Red: Part III

red in the woodsOutside, the night had settled on the forest in a blue-black sulk, the snow whirling down in icy showers that obliterated the stars. Fox had a dizzy moment when the sky and ground revolved, and then the screaming of the coach horses fixed him in the reeling nightscape. Men shouted, their voices edged with panic, and he moved toward them. Moon and Dick, the coachman, huddled together by the coach, and Dick had drawn his pistol. Fox slipped up and put his lips to Moon’s ear.

“What did you see?” he breathed.

Moon shied from him and thumped his head against the side of the coach. “Inspector. It’s out there, moving along the trees. I heard a growling, and I saw it slinking about. Then the snow come down heavy, and I couldn’t see it no more. But it’s out there.”

“What was it?” Fox had drawn his own pistol and squinted through the swirling curtain of white to where Moon pointed.

“Didn’t get a good look. Big and low, like a wolf. Thought it was a wolf, but it stood up on its two legs. Then the snow started.”

They waited in the frigid wet. The cottage door opened and lantern and firelight streamed out, gold against the deep blue. In the sudden blush of light, the snowflakes seemed to slow in their waltz, and Fox could see each perfect crystalline point. A creature stood over the body of the dead girl, and it was as white as the snow. A heavy dark mane hung about its head and trailed down its back. It stooped over the corpse.

Fox stood up from his crouch. “Madam, get back behind that door if you value your life,” he shouted. He aimed his pistol at the creature as it sprang erect, and his finger froze on the trigger.

It was a girl, naked as a babe. She trembled in his sights for an instant, and then old Tanis slammed shut her door with a terrified screech. Dick snatched up a lantern and flung it toward the girl, but the men saw only the hem of a red cloak, flapping away into the forest. The crack of a pistol sounded, and the snow howled around them in a vengeful maelstrom.

“Where’s Crowe, damn him?” Fox said.

“Right here, Inspector. Did you see it?” Crowe materialized out of the blankness, the hard planes of his face nearly as pale as the impossible snow maiden.

“It? I saw a girl, Crowe. A naked girl.” He spun and caught Crowe by the shirt. “Did you fire at her, you villain?” He tried to shake the deputy, but the man was immovable as a tree.

“Not I,” Crowe said, “but someone fired, for I’ve a crease along my arm that burns like hellfire.” Gently, he disengaged Fox’s grip on his shirt. “I circled out into the trees to try to come upon it from behind, and very crafty I thought myself. But someone saw me, even in all this.” He gestured at the snow that had died to a coquettish sugaring. “Someone with unexpectedly sharp eyes.”

“Well it wasn’t any of us,” said Fox. “I must take back the body. Are you fit to ride, or will you come back to the City with me in the coach?”

“I’m perfectly fine, and I’m not going to the City. I’m for the tavern.”

“I won’t have you questioning folk without me, Crowe. A palace badge doesn’t trump mine when I’m within my jurisdiction, and you’d do well to remember it.”

“Rest easy, Fox,” Crowe said. “I’ve no interest in questions. I’ve seen what I came for. All I want tonight is a warm bed.” He strode away and mounted a nervous chestnut stallion, and spurred past Fox and the others in a cloud of snow.

Fox turned to Moon, and the big constable nodded and clapped the coachman on the shoulder. “Come on, Dick,” Moon said. “Let’s lift that poor lass into the coach.”

The men trudged to the body. “Wait,” said Fox.

He fell to his knees in the snow and swept his hands through the chill of it. Moon and Dick looked down at him, dumbfounded.

“Do you see anything missing?” Fox asked them, his voice soft and wondering.

“Aye,” said Moon. “All the blood’s gone. Every drop.”

to be continued…