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Chapter Two

There was no one waiting in the station as Tal came on duty two days later. Under other circumstances that might have been unusual, but not on this night. It wasn't rain coming down out of the sky, it was a stinging sleet that froze the moment it struck anything solid. The streets were coated thickly with it, and no one in his right mind was going to be out tonight. Tal had known when he left his rooms at the Gray Rose that this was going to be a foul shift. It had taken him half an hour to make the normally ten-minute walk between the inn and the station.

As a rare concession to the weather, both stoves were going in the waiting room. He stood just inside the door, and let the heat thaw him for a moment before stepping inside. What got into the Captain? Charity? 

Before he left the inn, Tal had strapped a battered pair of ice-cleats on over his boots, and took a stout walking-stick with a spike in the end of it, the kind that was used by those with free time for hiking in winter in the mountains. Even so, he didn't intend to spend a moment more than he had to on his beat, and from the hum of voices in the back where the ward-room was, neither did anyone else. What was the point? There weren't going to be any housebreakers out on a night when they couldn't even carry away their loot without breaking their necks! Not even stray dogs or cats would venture out of shelter tonight. The constables would make three rounds of their beats at most, and not even that if the weather got any worse. A constable with a broken neck himself wouldn't be doing anybody any good.

The Desk-Sergeant crooked a finger at Tal as he took off his cloak and shook bits of thawing ice and water off it. Tal hung his cloak up on a peg and walked carefully across the scarred wooden floor to avoid catching a cleat in a crack. He couldn't possibly ruin the floor, not after decades of daily abuse and neglect.

"Got another mystery-killing this afternoon," the Sergeant said in a low, hoarse whisper once Tal was within earshot. "Or better say, murder-suicide, like the other ones you don't like. Want to see the report?"

Tal nodded, after a quick look around to be sure they were alone, and the Sergeant slipped a few pieces of paper across the desk to him.

Tal leaned on the desk as if he was talking intently with the Sergeant, and held the report just inside the crook of his elbow. In this position, he could read quickly, and if anyone came in unexpectedly he could start up a conversation with Sergeant Brock as if they'd been gossiping all along.

Brock wasn't supposed to pass reports along like this; they were supposed to be confidential, and for the eyes of the Captain only. Evidently Brock had gotten wind of Tal's interest, and had decided to give him an unofficial hand. Tal thought he knew why; he and Brock were both veterans, but Brock was considerably his senior, and would never get any higher than he was now. It would be almost impossible to discharge him, but his hopes of advancement were nil. He could have spent his time as a place-holder, and probably Rayburn expected him to do just that, but like Tal, Brock had unfashionable ideas about the duties and responsibilities of a constable.

And if someone tied a bag of rocks to the Captain's ankles and threw him in the river to drown him, we'd both consider it a fine public service, but a waste of good rocks.  

Evidently, since Brock was no longer in the position to do any good out on the beat, he had decided to help out Tal, who was. And perhaps he was getting back at Captain Rayburn by offering tacit support of a "project" the Captain didn't approve of.

Somewhat to Tal's surprise, this murder had taken place at the very edge of the district, upstream, where the grain and hay-barges came in. Unlike this area of the docks, the barges were not towed by steamboats nor sailed in; instead, they were pulled along the bank by teams of mules and horses. The presence of all those animals, plus the kinds of cargoes that came in there, gave the Grain-Wharf an entirely different atmosphere than this end of town, more like that of the inland farm-market. Tal didn't know the day-constable on that beat, but from the tone of the report, he was competent at least.

The Grain-Wharf played host to a completely different cross-section of workers than the down-river docks as well; a peculiar mingling of farmers and barge-drivers, stock-men, grain-merchants, and river-sailors. In some ways, it was a more dangerous place; grifters and sharpsters of all kinds and avocations were thick there, waiting to prey on naïve farm-boys just down to see the town. But there were businesses there you wouldn't expect to find on the waterfront, to serve the many interests that converged there.

Blacksmiths, for instance.

For the first time, the murderer was a plain craftsman, a Guild man. Even the secondhand store owner had been operating on the fringes of society, buying and selling things that, if not stolen, were certainly obtained through odd channels. This man had been one of Captain Rayburn's "honest taxpayers," though his victim had not. Perhaps this would get Rayburn's attention.

Tal read the report quickly, grateful that the author had a gift for being succinct—given the paucity of actual detail, there were constables who would have padded the text shamelessly, since a thin report could be construed as lax performance that pure word count might disguise. This time, though, there really hadn't been much to report; there were no witnesses to the murder, though there were plenty who had rushed into the smithy at the first cry, including the smith's two apprentices. By then, of course, it was too late.

This was the first murder, at least to Tal's knowledge, that had taken place in broad daylight, but it might as well have been in the middle of the night. It had occurred in the smith's back-court, where his wood and charcoal were stored; the court was open to the sky, but otherwise completely secluded. The victim was a known whore—a freelance, and not a member of the Guild or a House. Her official profession was "dancer."

But there's a tamborine and a set of bones listed among her effects, which means she had at least pretended to be a musician. There's the musical link again.  

The smith had actually killed her with a single stab of a long, slender knife with a triangular blade—

There it is again!  

—but this time, the victim was beaten unconscious first, and rather cut up before she died. She must have taken a long time to die, at least an hour or so. No one had heard any of this, probably because anyone who might have noticed the sound of blows would assume that one of the apprentices was chopping wood. Rain had been pouring down all day—


—and as dusk neared, it was just turning to ice. The smith had finished with the knife the job he had begun with his fists, and then went into the smithy, picked up a pitchfork he'd been asked to mend, took it back out into the court, braced it in a pile of wood, and ran himself up onto it.

He'd screamed as he did so, and that was the sound that had brought the apprentices and neighbors running. But he'd done a good job of killing himself; he hit numerous vital spots with the tines, and by the time they arrived, he was dead, and so was the girl.

There was the expected panic and running about before someone thought to summon the law. The knife was missing by the time the law arrived, a fact that the constable in charge carefully noted. This fellow was competent and thorough, giving the case his full attention. He stayed for several hours questioning those who had been at the scene about the missing blade. He'd even had the apprentices searching the entire smithy for the missing knife, and had ordered them to take the wood and charcoal out piece by piece until they either found it or had determined that it was gone.

Good for him!  

Tal handed the report back to Sergeant Brock, who tipped him a wink. "I know you're a-mindful of this sort of affair. It's the sort o' thing a good law-man would find odd. Bodies are at the morgue," he whispered as he slipped the report back inside his desk. "And I've heard there's something peculiar about one of them." He shrugged. "Night like this, no Priest is likely to sit about minding corpses."

Tal nodded his thanks, and went back to the ward-room to see if there was anything in the way of orders at his locker. He didn't expect anything—the weather had been so miserable all day that it wasn't likely the Captain had bothered to stir from his own comfortable house just for the purpose of appearing in his place at the station. When he made his way past all the tiny cubicles and entered the ward-room, he found his assumption was correct.

The stove back here had another cheerful fire in it, and the desultory comments of those going off-shift told him that the Captain had indeed sent word by a servant that if he was needed he could be found at home today. No wonder all the stoves were fired up—the Captain wasn't here to economize!

Nice to be able to work from home when the mood hits, he thought sourly, for Captain Moren, Captain Rayburn's predecessor, had spent most of his waking hours at his post, and the only time weather had ever kept him away from the station was the ice-storm of the year he died. Even then, he'd actually set out for the station, and it was only the urging of the constables that knew his ways and came to persuade him to turn back that prevented him from trying to reach his appointed place.

But Tal kept those words behind his teeth; you never knew who was listening. "Anything I should know about?" he asked the constable he was relieving.

"Not a thing; nobody wants to move outside in slop like this," the man said, holding his hands over the stove. "I looked in on a couple folk I thought might be in trouble down by the docks, but they've got smarter since the last storm; families are moving in together to share fuel." He laughed sardonically. " 'Course, with twelve people packed in a room, they don't need much fuel to warm the place up. Even the joy-girls have doubled up until the weather turns. I guess they figure they might as well, since there won't be any customers out tonight, or maybe they think they'll get a tip to split if they're two at once, hey?"

Tal shrugged; there wasn't much he could say. Except that at least now some of those women he feared were in jeopardy would no longer be alone, not for the duration of this cold snap, anyway. And for tonight, at least, none of them would be on the street.

But the last one wasn't taken on the street, was she? I wonder what she was doing there; the girls who pose as street-singers don't usually visit blacksmiths. Futile to speculate; he could find out for himself, tomorrow. That was his day off, and he would be free to invade any beat he chose to.

Tonight he would take advantage of the storm to go a little out of his area and visit the Church morgue. Technically, there should be a Priest there at all hours, praying for the repose of the dead and the forgiveness of their sins—but as Sergeant Brock had pointed out, in weather like this, it wasn't at all likely that anyone would be there. The dead-cart couldn't go out in an ice-storm, for the pony might slip and break a leg, and no amount of roughing his shoes would keep him safe on cobblestones that were under a coating of ice an inch thick. So there was no reason for the Priest in charge of the morgue to stir out of his cozy cell, for he could pray for the souls of those laid out on the stone slabs just as well from there as in the icy morgue. If his conscience truly bothered him, he could always take his praying to the relative discomfort and chill of the chapel.

So Tal would be able to examine the bodies at his leisure, and see what, if anything, was true about the story the Desk-Sergeant had heard, that there was something strange about one of the bodies.

He got his uniform cape out of his locker, and layered it on beneath the waxed-canvas cape. His baton slid into the holster at his belt, his dagger beside it, his short-sword balancing the weight on the other side. Beneath the weight of his wool tunic and breeches, knitted shirt and hose, and two capes, he was starting to sweat—better get out before he got too warm and killed himself with shock, walking into the ice-storm.

He took his spiked staff in hand and clumped slowly back out, saluting Sergeant Brock as he headed for the door to the street. There was a constable at the front entrance handing out the storm-lanterns; he took one gratefully and hung it on the hook in the end of his staff. It wasn't much, but on a night like tonight, every tiny bit of light would help, and if his hands got too cold, he could warm them at the lantern.

He opened the door and stepped into the street. There wasn't much wind, but the pelting sleet struck him in the face with a chill that made up for the lack of wind. He bent his head to it, and told himself it could be worse. It could be hail, he reminded himself.

But it was hard to think of how anything could be worse than this; ice so thick that if he had not been wise enough to strap on those metal ice-cleats, he'd have broken an arm or his neck in the first few paces, and cold fierce enough to drive every living thing from the street tonight. It would be a bad night for taverns and families with an abusive member; no one would be going out for a drink, and people with bad tempers didn't take being cooped up well. More often than not, the abuser would take out everything on people who could not run out of doors to escape him. A colicky baby that wouldn't stop crying, a child with a cough that couldn't be soothed, or a woman with the bad luck to say the wrong thing at the wrong time—the triggers were many, but the results were all depressingly the same. There would probably be a few—children mostly—beaten to death before morning. Nights like this one brought out the worst in some people, as the inability to get away set tempers and nerves on edge.

Try not to think about it. There's nothing you can do to prevent any of what's coming tonight. You'd have to have a million eyes and be everywhere at once. Tal set the spike of his staff carefully, lifted a foot and stepped forward, driving the cleats into the ice before lifting the other and repeating the motion. His beat would take three times as long to walk tonight.

He was glad that he was not the morning man, who would be the one to deal with the bodies that would turn up with the dawn. Sometimes the perpetrator would manage to hide his crime by burying the corpse or dumping it in the river, but it would take a truly desperate person to manage that tonight. They never learn; they call the dead-cart and say the mate or the kid "froze to death," the constable shows up with the dead-cart and sees the bruises or the smashed skull, and that's the end of it. Another battering, another hanging. It generally never even came to a trial; a Justiciar would see the evidence and pronounce the verdict before the end of the day. An easy conviction, but Tal was weary of them, for nothing ever seemed to change, no matter how many batterers were hung.

Maybe that's because for every one we see and catch, there are a dozen that we don't, because they don't actually manage to kill anyone. They only cripple the bodies and kill the souls of their "loved ones," they never actually commit murder. And as long as the wife doesn't complain, we have no right to step into a quarrel or a parent punishing his child.  

More than the weight of the ice on his shoulders weighed him down, and he wondered for the hundredth time if he should give it all up.

No, not yet. Let me solve this last one, then I'll give it up. It was all a noble motive; tonight he was ready to acknowledge that part too. Part of it was sheerest curiosity. I want to know what can drive a man to kill someone he doesn't even know with a weapon that vanishes. 


As icy as the morgue was, it was warmer than being outside. The ice-storm had finally passed as Tal finished his beat, but its legacy would make the streets impassable until well after daybreak. Even inside his boots and two pairs of socks, Tal's feet felt like two chunks of ice themselves. At least in here he could walk without having to calculate each step, and he didn't have to worry about the cleats scarring the stone floor.

The morgue was a cheerless building of thick gray stone, with tall, narrow windows set into the stone walls, glazed with the poorest quality glass, thick and bubbly and impossible to see through. The anteroom was supposed to hold a Priest who would conduct visitors to bodies they wished to claim when such appeared, and otherwise he was supposed to be on his knees before the tiny altar with its eternal flame, praying. More often than not, he would probably be at his desk, reading instead. But just as Tal had assumed, there was no Priest here tonight, and the door had been left unlocked just in case the dead-cart ventured out onto the ice before dawn. The flame on the altar was the only other source of illumination besides his own lantern, but there wasn't much to see in its dim and flickering light. The morgue was not made for comfort, either spiritual or physical; the only place to sit besides the chair at the desk was on stone benches lining three of the walls beneath the slit windows. These benches, which were not softened by so much as a hint of a cushion, were intended to encourage the sitter to think on the chill of death and the possible destination of the one who reposed beyond the door. Two of the benches were single pieces of carved granite that stretched the entire length of the wall. The door to the street was framed by two more uncompromising structures, just as imposing though only half the length of the wall. The matching granite altar, kneeling-bench, and the door to the morgue proper were ranged with mathematical precision on the fourth wall, and the Priest's desk, holding the records of all bodies currently held here, sat right in the middle of the room. The desk was a plain, wooden affair, but it hid a secret, a charcoal brazier in the leg-well that would keep the Priest nicely warmed all day. Tal began opening drawers and discovered more secrets. One of the drawers held goosedown cushions and a sheepskin pad to soften the hard wooden chair. There was a stack of books, most of them having little to do with religion, and a flask and a secret store of sweets. Finally he found what he was looking for—the records detailing what body lay where. A quick glance at the book told him where to look for the smith and his victim. Tal put the book back, then turned and crossed the intervening space with slow and deliberate steps, disliking the hollow ring of his cleated boot-heels in the dim silence, and pushed the door open.

On the other side of the door, what appeared at first glance to be multiple rows of cots ranged out beneath the stone ceiling. But a second look showed that the "cots" were great slabs of stone, disturbingly altarlike, and the sheet-draped forms on top of the slabs were too quiet to be sleeping—although Tal had known a Priest or two, more iron-nerved or insensible than most, who would take a late-night nap among his charges on an overly warm night. It would almost be pleasant in here then; a special spell kept the temperature low, so that the bodies would not decompose as quickly. On one of those sweltering nights of high summer, when the air never moved and rain was something to be prayed for, the only place to escape the heat besides the homes of the ultra-wealthy was here.

The morgue was crowded; season and weather were taking their toll of the very young, the elderly, and the poor. Judging by the lumpy forms beneath the sheets, the Priests had laid out several children on each slab, and Tal swallowed hard as he passed them. He could examine the bodies of adults with perfect detachment, but he still could not pass the body of a child without feeling shaken. There was something fundamentally wrong about the death of a child, and even after twenty years as a constable he still had not come to terms with it.

His targets were at the very end of the morgue, a little apart from the rest, as if distaste for what had happened made the Priests set them apart from their fellows. Tal was mostly interested in the smith, but just for the sake of seeing if he spotted anything the first constable had not, he pulled back the sheet covering the girl.

The sight of her battered face shocked him, and he had not expected to be shocked. When he'd read that she had been beaten, he had not really expected that she'd been beaten nearly to death. He spotted three injuries that by themselves would have killed her in a day or less. He could hardly imagine how she had survived long enough to be killed with the knife—her jaw was surely broken, and there was a pulpy look about her temple that made him think the skull might be crushed there, broken ribs had been driven into lungs, and her internal organs must have been pulped. She was so bruised that he could not really imagine what she had looked like before the beating, and that took some doing. The places where she'd been cut up were odd—symmetrical, forming patterns. Her clothing was tasteless and gaudy, cheap, but not shabby, indicating that she was not as poor as the last victim. That was probably because the last victim had insisted on earning her bread in ways that did not involve selling her body. As so many girls had found, when men were willing to pay more for sex than any other kind of unskilled work, it was hard to say no to what they offered.

Not that I blame them. You've got to eat.  

He couldn't spot anything that caught his attention, so he pulled the sheet back over her and moved on to the smith.

Even on a freezingly cold day like this one, the heat in a forge was as bad as the full fury of the sun in high summer, and most smiths were half-naked most of the time. This one was no exception; leather trews and a leather apron were his only clothing. And it was because of that lack of clothing that Tal saw immediately what made Sergeant Brock whisper that there were rumors that one of the bodies looked "odd."

In fact, if Tal had not known that the man's victim was a relatively frail woman, he would have sworn that the smith had been in some terrible fight just before he died. There were bruises all over his arms and shoulders, especially around his wrists.

That couldn't be post-mortem lividity, could it? The marks were so very peculiar that he picked up the man's stiff arm and rolled the body over a little so he could examine the back. No, those bruises were real, not caused by blood pooling when the body lay on its face. He opened the shutter of his lantern more, and leaned over to examine the bruises closely.

This is very, very strange. He wished that he was a doctor, or at least knew a Healer so he could get a more expert second opinion. He had never seen anything quite like these bruises before. . . .

The closest he could come had been in the victim of a kidnapping. The perpetrators had ingeniously wrapped their victim in bandages to keep him from injuring himself or leaving marks on his wrists and ankles. The victim had been frantic to escape, full of the strength of hysteria, and had bruised himself at the wrists, ankles, and outer edges of his arms and legs in straining against his swaddlings. The bruises had looked similar to these—great flat areas of even purpling without a visible impact-spot.

But no one had bound the smith—so where had the bruises come from?

Tal stared at the body for some time, trying to puzzle it out, before dropping the sheet and giving up. There was no saying that the smith had not had those bruises before the girl ever showed up at his forge. And in a man as big and powerful as this one was, no one would have wanted to ask him where they had come from if he himself wasn't forthcoming about it.

Some people have odd tastes. . . .  

And that could have been what brought the girl to his business today. If she was a girl he'd picked up last night, no one would be aware that he knew her. And if she thought she could get a little extra business—or hush-money—out of him . . .

He grimaced as he walked back towards the door. All this way—and this could very easily be a perfectly ordinary killing, if murder could ever be called "ordinary." The girl ventured out into filthy weather because she needed money and he was the nearest source of it. And perhaps she threatened him in some way, hoping to get that money, or wouldn't go when he ordered her out, and he snapped.

But as he put his hand on the door, he knew, suddenly, that this was just too pat an explanation, and it all depended on the very fragile supposition that the smith was a man with peculiar appetites. Just as he could not be sure that the bruises had not already been present when the girl came to the forge, he could not be sure that they were. 

Furthermore, that did not explain the strange suicide, nor the vanishing murder-weapon. Why would the man kill himself at all? The forge had been vacant at the time, but fully stoked; it would be more logical for the smith to throw the body on the flames and hope it incinerated before anyone looked in the furnace. The temperature required to smelt iron and steel was high enough to deal with one small human body. And why, with the variety of weapons and even poisons available in a forge, had he chosen the particularly excruciating death he had?

No, this was another of his mystery-crimes again; he had the "scent," and he knew it by now.

But for the moment, there was nothing more to be done about it except let it all brew in his mind. He stepped back out onto the icy street, and the sardonic thought crossed his mind that in weather like this, even murder came second to getting across the street without falling.


Weak sun shone out of a high sky full of even higher, wispy clouds, as it hastened across the sky towards the horizon. The only ice now was in the form of icicles hanging and dripping from most eaves; as if relenting a little for the battering the city had taken beneath the ice-storm, winter had worn a smiling face for the last few days.

And it was Tal's day off; with all of his leads gone cold, he was pursuing his private time, for once, in a little ordinary shopping. He needed new shirts, preferably warm—and having no vanity and not a great deal to spend, he was looking through the bins in one of the better secondhand clothing stalls. Although it was late for shopping in the "better" part of town, in the district where Tal lived, full of folk who had to work during most of the daylight hours, street-vendors and shopkeepers accommodated working folk by opening late and staying open past sunset.

"Tal!" A vaguely familiar voice hailed him from across the street, and he looked up. From beneath the overhanging eaves of the building directly opposite, Constable Kaelef Harden beckoned slightly.

The shirts he'd found so far weren't all that good a bargain, and there didn't seem to be anything better hidden in the deeper layers of the bin, so he dropped them back and made his way across the street to his colleague.

"Brock says you're collecting the murder-suicide, vanishing-knife cases," Harden said without any preamble whatsoever, and his voice seemed strained to Tal. "I had one first thing this morning, he said to come tell you about it. Little street-beggar girl got snuffed by a trash-collector, then he threw himself under the wheels of a carriage. Weird. Very weird."

"In broad daylight?" Tal asked, surprised. "Witnesses?"

Harden nodded. "Me, for one. I saw it, or most of it, anyway, and I couldn't stop it, it all happened so fast."

Now his voice had a tremor in it that Tal didn't like. He took a second look at Harden, who was one of the younger constables, less than a year on the job. Harden was white beneath his weather-tanned skin, and visibly shaken. Tal put a steadying hand on the man's arm, and Harden made no move to shake him off.

Hell. Poor lad's in shock. And he doesn't recognize it, because it doesn't occur to him that a constable could or would have any such weaknesses.  

"Are you on duty now?" he asked.

Harden shook his head. "Just got off, and Brock was just coming on; he made a point of saying I should come talk to you, since Rayburn just threw the report in a drawer and didn't even glance at it. I checked at the Gray Rose and they told me where you'd gone."

Huh. Brock probably wants me to talk him through this one, and that's why he sent the lad to me, whether or not this case fits my pattern. It's an excuse to get him to a veteran. Still, Harden was a good man, and it was pretty obvious that Rayburn wasn't going to do his duty by the lad. The Captain was supposed to help a new man through things like this, but Rayburn—

Rayburn is too busy kissing feet to take care of his men, and that's the end of it.  

"Come on back to the Rose," he replied. "We'll get something to eat, and you can tell me about it there."

"Not—I'm not really hungry," Harden said, his lips white, but he didn't pull away when Tal took his elbow and steered him back to the inn that was his home. There were never really crowds in this part of town, and a constable's cape always made traffic part as if there were flunkies clearing the way. Two constables together—even if one was out of uniform—prompted people to choose the other side of the street to walk on. It wasn't long before they paused under a wooden sign boasting a rose that might once have been red, but which had long since faded to a pale pinkish-gray.

The Gray Rose—which may once have been known as The Red Rose, when its sign was in better repair—was a modest little inn in a shabby-genteel part of town, and encouraged long-term residents in the dozen two-room "suites" in the third story. These were right above the single rooms normally let out by the night. For a price just a little more than he might expect to pay for private lodgings and food, Tal got the benefits of living in an inn—meals he didn't have to prepare himself, and servants cleaning up after him—and none of the disadvantages of living in a boardinghouse, where he might have had similar benefit. Granted, the menu never varied—a fact which he tried to look upon as "being reliable"—and the rooms were tiny compared to a lodging, but he had privacy that he wouldn't have gotten in a boarding-house, he didn't have to tailor his hours to the preferences of a boarding-house keeper, he could bring home whatever visitors he cared to whenever he wanted, and he never had to come home to unswept floors and an unmade bed. During the day, the inn was quiet—all the really noisy activity associated with carousers and private parties in the rooms below his took place while he was on-shift. The girls cleaned his rooms as soon as he left them in the early evening, just before the evening rush and after cleaning everyone else's rooms. For their part, the proprietors appreciated having a constable in residence; that fact alone ensured that although things might get noisy, they never got past the stage of a generally happy ruckus. And knowing that there was a constable living here kept thieves from even thinking about trying their luck under the tiled roof.

He steered an obviously shaken Harden past the broad-shouldered Mintak who minded the door, and raised two fingers and an eyebrow at one of the serving-girls as he went by her. She nodded, responded with a quick mime of eating, then turned away after Tal nodded back. He led Harden up the stairs to his rooms, knowing that food for two would be arriving shortly. He preferred to supply his own drink; the wine here was cheap, and beer was not to his taste.

He unlocked his door and motioned Harden in ahead of him; the cleaning-girl had already been through this morning, so he knew that his sitting-room was presentable. There actually wasn't a great deal to tidy up; his needs were few, and so were his possessions. He had a single comfortable chair beside the tiny fireplace shared with the bedroom, a bookcase and a lamp standing next to it. A braided rag rug covered the worn boards of the floor, a wooden table and four stools standing on it, and a cupboard holding a few bottles of good wine, four glasses, knives, and plates, some preserved fruit, bread, crackers, and cheese, stood opposite the armchair. There was a chest just under the window that contained all of his other odds and ends, and a tiny desk beside it. As an awkward nod to the amenities, two mediocre landscapes purchased because he felt sorry for the artist decorated the yellow-white walls. One of the few women to ever come here as a guest had seemed surprised that there was so little that was personal in this room. "It's like your face, Tal," she'd said, as if she found it disturbing. "It doesn't tell me anything about you."

But fellow bachelors felt comfortable here, and Harden settled onto one of the four stools with what seemed like real relief. The room was, in every sense, a very "public" room, and right now Tal sensed that the younger constable would not be comfortable with anything that verged on the personal. He left the outer door slightly ajar as a signal to the girl that she should bring the food straight in, and set about making Harden feel at ease.

Hanging his cape and Harden's on once-ornamental pegs beside the door, Tal mended the fire and put fresh logs on, then fetched a bottle of wine and two glasses. Extracting the cork deftly, he poured both glasses full, put one in front of Harden, then took the other and sat on the stool opposite the younger man. He hadn't been there more than a moment when one of the serving-girls tapped on the door with her foot, and then pushed it open with her hip. She carried a large tray laden with bowls and plates, fragrant steam arising from most of them.

Dinner was, as usual, stew with fresh bread and butter, pickled vegetables, and baked apples. If Tal wanted anything other than the "house meal" he had to pay a little extra, and once in a while, for variety, he did so. But his tastes in food were plain and easily satisfied, and he doubted that Harden was going to pay very much attention to what he ate so long as it wasn't absolutely vile.

The girl maneuvered her heavy tray deftly in the cramped space; before Harden even reacted properly to her presence, she had placed his bowls of stew, pickles, and apples in front of him and Tal, plunked the plate holding a hot loaf and a pannikin of butter between them, and dropped wooden spoons in each bowl of stew. Then she was gone, empty tray held loosely in one hand, closing the door firmly behind her.

Harden blinked and picked up the spoon automatically. Tal cut slices from the loaf for both of them and buttered them generously. "You might as well eat," he said casually, gesturing with his spoon. "It's not bad, and it's hot. You may not feel hungry, but you need food."

By way of example, he dug into his own meal, and in a moment, Harden slowly began eating as well. Neither of them said a word until all their plates were empty, nothing was left of the bread but crumbs, and the wine bottle held only dregs. Tal collected the dishes and the empty bottle and put them outside his door, then returned to the cupboard for a second bottle of wine. He poured fresh glasses, then resumed his seat.

"All right," he said, as Harden took the glass in both hands but did not drink. "Now tell me what happened."

Harden shivered, his sober, angular face taking on a look both boyish and lost. "It was this morning," he began. "Late morning. I was on my third round; there's a little half-mad beggar-girl that always takes a particular corner, and I have to keep an eye on her, because sometimes she darts out into the street and starts dancing in the middle of the road. She scares the horses and holds up traffic, people get angry." He shrugged apologetically; Tal understood what he did not say—that when something like that happened, people always blamed the constables. But what were they supposed to do? You couldn't lock up every crazy beggar in the city, there'd be no room for real criminals in the gaols.

"So you kept an eye on her," Tal repeated. "She ever done anything worse?"

Harden shook his head. "Mostly she just sits like today and sings hymns, except she makes up words for them. You can tell when she'd be going to cause trouble, she acts restless and won't sit still, and she wasn't like that today, so once I saw that, I ignored her. She's harmless. Was harmless," he corrected himself, growing pale again. "No one ever minded her. I was on the opposite side of the street from her. I—I really don't know what happened then, because I wasn't really looking for any trouble. She wasn't going anywhere, and no one out in the street was going to bother her. I thought, anyway."

He sat quietly for a moment, and Tal sensed his internal struggles as the constable warred with the seriously shaken man. "All I can tell you is that the very next thing I knew was that people on the other side of the street were screaming and pointing, a couple were trying to run, and there was a rag-picker standing over her, waving a bloody knife in the air. Then he threw the knife away, and before I could move, he ran out into the street. And I could swear, honestly, he actually threw himself right under the wheels of a heavy water-wagon. The driver couldn't stop, the wagon turned over and the barrel burst and flooded everything, and by the time I got it all sorted out the rag-picker was dead, too." His hands were trembling as he raised his glass and drained it in a single gulp. "I—didn't do anything. I didn't stop him, I didn't even see him kill that mad girl, I didn't stop him from killing himself—" His voice rose with each word, and he was clearly on the verge of hysteria.

A natural reaction, but not at all useful. Better snap him out of this.  

"Are you a mage?" Tal interrupted him.

Harden stopped in midsentence and blinked owlishly at him. Probably the question seemed utterly irrelevant, but Tal had a particular strategy in mind. "Ah—no," he stammered.

"Then you couldn't have done anything, could you?" Tal countered. "There was no reason to assume that a rag-picker was going to murder the beggar; they're normally pretty feeble-bodied and just as often they're feeble-minded, too. They don't do things like that, right? Rag-pickers wander along the gutter, collecting trash, and half the time they don't even see anything that's not in the gutter in front of them. You had no reason to watch him, you didn't even know what he'd done until it was too late."

"But after—" Harden began.

"You said it yourself, it all happened quickly. How close were you? Across the street you said, and I'd guess half a block down." Tal shrugged as Harden nodded. "People were shouting, screaming, blocking the street—panicked. You couldn't possibly have gotten across to him with any speed. There was certainly no reason to think he'd throw himself under a wain! And short of using magic to do it, you couldn't have stopped him from where you were standing! Right?"

Harden nodded again, numbly. Tal poured his glass full and topped off his own. "That was a hell of an experience," he said, with a little less force. "A hell of a thing. Bad enough when you come pick up the pieces, but when it happens right in front of you, it's natural to think you could have done something the cits couldn't. But just because you're a constable, that doesn't give you the ability to read thoughts, move faster than lightning, and pick up water-wagons with your bare hands."

Harden took a few deep breaths, closed his eyes for a moment, then took a small sip of the wine. "You're right, of course," he replied shakily. "I wasn't thinking—"

"No one could be, in those circumstances," Tal replied dryly. "Lad, most of the cits think we can do anything, and expect us to on a regular basis; that kind of thinking can get you believing you're supposed to really be able to. But you're just a man, like any of the cits—just you have a baton and some authority, people listen to you, and you can handle yourself against a couple of armed ruffians. And none of those things make you either a Priest or a mage, to save a soul or a body, either. Now, what made Brock think you should talk to me about this?"

"Well—I guess because it was another murder-suicide, and the knife is missing," Harden said after a moment of thought. "He told me about your theory, and it seems to fit. I suppose you could say that the beggar was a musician; at least, she was always singing. She didn't know the man, I had never seen him on my beat. Judging by the wound, it was a strange knife, too; like a stiletto, but with a longer blade. We looked for it, too, believe me. After he threw it away, it just vanished."

From the moment that Harden mentioned the rag-picker throwing the knife away, Tal had the feeling that this murder did match his profile; now he was sure of it. Once again, the knife was gone, and he was already certain that it would never be found.

He was also certain that no links would be uncovered joining the beggar-woman and the rag-picker, no matter how diligently he looked. The rag-picker probably was not even from this part of town, and he normally would never have been on that street. It was the same pattern all over again; the same damnable, frustrating pattern.

The use of magic could explain it, some kind of compulsion-magic, perhaps operating through the medium of the knife, but why? All the victims were utterly insignificant!

What was more, all the victims were utterly unalike, especially the last three. A real street-musician, a whore, and a beggar—aside from being poor and female, and marginally connected with music, they had nothing in common.

He shoved it all into the back of his mind and concentrated on coaxing Harden to talk himself out. The wine helped; it loosened the boy's tongue to a remarkable extent, and once Harden started, he kept going until he ran himself out.

Just like I did, the night that fellow jumped off the bridge in front of me. . . .  

He hadn't thought of that in many years now, but there had been a time when he literally could not get it out of his mind. Now he knew that his presence or absence would have had no effect on the man, but then—

Half the time I thought I'd somehow caused him to jump by just being there, and half the time I thought if I'd just tried harder I could have talked him out of it. In both cases, the guilt and self-recrimination were the same.

Now it was his turn to listen and say all the things that Harden wanted desperately to hear—things he knew were logical, but that guilt told him could not be true.

They emptied that bottle and another between them, though most of it went into Harden. At one point Tal ascertained that Harden lived alone, and had no woman or relative waiting anxiously for him to come home, and just kept replenishing his glass until he finally broke through the final barrier and wept.

That was what he had needed, more than talk, more than sympathy; he needed to cry, in the presence of someone who understood. Not all men needed the release of tears after something like this, but many did.

And may Rayburn find himself in this position one day, with no one willing to listen to him and pour the wine!  

He came very close to hating his superior tonight, and only the fact that Rayburn was not worth wasting hatred on kept him from doing so. If the Captain himself did not feel capable of offering such important moral support to his men, it was his responsibility to find someone who could and would! It should not have been left up to old Brock to find someone!

And getting the lad drunk was not the most optimal way to get him to unload his troubles, but it is the only way I know, Tal thought glumly. He should have been with someone who knows how to handle situations like this one, not with me. He's going to have a head in the morning, poor boy. On the other hand— 

He was Harden's senior. He could legitimately report him in sick. Rayburn would have to find a replacement for his shift—

Hell, Rayburn can walk the lad's beat himself and do some real work for a change!  

Although emotion wore a good bit of the wine off, Harden was still not fit to leave the inn, either. So when the tears were over, the guilt somewhat dispersed, and Harden reduced to telling Tal what a fine fellow he was in slurred and half-incoherent speeches, Tal excused himself long enough to tap on the door of one of the two Mintak brothers who worked as peace-keepers in the bar downstairs. He knew Ferg would still be awake; they had the same taste in books, and the Mintak would often come tapping on his door about this time of the night if his own library ran dry. He liked Ferg and his brother, and if anyone ever said a word against nonhumans in general and these two in particular, he took care to let them know just how he stood on the matter. If he hadn't been a constable, that might have gotten him into a fight or two, but between his baton and the brothers' muscle, troublemakers generally took their prejudices elsewhere.

Ferg answered the door quickly enough to have been awake and reading, sticking his shaggy brown head out of the door cautiously. A pair of mild brown eyes looked down at Tal out of a face that was bovine, equine, and human, all at once. He opened the door a little further when he recognized Tal, and as if to confirm Tal's guess, there was a book in his broad brown hand, a thumb stuck in it to keep his place. "Got a friend who needed to get drunk tonight," Tal said shortly, knowing Ferg would understand. "I need to get him down to a room for tonight."

The Mintak nodded wisely. "Hold a moment," he said in that deep voice all Mintaks shared regardless of gender. "Let me put the candle somewhere safer."

He withdrew his head; there was a little shuffling, and he returned, without the book. "Nobody's using the guest-room," the Mintak offered. "Might as well put him there, and we won't have to move him down any stairs."

"That might be best," Tal agreed. "He's a good lad, but I'd just as soon not run up too big a bill on his behalf."

There was a single, very small room on this floor, a room not much bigger than a closet, that the tenants had—with the agreement of the proprietors of the inn—fixed up as a bedroom for their own guests. Sometimes it was used for visiting relatives, and sometimes for those who were in the same condition as Harden. Once or twice it had been used by quarreling couples, and on those occasions, the rest of the tenants were very careful not to ask any questions of either party. Those who were going to entertain visitors for more than a day were careful to schedule the guest-room well in advance, but at any other time it was open for spur-of-the-moment use.

Harden would be less embarrassed to wake up in what was obviously a guest-room removed from Tal's lodging than he would be if he woke up in Tal's sitting room. And Tal's charity did not extend to giving up or sharing his own bed.

Ferg followed Tal back to his rooms; Harden looked up at their entrance and squinted at the sight of the Mintak, who towered over Tal by a good several inches.

"Din' I shee you downshtairs?" Harden slurred.

"That was my herd-brother, good sir," Ferg replied calmly. "Do you think you can stand?"

"Not by m'shelf," Harden acknowledged ruefully, after an abortive attempt that left him staggering and finally sitting right where he'd begun. " 'm drunk, butsha couldn' tell by m' dancin'."

"All right then, old man," Tal said, slightly amused. "We're going to get you to a bed where you can sleep it off."

Harden nodded wisely. "Good—idea," he said carefully. " 'f I can' stand, I sure can' walk, eh?"

Tal and Ferg got on either side of Harden and assisted him carefully to his feet. Both of them knew better than to move abruptly with him; at the moment, he showed no signs of getting sick, but any too-sudden movements could change that, and neither of them felt much like cleaning the mess up.

"Right you are," Ferg said cheerfully. "Now, we'll take your weight and keep you balanced, you just move one foot in front of the other, and we'll get you safely into a nice, warm bed." Obediently, Harden began to walk, swaying from side to side, supported by Ferg and Tal. "Good, you're doing fine," Ferg encouraged. "Right. Left. Right. Left. Now through the door—into the hall—"

This was hardly the first drunk Ferg had assisted into a bed—the Gray Rose encouraged patrons who had a bit too much to spend the night if they weren't rowdy. It was good for all concerned—the inn got a paying customer overnight, and the customer found himself only a bit lighter in the pocket, rather than waking up in an alley or a worse place. The Mintaks, with their enormous strength, were usually the ones called upon to help the inebriated into their rooms, so Ferg had plenty of experience; either of the brawny brothers could have carried Harden on their own, but the companionability of Ferg and Tal doing this together would likely be important to Harden when he thought back upon it. In a much shorter time than Tal would have estimated, they had Harden down the hall, in the bed with his boots pulled off, and under several blankets, since the room was too tiny to have a fireplace of its own. Tal closed the door quietly and marked his name down on the schedule outside. There would be a linen charge and a cleaning charge, and since Harden was his guest, he would be the one responsible. Ferg nodded approvingly.

"A friend of yours?" Ferg asked. "A fellow constable? And what brought him to this pass?"

"A bad incident on his beat," Tal replied, grateful that Ferg knew enough of the constables to know what a "bad incident" was.

"Ah. His first, no doubt. Well, better to purge himself in the presence of one with the experience to advise him—but I misdoubt he'll be fit for duty in the morning. . . ." The Mintak cocked his head in obvious enquiry, and Tal had to chuckle at his curiosity. Tal never ceased to be bemused by the blazing intellect and extensive vocabulary possessed by Mintaks. Other humans too often dismissed Mintaks as being as stupid as the beasts they resembled, but Tal knew better.

"Oh, I plan to take care of that," Tal replied. "In my opinion as a senior constable, that boy has a touch of something. Food poisoning, maybe. I'll have a note run over to the station to that effect before I go to bed."

Ferg chuckled. "Mendacious, but reasonable. A good Captain would have excused him from his duty for a day or two anyway. It is a pity there is nothing in the rules requiring that absence from duty. Well, good night—and I have a history I think you might enjoy, when you have the leisure for it."

"And I have a Deliambren travel-book I think you'll like," he replied, and saluted the Mintak as he opened his own door.

He stayed up long enough to write sick-notes for both Harden and himself—after all, they had eaten the same meal, and they were both suffering similar symptoms.

Uh-hmm. We're both light-headed, dizzy, flushed, and in the morning we'll both have headaches and nausea. Well, Harden will. Brock will probably guess, but he won't let on to the Captain. Tal decided that if his hangover wasn't too bad in the morning, he would go ahead and appear for duty on his shift, but in case it wasn't, he was covered. He left a third note, telling Harden that he'd written him up for sick-time and not to go in on his shift, on the tiny table beside the bed, and sent one of the inn's errand boys around to the station with the other two notes. Harden, when he took a final look in on him, was blissfully, if noisily, asleep.

Tal nodded to himself with satisfaction, closed the door, and sought his own bed, after taking the precaution of drinking a great deal of water.

But when he finally lay in the quiet darkness, with only the faint sounds of creaking wood and faint footsteps around him, his mind wrestled with the problem of this latest case. It fit; it certainly did. There was no doubt of that.

But what did it all mean?

The whole thing is mad, he thought, tossing restlessly. The pattern is there, but no motive. Maybe that was why Rayburn was so stubborn about admitting that the cases were all tied together; there was no discernible motive to any of them. That was one of the first things drummed into a constable's head when they taught him about murder: find the motive, and you find the killer. But in this case, the killers were obvious; it was the motive that was missing.

Why? Why, why, why? Why these people? Why that particular kind of knife? What was there to gain? It has to be the same hand behind all of them, but what is the motive?  

No the killer wasn't obvious, after all. The people who used the knife and spilled the blood couldn't be anything more than tools, hands to wield the blade, and nothing more. So, the law still held true.

Find the motive, and you find the killer.  

So what was the motive? What could drive a man to use other people to kill like this? If there was a purpose, what was it? Where was the killer all this time?

And who was the killer?


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