library.

Safe in the shadows beneath the chair Dupin, surrounded by his own scent markings, settled down and watched Penny at the door with the police. Another scent distracted him. Dupin sniffed around and found an envelope beneath the chair that smelled of mint. He rubbed his face against it, one side, then the other. Out by the lobby the police crowded around Penny but she didn’t cringe or back away from them. She stood right up to the man who was in charge.

That man wore a long black coat that reminded Dupin of ravens. He tried to get some raven chicks once. Actually went so far as to climb the tree after the nest but the parents saw him and chased him away. Even after he was on the ground they kept coming after him with their harsh cries and nasty beaks. Dupin narrowed his eyes, wondering if that man was like the ravens.

Penny led the police into the library right towards Dupin’s hiding place. He shrank back a bit further into the shadows. Penny’s hand waved at the counter.

“The other one is over there, in the bin.”

The man in the black coat stood close to Penny. Dupin could smell a fishy sort of smell about the man from where he was hiding. It made him feel a little better about the man, but reminded him that he still hadn’t got his tuna. Even so he stayed concealed.

“Ms. Copper, you said the door was locked when you entered the library?”

“I thought so. I didn’t check before I put the key in and turned it to open the door. I always do it that way, the door stays locked until you flip the little switch on the door.”

“So it was possible that it wasn’t locked?”

“I guess so, although I always double-check the locks when I leave.”

Dupin eased forward a bit. That man was writing something in a notebook. Abruptly he looked down past his pad and fixed blue eyes on Dupin.

Dupin froze in place, staring back at the man.

The man pointed a pencil at Dupin. “That your cat?”

“Yes, detective Clemm. I can’t understand why anyone would do this? Kill someone and put them here?”

The detective blinked first. Dupin yawned widely just so the detective got a good look at his fangs.

“Call me David, Ms. Copper. It’s too early to speculate. When did you last close up?”

“Saturday. Four p.m., our usual time.”

“And were you the last to leave?”

“No. Henry was with me. And Dupin, of course. We don’t like to have people leave alone, even if it isn’t dark. Just to be safe. We walked out together. I pulled on the doors to make sure that they were locked. I know I did.”

“Okay, and this Henry can confirm that? A last name?”

“Yes. Duvall.”

“Who has access to the building?”

“It’s a city-owned building, it was donated when the library was built. You’d know better than me who has access over there. All of my staff have keys. The city hires cleaning staff, so they must have keys too because they get in and clean the library after hours.”

Dupin eased out of the space beneath the chair. He walked over to Penny and rubbed against her legs. He let a low purr rumble through his chest.

Penny’s legs stayed anchored as if she had grown out of the floor.

“Do you have any enemies? Anyone with something against you? Or the library?”

Penny? Hardly. Dupin observed lots of humans and he knew better than most that everyone loved Penny. He’d even go so far as forgiving her for forgetting his tuna. Eventually. Bored, Dupin wandered away from Penny towards the circulation desk.

Teams of people had gathered around the desk while the detective talked to Penny. They had pulled the book return bin out from the desk. Dupin padded closer, edging around the end of the desk. He sat down beside one of the tall pillars where he could watch and still keep an eye on Penny. Just in case she decided to get his tuna.

They were all so busy about the dead people, it was like someone had stirred up a nest of yellow jackets. Another cluster of people buzzed around the book drop outside. They had that one open too and had pulled the bin partway out before it got stuck on books that had piled on top of the body.

“We’ll have more questions later,” the detective said.

“Can I go back to my office?” Penny asked. “I should call our staff and tell them we won’t be opening today.”

The detective shook his head. “Please stay here, until my people have a chance to look everything over.” Blue eyes found Dupin sitting beside the pillar. “If you could keep the cat out of our way, that’d be good too.”

Out of the way? Dupin closed his eyes just to show the man how important he was.

He heard Penny’s footsteps approaching and looked up. Penny got close and Dupin let out a small meow. He arched his back, expecting a scratch but instead she scooped him up. She brought him close to her chest and wrapped her arms around him. For a second Dupin tensed, then he relaxed and breathed in her apple scent. No tuna. Yet.

Penny carried him away before he could see anything interesting, including the dead body. She took him back to the stuffed chairs and sat in the one he had hid beneath. She absently stroked his back. Dupin flexed his claws and stretched out first his left leg, then his right. He put his head down and closed his eyes. If he couldn’t eat, he might as well sleep.

As he drifted off to sleep he heard Penny talking on her cell phone. He didn’t like her being sad so he purred loudly as he drifted off.

3

Dupin found himself rudely woken when Penny stood up and put him down on the floor. He shook himself and took a couple stiff steps away before he stopped to clean the nap from his fur.

“Thank you, detective.” Penny rubbed her arms. “Did you find anything? Who are those people?”

David reached out and put a hand on Penny’s arm. “I thought you might be able to help us with that. You get a lot of people in here, do you feel up to taking a look? See if you recognize them? They don’t have any identification on them.”

Dupin paused in his cleaning and looked at Penny. If she could lay her ears back or have her fur stand up, he thought she would do so. She took a deep breath and nodded.

“Yes. Of course, if it will help.”

David stepped close. “I’ll be right there with you. There’s something else?”

“Yes?”

“The books in the outside drop, can you tell who checked those out?”

Penny shivered. “Yes, but I’d need a subpoena to release those records. They’re confidential under state law. Why do you want to know who checked out the books?”

“A lot of the books we removed had fallen on the body. Others were beneath the body. Anyone returning books might have seen something suspicious or someone hanging around.”

“Makes sense, I’ll just need you to get a subpoena.”

David grinned. “Of course.”

“And I’ll need the books.”

He shook his head. “We’ve taken the books to examine for evidence. I can get you the barcode numbers.”

“That’d be fine.”

This all was about as interesting to Dupin as getting his nails trimmed. He stretched out his legs and took a long stretch with a satisfying yawn.

“If you’re ready?” David asked, gesturing towards the lobby where the two bodies waited on gurneys.

Penny crossed her arms but nodded. Figuring the most likely possibility of tuna lay in sticking close to Penny, Dupin followed along after Penny and David into the lobby. There lay the dead man and woman in black body bags upon the gurney, with all of the assorted smells of death.

David unzipped the first bag. “Do you recognize him?”

Dupin looked over at Penny. She nodded. “That’s Bill Wilson. He teaches over at the high school. Who would want to kill him?”

“That’s what we need to find out.” David zipped up the dead man’s bag and then moved around to the other one. He unzipped it. “Her?”

Penny didn’t move from the spot where she stood. She stared for several seconds then took a deep shuddering breath. “Camille. Camille L’Espanye. She works here at the library.” Penny brought her hand to her mouth and sniffed. “Camille? Why?”

Dupin stood up and looked at the body bag with more interest. He breathed deep and, yes, Penny was correct. The woman was Camille. She gave him extra cat treats when Penny wasn’t looking. And now she was dead too? His fur stood up.

“She had keys to the building.” David said. “Maybe she came back for something and interrupted whatever was happening with Mr. Wilson. Or maybe they were together? Do you know if they were dating?”

Penny shook her head. “Camille’s ten years younger than him. She’s just out of college. I don’t think she was seeing anyone seriously.”

David made notes in his book. “We’ll check on it anyway. Thank you Ms. Copper. If I have more questions I’ll let you know.”

The detective zipped up the bag and motioned to the people waiting outside. Two men in blue suits came and took away the gurneys. Dupin meowed softly.

Camille dead. That disturbed him. Bad enough he hadn’t gotten his tuna and Penny was upset, but killing Camilla? Dupin’s eyes narrowed. He wasn’t going to wait around for David to try and figure it out. The man seemed well-meaning enough, but he was hampered by being human. His only advantage was the fact of his thumbs but that didn’t matter.

Dupin looked up at Penny quietly crying. He had his own human, with her own set of thumbs. She wasn’t a cat, but for a human she seemed quiet bright. Between the two of them he felt confident in their ability to find the responsible party.

And then maybe she’d remember to get him his tuna!

4

Dupin watched the gurneys being wheeled down the sidewalk to the waiting ambulances before he turned his attention back to Penny, standing beside him with tears running down her cheeks.

No tuna. Penny upset. Camille and that teacher, Bill Wilson, dead. Someone had to pay for their crimes and Dupin didn’t trust David to figure out what happened. No, it’d be better for all concerned if Dupin and Penny identified the criminal.

First, he needed Penny to get curious.

He knew his human. She loved finding answers. He watched her each day in the library answering questions for the people that came in and out. While her intellect might not match his own — that would no doubt be impossible for a human — she still showed almost cat-like insight. And she had thumbs, the one human attribute that saved the entire species.

David came back inside. “You’ll be staying here?”

Penny nodded. “Is that okay? Are you done with—?”

“Yes. We’re done. I’m releasing the scene. I can send in a couple officers to help clean up, if you like?”

Dupin meowed and bumped against her legs. He didn’t want any more humans tromping all over.

Penny shook her head. “We’ll be okay. I’ll take care of it. I’ve got to clean things up. We won’t be opening today.”

David nodded. “Okay then. I’ll get that subpoena for the checkout records and stop by later?”

“Okay. I’ll need the barcode list, too.”

“I’ll have it for you.” David turned and left.

Penny looked down at Dupin. “It’s just you and me now.”

Just the way he liked it. Dupin rubbed against her legs. Penny stepped around him. “Let’s go clean up, then.”

Dupin ran between Penny’s legs into the library. The library smelled of latex gloves and fingerprint powders. He sneezed and stalked closer to the circulation counter. When he got there he padded across the top towards an area covered in fingerprint dust.

“Dupin!” Penny rushed up to the counter and put a hand out in his path. “Don’t walk in that! That’s all we need, are cat prints tracked all over.”

As if he wanted to track that stuff all over and get it in his fur? Dupin sat down and licked one paw to prove his point. Penny put her hands on her hips and sniffled. “It’s just so —”

A bright reflection beneath the keyboard caught Dupin’s eye. Ignoring the powder he walked through it to the keyboard and fished beneath with his claws.

“Dupin! You’re getting dirty!”

He ignored her and tried to get his claws into whatever it was beneath the keyboard. Not for the first time he considered the intangible mystery of why cats didn’t have thumbs. His claw hooked onto a metal ring and he dragged out a small brass key hooked to a red plastic tab by the ring on his claw. He shook his paw and the key clattered in the fingerprint dust. Dupin slammed a paw down on the rattling key.

“What’s that?” Penny asked. She reached out and Dupin drew back his paw.

She picked it up neatly, pinching the small ring between a finger and her thumb. “What’s the book drop key doing here?”

Confident in her ability to answer that for herself, Dupin jumped down from the counter and sniffed around the book bin that had held Camille. The police had gone over the wood bin but they didn’t have the benefit of a cat’s nose. The bin still smelled of death. It needed cleaning.

Penny lifted the key up in front of her face. “It looks like a fingerprint, in the dust on the plastic tab.” She lowered it to the counter and set it down. “We’ll have to show that to David when he comes back.”

Maybe so, but it didn’t answer any questions right now. Dupin left the bin and sat down to clean the fingerprint powder off his paws. It tasted like ashes and made him sneeze.

“Oh, you poor kitty,” Penny said. “Stop licking it! Let me get a rag and we’ll get this all cleaned up.”

Dupin didn’t bother stopping. Penny left the counter area and headed back into the staff room. Dupin realized that this put Penny near the tuna and took off running after her. Unfortunately he realized too late and she surprised him in the doorway holding wet paper towels. Dupin tried slipping around her but Penny caught him. She grabbed his feet and rubbed them with the wet towels. It was almost as bad as being licked by a dog! She finally released him and he headed under the nearby desk where he sat cleaning his drenched paws.

While he cleaned himself Penny busied herself cleaning the counter area, except for the spot where she left the key. She used a spray on the book drop, the sort that made his eyes water, so he stayed back beneath the desk and just watched. Penny noticed the scratch along the side of the bin.

“What happened —?” She sniffled. “Oh.”

Dupin rose and strolled out from under the desk as Penny finished cleaning the bin and pushed it back beneath the counter. She looked at Dupin.

“Why would anyone kill Camille?”

Dupin meowed.

Penny smiled. “Okay. You’re right. I should be trying to find out something to help David with his case. Like why Camille might have been here. Or why anyone would kill Bill Wilson. I always thought he seemed nice enough. He thought he was more charming than he was, but a lot of men are like that.”

Dupin jumped up on the desk and sniffed at the papers there. A red file folder sitting on the desk smelled like Camille. He pushed it with his paw towards the edge of the desk.

“Dupin!” Penny ran over and caught the folder before it fell. “You’re acting so strange. Do you miss her too?”

At least he missed the extra treats. People came and went in his life, always had until Penny.

Penny flipped through the folder. “These are Camille’s! How did you know?”

Didn’t they smell like Camille? It should be obvious, but Penny suffered from the same poor sense of smell as most humans. Dupin arched his back for a scratch but Penny didn’t notice.

“The deadline for these financial aid forms is today.” Penny looked at Dupin. “This could be very helpful. If she left these forms here, it could explain why she came back to the library last night.”

Penny carried folder towards the front desk. Dupin jumped off the desk and followed her to the counter. She put the folder down next to the key. Dupin jumped up on the counter. From the counter it was much easier to look at Penny’s face.

He meowed and arched his back again. Penny reached out and stroked his fur. “Good kitty.”

Dupin purred happily against her hand. He still wanted his tuna, but scratches were progress. Except then Penny stopped. She tapped her fingers on the counter.

“So Camille comes back to the library to get the folder she forgot. I still don’t see how that ties in with Bill Wilson. I can’t imagine they were involved.”

Dupin sat down and waited.

Penny crossed her arms and stared at the book drop key for several seconds. Then she glanced over at the cleansers she had used on the wood book drop bin.

“I should check the outside drop, make sure it’s been cleaned up before anyone puts more books in it.” Penny pulled open a drawer on the back of the counter and rummaged in a plastic basket with a good dozen keys, each attached to a bright plastic tag. Dupin yawned. Penny took out another key, a duplicate of the one sitting in that small patch of fingerprint dust.

Penny tossed it in the air and caught it. “Let’s do that.”

She tucked the spray bottle and a roll of paper towels beneath her arm before heading towards the outside doors. Dupin followed. Before they got to the lobby Penny stopped. Dupin came up from behind and rubbed against her leg and then stopped too. Several people were standing outside the main doors. Penny took a breath and then started walking again.

Dupin trotted along after. Penny went out to the main doors and pushed them open a crack. There were four humans standing outside. A man smelling of sawdust with red cheeks and dark hair stepped forward.

“We saw the police. What was going on?”

The other humans, a red-haired woman, and an older couple came closer. Dupin sat down just behind Penny where he could see everyone. He breathed in deeply. The woman smelled of fire and smoke. It reminded him of the body that had been in the bin, but much stronger. The older couple had smelled almost the same as each other, a dry, powdery, minty sort of old smell like dried leaves.

Penny took a deep breath. “Two people were killed. The library won’t be opening today, I’m sorry.”

“Killed?” The old woman gasped and looked up at her husband. He put an arm around her. “That’s awful!”

The red-haired woman stepped closer. Dupin watched her warily.

“Look, I’ve just got to pick up something for my class. It’ll only take a second,” the woman said.

Penny shook her head. “We’re not opening today.”

The woman moved her hand in a circle as she said, “Look, this is terrible, really. But you know life does go on. Everyone else still has places to go, things to do, and I don’t mean to be a bitch but Camille said my book was supposed to be in last week and it didn’t come in which meant I lost the whole weekend. Then I get this email saying it’s there and I just need to pick it up. You don’t even have to do anything, I’ll grab it and check it out.”

Penny shook her head. “I can’t let you in right now. If —”

“Look, how hard is it —”

“You just tell me your name I’ll get the book.”

The red-haired woman stared at Penny for a second then shook her head. “Look, just forget it. I don’t have time for this.”

The woman turned and left. Her heels made rapid clicks against the sidewalk as she walked quickly away. Dupin watched her go.

Then the man standing beside Penny shook his head. “Guess she didn’t need it that much after all.” He held out his hand. “Rod Allan.”

“I guess not.” Penny shook his hand and let go quickly. “Folks, I’m sorry, but we won’t be open today. If you’ll excuse me, I need to clean the drop.”

“Can I help?” Rod asked.

The old couple started to move away but the old man pulled free from his wife’s arm. Both Penny and the man looked up as the older man approached. He had pale blue eyes and very pale saggy skin.

“Lo! Death has reared himself a throne,” he said. “In a strange city lying alone —”

His wife tugged on his arm. “Come on Sullivan.” She looked at Penny. “He likes quoting. That’s about all he can remember these days, are poems and lines from plays.”

“It’s fine.” Penny looked at Rod. “I can take care of this myself. Please, I’d prefer to be alone.”

Dupin watched the old couple move off, the woman tugging on the man’s arm. Rod moved away a couple steps and rubbed his rough jaw. Dupin waited to see what he intended to say when a police car rolled up in front of the library. Rod ducked his head, stuffed his hands in his pockets and walked away down the sidewalk.

David got out of the police car. He walked past Rod and headed straight towards Penny. Dupin got up and strolled over to Penny. He rubbed against her legs.

“Hello,” Penny said, when David reached them.

“Hello again, yourself.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out a few sheets of paper. “I’ve got the subpoena and the barcode list. Are you ready to help me out now?”

Penny took the paper and looked it over. “This looks fine. You just need to know who had these checked out?”

“And any contact information you have. We’ll need to question them.”

Penny nodded. “In this case I don’t see that we have any choice, if it’ll help catch the killer.”

“It might.” David opened the library door. “Shall we?”

“I was going to clean the drop.”

“I’m sure my people cleaned it after they were done.”

“I don’t know about that,” Penny shook her head. “They left a mess inside.”

Dupin meowed.

“See? Dupin agrees.”

David chuckled. “Okay. If Dupin agrees, I stand corrected.”

Penny held up a finger. “It’ll only take a minute and I’ll feel better. Then I’ve got something to show you inside.”

“Okay.”

Penny unlocked the book drop, twisted the handle and pulled open the metal door. Dupin peered around into the drop. It still smelled of the dead man, Bill Wilson. Penny reached inside and pulled the bin out. Dupin moved aside, and once the drop was out of the way he went to the opening and looked into the drop. A dark flat shape lay against the side of the drop.

Dupin strolled inside. He went to the thing he had seen and sniffed. It turned out to be a leather wallet that smelled like the dead man. From outside he caught a whiff of the cleansers Penny sprayed on the drop.

He pawed at the wallet. It fell open. There were pictures inside. Dupin took a long look. Penny needed to see this. He meowed and crouched as the drop magnified and echoed the sound.

5

Dupin turned his head smoothly and looked at the bright opening of the book drop. Two human faces looked in at him. Penny on the right, smiling and on the left the blue-eyed gaze of David. Dupin crouched down and kept his paw on the wallet.

“What is that?” David asked.

“It looks like a wallet. Just a sec.” Penny crouched and walked into the drop bent over. Dupin backed off the wallet when she reached for it. “Good kitty.”

Penny picked up the wallet and waddled back out. For once she lacked her usual cat-like grace. Dupin wouldn’t hold it against her. He followed her out of the drop. Penny straightened and flipped the wallet open.

“It’s Bill Wilson’s.”

David fished in his pocket and pulled out a bag. “I’ll need to take that.”

“Wait a sec,” Penny said.

Dupin couldn’t see anything. Very frustrating. He looked around and then jumped up on top of the book drop. He walked to the edge and could finally see what Penny was looking at.

Pictures, in the wallet, of the dead man and a young woman with long blond hair. Lots of it, like a Persian cat he’d known once. Penny flipped to the next picture and it was a picture of the red-haired woman smelling of fire and smoke that had been here just a few minutes ago. Penny held the wallet out to David

“Look at this. She was here earlier, but who is the girl in this picture? Their daughter?”

David made a whistling sound. “If that’s his wife, what was she doing here? Did she say anything about her husband?”

Penny shook her head. “She just wanted to pick up a book.”

“You didn’t tell her?” David asked.

“No, I didn’t know who she was. Haven’t you already contacted the families?”

“Not her. We haven’t been able to get a hold of her.” David flipped back to the first photo. “But that girl isn’t their daughter. They don’t have a daughter. We already checked with the school.”

“Oh.”

David dropped the wallet into the baggy. “This might just be the clue we needed. Thanks!”

Penny shook her head. She reached out and scratched under Dupin’s chin. He closed his eyes with pleasure. “It was Dupin that found the wallet.”

David coughed. “Yes, I guess so. We’ve got some barcodes to look at?”

First Penny wanted to clean out the book drop bin before she put it back inside. Dupin stretched out on the warm metal drop and snoozed while she worked. When she finished he jumped down and inside first, as soon as she opened the door. Dupin stopped and looked back but the humans were moving so slowly. Penny laughed at something David had said.

Dupin recognized the signs of human courtship. Penny had, on occasion, dated various men. None of whom were good enough for her, a fact that she had quickly realized when Dupin had made his displeasure known.

Penny walked quickly across the library. So quickly that Dupin barely avoided being trod upon, escaping at the last moment by springing up onto the circulation counter once more. David followed at a more leisurely pace. Penny turned around, facing him with her hands resting on the counter behind her.

“I’ve got it!” Penny announced.

Dupin walked up behind her and rose up, rubbing the side of his face against her shoulder.

“What have you got?” David asked.

“I know who committed these crimes.” Penny’s voice turned colder. “I know who killed Camille.”

David tapped the list on his hand. “How could you possibly have figured it out?”

Penny shrugged. Dupin rubbed against her other shoulder. Then he sat down and stared at David.

“Well, if the red-head was Mr. Wilson’s wife and the girl in the other picture wasn’t, she must have killed them both. Jealous rage, over the affair.”

David shook his head. “That might be the case, but we don’t have any evidence of that.”

“Maybe we do?” Penny turned and gestured at the key sitting in its island of fingerprint dust and Camille’s binder. “I thought you might want to look at these. Dupin found key beneath one of the keyboards. It’s to the book drop outside.”

“Okay, we shouldn’t have missed that, but go on.”

“We also found Camille’s folder with her financial aid forms that needed to be filed today. I think she came back to get the forms. While she was here she decided to empty the book drop and got in the middle of Mrs. Wilson killing Mr. Wilson! Mrs. Wilson came back today because she realized that she had left this key and was afraid it would lead back to her.”

“We haven’t established that Mrs. Wilson was here, and why wouldn’t she have waited until her husband left the library? Why kill him and Camille?”

Penny frowned. “I don’t know. Maybe she didn’t think it through. Maybe she assumed that Camille was also sleeping with her husband.”

“I’m not ready to discount anything.”

Dupin rubbed against Penny’s arm. It was a good idea, but David had a point. Thumbs and the ability to speak, that’d make all of this much easier. So would tuna. He walked to the edge of the counter and meowed.

Penny shook her head. “Not now, Dupin.”

David lifted the paper. “Let’s take this one step at a time. Could you get me the list of people I need?”

“Do you want to wait while I pull it up?”

David shook his head. “No, thanks. It may not pan out, but I do need to talk to Mrs. Wilson before she finds out about her husband from someone else. Just email me the list, my card is there.”

“Oh, okay.”

“I’ll take the key and have it tested. And the folder.” David pulled a couple more bags from his pockets. He bagged the key in a small baggy and then the folders in a larger one. “If you find anything else just leave it where you find it and give the department a call. Believe it or not, we’ll figure this out.”

Dupin crouched and stared at David, his tail flicking back and forth. David noticed and edged back. “Thank you, Ms. Copper.”

As David left, Dupin got up and rubbed Penny’s arm again. She turned around and scratched his neck, then ran her hand down his back through his long fur. Almost as good as tuna, but he couldn’t quite forget the empty knot in his belly.

“I’m going to figure this out,” Penny said. “For Camille.”

Penny went into her office. Dupin followed and crawled into his bed beneath her desk. While she typed on the computer he busied himself cleaning his fur again.

It took longer than Dupin thought was possible. Twice he woke from short naps when the drone of the keyboard keys ceased, but each time Penny started typing again. On the third time she pushed her chair back from the desk. Dupin lifted his head and yawned.

Penny peeked beneath the desk at him. “I’ve finished the list. It’s very interesting.”

Of course. Dupin stretched out his legs and did a deep back bend.

“David identified the books that were underneath Mr. Wilson, and those on top of him. They kept track of the layers of books so we have an idea of when books were put in, in what order. There’s not a lot of names on the list.”

Dupin stretched his back legs out. She must have a point with all of this.

“That guy from earlier? Rod Allan? He turned in books that were beneath Bill Wilson. There was also a book checked out to Mr. Wilson. And that older couple, they came by yesterday too. I recognized the names when I saw it. Sullivan and Madeline Winters, they returned books that were right on top of the body.”

Dupin walked out from under the desk. Interesting. And all of them showed up the next morning? Maybe because one of them wanted to return for their kill? Did humans eat things they killed? They must, because they had things like tuna. Dupin’s stomach rumbled. He really needed to eat something.

“I’m going to call David, tell him I’ve emailed the list. He needs to know who came by today.” Penny picked up her cell phone and dialed quickly. She leaned back in the chair.

Dupin jumped up onto her lap so that he could hear the conversation better.

“David.”

“It’s Penny Copper. I just emailed the list you wanted.”

“Great, thanks.”

“You need to know, the man whose books were right beneath the body, Rod Allan, he came by earlier today. He was here when Bill Wilson’s wife was here.”

“Really?” Dupin heard the excitement in David voice even with the phone pressed up against Penny’s head.

“And there was an older couple today, the Winters. They had returned books that were on top of the body.”

“They’re regulars?”

“Yes. I recognized them. I didn’t place their names until I saw the list, but yeah, they’re in most days.”

“Good work. You said the other guy was Rod Allan?”

“Yes? Does that mean something? He offered to help clean the drop.”

“Really? Well, that’s interesting. We just found out that the picture in Wilson’s wallet, of him and the girl? That’s Lenore Allan. She’s a student in Wilson’s class.”

Penny ran a hand along Dupin’s back. “So he might have gone after Mr. Wilson because of his daughter. That sounds like a motive to me.”

“And with his books right beneath the body he might as well have signed a confession. I love it when cases solve themselves!”

Dupin felt water drip on his ear. He flicked it and looked up at Penny. Water flowed from her eyes. As much as he didn’t care for the water, he knew her well enough to know what she was thinking. It was Camille. If this man killed Bill Wilson, then he must have killed Camille just because she saw something. If she hadn’t gone back for her folder she would have been fine.

“Thank you, Ms. Copper. We’ll —”

“Penny, please.”

“Okay. Penny. Thank you. I think I need to go have a chat with this Allan fellow.”

“Alright, bye.” Penny hung up the cell phone and put it down on the arm of the couch. Dupin batted at it. Penny snatched it away and stuffed it in her pocket. “Stop that, you’re always redialing people.”

Penny pulled a tissue from the green Kleenex box on her desk and dried her tears. She tossed it into the plastic wastebasket beside the desk.

Penny stroked Dupin’s back. “Looks like we’ve solved the crime. Thanks to you. You found the folder, and the wallet. Plus that key! And all without your tuna.”

Dupin jumped down to the floor and turned in a circle. He meowed. Penny laughed and stood up. “Okay, okay! I’m sorry. It hasn’t been a typical day.”

6

Dupin was in the middle of his after-eating cleaning when the library phone rang. Penny picked up the extension on the end table beside the couch.

“Reed Moore Library, Penny. How may I help you?” Dupin noticed the change in her expression and paused in his cleaning. He couldn’t quite make out the voice on the other end.

“So he didn’t do it?” Penny asked after a moment. “But what about the picture?”

Dupin got up and padded over to the couch. He jumped up beside Penny and bumped her arm holding the phone.

Dupin heard David’s voice. “— pretty upset about it, but his alibi checked out. He was giving a business presentation at the time the murders happened. You don’t have any way to determine when he dropped the books in the drop, do you?”

“No. His books were just beneath the body.”

“Could he have hired someone to do it?”

“Maybe, we’ll check into it, but either he’s an excellent actor or he was surprised about that picture.”

“What about the wife?” Penny asked.

“She checked out too. Fell apart when we told her, was also shocked about the photo. She’s been taking evening classes and we’ve confirmed she was in class that night.” David was quiet for a minute. “At this point we don’t have much. We got a fingerprint off the key you found but I’m waiting for search results. Forensics are starting to come in but it’s starting to look like there might have been more than one assailant. Sorry I don’t have more.”

“That’s okay. Thanks for letting me know.” Penny hung up the phone. She stroked Dupin. “I guess we didn’t solve it after all.”

Penny picked Dupin up in her arms and stood. She kept stroking his back so he didn’t mind. “He said there might have been two people. That makes sense. Camille and Mr. Wilson died differently. The key might turn up a match, but what if it didn’t?”

He’d already gotten his tuna. As far as he was concerned David was welcome to figure out what really happened. He lay slack in Penny’s arms as she walked out of the staff room. She carried him back to the counter and put him down on top. She pressed her hands together. “Okay, Dupin, let’s work through this. Camille comes back to the library to pick up her folder. She decides – because she was like that – to go ahead and empty the book drop while she was here. She goes out to empty the drop and Bill Wilson is still out there. One person stabs him while the other goes after Camille. She tries to get away or call for help by coming in the library. The killer outside shoves the dying Mr. Wilson into the book bin and then pushes it into the book drop, closes and locks the drop. Their partner strangles poor Camille inside and lets the other in, who tosses the key on the counter where it slides beneath the keyboard. They put Camille in the drop in here and then leave.”

It made sense but Dupin’s eye noticed something beneath one of the padded chairs. He jumped down from the counter and walked over to the chair. He crouched down and inhaled. The minty-smelling letter still lay where he left it. Dupin reached in and scratched at it. He managed to pull the envelope partway out.

Penny stooped down and picked it up. Dupin rubbed against her legs. Penny’s breath caught. She stood very still for several seconds then looked down at Dupin. “Do you know what this is?”

He had a pretty good idea.

“I recognized the Winters, they come in all the time.” Penny blew out her breath. “And she’s always checking out those serial killer books, from the 364s. This letter is addressed to them. They must have dropped it! What if they’re serial killers, working together? They could have dropped the letter when they —”

Penny slid the letter into her pocket and started walking towards the door. “Come on, Dupin. We’re going to go talk to them!”

Dupin didn’t move. Somehow the idea of talking to a pair of potential killers didn’t have much appeal. Plus he’d just eaten all of that tuna and it sat like a lump in his belly. A nap was the order of the moment. A long nap to allow the tuna time to digest.

“Dupin?” Penny stopped in the doorway. “Here, kitty. Come on. There’s nothing to worry about. We’ll just be helping David out, see what they say when I ask if they saw anything. Maybe they’ll let something slip.”

Dupin yawned.

Penny marched towards him. He thought of dashing away, but he hated running on a full stomach. Penny scooped him up and held him close. She pressed her face to his back and he smelled the apples in her hair.

“I need you with me,” she said. “Come on.”

7

Dupin rolled on his back in the seat beside Penny and tried to bat at the phone again. She moved it away.

“We’re almost there now,” Penny said.

David was on the phone. “Wait for me. My people can look at the letter. We found hair on the inside drop and I have people checking the fingerprints on the books against the book drop key. We’ll get them.”

Penny didn’t answer as she turned the steering wheel and slowed. Dupin rolled over and stood up. “I’m on the street now. I need to know why they did it.”

“Damn it! Wait! I’ll be there soon and I’ll handle it.”

The car slowed. “Too late.”

“Don’t hang up,” David said. “At least stay on the line.”

Penny slipped the phone in her pocket without saying anything.

The house sat back from the road with fir trees and bird feeders along the fence line. Penny stopped the car. Small brown birds flitted around the tree branches. Dupin perked up his ears. The house itself looked like a lot of human dwellings, yellow and white, mostly uninteresting. The old couple was out front in the yard, the woman pruning rose bushes with a pair of snips and her husband digging in another flower bed with a trowel, when Penny lifted Dupin out of the front seat and carried him up the cracked concrete walk.

“Sully?” The old woman called. “Look who it is?”

The old man looked back and squinted so much that only one pale blue eye stayed open. Against his side Dupin felt Penny’s heart thumping away like a mouse caught beneath his paws. She was scared but she marched straight up the drive towards them. She stopped across the chain-link fence from the woman.

“Mrs. Winters?”

“Call me Maddy, dear. Don’t mind my Sully, he’s grumpy as usual.” The old woman looked at Dupin and smiled broadly. “You’d better keep a good grip on that cat. Wouldn’t want him to go after a bird or something and get squashed by a car!”

Penny’s arms tightened. “No. I’m helping the police with the murders at the library, and I thought maybe you could tell me something?”

“Murders.” Maddy pressed her hands together and her smile widened to show bright teeth. Dupin didn’t like the way she looked at him. “Why would you think we know anything about those poor people?”

“Books you returned were on the body.” Dupin felt Penny take a deep breath. “The police took a fingerprint from the books and matched it to the one on the book drop key. They’ve also found your hair in the inside book drop where you stuffed Camille.”

Dupin blinked. That wasn’t exactly what David had said. He tensed. If the old woman tried anything she’d find out how sharp his claws were.

Penny pulled out the letter. “And if that’s not enough, you dropped this when you murdered Camille!”

Maddy stared at Penny for several seconds then chuckled. “Sully? You’d better come here. We’ve got a bit of a problem.”

Penny took a step back. “Why? Why did you do it?”

At the other flower bed Sully rose and came towards them with his dirt-covered trowel. Maddy snipped her pruning snips closed. “Opportunity. We walked to the library to return books and there was that man talking to that young girl. No one was around.” She opened the snips and snapped them shut again. “As far as motive, well dear, it was our anniversary and we always try to do something special.”

Sully had nearly reached the gate. Penny backed away towards the car. Dupin’s fur stood up and he growled deep in his throat. Maddy laughed.

“Run, if you like, but if you’re here the police haven’t linked any of that evidence to us. Not yet, at least. We’ll disappear and find you another time, dear.”

Sully leered at Penny. “By a route obscure and lonely, haunted by ill angels only.”

Penny shoved the letter back in her pocket and pulled out the cell phone. Dupin heard the sirens coming towards them. Penny said, “Detective? Did you hear all that?”

“Yes, Ms. Copper.” Dupin heard David’s voice coming from two directions and turned to see the detective step around the trees along the front into the driveway. He had a gun in his hand. “Mr. and Mrs. Winters, put the tools down and come out here with your hands up.”

Penny slipped her phone in her pocket and moved back over to her car as David walked up and several squad cars pulled up in front of the drive.

“I’m glad you called, but you should have waited. We’ll confirm the evidence, but with her confession that’ll be icing.”

Penny shook her head. “I didn’t call. Dupin stepped on the phone in the car. He redialed the last number.”

“Huh, his timing couldn’t be better if he did it on purpose.” David held out his hand. “And I’ll need that letter as well as a statement on finding it.”

“Dupin found it. I think he figured it all out before any of us.”

Officers came up and took the couple into custody. Dupin purred against Penny’s chest. Of course he figured it out first, and why would David think he hadn’t made the call on purpose? Nevermore would this couple kill.

 

<<<<>>>>

10,233 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 15th weekly short story release and the first break from the Planetary Bodies series of science fiction stories. I wanted to post something different this week and decided to go with the first mystery featuring my feline detective, C. Dupin (based, of course, or Edgar Allan Poe’s famous detective). I wrote the story while managing a library and we were doing a community ‘big read’ of Poe’s works. Later on I published it under my “Ryan M. Welch” pen name. A novel followed, The Task of Auntie Didothat will get reissued as well one day.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is a romance story, Boldy, Sort Of.

Podcast #10 This Book is Haunted

This Book is HauntedI’ve been working on a lot of different projects, and I’ll be talking about that more next week. Today I’m posting a podcast of my short story “This Book is Haunted.

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