A Spice in the Blood: Part II

chaise in room“We’ll have to walk from here.” The boy from the inn, Jamie, cut the ignition on the wood-paneled station wagon and stared at Irene with faint hostility. They had driven into the fog and chill of the forest, up and up the old logging road, bouncing through the ruts and potholes as though riding a buckboard. The trees shouldered up to the road, shaggy conifers and oaks with mighty flexing boughs, old gods sniffing the possibility of sacrifice and leaning out to stroke the roof of the car.

“Walk? How far?” Irene stared into the shadows. Ferns as high as her waist waved their damp arms at her.

Jamie rolled from the car. “Not far. There’s a path. Lou … Mr. Dussault … he don’t like visitors. Says if they’re determined to see him, they can work for it.”

Irene and Celeste stepped out into the dripping cold, and Jamie dragged the garment bag with Celeste’s gown inside from the back seat. He slung it over his shoulder and set off into the woods. Celeste touched her mother’s arm and smiled.

“It’s okay, Mother.” She breathed in the fragrance of dying leaves and felt that little kick in her pulse. They followed Jamie to a gate of peeled logs, silver with age and weather, and on into a realm of bird rustlings and water patter. The path was not long, but it was long enough to allow the insular spell of the forest to reassert itself. When the lodge appeared, rising from an airy nest of fern and Solomon’s seal, it was easy to believe they had hiked to the undisturbed heart of creation.

The door of the low, rustic structure opened, and Louvell Dussault stood framed there. “Jamie,” he said, and his voice was deep and smooth. He stopped the boy in the doorway with a hand on his shoulder, the long fingers squeezing, swallowing the joint in an affectionate hug. Jamie hung his head and grinned.

“I brought them, Lou.” He turned his head and indicated Irene with a nod. “That’s Mrs. Pennymaker. She made me bring her.” The shy blue eyes slid to Celeste. “And that’s Miss Celeste, that you’re to paint. This here’s her gown.” He shook the garment bag.

“I’ll take that,” Dussault said. With the gown draped over his arm, he turned his attention to the women. “Mrs. Pennymaker, it was good of you to see your daughter to my door. She will be an honored guest. I’ll have to ask you to return to town with Jamie now. Celeste and I have a great deal of work ahead of us.”

Irene, who had put her foot on the first stone step to Dussault’s porch, took it off again. “I, well, I thought we would discuss the portrait, Mr. Dussault. And I could help Celeste with her poses. She’s never sat for an artist before, you know, and she might be nervous.”

Dussault’s gaze had found Celeste and fixed upon her. It never wavered as he dismissed her mother. “No. She won’t be nervous.” He held out a hand, and Celeste floated up the steps to accept it. “You may go home, Mrs. Pennymaker. I will send for you when the work is done. Jamie, please escort the lady back to the inn.”

He drew Celeste across the threshold, and the door closed. Irene stood as though spellbound, and then a tremor passed over her. She felt as though she might weep with grief, but she hadn’t the courage to open that door, to insist he give her daughter back. She didn’t understand what had happened, or what was still happening to her, and she looked up at Jamie in mute shock. The blue of his eyes was ringed with gold, she noticed. It was a feral combination, touched now with a hint of impersonal compassion.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. P.,” he said. “We’ll take good care of Celeste, and you’ll get a real beautiful portrait.” He came down off the porch and took her arm, gently, and led her back to the car.

***

Celeste drifted across the worn wool rugs scattered on the slate floor, her fingers caught firmly in Dussault’s. A fire arched its back and rubbed against the stones of the hearth, and the warmth of it fluttered over her skin. It smelled like untamed night. A drum beat inside her, speaking a dual language of danger and pleasure. She looked around the room, masculine and comfortable, and then up at Dussault. His eyes, in the trembling light, gleamed golden. He couldn’t be as old as her mother had said he was. He didn’t look any older than her father, a man still in his early forties.

“Are you really seventy years old?” she blurted.

Dussault laughed. “That and more, my dear. I am blessed with a strong constitution, a family trait. Welcome to my home.” He bowed over her hand, brushing a kiss across the knuckles before releasing her. “Would you like to see the studio? Or shall we have tea?”

“Oh, the studio, please. I’ve never known an artist before.” She blushed. “I’m glad Mother’s not here. It’s nice to have an adventure all to myself.”

“Do you like adventure?”

Perhaps it was Dussault’s strange accent that gave the words their sinister piquancy. Celeste felt an abyss of frightening possibility open around her, and she grew still. “I don’t know, Mr. Dussault. I mean, I haven’t really had one before.”

“No, of course you haven’t, child,” he said. “Who has, at seventeen? You must call me Lou. Come, I’ll show you where you’ll be sitting, frozen and grumpy, for long hours.” He smiled, and waved her before him into a lofty room where exposed beams formed a starburst interspersed with skylights. “Northern light, very good for my work. We will have a fire to take away the chill, I will sit here behind my easel, and you will sit here on this old thing.” He indicated a plump chaise in champagne velvet, the size of a Volkswagen. “Or recline, perhaps. We shall see.”

Celeste turned and found him very close. Her praise of the studio died in her throat. Dussault reached out and lifted a tress of her hair to his nose, sniffing delicately. His gaze mesmerized her, bold and wary at the same time.

“Orange blossom,” he purred. “Lovely. Shall we try a pose or two before Jamie comes to take you back to the inn?”

to be continued…

Advertisements

Red: Part VI

wolf_at_the_door“Are you mad?” Fox cried. He turned in a circle, waving an arm at the forest. “You’ve marooned us in this frigid waste.”

Crowe stepped close. Gone was the cavalier attitude and the impish grin that had so nettled the Inspector since the case began.

“I suggest you lower your voice, my friend,” Crowe said, and the chilly silk of his voice raised the hair on Fox’s flesh. “There are ears to hear even your heartbeat in this waste, as you call it, and it’s like a dinner bell to them. I’d not risk good horses. We go afoot.” The deputy shouldered his rifle and squinted up at the vague sun. The disc was no more than a lighter spot on the massing, ashen bales of cloud. Its light was no greater than that of a storm-blurred moon.

“More snow’s coming. We have a deal of thrashing about ahead of us, Inspector, but first we’ll secure our flank.” Crowe nodded to the low wooded brow of a hill that Fox found indistinguishable from the rest of the wilderness about him. “Grandmother Tanis dwells just the other side of that. We’ll pay her a visit, the old she-wolf.”

“You speak in riddles,” Fox grumbled. For the first time, he examined the rifle he’d been given, testing the balance of it. “We’ll be lucky if we aren’t eaten by wolves before this folly is over.”

Crowe laughed softly, and Fox was surprised at how heartening the sound of it was to him. “Indeed, Inspector. But, there are wolves, and then there are wolves. Come on. We’ll catch ourselves one that will make you a rug like no other.”

***

Above the old woman’s cottage, masked by the thick pelts of the hemlocks, the men watched as a lean, grey shape skulked beneath the frosted windows. It glided along the tumbled wall of firewood and paused to lap at the ice atop the rain barrel. It trotted to the cottage door and, standing upon its hind legs, scrabbled at the latch with a long-toed paw. Fox gave a muffled cry of alarm and brought his rifle up, but the wolf pushed its way into the little house with a snarl, and the door banged behind it. Crowe swore and vaulted to his feet, dragging Fox up with him.

“Be quick,” he said, and then he was away, loping down the hill in ground-eating strides, the snow slowing him not a bit.

Fox struggled after him, the breath whooping in his lungs. Crowe hit the door with his shoulder, knocking it crooked on its hinges, and skidded into the dimness of the lantern-lit room. A shriek floated out on the frozen air, and Fox thought there was fury in it, but very little fear. He floundered through the last of the snow onto the slick cobbles of Tanis’s dooryard, and caught himself against the wrecked doorjamb. His breath steamed out in front of him in a glittering plume.

“What are ye thinking, ye great devil, frighting an old woman like this?” Tanis shouted. She cowered on her stool before Crowe, and shot him daggered looks from beneath her shaggy brows. She wore a voluminous flannel nightshift and a ruffled cap that threw her face into shadow.

Crowe seized the lantern and flung it into the fireplace. The oil and dry tinder exploded in a gust of flame that illuminated the tiny room. Tanis cringed and wailed, pulling her shawl close around her.

“It’s a bit late in the day to be in your nightgown.” Crowe snatched the cap from her head, and the firelight gleamed on the long, hungry smile of a wolf. “My, what sharp teeth you have, granny.”

Tanis leaped from her stool, and Fox saw the points of her ears jutting from the tangled mane of grey hair. Her eyes blazed yellow. “All the better to eat you with, hound,” she said, her words sliding away into a growl.

She struck at Crowe with a hand both clawed and partially furred, and the buttons of his coat ricocheted about the room. Fox, frozen in horror and disbelief, felt the sting of one against his cheek. It loosened something in him, and he shouldered his way into the room, kicking aside the rough furniture, blocking the creature’s escape.

Crowe touched his chest and brought his fingers away red. “Bitch,” he snarled, and drew a blade from his belt. The firelight ran along it in a liquid iridescence like mercury. “Come and eat death.”

Tanis sprang. Crowe caught her and turned with her, graceful as a dancing master, and the two of them crashed to the floor. Fox rushed to help, but the battle was over in that one nimble pivot. Crowe had driven the knife deep in an upward thrust behind her ribs. He knelt over Tanis and cleaned his blade on her flannel gown. His hair hung in his eyes. He did not look at Fox.

“She was old. Slow.” He sat back on his heels and stared at the corpse, the wolf in the woman’s skin. “She could have lived many years yet, if the red mage hadn’t come here. It would have used her against us, and old as she was, she was fierce.”

“You sound as though you regret killing the beast,” Fox said.

Crowe was silent for a moment, then he stood. “No. I don’t regret it. Neither do I celebrate it.” He shook the hair from his eyes and looked around. “Hand me that cleaver,” he said pointing to the utensil standing upright in the oak chopping block.

Fox wrenched it from the wood and held it out. Crowe crouched by Tanis and dragged her hand from beneath her body. He stretched out the clawed fingers on the bricks of the hearth, and, before Fox could ask what he meant to do, struck off one of them with the cleaver. He lifted the kettle from its hook and shook it. Satisfied with the slosh from its iron guts, he hung it over the fire.

“What are you doing?” Fox asked.

Crowe held up the severed finger. “This will make a whistle that will call the red mage close. I’ll boil off the flesh and carve it a bit. Very pretty, yes? Make yourself comfortable. We’ll be freezing our balls off soon enough.”

Fox looked at dead Tanis, at her savage face and long teeth. He looked at Crowe, squatting contentedly by the fire with the impossible finger, waiting for the kettle to boil as though he were going to make tea. He thought about the deputy carving the finger bone and putting it to his lips, no doubt all quite pragmatically, and whistling up a creature from a dark fairytale.

“Gideon Crowe, what are you? Some sort of magician?” he said.

Crowe thought about it for a bit, then shrugged. The kettle steamed, and he lifted the lid with the fireside tongs and dropped in the finger. A wet, feral stink wafted from the kettle’s spout. “No, Inspector, I’m no magician. But I’ve learned a trick or two.”

to be continued…

Red: Part IV

vaultsInspector Fox stood beneath the vaulted arches of the City morgue, his shoulders hunched against the chill, and listened to the echoes as Dr. Sang dropped his instruments into the chipped enamel tray. The surgeon worked in silence, pursing his lips and giving an almost imperceptible shake of his head whenever impatience wrung a question from the Inspector. Around them, empty stone slabs stood like forgotten altars. It’s a slow day in the City, Fox mused, and felt the familiar depression settle on him. It seemed to him futile to enforce the laws of this place, arbitrary as they often were. The dead girl on Sang’s table fixed her cloudy eyes on him in hopeless appeal, and he turned away to light a cigar against the stench of cold stone and blood.

The morgue was part of a shadowy city beneath the City, a honeycomb of dank prison cells and funerary rooms, its many secret staircases ascending to the streets above in every district. Here, beneath the sweet apple trees of University Row, roots thrust between the stones of the ceiling and dangled their damp fingers above those who had, in the vernacular, gone on to the next place. Inspector Fox had only a vague grasp of the cosmology of the City, where death had many definitions. He held to one, that of a final darkness. Murder was the ultimate evil, the snuffing of a precious and tremulous flame. It sickened him that here, in this decadent place, it was held to so little account.

Sang turned from the corpse and plunged his hands into a basin of icy water. “Animal attack, Inspector. The marks of teeth and claws are plain.”

“Impossible. There were human footprints in the bloody snow all about her.”

Sang’s long white face remained expressionless. “There is no mark of a weapon on her, Inspector. There are no handprints about her throat. She is rudely slashed and torn in a manner that suggests predation by a wolf. There are wolves aplenty in the Wild.”

“You won’t report this as a murder?” Fox’s voice was quiet, his eyes furious. “You will sweep away this girl’s life under the veneer of a wolf attack?”

“You are new here, Inspector,” Sang said. “You will come to understand that the ways of the Wild are not like those of the City. There is a wall between us for good reason, and you should not wish to go beyond it. I’m doing you a favor.”

The surgeon gestured and two dark-robed acolytes of the Necropolis materialized from the shadows. They lifted the dead girl onto a litter and carried her away down a dim corridor. Fox shouted after them, but they paid no heed. He whirled on Dr. Sang.

“You have no authority -”

“But I do,” Sang interrupted. “We will send a message to her people, to find if they want her back. If not, we will inter her in the Necropolis. She will be looked after, Inspector.” The surgeon looked as if he had more assurances with which to placate Fox, but instead his pale eyebrows shot to the edge of his bald scalp and his jaw dropped open on a surprised exhalation. “My lord deputy,” he wheezed. “It is an honor.”

Fox spun to find Gideon Crowe descending the wide, shallow steps to the morgue theater. The deputy looked flushed and merry, and Fox detected the clean scent of snow and pines about him. Crowe ignored Dr. Sang, and dealt Fox a comradely blow on the shoulder that staggered the Inspector.

“Get your cold weather gear, Fox,” he boomed. “There’s another corpse awaits you beyond the wall, and it’s snowing again. This time, we’ll be going hunting.”

“What? Who?” The Inspector sputtered and shook his head. “Who’s been killed?”

Crowe tipped him a wink that chilled Fox’s blood, it was so like the darkly humorous wink of a raven. “None other than good Constable Moon. Brought down like the bull he was, and freezing to the ground in his own juices while we stand here jawing.” He turned and started back up the stairs. “You’ll want a good rifle, Inspector,” he tossed over his shoulder. “And the courage to fire it.”

to be continued…

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…

Red

2008-the-woodcutters-hutBlood dyed the snow. More snow fell on the blood and on the woman lying in the red lake of it. Her white face was upturned to the drifting flakes, her expression shocked, her lips parted as if to speak a final word. Her hair lay like a shattered web, merging with the darkening blood. The forest around the woman was silent, filled with snow hush and deepening twilight. The house that grew from the forest was silent, though occupied. Scant minutes after the woman’s death, the door of the house had opened, and warm golden light had poured across the snow, across the cooling body and the steaming blood. And then, the silence had been broken.

Inspector Fox arrived from the City in a fast black coach, having left behind a cozy dining room with a succulent roast on the board, and he was uninspired by the beauty of the winter forest. He had hoped never to be required to leave the City walls, yet here he was in the Wild, squabbling with a village peacekeeper and a sinister-looking Prince’s deputy for dominance over the gruesome corpse. Constable Peter Moon was gigantic, with the build of an ox and an expression as imperturbable. The Inspector didn’t like the look of Moon’s enormous hands, which opened and closed as though the constable were imagining an act of strangulation.

The deputy’s air of dangerous quiet was worse. Dressed entirely in black, Gideon Crowe was lean and lithe as a shadow, made hard by years in the saddle. He moved briskly about, taking in the scene from all vantages and striding out into the darkening trees before returning to the body. Occasionally, Crowe scribbled something on a scrap of paper and smiled to himself. He did not share his thoughts as he filled vials with bloody snow and plucked bits of hair from the dead woman‘s torn clothing. Outside the crimson boundary of the crime scene sat a lacquered box into which went every labeled specimen. Fox sighed. He’d have all of that before he left, Prince’s man or not.

“Come away from there, Crowe,” he said. “You’ve trampled everything to Hell and gone. Has anyone spoken to the witness?”

Moon cleared his throat and growled, “Her name is Tanis. She’s in the cottage, waiting for you. I told him to wait until a thumper showed up.” Moon indicated Crowe with a contemptuous glare.

Inspector Fox cringed at the slang term for the City police. Perhaps it was true that the ways of the City changed slowly, if at all, but he hoped to conduct his investigation using shrewd observation and intelligence, and without recourse to skull-cracking. This savage place, with its shifting realities and strange allegiances, was nothing like his last post. There was still an outside chance he could go back, if he did well. He very much wanted to go back …

“Daydreaming, Inspector? If you have no interest in questioning the hag in yonder hovel, I’ll be happy to have a word with her.” The lantern light lay like glowing embers on Crowe’s dark chestnut hair. The deputy grinned and cocked an eyebrow.

“You may accompany me, Mr. Crowe,” Fox said, his voice sounding peevish to his own ears, “but keep a rein on your tongue. We are still within the jurisdiction of the City.” He turned to Peter Moon. “Please wait here, Constable, and watch over the body. Night is falling. There may be beasts.”

“Aye,” said Moon. “There may be, at that.”

The big man looked into the darkness gathering beyond the meager light of the lantern, and the thick placidity of his face curdled into something like fear.

To be continued…