1. DETECTIVE GRIMWALL
There was something missing.
Arthur Grimwall stared at the blackboard until the words blurred themselves into a single haze of chalk. Frustrated with himself, he felt each chirp of the clock’s hands pulsing in his temples, urging him to think, think! Every minute he wasted away in front of this board was another minute a murderer walked free through the streets of Argenstrath.
"If I’d just had more time at the morgue...” he muttered to himself, “I'm sure I'm missing something…Harriet, where's my chalk?"
When his secretary didn't respond, he glanced over to the empty desk.
"Detective," the Captain's gruff voice chimed in from the not-so-empty doorway of Grimwall’s office.
"Where is Harriet?" Grimwall asked, forgoing a formal greeting.
"She resigned. That was three weeks ago, Arthur."
Grimwall had known Captain Hadleigh since they were bobbies together many years ago, and Grimwall knew before his friend even uttered a syllable that the conversation would not bring good news.
"How's it going?" the Captain asked, gesturing to the board.
Grimwall’s heavy sight was enough of a response.
"The press is getting restless. People want answers, Arthur. They don't feel safe in their homes. Did you interview the nurse again?"
Grimwall waved a dismissive hand at the thought, "I can't waste my time with that, what I do need is for you to tell the Chief of Medicine at the hospital to let me use the facilities after-hours. If I-"
"The murder weapon was found in the nurse’s home, she has no alibi. How could that possibly be a waste of time?”
“I already told you it’s not the nurse. She’s too poor.”
“Couldn’t that be motive?”
“That’s not what the victim’s body told me. The killer used poison from the desert scorpion, not exactly something easy to access in this large a dose.”
The Captain raised an eyebrow. “I don’t have time for this. All we need is a confession and --"
“Anyone can confess to a murder, Charles. Maybe they truly committed it… or maybe the interrogating officer just said the right words, salted the right wounds. But a corpse doesn't have pressure points, it can't be coerced...it can’t lie.”
Captain Hadleigh grimaced, obviously finding the talk about cadavers distasteful. "Look, I'm getting a lot of heat from above to get this thing wrapped. I know you have all your queer experiments -- and truly, you know I find them amazing, Arthur -- but now is not the time for them! If we don't end this thing and keep the bosses in Gearford happy, both of our jobs will be at stake."
"My job is to catch murderers, Charles, not to appease the Suits."
"Just get me a damn confession, Detective! And soon. I’ll have Ms. Winston hire you another secretary, if there’s a soul left in this city who will take the job!"
The nostalgic warmth Grimwall felt upon seeing his former partner evaporated swiftly with the Captain’s departure. The detective had barely turned his attention back to the board when he was interrupted by another officer, a young sergeant who was flustered and out of breath.
“Who are you?”
“Stempleton, sir. They need you at the train station. Detective. Murray found a woman on one of the platforms. Dead. She’d been there all day, sitting at one of the benches.”
“Very odd. Can you fetch that case over there?” Grimwall asked, gesturing to what seemed to be a large suitcase across the room. Stempleton picked it up as the Detective rushed passed him.
“Good,” Grimwall shouted, “Bring it along.”
“But, I’m just a--”
“And be careful not to drop that, Stevenson, it’s expensive!”
It was well known among the officers of the Argenstrath Police that Arthur Grimwall was a great detective -- great enough to forge his own department in Argenstrath, the first of it’s kind dealing exclusively in homicides -- but it was equally well known that he was an unpleasant and peculiar man to work with. Detective Grimwall had a lengthy procedure which he required any first-responding officers on a murder scene to follow meticulously. A failure to comply meant a month of walking overnight beats in Dune at best and at worst an opportunity for early retirement.
Constable Ashford was no stranger to Grimwall’s particular methodology, and while he didn’t necessarily understand it, Ashford had plenty of practice over the last several months to perfect the routine. It was particularly difficult this time, mid-day at the train station when people were beginning to get curious. Ashford was thankful to finally see the black police carriage arrive.
Grimwall was one of the few detectives left on the force from before the Revolution. Approaching his mid-forties, he hid his thinning hair under a bowler hat almost as well-worn as the lines on his face that gave him his ever-present, disapproving frown. Grimwall was grave-faced as ever as he approached Ashford with a nervous bobby in tow.
“Over here, Detective,” Ashford said and led them both away from the restrained crowd of construction men to an empty platform. It was one of the oldest platforms at the station, and only two days prior had been closed down for refurbishing. “We’d better hurry before the sun gets too high.”
Grimwall scanned the scene: there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about the old platform except for the presence of a steam shovel on the tracks instead of a train. No damage, no signs of violence. It was completely deserted except for the three officers and a woman, who sat perfectly still at a bench a few yards away.
“Excellent posture,” he noted with a smirk, and ignored the uncomfortable look the two younger officers exchanged. He turned to the bobby carrying the large case. “Ashford, has anything been moved?”
“And you’ve made sure nobody has touched the body?”
“Not a soul since I arrived, sir.”
“Good. And --”
“I’ve already begun a list of men working construction on this platform, and all guards and station workers who have been on the premises in the last thirty-six hours. Shall I give it to Detective Murray?”
“Yes, thank you,” Grimwall said. “Good work, Ashford.”
Ashford nodded, grateful for the dismissal. He felt pride in the Detective’s appraisal, but he wasn’t keen on a career dealing with the dead.
Grimwall turned his attention back to the bobby who was accompanying him. “Can you set up that camera, Simpson?”
“It’s Stempleton, sir. And yes, sir, I believe I can fig--”
“This is time sensitive, son.”
If the Sergeant said anything further, Grimwall did not hear him over the rushing of blood in his ears as his focus tunneled in on the wooden bench and the woman: just over five feet tall, average build, her posture immaculate except for her head slumped over, as though she were looking down to read something. She could have been sleeping, had her lips not been a pale blue beneath red lipstick and her eyes not been open and glossed over. No blood, no obvious wounds of any kind. Her dress was the muted grey-blue and well-worn, mended along the cuffs several times with different kinds of thread. There were black smudges -- ink -- on the tip of of her right ring finger and along the edge of the same hand. Her hat and shoes -- the right shoe had a smudge of chalk-like substance on the back -- were a similar grey-blue, both also well worn. Her scarf, however, was brand new, made of bright red silk and she wore powder on her face as well as color on her cheeks and lips, conflicting with her otherwise unassuming attire.
Though the powder hid it well, there were was purple bruising under her eyes.
There was suitcase on the ground next to the bench, her right hand resting on it, as though she were simply waiting for the train and suddenly decided to cease living. But why would she wait on a closed platform -- she wouldn’t, of course, somebody put her here after--
“Grimwall!” a shout from Detective Murray shattered Grimwall’s concentration. With a frustrated sigh, he abandoned his examination.
“I need you to take photographs of this body, every angle, anything you can see that may be of interest. Do not -- under any circumstances-- touch anything,” Grimwall ordered the bobby, who had just finished putting the camera together. He looked unsure, but nodded and hung the camera strap around his neck.
Detective Murray stood several yards from the scene with a weary-looking man in dusty coveralls. Grimwall approached the men, frowning forcefully with the hope that his annoyance would etch itself into his features as severely as he felt it. Murray ignored his colleague’s foul mood as he introduced him to the short, stocky man who couldn’t stop looking at the woman seated at the platform.
“Roy Sanders. He’s the foreman for the crew refurbishing this platform. He was the last person on site last night.”
“I see,” said Grimwall. “And there was nobody else with you?”
“Yes, sir,” Sanders said. “Jus’ one of my mechanics. He stayed late tryin’ to fix our steam shovel. The rest o’ my men left about an hour before sunset. Platform’s been closed off to the public for days now, nobody’s down here last night ‘cept us, I’m sure of it. Not by the time we left a’least.”
“So nobody saw you leave the platform?”
“No, sir. Met the cab driver up at the front of the station.”
“And were you the one to discover the woman?”
Sanders nodded his head, “I's the first one to show up to the site, always am.”
“Can anyone confirm the cab you ordered?” Murray asked.
“I don’t know. Look, Detective, I got a family, I’m not in the business o --”
“It won’t be necessary,Sanders,” said Grimwall. “I don’t think you are responsible.”
Sanders looked relieved and Murray both confused and annoyed.
“I will contact you if I have further questions. Leave your name and address with Ashford just in case,” Grimwall dismissed the foreman, who gratefully left the scene.
“With all due respect, Detective, The procedure manual dictates that we thoroughly and in a timely fashion question all--”
“When that manual actually catches a murderer, maybe I’ll listen to what it has to say,” Grimwall grumbled as he turned back to the crime scene, “until then I’ve got work to do.”
Detective Grimwall didn’t have to look at Murray to feel the anger that the young detective was exuding. He didn’t have time to answer tedious questions, though. It would be mid-day soon, and he needed as much time in the morgue as he could get.
2. WELCOME TO ARGENSTRATH
She didn’t realize that a city could be so dirty. Hjem has its fair share of impoverished and run-down sections, but looking past the well-swept streets and finely dressed citizens, every corner of this city seems to sweat grime; every shop window was covered in a layer of dust Astrid didn’t remember being a part of the Argenstrath of her childhood, or maybe she just hadn't noticed back then.
Astrid was late getting back to the tavern, and she knew her uncle would be upset, but she paused anyway in front of Argenstrath Medical Center. She stared up at the large brick frame that she used to believe harbored miracles; the windows were dark, dim reflections of the white sun shining relentlessly outside. Part of her wanted to rush inside to the room where years ago her mother used to sit in bed and play card games with her; where her mother would smile past her feverish, pale skin and ask her children how lessons were going or warning them not to give their father a hard time.
That same part of Astrid wanted to sit on the cold Visitor’s bench, pushing herself so close to her brother that her elbow pressed into his arm, leaving a small red impression in his skin as they watched their mother sleep, constantly wondering if she would wake up again. It was a childish part of her, one that felt so Other, so separate from herself that she barely recognized it as anything beyond a hitch in her breath.
A year ago, these memories would have tortured her for weeks, months even, but today she left them behind as soon as hospital left her line of sight, and continued down the street, pushing against the evening crowd.
Argenstrath still seems like strange maze of narrow sandstone roads that seem to blur into one another, but as Astrid traversed the noisy streets, sure she had taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way, she was relieved to finally spot several familiar sights, including the faded red door of her Uncle’s tavern.
It was still an hour until sunset, but Llewellyn's was already nearly wall-to-wall with patrons. Astrid struggled to the back of the room, where her Uncle was standing behind the bar. His booming laugh reverberated through the bar as he spoke with one of the men waiting for a drink. When Astrid ducked behind the counter, his smile dimmed slightly to make room for worry. She dumped the bag she’d been holding onto the bar and a few of the limes rolled out onto the counter.
“Sorry, I just got a bit...distracted.”
“What does that mean? Are you hurt? I told you not to talk to anyone, the docks are full of--”
“Miscreants, or... Pirates, or whatever. I know, Uncle. Yet somehow I managed to walk a few blocks to the fruit stand and home without being abducted or contracting a strange fatal disease. Shall I alert the press?”
“Watch it,” Graeme warned, though she could see the humor behind his stern gaze.
A young man a few seats down along the bar slurred in Scathan dialect, “Táa béal mar uathúil nathracha.” His friends snickered. She spits venom like a snake.
Astrid threw one of the limes at the Nyxianian man, knocking the glass in his hand so the amber liquid spilled down his front.
“At least I don’t look like one.”
The snickers of his friends turned to outright laughter and the man slammed his glass down, spitting a long string of profanities.
“Astrid,” said Graeme in a lecturing tone, throwing a tea towel to the man, “Don’t waste the limes.”
As she had every night since arriving in the city, Astrid helped her Uncle serve the eclectic crowd that patroned his tavern. Graeme was never happy with this arrangement, but this night he seemed more discontented than usual about her presence in the tavern. As the crowd slowly died down later in the night, he bid her to the bar again and pushed a newspaper toward her, open to the classifieds section.
“So I was looking through the paper this afternoon and I think I found something you’ll like.”
“Why can’t I just work here? Maybe give you a night off every once in a while? Not to mention the added benefits of knowing exactly where I am at all times. I know how much you like keeping tabs.”
“This isn’t Hjem, Astrid. You can’t just wander around wherever you want without--”
“Without thinking about the consequences. And you can’t work here, your father would kill me if he knew I was letting you serve beer to this bunch of degenerates.”
Astrid sat down at an empty spot at the bar, avoiding her Uncle’s gaze. “I think we both know my father doesn’t care if I’m serving beer or joined a circus act or if my train crashed on the way here and I never arrived.”
“Well, I care, Astrid. So if you insist on working instead of attending school, you’re going to get a respectable job.” He tapped on the paper to indicate the ad he was referring to:
SECRETARY - Wanted: man or woman to perform general
administrative duties for APD Detective. Must be experienced
typist; strong constitution necessary. Inquire at Argenstrath
Police Department, attn. Arthur Grimwall.
“At least inquire about the job, will you?”
“Of course, Uncle Graeme. If it means that much to you. It doesn’t really matter to me what I do, I just want to be busy. Useful.”
“Besides,” Graeme continued, “I can’t have you throwing fruit at my customers, it’s bad for business.”
“Speaking about throwing fruit, I believe an apology is in order.”
A man appeared suddenly at the bar, unnoticed by both Graeme and Astrid, almost as though he had materialized out of thin air. He was an very tall, thin man, dressed in an immaculate suit as dark as his hair. He looked as though he was about to attend a funeral than order a drink.
His presence immediately set Graeme on edge. Astrid saw his jaw tense and he gripped the mug he was holding so tightly his knuckles turned white.
“If you think I’m going to--”
The man put up a silencing hand and smiled at Astrid, giving her the distinct impression of a fox, or perhaps a crow. When he spoke again, his voice was smooth and unsettling. Velvet stroked in the wrong direction.
“It has come to my attention that my son was quite rude earlier this evening.”
“Oh, well...it’s no problem sir,” said Astrid. “ I guess I was not exactly the picture of etiquette myself.”
“You come all this way just to apologize for Elliott?” asked Graeme. His speech was stiff and unusually hushed.
“I’d also like a drink,” the man said, “I’ll just have water, thank you.”
Graeme’s eyes flashed to Astrid, then to the front door, which remained closed. She couldn’t read her uncle’s expression.
“Are you sure I couldn’t interest you in an ale? Just got a new one in from back home.”
“No, just water. On ice,” the man politely insisted.
They exchanged a look that confused Astrid.
The bell on the door rang as it opened, and the tavern fell silent. None of the others looked to the door, but Astrid could sense that nevertheless all attention in the room was upon the man who walked in.
“Astrid,” Graeme said softly, “I need to take care of some business, watch the front.”
The man at the door said nothing as he made his way through the crowded tables and straight through the back door, which led to the stock area and Graeme’s office. He waved for Graeme to follow.
“I’ll be back to help close up,” he told Astrid, then handed the suited man an ale and disappeared into the back.
It felt as though everyone in the tavern let out a collective breath at once, and the typical din of the bar resumed.
“Sorry,” Astrid said to the suited man, who had remained in his seat even though Astrid was sure he knew the other mysterious man. “Sorry, he must have made a mistake. You asked for water, didn’t you?”
The man took the ale glass before she could, however, and sipped it.
“No, thank you. This is exactly what I wanted.”
Astrid tended the bar, but watched the strange, dark man wearily as he finished the ale in silence and occasionally checked his pocket watch. When there was nothing left in the glass but lazy streaks of froth, he excused himself and made his way to the back door as well, slipping through it like a shadow.
Night began to circle back to dawn and as the tavern slowly emptied. Astrid couldn’t help looking back at the door more and more often, her unease growing.
Her uncle’s had written her a letter before she’d decided to move here, and now the words echoed in her head, sounding more and more like prophecy instead of the paranoia she’d taken it for.
This is the desert, Astrid. This city only has two kinds of people: those who are thirsty or desperate and those who want to keep them that way. Right now, you are desperate, and that makes Argenstrath a dangerous place. Please, do not come here unless you feel you truly have nowhere else to go.
But she wasn’t the sheltered, blue-blooded child he remembered her as, and she could no longer ignore the twisting in her stomach. She forced the few remaining patrons out of the bar, hastily turning the sign in the windows to closed.
Before her hand could touch the doorknob of the back door a bitter, agonizing scream pierced her from the other side.
3. THE BRIAR PIPE
“Sir, I’m afraid the Gossamer Room is off limits to regular clientele. It is reserved for distinguished members only.”
Bran had never seen this woman at the Areis Club before. She smiled sweetly at him from behind the small desk she occupied which sat alone along the large wall at the end of the hallway.
“I know,” Bran told the woman with deliberate patience. He set the leather case he had been carrying on the desk, purposefully over the small roster book the woman kept looking at. When she looked back up to him, he loosened his tie enough to move both the tie and his shirt a few inches away from his neck, exposing the knotwork of white, raised skin in the shape of a spider just below his collarbone.
“I am, as you call it, distinguished.”
Nervous panic flashed across her polite smile.
“My apologies, sir. I…” she stepped around the desk and took his case, “let me get your bag for you.”
Bran offered his hand instead.
“So we don’t have this disagreement in the future, my name is--”
“Bran! We’ve been waiting to hear from you. When did you get back?”
The large hand of Roland Holme clasped onto his shoulder, squeezing too tightly -- partially actual joy upon seeing Bran, partially establishing his own power, displaying his own confidence about the situation both men were about to walk into.
“Just an hour ago, actually,” Bran responded dryly.
“I see you’ve met Maria, my fiance.” Roland gestured to the woman as he cut in front of Bran to where Maria stood along a blank section of the paneled wall. He paused a moment in front of her to stroke her face in a tender manner rarely displayed by the eldest of the Holme sons. Maria’s face flushed as she handed Bran’s bag back to him, then pushed her thumb against one of the petals in the molding on the panel behind her. There was a click as the panel swung open.
“Sorry again for the inconvenience,” she said quietly, and Bran waved a hand dismissively. His sentiments verbally echoed behind him.
“It’s my brothers fault for not telling you Bran would be coming home, Maria,” the voice said. Bran turned around, genuinely glad to see Patrick Holme, Roland’s younger brother. “Bran is family, after all.”
Maria thanked him, and Patrick’s blush matched her own. He pushed Bran into the room with him and the door was closed behind them, leaving Bran and the Holme brothers alone in the large, private parlour. There were several armchairs at the center of the room, all facing the fireplace along the north wall. The west and south walls were both lined with bookshelves filled with volumes that hadn’t been opened in decades. Bran felt at home for the first time since stepping off the train.
He stood out against the tow-headed brothers with his dark hair and eyes, but one would hardly assume Roland and Patrick Holme were brothers just by looking at them. Where Roland was nearly six foot and broad shoulders with the easy arrogance of a boy who had grown up without fear or want, his brother was almost a head shorter with a small frame and a relatively quiet, studious disposition. He was a student of law and seemed perfectly happy continuing his studies rather than beginning any sort of practice, despite having already graduated from university nearly two years prior.
“It’s good to see you again,” Bran told the youngest brother as they took seats next to Roland by the fire, which had already been started. “It’s good to be back in the city.”
“I daresay Geata Dearg has treated you well,” Roland said, his tone much less complimenting than his words, “But things have changed while you’ve been on holiday. How was your mother?”
“Roland, don’t,” Patrick offered a meek attempt at mediation.
Bran studied the fire. “Why hide behind underhanded insults, Roland? Just come out and say it: you are quite confident he is going to choose you.”
“What I find interesting,” Roland said with a snigger, “is that you don’t. You forget, McCalhain, that you are not--”
The door opened again and in its wake a sudden stillness and silence spread through the room. Even the pops and cracks of the fire hushed as Ryan Holme entered. Without so much as a look at Bran or his sons, Holme took a seat in the largest of the armchairs by the fire and positioned it to see the rest of the room easily. He took his time settling in, smoothing out his velvet suit and resting his cane carefully against the hearth.
There was nothing about Ryan Holme’s appearance that would suggest he was a daunting man. Approaching his late seventies, there was a tremor beginning in his left hand and he used his cane now more out of necessity than as decoration. But even someone who had never met the man would not mistake Holme as anything but powerful. His sharp, beady eyes pierced through a person like bullets. Bran had seen him ruin the lives of many men by merely uttering a single sentence.
His empire thrived on collecting information and holding onto it until the most opportune moment, and in the Gossamer Room this night, such a moment had not yet arrived.
Holme snapped his fingers and a man materialized from the corner by the door. He presented Holme with a case, which was opened to reveal several different, beautifully crafted wooden pipes. Holme selected a briar one with a snake wrapped in a helix around the bowl. The man then pulled matches from his pocket then waited patiently as Holme packed and lit the pipe. Wisps of sweet smoke began to sprouted from the pipe bowl and the man took this as his dismissal and left, case and spent match in hand.
Bran did not look at Holme, but instead at Patrick, who was studying the pipe smoke as though divining the fates that would soon be bestowed on them. The younger brother did not look nervous, he was as certain as the other two that his father would not pick him. Bran caught Patrick’s eye and they exchanged worried glances as Roland cleared his throat to speak.
“I think I will decide when this conversation will begin, if you don’t mind,” Holme told his son. Patrick’s lip curled up ever so slightly as he and Bran shared a moment of child-like pleasure at Roland’s scolding.
They all spent what felt like several eternities watching the smoke swirl in the empty space between them. Bran could feel the impatience humming through Roland, and it was a sign of great respect for his father that Roland did not fidget or speak or show any signs of the tension tearing him apart internally. Ryan Holme was perhaps the only thing in the world for which Roland held any respect.
But tonight, Bran thought, Respect would not be enough.
“You know why I have asked you here, tonight, I presume?”
When Holme finally spoke again, his voice felt tangible to Bran, a weight pressing down on his shoulders that was simultaneously reassuring and terrifying.
“I know that we are all busy men, so I will not waste your time. I have been considering retirement for some time now.” He raised the hand that held his finished pipe and the man who had brought it to Holme was there again in an instant to bring it away. “Nobody truly leaves this life behind, even I am no exception, but I’ve grown tired of this city. The game has become too stagnant, the pieces are too predictable...
“This is no insignificant thing I have built here, however. I must be certain that my legacy will remain behind in good hands.” Holme steepled his fingers, resting his elbows on the arms of the chair as he leaned forward. He looked at each of his sons, his expression unreadable. When Holme’s gaze finally settled on Bran, a part of him felt like the sixteen year old boy he had been when Ryan Holme had changed his life. “Bran, where do I begin?”
Bran’s chest swelled at the sound of his name
“I knew when we met that you would be an excellent ally.”
Roland stood up, his face reddening. “Father…”
A sharp look from Holme ended any further remark. Roland fell silent, but he did not sit back down. Holme continued in his deliberate and calm tone.
“Your skills have been quite invaluable to me this past decade and you have become one of my most trusted associates. Bran, you have been more of a son to me at times than my actual flesh and blood.”
Bran did not have to see Roland’s rage to know it was there, at the brink of exploding. He trained his own expression to betray none of the smugness or pleasure he felt, and kept his gaze solidly on the Boss as Holme continued to speak.
“Roland does not know this business as you do, inside and out…which is why there is no one better I can entrust with this task, Bran. I need to to be my son’s Advisor.”
4. THE MORGUE & THE MARKETPLACE
Female, human, five foot two inches. Born and residing in Whitehaven. Upper middle class: a private tutor for children, as stated in her documents. Well, she used to be a private tutor according to a note folded around an un-cashed bank cheque which explained that she would be let go because of her strange behavior over the past months and expressing hope being home with her father would be what was needed.
Purple bruising under eyes indicating opium use, however marks on neck underneath scarf suggest asphyxiation, which is also consistent with discoloration under eyes. Suspect is of small-stature according to bruising pattern.
Grimwall picked up the surgical scissors and removed a lock of the woman’s dark hair and set it next to the microscope. Test for opiates, he noted to himself.
Belongings contained in the suitcase: an extra set of clothing, a makeup case containing one tube of red lipstick and a box of violet setting powder from Jhardhandi -- red scarf worn by the woman was also made in Kantebury. No documents to suggest travel there -- and a stack of letters wrapped in baker’s twine, all from one William Price, a lawyer in Argenstrath (and also the woman’s lover). One train ticket to White Haven, purchased by a Frank Venegas. Departure day the same day she was found, platform listed on ticket consistent with where she was found, suggesting ticket was perhaps bought in advance, before knowledge of construction? Something was missing.
Grimwall thoughts circled through the details over and over as he sat in the morgue beneath Argenstrath Medical College, disseminating blood and tissue samples from the victim onto different microscope plates. He was so engrossed in his work that he didn’t even notice when the doors swung open and two men walked in.
One of them, the older one, seemed surprised but glad to see Detective Grimwall standing in his morgue, which hardly ever had another living soul inside. This was Dr. Percival Coroner, a medical professor at the university. The younger man was Grimwall's partner on the case, Detective Murray, who had turned pale and looked apprehensively about the room.
“Don’t look so nervous kid, Arthur’s the most frightening thing in this place,” said Coroner with a hearty laugh. The mention of Grimwall’s name captured his attention and he finally looked up from his work.
“Murray,” Grimwall greeted coldly.
“So, what have you er...found?” Murray asked, reluctantly making his way closer. He had just noticed the table behind Grimwall, where the body of the victim lay. Stripped of her clothing and makeup, surrounded by lab equipment, Murray found it difficult to look at her.
“Quite a bit. It seems she was strangled, however…”
Grimwall did not reply immediately. He was preoccupied with the specimen under his microscope. He reached for a dropper bottle and squeezed some of the liquid inside onto one of the microscope plates holding what looked like hair. Murray and the older gentleman watched him anxiously.
When Grimwall looked up again, his eyes were fiery, alight with an childlike excitement.
“Coroner,” Grimwall addressed the old man, “ you were right, the reagent worked!”
“I thought you’d have figured this out by now, Arthur, but I’m hardly ever wrong,” said Dr. Coroner, chuckling to himself.
“Care to let me in on what all this means?” asked Murray.
“Opiates. My best guess is Laudanum.”
“Wait,” Murray said, “I thought you just said she was strangled.”
“She was, but I don’t think that was the cause of death,” Grimwall said, irritated. “There is bruising on her neck, but it is possible she was already dead when the damage was inflicted. I’ll know more after a full autopsy.”
“What about her stuff?”
Grimwall motioned to the mess of papers on the far end of the lab table. “I found the names of two men in her papers. Price and --”
“Venegas?” Detective Murray conjectured.
“Yes, how did you know?”
“I didn't. But I followed up some of the leads from witnesses at the station. Guess who the mechanic was who was with the foreman last night?”
“Good. Anything else?”
“One of the guards says he remembers Sanders and Venegas leaving last night, a little after nine they came up from the platform where we found Emily. He corroborated that Sanders took a cab home, but Venegas did not get in with him. What’s more, Venegas didn’t show up to work this morning, which Sanders claims is out of character for him.”
“Sorry...who is Emily?”
Murray gave Grimwall an addled expression the homicide detective was weary of being on the receiving end of. Murray held up the train ticket. “Emily Stiller. How can you not even know the victim’s name, Arthur?”
“It wasn’t important at the time,” said Grimwall. “So, do you have an address for this Venegas?”
Grimwall moved aside for an impatient Coroner to examine the contents under the microscope.
“Then let’s go.”
Grimwall always felt uneasy in the Dune district. Argenstrath was his city, he was born and raised the southern half of this very district, where they still called it Adelle rather than Dune. But it took a fool to think that the police had any real jurisdiction out here in the sand. Dune was made for mobsters and thiefspawns. And potential murderers.
Frank Venegas did not appear to be home. The shopkeeper below his ragged apartment, who they discovered happened to also be the landlord, had not seen him in several days.
“Don’t know who Frank Venegas is,” the shopkeeper told Murray, “but the man that lives here ‘is name is Ron Morris. He manned an exotic goods stand in the bazaar. You didn’t hear from me, though. I don’t need Sully comin’ through these parts.”
“Sully? You mean Howard Sully, the mob boss?” Murray asked in hushed tones, as though merely speaking his name meant the infamous drug king could hear them.
“Let’s just say there’s more’n trinkets he sells down at that cart of his,” said the shopkeeper as he showed them the door.
The sun beat relentlessly on them in the waning afternoon. Aware of how out of place they seemed among the worn and sand-stung denizens of Dune, Grimwall lead the way through the patchwork sea of tented stands and colorful blankets displaying a vast assortment of food, tools, trinkets and other stolen goods. Everything smelled of sweat, metal, and cooking meat.
An older man standing by a pair of large, tapped wooden barrels approached them “Can I interest you men in some refreshing water? Cleanest and coldest you’ll find in these parts! At only two ciam, it’s a steal!” the man pushed a tin cup toward Detective Murray, and some of the grey liquid sloshed out onto Murray’s coat.
“Er, no thanks,” the young detective said uncomfortably.
“C’mon, sir, it’s a hot day! Surely you are in need of a nice, cold drink.”
“What we need,” said Grimwall, “is to know where Ron Morris is. He’s going by the name Venegas now. There’s five ciam in it for you if you can tell us where he is.”
The man looked disappointed, but pointed across the marketplace to a small wooden cart with a green canopy advertising unique goods straight from the Kanteburian Isles.
Grimwall paid the man.
“I don’t like this,” said Murray as they got closer to Venegas’ cart. He was examining all the wares that the marketplace had to offer, and pointed to a blanket nearby where an assortment of large firearms were spread out. “Those are rifles that were discontinued after the revolution, it’s illegal to--”
“Quiet, we’re here for Venegas. Nothing else.”
“These guys are more useful to us here than behind bars. We pretend we don’t see them selling stolen guns and they become our eyes and ears. There’s worse things in this city than illegal arms dealers…”
Murray let out a long sigh, but followed Grimwall away from the firearms. “So how do we know this is Venegas? He could have others work the cart for him, this kid looks a little young.”
Murray was right, the man behind the cart was hardly more than eighteen. But as they approached the cart, Venegas eyed them with the suspicion of someone beyond his years.
“Can I help you folks?”
“We’re looking for a gift for our good friend’s birthday,” Grimwall said. His voice was so amicable, so strange coming from Detective Grimwall, that Murray had to turn to hide his surprise.
“Well what kind of guy is your friend?” Venegas asked, “We got all sorts of goods hailing from Jhirhandi to Kantyre.”
“Actually, he’s has more of a flair for Prussian culture,” Grimwall said pointedly.
The smile immediately fell from Venegas’ face and he gripped the edge of the table nervously. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“It’s not illegal to sell opiates, but I’d be dead before sellin’ to a copper.”
Grimwall pulled his badge from his pocket. “Maybe you can help us with something else than, Mr. Venegas?”
Murray nearly fell over as Venegas shoved the cart toward the detectives before darting in the opposite direction, skillfully weaving through the neighboring stands.
“Get backup!” Grimwall shouted to Murray as he took off after Venegas. He could not keep up with the young man, especially one so familiar with the setup of the bazaar. So when Venegas turned sharply right at a corner by a garden stand, knocking down a crate of peaches in his wake, Grimwall continued straight, pushing through the crowds of people that had formed to witness the chase.
It had been years since he had been in this part of the city, but Grimwall still knew a thing or two about Dune. When the crowd finally gave way, he found himself in a nearly empty alleyway, out of the marketplace and sandwiched in a break between two long townhouse buildings. He emerged on the other side just as Venegas rounded the corner a few feet away.
“Wait!” Grimwall shouted, but Venegas shot north where the edge of the district faded into the giant sand drifts. Grimwall followed, the distance between him and Venegas ebbing.
Side aching in revolt, threatening to slow him down, Grimwall pulled his revolver and fired at Venegas. The first bullet hit the hard-packed sand, sending a billow of dust between them, but the second hit Venegas’ left leg, knocking him to the ground.
Grimwall nearly doubled over as he came to a stop near Venegas, who was letting out a string of slurs as he clutched his leg.
“Trust me, kid,” Grimwall said between gasps for breath. “This isn’t exactly the afternoon I had planned either.”
Several people had come out of their homes to see the cause of commotion.
Detective Grimwall helped Venegas up, turning the kid around to cuff him.
“Look, whatever is going on I’m not a part of it,” Venegas declared. “I’m not working for Sully anymore, I got an honest job and everything.”
“You mean the construction gig you didn’t show up for this morning?”
“You don’t understand, someone’s after me, I--”
“Save it for your lawyer, kid. You’re under arrest for the murder of a woman named Emily Stiller.”
A third gunshot barely missed Grimwall. It was so close that he heard the low hum as it passed him, colliding with Frank Venegas’ arm. The fourth bullet hit Venegas in the ribs as he tried to pull away from Grimwall, who pulled him instead to the ground. He scanned the crowded neighborhood furiously for the source of fire.
He need not look far as the throng people parted around a short man with white-blonde hair and an expensive grey wool suit. His hand shook as he cocked the gun again, this time pointing it at Grimwall.
“Out of my way!” the man shouted desperately. His eyes were swollen and bloodshot and sweat trickled liberally down his red face and neck. “This man does not deserve your protection. He’s a god damned murderer!”
Grimwall placed his gun on the ground and held his hands up clearly for the shaking man to see. “Well that we may agree on, son, but his fate is for a judge to decide. Put the gun down…”
“He killed the love of my life, in cold blood!” He turned the gun on Grimwall. “He needs to pay, and nobody’s going to stand in the way of that!”
Grimwall inched forward, glancing back at Venegas, who had not moved from his spot. A frightened-looking girl with long, curly hair had separated from the masses and rushed to help the bleeding man. The tattoos along her temple as Yeti, she could not have been more than sixteen. Shakily, she knelt to the ground, pulling off her jacket to press against his wound.
“Stop him,” she said as she nodded, wide-eyed, toward the man with the gun. Grimwall stepped sideways, bringing the barrel of the gun away from his suspect and the girl.
“William Price?” asked Grimwall. This got the crazed man’s attention. “We’re on the same side, we both want Justice for Emily’s killer. I’m Detective--”
Price choked back a sob as he swung the gun back toward Venegas. The gunshot rang out just as Grimwall reached out and pushed Price’s arm upward. There was a crack as the bullet hit the brick wall behind them.
Grimwall twisted the man’s arm behind him but Price managed to scramble free, and smashed the gun into the detective’s jaw with such force that Grimwall stumbled backward. Blood trickled hot and metallic down from his lip.
Grimwall tackled Price to the ground and the gun clattered away across the dirt. He landed his own punch, making sure it would keep Price down. He did not see the two large men that broke out of the crowded street and ran toward them. One pulled Grimwall off of Price, kicking him hard in the ribs. The detective coughed and saw dark spots of blood speckle the ground. Another blow to the stomach knocked him to his knees.
“Arthur!” somewhere nearby he heard Detective Murray’s shout. He looked up to see his partner pull a strange looking baton from his belt. He struck Grimwall’s attacker between the shoulder blades and the blow was accompanied by a loud, unnatural buzz and a flash of white sparks flying from the collision point. The man dropped instantly.
“What the hell is that?” asked Grimwall as Murray helped him to his feet. He wiped the blood from his mouth with the sleeve of his coat and examined the electrified baton, which was now smoking liberally. “Nobody issued me one of those.”
“That’s because there’s only one: mine. I built it.”
“You’re a Detective, when do you have time to build something like that. And why?”
“Backup. And you’re welcome, by the way. However, it seems have more pressing matters,” said Murray, pointing to the spot where Price had been moments before. Both Price and the other assailant were gone.
“Dammit,” spat Grimwall. He spun around to find Venegas being hoisted into an amberlamps. The girl who had helped him stood nearby, her face wet with tears. Her eyes met Grimwall’s and she quickly disappeared back into the crowd. “We’d better hope Venegas lives to tell us what the hell is going on.”
5. A NEW AGREEMENT
Graeme Llewellyn’s screams echoed through the store room as Roland removed the knife from his palm. Dark red began to bubble up to the pale white surface and a stream of profanity fell from the bartender’s lips.
“Things are changing around here,” Roland announced. Bran had a feeling he was speaking to the entire room, not just to Graeme. “Mistakes will not be tolerated. The world is getting smaller, and anyone can be replaced these days…”
“Roland, Graeme has been a loyal associate for nearly a decade…” Bran stepped in front of the bartender and knew immediately that this move had made the situation worse.
“I don’t care if he served my father for ten years or fifty, I don’t want some old man ruining my plans because he’s too lazy to check his damn work. I am in charge now, Bran.”
“And as your Advisor. I advise you to reconsider getting rid of our best paperhanger just to fulfill your petty, self-indulgent display of power.”
Roland’s face turned from scarlet to purple, as he shook with anger. He raised the knife in a white-knuckled fist and for a moment, Bran felt a flicker of fear that Roland might actually stab him right there, but he did not flinch. Roland flung the knife past him and it nicked Graeme’s ear as it flew past, sticking into one of the wooden crates behind them.
“Get out of here.” He ordered Bran. “Clear out that god damned bar. This isn’t over yet,” Roland seethed.
Bran did as he was ordered without contesting, confident that his point was made. Though he was not sure it was worth the price he might pay later. This was a new playing field, and Bran hated not knowing the rules.
Bran felt the door collide with something in his rush to return to the front room of Llewelyn’s tavern. He found the Yeti girl on the floor, glaring up at him. She quickly got to her feet, ignoring his offered assistance and unruffled apology.
“Get out of the way,” she said. She tried to move past him as the shouting behind them erupted again. “What are you doing to my uncle? Who in Vanaer are you people?”
“I am doing nothing to him,” Bran told her, pushing her back toward the bar and shutting the door. He glanced around the room, but she had already sent the tavern’s patrons home. She struggled against him in her second attempt to break past, but his grip was too tight. At least it was until her knee caught him hard and unexpectedly in the stomach.
He keeled over, recovering just in time to pull her away as she was turning the doorknob. This time he drew his gun, pressing it lightly into her chest. She continued to glare at him, but her shaky breathing betrayed her fear.
“Sit,” Bran said, nodding toward the bar. She sat down where he had previously sat and he went behind the bar and poured a drink with the hand that wasn’t aiming the gun. It felt strange to him to do this without adding a fatal ingredient. “Listen, your Uncle will not die tonight, but you might if my boss,” -- Bran nearly choked on the word -- “finds out you saw or heard anything. If I put this gun down, do you promise not to go back there?”
The Yeti girl nodded, so he lowered the weapon. Bran wasn’t a fan of firearms, he found them messy and crude. He gave her the drink and she eyed it suspiciously before pushing it back toward him.
He laughed softly. “Fair enough.”
Graeme screamed again in the other room. The girl pushed her stool back to stand up. Bran put his hand on the gun.
“I didn’t know Graeme had any family in Antiford.”
“Now you do,” she offered, sitting back down.
“Do you have a name?”
“What kind of question is that? Do you?”
“Bran. Bran McCalhain,” he offered as his eye caught the newspaper on the bar.
“I can’t say it’s nice to meet you,” she said. Her eyes were still fixated on the door, though there was no longer any audible goings-on in the back rooms. “Are you all some sort of….gang or something?”
“What do you want with my Uncle?”
“He provided a service for us, a very important service, and something went wrong. I do not know the details myself...there’s be a recent change in leadership that has started many new and alarming ventures that I do not understand. Graeme is on thin ice now, and I don’t know what that means for his future.”
Inquire at Argenstrath Police Department, Bran read the fine newspaper print. Attn Arthur Grimwall.
“What does that mean? Why are you telling me this?”
“You asked, and besides it helps to be honest with those one hopes to conduct business.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“I’d like to make a proposal. I will keep your Uncle alive.”
“In exchange for?”
Bran pointed at the ad in the paper. “I want you to take this job.”
Astrid looked incredulously from the newspaper back to Bran. “Is this all some kind of elaborate scheme set up by my Uncle? I mean, I knew he wanted me out of the bar, but --”
“Oh no,” Bran said, “This is not a joke. There is a very real chance that this could end with both of you dead.”
He watched her silently weigh her options and the reality of his words.
“How do I know I can trust you?”
“Surely you know that you can't afford not to.”
She fiddled with the bracelet on her right hand in silent anguish, occasionally stealing a glance at the door, expecting to hear her Uncle again. The silence seemed to worry her even more.
“He is the only family I have left,” the girl said bitterly. “I’ll do whatever it takes to keep him alive.”
Bran reached a hand across the bar. “Is this a deal, then?”
Slowly, she reached across and shook his hand. “Yes.”
“You should go home, you don’t want to be here when we leave. It was a pleasure doing business with you, Astrid Felson.”
He grinned as her face went pale.
“Why did you ask for my name if you already knew it?”
“I was just being polite.”
Desert cold settled into the late night, but Argenstrath was still warm, hoarding the heat of the sun within the bricks and cobblestones. Bran leaned against the window outside of Llewellyn’s Tavern and pulled a silver case from his pocket. He slid open a small slot in the box an dumped a single cigarette into his palm, then reached for a match to light it.
The light grew bright orange as he inhaled the pungent smoke of Lilithium vulgaris. Marshwort: It was a common weed on Paorr and Nyxiana, growing abundantly in the wetlands, and largely ignored by the untrained eye. His mother used to use it in a sleeping syrup or to treat travel sickness, but Bran preferred the herb to tobacco in his cigarettes, it reminded him of home. He was halfway through the thing when the his nerves melted into a weighted placidity. His racing mind began to slow and the chaotic fractions of thoughts managed to pull themselves into an orderly queue, to be moulded into the beginnings of plan.
The rug had been pulled from under him this afternoon, but he had worked for years climbing his way up to become right hand to the Boss. Liter for liter he had spilled more blood in the name of the Dun’cahrun than Roland or any other associate, and when Ryan Holme became a household name, it was Bran who wove the fraying ends of the enterprise back together while Roland was nowhere to be found.
He could not lose everything to Roland, but this was not something to be rushed. Roland had always been a brute but his new power trip shook Bran, he had to be careful. It had never been a secret that for the last few years, Roland wanted Bran out of the picture, and now there was one less thing standing in the way. Bran needed leverage, and if this past decade had taught him anything it was that this meant he needed information -- and that started with this Astrid girl, with eyes inside the Police station, Bran had access outside of his usual network, separate from Holme.
He just had to hope her uncle’s life was enough to buy her trust, at least for now.
“Come on,” Roland said, clapping Bran suddenly on the shoulder. Startled, Bran threw the stub of his cigarette on the ground, rubbing it into the stone with his foot. “We’ve got one more stop to make.”
As they made their way to the carriage, Bran pulled another cigarette out of the case.
6. A NEW ASSISTANT
Frank Venegas didn’t wake up for three days.
With Price still evading custody, Grimwall wanted to make sure their only lead wasn’t taken off the map, and he did not entrust this duty to anyone. He prefered to keep an eye on Venegas himself, so both detectives had spent the better half of three days conducting their investigation from the quiet hospital room.
In this time, Murray obtained a warrant for the law office where William Price worked, and it appeared that both men, Price and Venegas, worked for Howard Sully. Price was meant to represent Sully in an upcoming court case.
“But get this,” Murray said as they deliberated over the the lawyer’s notes. “Price’s assistant says he had been meeting with the District Attorney. I pulled a favor with the city treasury and it seems the D.A. and Price were both on the payroll of a known associate of Ryan Holme. The D.A. received a pretty penny from a man named--”
“How did you know?”
“I’m familiar with the man,” Grimwall said darkly. “Good work, Detective.”
“Don’t act so surprised, Arthur. I wear the same badge as you.”
Murray rolled his eyes. “Do you think Sully knows his own lawyer was working against him?”
“Yes, at least he knows that someone is rigging that trial. That’s why I couldn’t let you bring me in. Sully’s security is tighter than ever as he suspects a traitor in his ranks.”
Both men jumped at the sound of Frank’s dry, raspy voice from the hospital bed. Venegas tried to sit up, and Murray hastened to help him. When he was situated he took several deep, shaky breaths before continuing.
“I wanted out, but these days, because of the trial, Sully’s keeping everyone close. Ron Morris couldn’t escape the clutches of Sully’s web, so I tried to become someone else.”
“Frank Venegas,” Grimwall said, and Venegas nodded.
“I got a new name and new papers. Planned on using the money from that construction job to leave for Clarusia. I was waiting on a new passport the day you came lookin’ for me. I was on edge because I knew someone was tailin’ me through the market. One of Sully’s men. I was supposed to meet a guy at the construction site for my passport, but I didn’t want anyone following me there. That’s why I didn’t show up. If Sully knew I’d been workin’ with…” Venegas paused for several deep coughs.
“With who?” pressed detective Murray.
When Venegas shook his head, Grimwall pressed his hand into Frank’s shoulder, where the bullet wound was trying to heal.
“AAH! Bran McCalhain. That’s how I know Price was working for him! He was at the manor the day Bran gave me my papers!”
Murray slapped Grimwall’s hand away. “What the hell are you doing?” He demanded of the older detective as Venegas lay back again, eyes closed as he breathed through the pain.
A nurse came in, shooing them out of the room in a language Grimwall did not know.
“We need answers, and the longer we wait around to get them, the longer whoever is behind this has to hide their tracks.”
“Well thanks to you, we’re never going to get anything else from Venegas.”
“Maybe we don’t need to,” Grimwall said, “Price is the man we’re looking for now.”
Murray nodded in reluctant agreement. “You’re right, I’ll see if I can get anything else from his assistant.”
There was an uneasiness that wrapped itself around Grimwall as he entered his office. Something was off and it took him a moment to realize what it was: the Yeti girl who had taken care of Venegas the previous afternoon was sitting at the center of several foot-tall stacks of paperwork that had previously been cluttering the secretary’s desk. It seemed she had begun sorting through it, creating an organization system which incurred creating several small piles on the floor behind her.
She turned around when she heard the door click open.
“It’s you…” she said, surprised. When Grimwall didn’t say anything, she began to nervously clear a pathway for him to his desk. “So, you’re detective Grimwall? Are you okay? Is that other man okay? Sorry about this mess, Mrs. Winston told me to start with filling your old paperwork but I wasn’t sure where to start so I…”
“What are you doing here?”
“Mrs. Winston said she was going to talk to you, I’m sorry. I’m your new secretary.” The girl held her hand out. Grimwall did not shake it.
“I don’t need a secretary.”
“She told me you would say that, but that I should just ignore you.”
He noticed his own desk had also been cleared of paperwork, and there was tea-- still warm enough to create small, inviting tendrils of steam which curled up to the ceiling-- sitting at the center.
“What is this?” He grumbled, not bothering to hide his irritation.
“I made you tea,” she said without looking up.
“You touched my desk...don’t touch my desk!”
She stopped, her face flushed and apologetic.
“Mrs. Winston told me to sort out all of your papers, I only took the ones that were more than three months old, I didn’t --”
“Just...don’t touch it from this point on. I have things how I like them.”
“Yes sir. Going forward I’ll remember to leave your tea cold and growing mold.”
She smiled at him with all the amiability of barbed wire as the detective sat down and took the box of photos from his coat pocket and dumped them onto the desk.
He waited for the girl to go back to her own work before taking a sip of the warm tea. They sat for a long time in silence, and Grimwall tried to focus on the photographs, but they told him nothing new. To his left the blackboard filled with his recent failure loomed over Grimwall, its judgement palpable and distracting.
He moved the photographs to the side of the desk and removed the files Murray had given him from his briefcase, spreading them out one by one on the desk, a jigsaw waiting to be solved.
Emily Stiller comes to Argenstrath to meet with her lover, William Price. An estate lawyer who works for a mob boss and drug lord...this would explain the large amount of opiates in the victim's system. The deep purple under her eyes, her too-slight frame. She was an addict. But if she didn’t get the opiates from Venegas, then who? Was it Price himself? Maybe he too indulged, lovers brought together by a shared vice. Grimwall felt sure that Venegas was not the killer. But why would Price think that he was? And what about the train ticket signed by Venegas? And why the strange arrangement of the body at a closed train platform?
The case notes, the receipts, the train ticket, they were all pieces of the puzzle but he had no idea what the big picture was supposed to look like. He was about to give up and return to the morgue when he was pulled from his own thoughts by the sound of glass shattering. Astrid whispered an apology at him and began to use use her own scarf to soak up the tea she had just knocked to the floor trying to navigate the office with a stack of files.
Grimwall was struck with a thought.
“You were at the scene yesterday... Do you know Frank Venegas?”
The girl shook her head. “I was on my way here to answer the advertisement, I don’t normally go through the Marketplace but I got lost, I’ve only lived here a few months.”
“You helped save his life, you know,” Grimwall said after another long pause. Astrid frowned.
“I saved the murderer?”
“Mr. Venegas, yes. However, I’m not so sure he was a murderer.”
“Because of the fake train ticket?”
Grimwall’s teacup clanged a little too hard against the saucer as he put it down.
Astrid, who did not seem to realize the weight of the information she had just dropped on him, was searching the desk drawers for a paper clasp. Grimwall’s brain was already deconstructing the story to accommodate the possibility of new puzzle pieces.
“This is purely conjecture….” She said, pointing to the ticket, “but train stations typically use a wood-pulp paper because it’s cheaper, but it also makes it brittle and it yellows quickly, but this ticket had been folded and unfolded several times without breaking or tearing, seems to be made out of a heavier stock, some kind of fiber-based paper. Manila, perhaps, I didn’t get a good look,” When Grimwall didn’t respond right away, she added, “I...um, I know a fair bit about paper.”
“What did you say your name was, again?”
“Astrid...er -- Astrid Westergaard.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m sixteen, sir.”
“Sixteen? That’s a little young to be working, isn’t it?”
“Mrs. Winston says you’ve gone through five secretaries in the past three months. Apparently all the other qualified people in this city are old enough to have the sense not to work for such a miserable, sinister old man.”
“Her words, not mine,” she said, then added in a quieter but purposefully audible voice as she turned back, “I’d have used curmudgeonly.”
Grimwall smiled then handed her the ticket. “What else can you tell me?”
“You’re asking m-me?”
“I need an outside perspective.”
She examined the ticket. “Not much...it wasn’t printed by a manufacturer, there’s no production number at the bottom. Looks like whoever made it used a regular old typewriter...one that needs the H key to be readjusted. Venegas name was written using a fancy fountain pen, a new one. And Venegas, or whoever wrote it, is left-handed…..that’s all.”
While she had been speaking, Grimwall had pulled a think black leather-bound volume from his bookshelf. It seemed to be filled with handwritten notes and news clippings and other bits of paper adhered to some pages. Grimwall placed the open book at the edge of his desk and pointed at what appeared to be a small telegram:
MTG SIX, 3 MOGHS, G.R.A.C.
“Same dropped H, Does that mean something?” Astrid asked, but Grimwall was already up and nearly out the door. “Sir?”
“Morgue,” he said, hoping it would suffice as an explanation. The rest of his thoughts were already setting up laboratory tests as the story he had built up was torn down again. There were too many missing pieces. He paused at the door, feeling the unfamiliar tug to offer something more.
“I need to see a man about a few too many coincidences. Thank you for the insight,” said the detective. “And for the tea.”
7. EBB AND FLOW
It was a rare cloudy day, and the harsh grey light penetrating the windows the Areis Club turned the dull ache behind Bran’s eyes to a full, throbbing migraine as he sat in the club’s common lounge waiting for the Counsilman to arrive. It was a Cielday afternoon, and the club was sparse, even for the middle of the week.
This is only going to work if we forget about the past. Roland had left nearly six hours ago, but his words remained behind, an almost-visible thoughtform sitting in the chair opposite Bran, watching him. I have a feeling some of the others don’t think I’m qualified for this position, but they trust you. I need you to take this meeting, Bran.
And Bran was all too happy to oblige. The newly elected Council of Commerce was planning to put forth the motion to strengthen dock security in Porista, and it was Bran’s job to dissuade the Council Head from pursuing this project.
“Don’t do this, Bran.”
Patrick’s voice ripped Bran out of his exhaustion-driven trance. The younger Holme took the seat across from Bran and lowered his voice, though there was nobody around to overhear them.
“Pray tell me,” Bran said cooly, “what is it that you don’t want me to do?”
Patrick fiddled with his pocket watch as he spoke.
“You both still treat me like I am a boy, happy to bury myself silently in my studies, oblivious to what is happening around me.”
“I don’t think that,” Bran lied.
“There isn’t time for these games, Bran. I attended the same dinner as you last night, I know the Councilman already made a deal with Klein.”
“I’m surprised you could spare a second of last night watching anything except Melinda.”
“Maria,” Patrick said, his cheeks tinted. He steeled his expression, “That has nothing to do with this. You’re going to buy out the Councilman, not for Roland... but to work for you.”
Brans grip on the arms of his chair tightened, and he watched as Patrick notice this miniscule movement.
“I knew the moment that my father announced that Roland would be his successor that you would not be able to abide my brother as a leader. However, I didn’t think it would take you less than a week to betray him.”
“Don’t worry,” Patrick said, his voice still quiet and nervous despite the power he found himself possessing. “I have never swore an oath, I bear no brand of allegiance to my father and certainly not to my brother. Your secret is safe with me.”
“In exchange for what?”
“Postponing your plans, whatever they are. Make this deal for my brother. Look, he’s already getting suspicious, you haven’t exactly been subtle in your disappointment. It’s put him in a gloomy, even violent mood, and we both know the kind of destruction his volatility can bring. Just...get back on his good side, for now. For everyone’s sake.”
Patrick’s grey eyes plead with an anguish which betrayed his true investment in the deal.
“You better hope Roland doesn’t catch to this torch you are carrying for his soon-to-be-wife either.”
“Bran, will you do it or not?”
“You don’t need to use blackmail to glean a favor from me, Patrick. We are brothers, after all.”
They stood up and shook hands, both looking relieved. Bran had not accounted for Patrick, but he was a far more valuable player to have on his side, even if it prolonged the game.
The doorman appeared, and handed Bran a note. “You have a guest, Master McCalhain.”
“Of course, I was expecting someone. My apologies, I didn’t notify you.”
Patrick took his leave, but the doorman remained. Bran gave Patrick a reassuring nod before folding open the notecard.
It’s Arthur. Don’t make me wait all day.
“I don’t think this is the guest you were waiting on,” the doorman said.
Bran sighed, the exhaustion of his insomnia-ridden night setting into his bones like lead.
“No need to bring him in, Harry. I’ll meet him out front. Thank you.”
The detective was leaning against the carriage when Bran stepped out of the club. Two constables stepped forward, one preparing the cuffs, but Bran held up a hand.
“No need,” he said, “I always cooperate.”
They looked confused, but Grimwall gave them a confirming nod and they backed away. Bran took his time walking to the carriage.
“It’s been a while. How have you been, Detective?”
“Just get in the damn carriage, McCalhain. Before I change my mind about the handcuffs.”
It was a silent, but short ride back to the police station, and Detective Grimwall ordered the carriage driver to bring them to the south entrance, usually reserved only for Government officials and the Chief of Police.
Bran had made this arrangement with the Detective several years ago, knowing that it was likely Holme’s enemies in the city had eyes in and around the police, in exchange for Bran’s cooperation, when he was brought in they always avoided walking through the bullpen. Grimwall ordered one of the bobbies to make sure his secretary was brought to the interrogation room and a subtle panic pulled at Bran’s gut. He had been so busy, he had forgotten about Astrid. Was this about her?
As they walked through the back corridors of the station, Bran examined the Detective. He looked worn and preoccupied, more so than usual. Bran ran through the headlines of the weeks papers in his mind, trying to pinpoint what he was bring brought in for, but there was no mention of a murder in the papers. Someone high up must have been trying to keep it covered, but that didn’t usually stop Bran from knowing everything of criminal importance that went on in the city.
“Follow Constable Ashford, he’ll bring you to the interrogation room.”
“I am missing an important appointment for this, so I do hope we can finish our meeting quickly?”
“It’ll be faster if you keep your mouth shut, McCalhain,” Grimwall grumbled, then added to the Constable, “make sure Murray stays out of that room. This is my interrogation.”
The Constable nodded and he and Bran parted with Grimwall as the corridor forked, taking the left path down an empty hall while Grimwall took a detour to the holding cells, if the sign at the head of the corridor was to be trusted. Bran followed silently behind the Constable, there was no information to be gleaned from him, after all. They stopped in front of a small, windowless room and Bran ducked inside. The Constable closed the door behind him. Bran sat in one of the old wooden chairs sitting at the single table at the center of the room. It was a routine he was used to, though not fond of.
Detective Grimwall took nearly twenty minutes to reappear, Astrid seconds behind. Her eyes widened when she entered to room and noticed Bran. He ignored her and focused instead on the Detective. Grimwall’s questioning gaze reciprocated his own, but there was a fire behind the Detective’s curiosity that opposed Bran’s composure.
Grimwall had something.
“So, Detective, to what do I owe this rendezvous? It has been a while, hasn’t it?” Bran said with a saccharine politeness, testing the waters.
Grimwall shot him a quick, sarcastic smile and slid a stack of photographs across the table. Bran examined them as he heard the sound of Astrid clicking the keys of a typewriter in nervous haste.
The photos showed a woman sitting patiently at a train stop. At first glance, they seemed like an unusual but not unordinary subject. It wasn’t until he reached the last photograph, which was taken close enough to the woman to see the wrinkles that he realized they were a depiction of a dead woman. A dead woman that he recognized.
“Do you know the woman in these photographs?”
“Yes,” Bran replied calmly. “She is - 0r was, it seems - a customer. Her name is Emily Warren.”
“Warren?” Grimwall was taken aback.
“Yes. Daughter of Thomas Warren. Engaged to lawyer Oliver Banks, at least on paper. When she visits Argenstrath she goes under the alias Stiller, for the sake of anonymity I suppose...you seem surprised, Detective. Isn’t it your job to know these things?”
Grimwall’s snatched the photographs back.
“What can you tell me about your relationship with Ms. Stiller?”
“There isn’t one, apart from providing her with particular services several years ago. Services I guarantee are irrelevant to this predicament. The information I have about her I acquired through a mutual friend.”
“You mean William Price?”
Bran didn’t respond right away. He did not like to give away information for free. Not without knowing what Grimwall already had. He didn’t need to wait long, however, as the detective seemed to be in a hurry. He held a document up between them, though not close enough for Bran to make out any details.
“Price is a lawyer, mainly estate work but he’s also representing Howard Sully in his upcoming trial.”
“Oh?” Bran said. He knew this already, of course.
“As I’m sure you already know, he had been working with the District Attorney to rig the trial against his own client, done on your dime.”
This Bran had not known.
“What evidence do you have?” he asked, and Grimwall seemed all too happy to oblige the request, conjuring a bank ledger from the case he’d carried in.
“You made out two cheques within the last month. Grimwall pointed to Bran’s name in the ledger. “One to District Attorney Haynes and one to Bircham & Holt, the law office where William Price is employed.”
“I confess, Detective, I paid the District Attorney to ensure Sully’s conviction. I do not recall a payment to Price, as I assumed it a waste of time. He was loyal to Sully, or so I thought.... But I make out many cheques, it is possible this one slipped my memory.” It had had not slipped his memory, things rarely did. But this discrepancy in accounting was something to resolve without police interference. “I thought you worked exclusively in homicide these days, Detective. Surely you didn’t bring me here to talk about bribery?”
“No, I did not,” replied Grimwall. “Just a few more questions.”
The furious tapping of keys from Astrid’s typewriter filled the silence as Grimwall presented his next exhibit. It appeared to be a train ticket, one-way to Whitehaven for Emily Stiller. The payment signature was Frank Venegas.
Sweat threatened to form at Bran’s temples, and he clenched his jaw to steady his expression. His shift in confidence was not lost on Grimwall, who took it as a sign of guilt. This didn’t matter to Bran, his mind was back at the tavern the night of Roland’s promotion. Was this the counterfeit mistake that had nearly cost Llewellyn his life? Did this mean Roland was involved?
“Should this mean something to me?” Bran asked when he recovered his thoughts.
“This is one of your counterfeits, is it not? I almost missed it, but I got an expert opinion from a new friend, and I’m certain we can link this back to you.” Grimwall glanced to Astrid, who was trying very hard not to look at either of them.
“Hard to say,” Bran said casually. “I’m not really in the business of falsifying train tickets.”
“But I know you got other documents for the man we now both know as Frank Venegas. I’m sure I could go through the trouble of getting a warrant, but it’s much easier if you just tell me the truth.”
“The truth,” Bran said, “Is that I did not have that ticket made for Frank Venegas. Now, if all you have to link me to his case is a few fringe documents, I think I’ll take my leave of you.”
“You can be as smug as you like, McCalhain,” Grimwall growled, “your fingerprints are all over this case, and I will not waste this chance to put you behind bars, I ran a second toxicity test, which revealed nothing I didn’t already know of course: Ms. Stiller had a deadly amount of alkaloids in her system.”
“Not unusual, considering she was an addict. Do you have a point, Detective? I’m a busy man.” Bran made an effort to sound bored, though his glance at his pocket watch made him antsy. He was going to miss his meeting, and this case was turning into more than a mild inconvenience.
Grimwall ignored him, and removed a handkerchief from his pocket and unravelled it slowly to reveal a glass vial, tinged with the remnants of a thick purple, almost black liquid.
“Then my good friend down at the morgue discovered these in the victim’s stomach: Belladonna. Partially digested, but definitive enough to get a warrant.”
In truth, he was disappointed in Grimwall. They had sat in this room many times before, opposing sides of the table, but rarely had the Detective ever been so off in his accusations. There was an elongated silence in the room until it was broken by Bran’s laughter, the perfect mask for his increasing nerves. Grimwall was not so amused.
“Can you give me an alibi for the evening of 40th of Fi?”
It was a shame Grimwall even had to ask. Men like Bran McCalhain always had a verifiable alibi.
“I was at the Club, you can cross check that with the--”
“Secretary? It so happens I’ve already done just that. The only record of you was in the early afternoon. She told me you left at three o’clock and did not return.”
“You spoke to Annette?”
“The names of my witnesses aren’t a concern of yours right now, McCalhain, but I can give you the name of a good lawyer.”
Bran’s smile dropped instantly.
8. ATROPA BELLADONNA
Astrid looked up from the transcript for the first time since beginning. Bran’s face betrayed no expression as he sat, unflinching under Grimwall’s heated gaze, however Astrid could swear he looked a little paler, his eyes a fraction wider.
“It’s been nearly a decade, but I’ve finally backed you in a corner, someone in that precious web of yours finally slipped,” Grimwall said, his voice a low growl. “You want to try again with that alibi?”
“I…” Bran said weakly. It felt strange to hear him sound anything but perfectly calm.
Astrid felt guilty; she was responsible for putting Bran in that seat. She was certain that Bran felt the same way, and as she watched him be backed into a corner -- a corner he was clearly not used to being in -- she thought of her Uncle, and the terrible sound of his screams that night at the tavern.
“He was with me,” Astrid blurted out. Upon realizing the implications of her words, she amended, “I mean, he was at my uncle’s tavern. I work there some nights, I help bartend. I saw him there.”
Both men turned toward her. Grimwall looked incredulous, Bran stared with quiet fury.
“You know him, Miss Westergaard?”
Astrid shook her head. “I only remember him because he ordered water. If he’d done that at a pub back home, he’d have been laughed out of the country.”
Bran flipped a grin back on as Grimwall turned back to him.
“Not much of a drinker,” Bran said, “But I love a good game of Whist.”
There was a knock at the door and an officer half-opened it to peek in.
“Detective Grimwall,” he said, “Detective Murray is waiting for you in your office. He says it’s urgent.”
“Not now,” barked Grimwall.
“It’s Price, sir. Murray says he’s got a confession.”
Grimwall let out a long sigh, which Bran echoed.
“Please escort Mr. McCalhain out of the station, Constable,” he told the officer. Bran stood up and walked at a leisurely pace toward the door. As he approached, Grimwall lowered his voice, “Don’t think about leaving town.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Arthur. You’re welcome at my home anytime; with or without a warrant you may examine any of the nightshades in my greenhouse.”
Astrid ripped the last page from the typewriter and hurried behind the angry Detective.
“Oh no, I don’t need your help with this. You can take the rest of the day off, Miss Westergaard,” Grimwall said, taking the transcript from her. It was hard to tell with Detective Grimwall, but Astrid had the suspicion that he was angry with her.
“Are you upset with me for providing an alibi?”
He responded with a silence and a furrowed brow.
“Wouldn’t you rather know the truth than frame an innocent man for --”
“Branwell McCalhain is anything but innocent.”
“He is in this case, though, isn’t he?”
“Last time I checked I hired you as a secretary, not an officer...I’ll take your witness statement tomorrow.”
The apartment was empty, dark in the mid-afternoon with the shades drawn. Even so, it was sweltering, and Astrid missed the cool Titanian breezes and the smell of the ocean. The docks in Argenstrath weren’t the same. She climbed the stairs to the attic room that was now her own and let the pang of homesickness bloom into something heavy and exhausting.
Astrid sat on the bed, not bothering to take off her shoes, and watched through half-glazed eyes as a plume of ever-present desert dust scatter from the blankets. The events of the morning were beginning to catch up with her. She glanced at the clock by the bed, calculating how many hours she could nap before having to go down to the tavern.
“Your paperwork says ‘Felson’, but the detective calls you ‘Westergaard’. Why?”
“Hellyk-forseg!” Astrid jumped to her feet and spun toward the silken voice behind her. “What in Vanaer are you doing in my room?”
Bran was sitting at her desk, the chair turned to face the door. He was so quiet and still that his black suit blended had into the shadows and a part of her wondered if he had actually just materialized from the dark itself.
“Waiting for you,” he said by way of explanation.
“How did you even get in here? Actually...nevermind, I don’t want to know.”
“We need to go,” Bran said. “We’ll leave by your fire escape.”
“...what’s wrong with the front door?”
“If Grimwall sent you home, he will have had you followed. He, understandably, suspects that you work for me. Likely when you came straight home by yourself, whatever Uniform he sent out after you went back to the station, but this is no time to be careless.”
“And what if I don’t want to go with you?”
“My dear, I don’t think you want to play this game.”
There was a black Paddock’s carriage waiting in the alley beneath the fire escape. Even though she had seen them for months now, it was strange to Astrid to see a carriage without animals to draw it. She didn’t trust these contraptions, but as the coachman opened the door for her, she stepped into the vehicle without protest. She expected Bran to get in on the opposite side, however, a few minutes later the coachman took off down the empty alleyway, and Bran was nowhere to be found.
The McCalhain manor was in Villa, set atop a hill that allowed its inhabitants to see most of the district, with the tall buildings of Argenshire a backdrop to the desert sun, which was shifting from white to red as the daylight ran out. The eastern side of the hill, where the main gate faced the sea, the land had been shaped with impressive skill and determination into a beautiful garden, a horticultural monument to the water empire from which Branwell McCalhain had inherited everything he was.
The carriage brought Astrid up a long cobble drive, lined with beautiful jewel-toned succulents and cacti taller than most men. The desert willows had begun to bloom, sprinkling the landscape with shocks of pink petals. There were walking paths winding throughout, paved in intricate mosaics of small stones in orange, green, blue-grey. Astrid had presumed nothing in this desolate land could look as beautiful as the botanical gardens of Hjem, but the McCalhain manor came close.
The coachmen stopped in front of the large sandstone building, where he exchanged a few hushed words with the doorman before continuing around the to the back side of the manor, where the sandstone ended and an enormous structure of iron and glass began, it seemed nearly as large as the manor itself. As the coachmen let her out in front of it, Astrid realized it was a giant greenhouse, a private man-made oasis.
“Go inside,” the coachmen instructed in a heavy accent, “wait.”
She turned the ornate crystal knob and opened the door, finding not the greenhouse, but what seemed to be a study, the real greenhouse was visible through the glass panes of the wall. The details of the beautiful room faded, however, as she noticed a figure sprawled on the floor, groaning: it was Graeme.
She rushed to his side, and his head lolled to face her, swollen and purple.
“I’m sorry,” he barely managed the words through ragged breath. “I didn’t want…”
“Shh,” She told him. She helped him sit up, leaning his shoulders against a large cherry wood desk. “What did he do to you? What did he give you?”
She scanned the room for anything that could help: the desk was scattered with a myriad of papers, but across the room there was a tall apothecary’s cabinet which she promptly ran to and began pulling jars from the shelves, searching the labels in vain.
Her uncle coughed from the other side of the room.
“What do I do, what do I do?”
An icy hand on her shoulder turned her around, and Bran was there, eyebrow raised curiously as he looked from her to the array of overturned jars.
She pushed him away. “You fix him! Fix him now, you monster. What did you do to my uncle?”
“My dear this is what you did to your uncle, with that little stunt you pulled at the police station.”
“You mean saving your ass?”
“I had it handled. And something tells me you are the ‘expert’ Grimwall’s ticket epiphany?”
“But it was true, wasn’t it? What was the point of lying?”
“This is not your concern. Your job was to bring me information, and that is compromised if Arthur Grimwall has even an inkling of a thought that you work for me.”
“I’m not doing anything for you until you undo whatever the hell you did to him.”
“That’s what I gave him. Belladonna, though I am not so crude as to feed him loose berries, like some kind of folk doctor. I prefer--”
“I don’t give a damn, just give him the antidote!”
“Give me your loyalty, and understand this time the gravity that oath entails.”
“NO!” Graeme’s rattling cry broke through the venom and Astrid rushed back to him. “Astrid, please…”
She held her uncle’s hand, squeezing it tightly, and turned back to Bran.
“You don’t move, you don’t speak without my permission. And you will get me the witness report from Grimwall’s desk by tomorrow.”
“And my uncle stays alive. You will protect him?”
“That was the deal.”
“And still is?”
Bran nodded. He conjured a tin case from his pocket and picked out a single capsule, handing it to her.
“Pleasure doing business with you, Ms. Felson, or is it Westergaard?”
“I hate this city.”
Bran entered the Carlotta Palace Theater ready for a fight. It had not been his choice to skip the meeting with the Councilman, but that wouldn’t stop Roland from taking it as an act of personal treachery at best. He took his time putting out his cigarette on the side of the building before ascending the cascade of white stone steps, at the top of which all three Holme men stood. Alongside them was Albert Klein, a mob boss in Porista and an old friend of Ryan Holme. Bran suspected, however, that he was not so much a fan of Roland. This meeting was set up to gain favor in the absence of Bran striking a deal with the Councilman.
“Ah, the third son finally arrives,” Klein said, checking his watch impatiently.
“It is good to see you before I leave tomorrow,” Holme said with an affectionate grip on Bran’s shoulder. “There are some things we need to discuss.”
“Surely it can wait until after the performance?”
“Agreed,” Klein said. Holme conceded and they were ushered into the theater and led to Klein’s private box. There were already three women sat, speaking excitedly in hushed tones. Bran only recognized one of them, Roland’s fiance, Maria. She stood to greet Roland, giving him a chaste kiss on the cheek. To Bran’s interest, her attention then turned to Patrick, whom she charged with fixing her opera glass.
Roland did not seem to notice or care, his attention was fixed on Klein as they took their seats. He nudged the man impatiently to his seat, taking the seat next to him. Bran sat on the other side. Roland was angry, though why his anger was being directed toward Klein was a mystery to Bran.
“Are you as much a fan of the opera as your old man?” asked Klein.
“I’m not much for small talk, Al. Let's discuss the bill Counsilman Jacobs is drafting up as we speak. I know--”
“You know,” Bran interjected when he saw Klein’s incensed expression. He manufactured a casual melodiousness in his voice that evoked a camaraderie between both men that moments ago had not existed. “When we were children, Roland would hardy last ten minutes in the box with the rest of us before sneaking out. He was so vocal about hating the theater that Paddy and I always just assumed he was boredly strolling the hallways, bothering the ushers. Little did we know he had been sneaking backstage to watch the arias up close. He’ll deny it to the ends of the world, but I think he had a crush on the Diva.”
Klein took the bait and laughed heartily.
Bran watched as Holme pressed a hand into his son’s shoulder as Roland’s jaw clenched in frustration. He waved his remaining hand at an attendant who brought over glasses and a decanter of brandy which Holme poured out four glasses of, offering the first to Klein.
“Always chasing after women, this one. It’s good for all womankind that he finally decided to settle down.”
“Speaking of,” said Roland, brushing his father’s hand off. “My fiance has been trying to catch my attention since we arrived, I should speak to her before the performance begins.” With a pointed look at his father, he made the effort to smile at Klein and raise his glass to the Boss. “I truly hope our families can continue to prosper together.”
Klein raised his glass in return, and Bran followed with the rest of the men.
“To lasting friendship,” Holme toasted.
Bran let the warmth of the brandy slide down his throat and through his limbs. Roland left to sit with his wife-to-be only moments before Klein leaned in to whisper to Bran.
“It’s a shame that Holme’s judgement seems to be declining in his later years.”
“Pardon?” said Bran, “I’m not sure what you mean...”
“We both know that this whole operation should have been handed down to you. And if my sources are correct, you’re as disappointed in this choice as I was.”
A few seats down, Holme’s grip on his brandy glass tightened ever so slightly.
“I cannot say I understand Holme’s choice, but I must respect it.” Bran chose his words carefully, balancing them between the ears two of the city’s most powerful men. “I am flattered by your endorsement, Klein. I will personally ensure your business with me and my family continues as smoothly as possible.”
Extending his hand, Bran is relieved when Klein accepted it and shook firmly as the lights began to dim and a hush descended over the audience. The silent void was filled with trill of violin.
For the first time in weeks, Bran felt something akin to relaxed as he escaped into the world being built up by the orchestra and the soprano at the center of the stage and his mundane surroundings faded away.
At least until the crack of gunfire brought him rapidly back to himself. The bullet hit the empty seat behind them.
“Over there,” Holme said, pointing to a box two to the right of their own, which was completely empty except for two men. Bran could barely make out the barrels of their guns as a second shot went off. Patrick pulled the women to the ground, safe behind one of the stone pillars. Roland made to join them when Holme pulled him back forcefully, whispering something to his eldest son.
Two of Home’s security pulled their own guns to fire back at the attackers, causing them to retreat for a moment, which they seized to escort Holme from the box.
“Down!” Roland shouted, sprinting up the aisle to where Klein had almost made it to the door. He leapt forward and pushed Klein down out of the way just in time for another bullet to whir past them. Bran could barely make anything out over the screaming and the deafening back-and-forth of bullets.
“Patrick, stay low, get everyone out of here!” shouted Bran. He pulled his own gun from under his coat and took two shots at the attackers before taking cover behind the now-vacant space behind the column. He waited for a break in the gunfire and climbed up on the railing of the box and leapt into the next booth. The occupants had all dropped to the floor, frightened, with the exception of the two gunmen. One woman looked up at him, white faced and sobbing.
He shot again and managed to hit one of the men, who dropped. His partner took cover behind a row of seats. Bran opened the door just as Roland came up the hallway toward the box as the scared occupants rushed out in a frantic sea around him.
“It’s Ward Sully’s men,” he explained to Bran, cocking his gun.
“Is everyone okay?”
“What do they want?”
Before Roland could say anything, the box tremorred and Bran felt hot metal collide with his temple. He fell to the ground, his gun falling somewhere across the box. The final gunman had come to them.
His vision blackened around the edges as he watched Roland fire two shots into the man’s shoulder. The attacked dropped his gun and roared in pain.
“What is this about?” Roland demanded furiously.
“Sully wants payback. Price is behind bars because of you!”
“You can tell Ward Sully that he’s made a grave mistake!”
“William Price? The estate lawyer?” Bran asked, struggling to stand again. “What does that have to do with us?”
The man laughed derisively, “Price handled Sully’s assets. Having him behind bars is a death sentence...your man here is trying to start a war.” He reached into his coat, pulling out a second pistol. “ Sully’s just bringing it to him first.”
Bran leapt before he even heard the gun fire. He pushed Roland out the way and felt the white-hot scratch of the bullet across his skin.
The man took a running jump back to the other box and took off. Roland looked like he wanted to go after him, but instead he knelt down to examine Bran’s arm.
“I’ll be fine…” Bran croaked through the pain, it throbbed in tandem with the ache in his temple. “It just grazed me.”
Roland pulled Bran to his feet. “I hate the theatre,” he mumbled.
Bran laughed weakly as he let Roland lead him out of the box.
The rest of the Holme party had not followed the tide of terrified patrons out of the theater, but instead had sequestered themselves in one of the unused dressing rooms behind the stage. Roland dragged Bran down the stairwell that lead to the stage area simply because it was the least crowded, and looked relieved when he saw his father standing outside a door, speaking to one of his men.
When Ryan Holme noticed his sons, he helped bring Bran inside, where Maria was already treating a bullet wound in Patrick’s side.
Klein rose when when entered, thanking Roland for saving his life.
“I may have been wrong about you,” Klein told Roland. “I will not forget the service you have done for me tonight, but I also cannot ignore that Sully has targeted you.”
“That would be my fault,” said Bran. He was breathing heavily now, blood was running between the fingers on the hand that held his would. Klein and Holme gave him equally curious expressions.
“I had a...misunderstanding with the police. It’s a long story, perhaps a story for another time. My apologies for ruining your evening, Mr. Klein. I’ll make it up to you when I’m…” The room fluctuated, bigger and smaller, rippling like a reflection in an uneven mirror before going dark.
When he regained consciousness he was still in the dressing room, half-sitting, half-lying on a long couch of green velvet. Roland was stitching up the wound in Bran’s arm.
“So...you actually plan on starting a war?” Bran asked. His vision was still hazy as he searched Roland’s face for verity. Roland frowned at Bran, but didn’t seem angry as he had earlier in the night.
“Sully has his facts wrong.”
“So you had nothing to do with Price’s arrest?”
Bran knew immediately as Roland’s gaze fell back to his needle work that he suspected what Bran was truly asking: did you get me arrested too? He wouldn’t get an answer from Roland, he knew that. The truth lay in Grimwall’s report.
“That was a mistake,” Roland explained. “A collateral mistake that doesn’t matter now that we have Klein on our side, thanks to you.”
“You’re the one that saved his life.”
“I may have ensured Klein’s safety, but it was only because my father asked me to. It was a business move,” Roland said, “but you took a bullet for me, Bran.”
“Almost took a bullet for you,” Bran corrected.
Hiding away, being sutured by Roland in the aftermath of a shootout, Bran felt almost like a boy again, back when he and Roland and Patrick were inseparable.
“I know these last few days have been…tense, between us, but thank-you.”
“Anything for my brother.”
Roland tugged on the thread a little too tightly as he finished the stitch. When he was done he offered Bran a hand and Bran accepted, standing up again.
“So I am still your brother?”
Bran looked past Roland to where Holme sat. He sat his newspaper down and looked at Bran, his jaw clenched and his eyes resolute.
“Of course, Roland.” And for the moment, as he pulled his sleeve down over his stitches, the truth in Bran’s words took them both by surprise.
10. THE CONFESSION OF WILLIAM PRICE
Thomas Warren was well known in White Haven as the cities most esteemed ranching tycoon, and thus he was a busy man. When influenza took his wife in 1883, he was left alone to raise his only child, his daughter Emily. He was a man of business, and so he sought an economical solution to the dilemma of being suddenly presented with the responsibility of caring for his grieving teenage daughter: he set out to find her a suitable husband.
It did not take long for him to find such a man in Oliver Banks, the son of a renowned lawyer and who himself had just finished law school. Banks was immediately smitten with Emily, though she did not return his feelings. Still, Banks was a wealthy young man with high prospects in his career, and so Thomas pressed the engagement despite his daughter’s indifference.
However, the death of her mother hit Emily even harder than it had Thomas, and to cope with her grief the family doctor had prescribed Emily laudanum. She soon found that she could not get through the morning without it. The morning quickly became the entire day and with the increased dosage, the shifts in Emily’s behavior became more apparent among their social circles.
To spare his family’s reputation and preserve his daughter’s engagement, Thomas sent her away from the heart of the city to the suburbs of White Haven to live with an uncle while she recovered. There she also worked as a governess to her younger cousins as a way to occupy her time. She loved her cousins dearly, and being in charge of their schooling drastically improved Emily’s disposition. She was happier in this life than she could remember being at home in the city.
This was around the same time she met William Price, the young man apprenticing to be an estate lawyer with the firm that managed her Uncle’s property. He was a kind and good humoured man and Emily quickly fell in love with him during his frequent trips to the estate over the three months he remained in the city.
When it came time for him to leave again for Argenstrath, he arranged for her to come meet him there. She had not been in Argenstrath a day when her father had her brought home again, keeping her constantly under a watchful eye.
Her engagement to Oliver Banks became official and in public she played the part of his fiance perfectly, but as often as she could, under the name of Emily Stiller, she would visit Price in Argenstrath, where he was become quite a successful lawyer in his own right.
His prosperity came from the generous pockets of Howard Sully, so long as he discreetly managed Sully’s drug manufacturing empire in Argenstrath. William Price thought he could keep this part of his life separate from Emily, but Sully was a careful and untrusting man, and he liked to ensure the loyalty of his associates. So it was not long before Sully introduced himself to Emily Stiller, and it took him less time still for Emily to become his favorite customer, and eventually, his lab rat.
Price, afraid that speaking up would mean danger for himself or Emily, did not object at first to his lover’s new endeavor. When she came to visit him, during the days while he was at work, she embraced the languid euphoria of whatever new opiate formula Sully was producing, but the nights she would spend with Price. Though it increasingly wore on him, this was their arrangement for nearly two years.
This was until he arrived home one night to Emily in hysterics.
“What’s the matter, darling?” asked Price, rushing to her side. She was still dressed in her nightgown, having never gotten dressed that morning. Her eyes were sunken with purple shadows forming beneath them, she looked like a ghost.
“I--I ran out of the bottle Ward gave me,” she said between sobs. “He w-won’t give me another one without payment, but I haven’t got any more money of my own. Please, Will…”
But Price refused. She begged him, sobbing, on her knees, and it broke his heart but he could not bring himself to give in. The argument turned from desperate begging to angry threats, more and more heated.
Price did not remember many of the details, only feeling the anger she threw at him feuling his own rage, until it felt as though the entire apartment was set aflame by their words. She struck out at him, her nails scratching at his glasses, knocking them to the floor. She struck him again, and again, sobbing and shouting all manner of things that one could only dredge up when they’ve reached beyond hopelessness.
She evoked no pity in Price anymore only more anger that bubbled white-hot to the surface, blinding him to anything except making her stop. His actions did not feel like his own, but it was not Providence which guided him, but a perverse reflection of it; his fingers wrapped around Emily’s thin, delicate throat and the anger boiled in him until her eyes fell closed and her body went limp in his grasp.
His next memory of that terrible night was when the telegram arrived from Sully.
“Your request is granted. My men will be there soon and matters will be settled. Payment can be discussed later. -S”
Men came and took Emily body from Price’s apartment, and that was the last he heard on the matter until the following morning when Sully came to collect his payment in person.
The deal would be settled by the completion of a simple task.
“This trial’s got people spooked,” Sully told Price. “Can’t trust anyone these days. There’s a traitor among us, and we can’t afford someone speaking up now.”
Price nodded in agreement, afraid of what he would say next.
“You need someone to take the fall for your little accident, and I need someone out of the picture,” Sully explained, handing Price a revolver. It felt cold and heavy in his hands. “So, Will, you’re going to take care of them for me, okay?”
Price had no choice but to agree.
11. SOMETHING MISSING
When Price had finished his version of events, Grimwall didn’t speak right away. Confessions were a funny thing, often seen as the end goal of an investigation. After all, once you’ve procured a confession, especially one so complete as that of William Price, what is there left to investigate?
Grimwall had been on the receiving end of hundreds of confessions as a policeman, and whether they are forced or given freely, spoken with apathy or sung with pride or passion, there was one constant among them all: they did not just elaborate upon the crime at hand, but reflected it.
In homicide cases, this usually meant that the motive is more important than the result. This was the detail to focus on, so that is what Grimwall did.
This was not the William Price they cornered in the marketplace, fueled by misplaced anger and grief. What had drawn such a mercurial temperament from the grieving lover? He spoke now calmly and clearly. His tears seemed not to fall out of guilt nor fear nor trauma, but out of exhaustion.
Price, a man familiar with the law, had not requested a lawyer present at his confession. He sat behind bars with slumped shoulders, dark eyes and heavy breath, resolved to his fate. He was The Hanged Man in a every respect, drawn straight from the deck and placed conveniently within the holding cell.
But by whom?
“Don’t tell me you don’t believe him,” Detective Murray, “I searched his apartment, I found the telegram from Sully. His hands match the bruising patterns on her neck…”
“What about the location of the body?” Grimwall asked. He turned his attention back to Price. “Why place the body sitting upright? Why the train station?”
Price stared at him blankly a few beats before answering. “I...I work for some very powerful men in this city. I didn’t know what to do..He owed me a favor so I called it in. My client hired help, I don’t know who. After they took her out of my apartment, I had no part in what happened, and I didn’t ask too many details.”
“This is ridiculous, Arthur. The case is done! It’s over, I’ve already talked to the Captain.”
Grimwall glanced again at Price, who was politely jesting interest in the paper one of the constables had given him. Murray pulled Grimwall into the hallway so they would not be overheard.
“You went to the Captain without consulting me first? I thought we were partners,” said Grimwall before the door had even closed behind them.
Detective Murray scoffed. “Spare me, Arthur. Everyone knows you don’t have partners. And let’s not pretend you wouldn’t do exactly the same thing to me if the situation was reversed.”
“Except I wouldn’t be wrong!”
“Dammit, Arthur, this is our man! Look, I’m sorry you couldn’t pin this one on McCalhain but the facts check out. I thought you of all people would respect that. I’m trying to protect this city!”
“So am I!” Grimwall growled.
“Is that why you still haven’t put the The Scorpion behind bars?”
Grimwall was still fuming when he slammed open the door to the morgue, startling Coroner. The doctor dropped the greasepaint stick he had been using to draw on the corpse of an elderly man.
“Bad day, Detective?”
“I have one evening to make a case for a man’s innocence, Coroner. Please tell me she’s still here.”
“I assume you are talking about Ms. Stiller?”
“Of course, who else would I be talking about?”
The answer to Grimwall’s inquiry came through the door not a moment later, nearly running into the Detective in her haste. Astrid was carrying tin cups filled with steaming soup and a basket of bread.
“I convinced the man who owned the cart to part with these cups but it cost me an extra ten ciams, which is a bit steep if you ask me,” She said, handing Grimwall one of the mugs and then crossing the room to bring another to Coroner, who thanked her with a bemused expression. “You can just add the difference to my wages at the end of the week?”
“Didn’t I fire you?” Grimwall asked? His stomach growled as the steam rising from the soup permeated his senses.
“Technically, no. You just sent me home for the day.”
“So why aren’t you home?”
“I was...for a while. But I felt horrible about upsetting you, and messing up your interrogation. I thought I would make it up to you by helping you sort out the paperwork for the case but you weren’t at your office and so one of the officers told me I might find you here…”
“And she’s been assisting me with prepare specimens for the university all afternoon, waiting for you. I warned her this was not work meant for a young lady but she was quite adamant about staying.”
“I can give you my witness account now, if you’d like?” Astrid held out a spoon to him and for a long time Grimwall gazed between the utensil and his secretary.
“I don’t need an assistant with mafia ties.”
“Well then, I suppose it’s a good thing I haven’t got any.”
She gazed at him with such hard determination that with a heavy sigh, he accepted the spoon from her.
“No need to worry about that witness report, turns out it wasn’t McCalhain after all. Your alibi checks out, I confirmed it with the tavern keeper. Besides, my partner got a confession from the victim’s lover. Evidence seems sound.”
“But…you don’t think it was him,” said Astrid, stuffing a piece of bread into Grimwall’s remaining free hand.
He simply shook his head as a reply.
“So you came here to get more evidence,” she continued to explain to herself. “How can we help?”
“We?” Grimwall glanced to the doctor. Coroner slurped another spoonful of soup from his mug, which he was holding precariously over the corpse he had been working on only minutes ago, and shrugged. Grimwall took a reluctant bite of bread. “Fine. Bring me the victim’s shoes.”
12. ASTRID WESTERGAARD
Argenstrath was a strange city, made even stranger in the too-bright morning sunlight by a lack of sleep. Her eyes burned from drowsiness as she sat in the carriage opposite Grimwall, who frowned down at the parcel in his hands.
When she had accepted the job, she had been warned that Detective Grimwall was a difficult man to work for. His worked strange hours as sporadic as his moods. He had an obsession with human mortality that was off-putting at best, dangerous at worst, and he often made if clear to his secretaries that their presence was unwanted, often intentionally making it difficult for them to do their jobs.
These things were undoubtedly true, if the last two days were any indication of what her future might entail. But he was equally honest and strong in his convictions; a man dedicated to helping a city that didn’t want it. Detective Grimwall was someone Astrid’s father would call Hiraustlyt. Built from honor. Though Astrid suspected that Grimwall’s honor came not from his title or from power, as her father’s did, but out of a desire for recompense. It was something she recognized, like looking into a mirror.
The Argenstrath Police Station was strangely quiet as she and Grimwall waded through the bullpen to the stairs and up to an office door which a brass plate indicated a belonging to Captain C. Hadleigh. Grimwall handed her the parcel, took a deep breath, and knocked.
Police Captain Hadleigh did not look pleased to see the detective, but motioned for them to sit across from him at the large oak desk.
“I already know why you’re here, Detective.”
“William Price is not a murderer.”
“I have two witnesses who can put him somewhere else the night of the murder: a restaurant in Gearford called the Rose Garden. I’ve got a uniform out now obtaining receipts and verifying it with the restaurant. But that’s not the only thing.”
“I have evidence, Charles,” said Grimwall. Astrid placed the parcel on the Captain’s desk and unfolded the cloth. Inside were two small bottles, both unlabeled. The Captain stared at them as though they would themselves reveal the method to Grimwall’s madness.
“Hydrogen borate,” Grimwall said holding up one of the bottles containing a white powder. His eyes lit up as he presented the chemical to Hadleigh, obviously in his element. “Commonly known by anyone who has entered a pharmacy as Boracic acid. This particular form is the same kind we use to purify milk. I found it on the bottom of the victim’s suitcase and on her shoes. I also found traces in the face makeup she was wearing. But strangely none on her hands.”
Grimwall held up the second bottle.
“Is there a point to this?” the Captain asked impatiently.
“Always,” replied Grimwall. “The amount of powder found on Stiller’s luggage indicated that it was not remnants from the makeup but more likely that the case was set in or near a substantial quantity of the stuff. This is also likely how the powder got into the makeup.
“The interesting thing is we found face makeup in the victim’s belongings, it’s expensive violet powder made in Kantebury, no doubt a gift from Price. Isn’t it strange that she would use a lower quality talc-based formula during her visit to her lover? Especially since I had officers inspect Price’s apartment last night -- and I’d just like to point out that there is a layer of dust on Price’s kettle that tells me he hasn’t been to that apartment in weeks. -- but they found no other sources of makeup or boric acid. But I did find it somewhere else -- twice -- months ago.”
“I did not authorize any of this. Grimwall…” Hadleigh scolded.
“I think someone else put that makeup on her, Captain. And it wasn’t Price. I don’t know why he is taking the blame for this, but Emily Stiller was murdered by the Scorpion killer.”
Captain Hadleigh’s face turned purple.
“This is not evidence, Arthur, this is you trying to construct--”
“I’m not wrong about this, Ben, and I think deep down you know it. Price’s story doesn’t add up. This is the work of the Scorpion.”
“DETECTIVE!” The Captain’s fist hit the desk so hard the bottles jumped. “Get out of my office.”
“Sir, this is surely enough to look further into the case? You could be convicting an innocent man…” Astrid’s voice was louder and angrier than she’d meant it to be, and it startled the Captain who looked at her for the first time since she had followed Grimwall into the office. “Detective Grimwall spent hours working on this long after your other officers were asleep, because unlike the rest of you he seemed to actual care about this cursed city. This is someone’s life at stake, you owe it to him to at least consider the actual facts.”
“I’m sorry, who are you?”
“The secretary you hired for me,” Grimwall said.
“Well last I checked secretaries were here to file paper, not to shout at me on your behalf, Arthur.”
“And I thought you were here to make sure this city stayed safe, Captain--” Astrid accused.
They were interrupted by the door flying open and a fraught constable stumbling in.
“C-Captain, Detective Grimwall...you’re needed in the holding cells. It’s the lawyer you brought in he--he’s dead.”
Astrid did not know what she had been expecting when they opened the doors to the holding cells, she could not have prepared herself. What struck her first was the strange angle at which Price’s neck hung, unnaturally against his slumped body suspended by a rope. She forced herself to not avert her eyes.
“How did this happen?” Grimwall demanded of the constable.
“I-I don’t know sir. I was supposed to take over for Simmons but he wasn’t here when I arrived...and this was already done.”
Grimwall opened the cell -- still having to unlock the door, which appeared to be untampered with -- and circled the hanging body curiously. The detective inspected the rope, the joist on which it was hung, and then brought his face as close to William Price’s as he could. He examined the fingernails. He frown, dissatisfied with his observations, it would seem. He backed away from the body to examine the cell again. Astrid noticed it at the same time Grimwall did.
The words had not been visible from the doorway, since the brick wall jutted out to make room for a furnace, but now that they had ventured further into the room they could see it clearly: the small window of the cell, the bars had been pried off. Words were written in grease pencil on the glass:
TOO LATE, DETECTIVE.
Grimwall examined the body again, this time fishing through the pockets of the gray suit. Astrid noticed him pull something out while the others were still gazing at the message; it was a small glass bottle.
“Clean that up,” Captain Hadleigh ordered the constable. “Before someone from the press can get eyes on it.”
Astrid’s second visit to the McCalhain manor, she entered through the front door. The young woman who answered the door brought her wordlessly through the grand foyer to the estate’s internal entrance to the greenhouses. Bran sat behind his desk, reading the newspaper. The headline read ‘LAWYER SUSPECT IN RECENT HOMICIDE TAKES OWN LIFE’ -- it made her stomach turn and she was grateful when it disappeared as Bran set the paper down.
“Astrid,” he said, “I did not expect your return so soon. You have those reports for me?”
“No,” she told him, heart pounding. She suspected she had only seen a fraction of what Bran McCalhain was capable of, and it was not easy to give him bad news. “I will not steal those documents for you.”
“So loyal to your new boss already? Arthur Grimwall hardly deserves it.”
“I am not a thief, Mr. McCalhain, but I’m not a liar either. I won’t steal the documents, but I can give you the name: the testimony was given by a woman named Maria LaMill.”
The news seemed to disturb Bran, but he did not seem angry at her, so she pressed forward. “But... that is hardly the least of your concerns.”
Astrid took the small glass vial from her pocket and placed it on Bran’s desk. Bran slowly leaned in to pick it up.
“Grimwall knows it’s yours. He found it on the body of William Price.”
“It is mine,” Bran said. “But he should know that if I had been the one to kill Price, I would not have made such a sloppy mistake.”
“Well you may want to figure out who has access that that hellish cabinet of yours, because Grimwall is going after the Scorpion, and right now you’re at the top of his list.”
For a long time Bran sat silently, watching her with an expressionless face. He handed the vial back and she pocketed it once again.
“You have done me a great service by bringing this to my attention,” he said finally, speaking in the slow, careful way that made her nervous. “I have something for you as well. A gesture of good faith, if you will.”
He pulled open the desk drawer and retrieved an envelope from it.
“I need to be able to trust those who work for me, so I did my research...you’re quite young to be a widow.”
Astrid’s face flushed.
“My father will gladly tell you that it is impossible for one to be a widow if one was never actually married.”
“You refuse to carry his name in favor of your dead fiance’s. You’ve petitioned to have it changed legally four times in the last six months, each time denied because as a minor you require a parent’s signature. Your father is a stubborn man.”
He offered the envelope to Astrid, and she hesitantly accepted. With shaking hands she opened it and removed the small yellow card: LICENSE FOR CHANGE OF NAME - CITY OF HJEM. At the bottom, her father’s signature.
“My resources in this city are not entirely wasted on extortion and murder.”
“T-thank you.” said Astrid. She did not know if she was thankful, but she did not know what else to say.
“No, thank you for your loyalty, Ms. Westergaard.”