Red: Conclusion

frozen fallsTrees. Snow. Cold that insinuated itself under the skin, wound about the bones, like a starving cat. In the hour since they had left Tanis’s cottage, Fox felt he had trudged for days through a hostile, if beautiful, landscape of tortures. He could not feel his toes, and his breath had frozen into many-faceted pebbles of ice on the woolen muffler wrapped about his face. His legs, also numb, weighed as much as the hulking boulders he and Crowe passed as they jogged along the deer trail. When he fell to his knees in the blue-shaded snow, he was not aware that he had stopped moving, and he knelt swaying in a dream of perpetual flight, feeling the heat from his body’s core floating up out of the depths of his parka.

“Fox. Fox. Inspector!” Crowe’s face swam into view, concern and irritation mixing in an almost comical blend in the eyes above the frosty three-day beard. “Can you stand?”

“Yes, yes, just give me your hand.” Fox pulled himself to his feet. “I’m nearly frozen. I do hope you know where we’re going.” He thumped his arms and shoulders with gusto to break the ice in his blood.

“We’re going to meet the wolves. They’ll be along this trail, fanned out with their eyes peeled for deer. The river is near, too. Listen.”

Fox freed an ear from a hat flap. It was instantly savaged by the cold, but he heard the echoing roar of the river pitching over a steep descent, too swift and muscular to have frozen yet. Another sound, still distant, glossed his skin with a different kind of cold. The howl of a wolf, full-throated and deep, rose over the trees. It was a dead winter moon of sound, a harsh song of hunger sound, and soon others joined it. Crowe tilted his head and turned toward the chorus.

“That’s it, Inspector. Hear them?” He took Fox by the shoulder in an iron grip. “The killer you seek is out there. It won’t stray far from the wolves. We can take it, but there is danger here the like of which you’ve never faced. Are you for it?”

Fox thought of the lovely, stunned face of the murdered girl, and of brave Peter Moon on his lonely rounds, torn open like an envelope. He thought of Dr. Sang’s blithe dismissal of death beyond the wall, and the spirits of the dead seemed to rise before him and plead for vengeance. He was beyond his depth here. This was no ordinary murderer. There would be no justice as he knew it.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m with you.”

“Good man. Look to your weapon, and be ready to move along that ridge, there. I’ll circle round to meet you. The thing will come swiftly when I blow the whistle, but it can’t cross the river. We’ll use the water as a third man and catch it between us.” Crowe’s voice was calm and steady, but his eyes danced.

Fox nodded. “What of the wolves?”

“Don’t let them catch you, Inspector. Run for the river and be swift, like a good fox.” Crowe grinned and slapped him on the shoulder. “Are you ready?”

Before Fox could reply, Crowe lifted the whistle to his lips and blew. The finger bone emitted a haunting note, surprisingly full for such a slender instrument. It hovered over the forest, perfect and mellow in the stillness, and then a breeze sighed through the creaking boughs, carrying it away. The breeze fluttered over them, scintillating with snow dust, and it brought a faint voice. Gideon, it whispered. Gideon

“My God,” Fox said, “it knows your name.” But Crowe was gone, running low and fast under the snow-freighted trees, and Fox watched the darkness there swallow him. Wrapping his muffler tighter about his face, the Inspector set off at a trot to find the river.

***

He was within sight of the falls, the water bucking and plunging even as streamers of it froze to the rocks of the gorge, when they came for him. The hemlocks had thinned, and a dark army of oaks ran away in ranks before him. The wolves ghosted over the snow, flickering in and out of existence as they passed among the trees. They were silent. Fox ran before them, all his speed and strength employed, his hat, muffler, and parka, even his rifle, shed in his flight. He pumped his arms and sprinted, nearly parallel to the ground, for his life. The cold was a memory. His hair steamed with perspiration. The wolves pursued him at their leisure, their long, red grins the only color in his nightmare. He came to the edge of the ravine, flailing and skidding, and watched stones kicked up in his slide go sailing over the edge, tumbling through the icy spray of the falls, past the black tentacles of roots that had burst from the earth to hang over the glass heart of the river. His own heart thundered like the falls, and he knew he could go no further. He stumbled along the crumbling lip, his eyes on the ground in front of him. He still had his pistol, and he drew it from his belt with a shaking hand. He wondered where Crowe had got to.

The silence, when it came, was so profound it shocked him to a halt. It seemed to flower around him, expanding in the air, and time slowed. He looked up. The wolves stood or sat between the trees, attentive, tongues lolling. He saw movement from the corner of his eye and whirled toward it with the languor of a man in a dream. A child stood before him, a girl of perhaps twelve years, small for her age. She wore a scarlet cloak, the hood wide and loose over her dark hair. It was a rich garment. He could make out intricate patterns in its weave, threads of deeper red that told a story, if only he could focus on them. The cloak was fine, the finest work he’d seen, but its hem was ragged. The hem of the cloak filled him with loathing, and he came back to himself with a cry. The girl was naked beneath the red cloak, her skin as smooth and white as eternity, her newly budding breasts tipped with a wash of blue. He looked at her dainty bare feet, and at the blank serenity of her face. A curl of birch bark hung about her neck on a strand of root or vine, and the word written upon it was SNOW. She put a finger on it, setting it swinging, and the clouds let go a thick swan’s down of lazy flakes. They caught on his eyelashes and melted into tears.

“What do you want?” he croaked.

He would never know the answer. In a rush, Crowe was there, shouting at him. He made no sense of the words. He heard the sharp report of a rifle, a shrill scream like a shiver of bells. There was a scuffle. Crowe grasped his shoulder, and he heard him say I’m sorry, Fox, and then he was out over the drop where the freezing breath of the river rose up to claim him. He fell, his face to the sky. It was like lying on his back to look at the clouds. He saw a vivid swoop of red shoot through the falling snow above him. He saw the black banner of her hair, and her delicate white limbs stretching for the far bank, and the rage in her eyes as she looked back once, but she could not cross. Crowe must have torn the birch bark charm from her. It crashed through the slow air toward him, and then it was past him, lost in the silent roar of the water. The red cloak burst apart, even as the girl flew away in snow and shadow, and blood rained down on him as he plunged into the river, and the sudden bloom of ice seized him.

END

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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 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…

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…

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…