Red: Part V

Virgin forest in winter in AlaskaPeter Moon lay on his back under the forest eaves, staring up into the flickering snowlight with the fixedness of a marble effigy. His torso gaped like that of one of Dr. Sang’s anatomy subjects, and a frosty slop of guts lay stiffly on his lap. Fox closed his eyes against the sight, and drew the crackling air in through his nostrils. Around him, the oaks and hemlocks seemed to jostle closer, a threat the Inspector felt as a cold, arboreal malevolence. He wished himself back in the familiar shadows of the City, and Sang’s words came back to him with renewed significance. The ways of the Wild are not like those of the City. There is a wall between us for good reason…

“Gruesome, eh?”

Gideon Crowe crouched a few feet from the dead Constable. He did not avert his eyes from the horror. Again, Fox was reminded of a raven at a feast.

“Indeed, Mr. Crowe. Gruesome and tragic.”

Crowe glanced up, his dark eyes registering surprise and humor at the Inspector’s acid tone. He stood and pointed at the snow around the body.

“Naught but the tracks of a beast this time. Do you think this one’s a murder, Fox?”

Crowe’s voice was quiet and even, but Fox thought he detected laughter lurking in it. Damn the man! Fox couldn’t make sense of the deputy’s interest. This wasn’t a matter for the palace. It might not be a matter for the City Police, except …

“The blood’s gone,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“The blood. It should be everywhere, but there’s only a very little about poor Moon’s body. Just like the one yesterday, after that strange naked girl ran from the scene.” He raised his eyes to Crowe’s. “What the devil is going on here?”

The deputy turned and stared off into the endless forest. The snow had slackened to the occasional fat flake, spiraling with slow grace to earth. A lovely, feathered bit touched Crowe’s cheek, and he flinched from it as though burned.

“You’ve not been beyond the wall before, have you Inspector?” he asked. “In fact, you’ve not been with the City for long.”

Fox bristled. “What’s that got to do –”

“I asked for you especially, because you haven’t yet been infected with the City’s fear of the Wild. Because your record is excellent, because you’ve been rewarded for your bravery more than once, and because I need a man here who can act without hesitation. I hope I’m not wrong on the last count.”

Fox suffered a brief paralysis of outraged astonishment. “You asked … you need … ? What have you to do with this at all?” Constable Moon was forgotten in the sudden glare of conspiracy. “The palace has no interest here. I was sent to investigate murder.”

“And so you shall, Inspector. But you’re wrong about the interests of the palace. Come and look.” Crowe waved him over to a lightning-scarred oak and pointed at the snow.

A single footprint lay in the thin shade of the tree, slender and bare. Fox observed the delicate imprint of each toe, the slight marks of the ball and heel that together were smaller than the heel of his hand. The foot had barely pressed the snow, and only the deep cold and the shelter of the massive oak had preserved the print. He reached toward it in wonder, but did not touch it. Crowe tapped his shoulder, and Fox looked up at the rough bark of the tree. Something red clung there. A wisp of scarlet wool. When he tried to gather it, it melted into a familiar, oily slick on his fingers. Blood.

“I don’t understand,” he whispered. He held up his besmeared fingers for Crowe’s inspection.

The deputy turned to the horses and tugged two long rifles from their bindings. They were fine weapons, and gleamed with restrained violence. Crowe caressed first one, then the other, before thrusting one toward Fox.

“I thought you should have a proper firearm. Our quarry is as deceptive as it is dangerous. We call it a red mage, for it has magic in it, but some know it as a winter wraith. It comes with the first snows, it commands the wolves, and it needs blood to grow strong. It is a merciless killer. Left unchecked, it will empty this village. I have hounded it across the mountains where winter comes early, and I will have it at last.”

Fox gripped the rifle in nerveless fingers. The world was tilting again, warping with the crazy abandon of nightmare. “But, this is the footprint of a child,” he said without conviction.

“A child who wears the lifeblood of Constable Moon as a cloak,” said Crowe. He slapped the rumps of the horses, and they surged away toward the village, leaving the men alone in the watchful woods.

to be continued…

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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: Part II

Creative_Wallpaper_Lantern_on_snow_028448_“It weren’t no murder, not as you mean it, sir.”

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…