The old woman, Tanis, sat on a stool by the smoky fire, and sucked at a cob pipe on a long thin stem. The hem of her skirt was stiff with blood, as were the wide cuffs of her rough woolen blouse. Blood gavotted and curtsied across her sagging breasts. It limned her long, sharp fingernails and rouged her whiskery jaw.
She pointed the pipe stem at Inspector Fox. “A killing, aye. Oh, yes, a bad, brutal, thing it were. But ye can’t make it murder, when a beast does what its nature says do.” She sucked again at the pipe, and her expression turned woeful. “I’ll miss her. She was a kind lass, bringing me salt and meat trimmings from the tavern. Sometimes even a bit of ale.”
“Do you mean to tell me, madam, that an animal killed the girl?” Fox, seated in the best chair across from the old woman, glanced up at Crowe in exasperation. The deputy leaned against the oaken bulk of a chopping block, his arms crossed on his broad chest, his eyes closed.
“I do,” said Tanis. “I asked her to stay, what with the snow and the night coming on, but she wouldn’t. ‘Give me a lantern, grandmother,’ she says, ‘for I’ve to get home before the dark’. I up and lights one for her, and sees her go out, but the cold aches my bones and I shut the door before she was well away. I no more than sat myself down than I hears a wailing and a snarling, and no human sounds were they. The girl cried out. I opened the door and sees her all sprawled and still. I goes to her and lifts her a bit, and gets her blood all down me, but she’s dead, gone on to the next place.” Tanis turned her rheumy, grey gaze on Gideon Crowe. “He’ll know all about that. That one, with the stink of the palace on him.”
Crowe opened his eyes, and Fox saw the reflection of the fire dance merrily on their dark surfaces. “Now, now, granny,” Crowe drawled. “Let’s not be nasty. Tell me, did the girl’s blood leap to your mouth and stain your teeth? Or did you give her one last kiss?”
The crone hissed, and then gave a caw of laughter. Fox turned his head and saw her full array of strong teeth, an amazing sight in one so ancient. The old gums had receded, and the teeth looked long and wicked, stained with nicotine but clean of blood. His heart pounded in his chest, and he cursed Crowe under his breath.
“Oh, you’re a cheeky one,” Tanis cackled. “The lass had naught to fear from an old woman like me. There’s plenty in the Wild what seeks blood, and the first snow always brings them close.”
“See here,” said Fox, wrenching the conversation back under his control, “I would not have been sent to investigate a death by animal attack. I am sure, madam, you are in earnest when you say you believe that is what happened, but the evidence points to murder.” He stood and clapped his hat on his head. “Crowe, will you assist me in loading the body onto the coach?”
“Evy-dence?” Tanis plucked at the Inspector’s sleeve. “What for evy-dence are you going on about?”
“Footprints, granny,” Crowe said. “I don’t know of any animal that wears shoes, even in the strangest depths of the Wild. Do you?”
“Mr. Crowe!” Fox rarely raised his voice, but the Prince’s man infuriated him with his casual disdain for the City’s authority and procedures. “That will be quite enough.”
Crowe turned lazily toward him, no doubt ready with a disparaging retort, but Constable Moon chose the moment to shatter the silence with a fearful bellow. The Inspector exchanged a startled glance with the deputy and leaped for the door.
to be continued…