Sunday, September 13, 2015

22: Meddling Kid

Summer was drawing to its end.  Will was delivering the morning load of hemp and willow bark to Ben’s apothecary when the report came in.  Ben was filling out the receipt for the delivery, his goose quill skittering across the parchment, when Little Bill, grubby and weaselish as always, came crashing through the front door.
“Ben!  Come quick!”
“One moment please.  I have a bit of business to conclude with Phillip’s representative, here…”  The lamps in Ben’s shop never gave off much light, as the wicks in the lamps had been trimmed low for fear of fire.  It was a necessary precaution, with bowls and barrels of dried herbs filling the shelves and floor.  Ben stood behind the counter between the customer and the more dangerous concoctions on the back shelf―ephedra, extract of apricot, the yellow flask, and many others.
“Ben, Ramesh’s been murdered!”
That caught his attention.  “My apologies, Will,” he said.  “Perhaps we can conclude this a bit later.  In fact…”  Ben looked Will over for a long moment, then continued, “…if your employer wouldn’t mind, I think it might be of value if you’d join me for a moment.”
They departed the apothecary, Ben locking the door carefully behind him, and proceeded up the street towards Ammerman’s shop.  Rumor evidently outpaced them; by the time they reached the store, a small crowd was gathering.  Little Bill ushered them up the steps and through the main door.  Inside, Ammerman was waiting.
“Hell of a thing, Ben,” he said, grim-faced.  He gestured from behind the counter, directly in front of the workshop door with its elaborate lock.  “He was closin’ last night.  Milton found him like this when he came in t’ open up th’ shop.  Hell of a thing.  A free man murdered.”
Ramesh was slumped by the workshop door, his throat slit from ear to ear.  A small, dark man with a pencil moustache, he’d always seemed to Will to be a decent sort, at least by the standards of Ammerman’s crew.  He wasn’t a social butterfly by any means, but was well known to be a hard worker and, unlike his boss, scrupulously polite.  His devotion to Ammerman had always been something of a mystery to Will.  Now there was one mystery more.
Will stared at the corpse, slowly cooling in a puddle of blood.  More brownish than red, he thought.  Part of him wanted to be sick.  And part of him, he knew, was glad to be seeing it.  Not glad it happened, he thought.  But glad to see it.
“I ain’t touched him yet.”  Ammerman said.  “Reckon I’d appreciate it if ye’d take care o’ th’ business quick an’ clean; gotta clean th’ blood offa the floorboards afore we git back on th’ job.”
“Your concern for your employees is touching, John,” Ben replied.  He shook his head.  “Our first murder in over twenty years.  Homicide investigation really is not my line of work; I have no talent for it.”  He turned to Will.  “What is your assessment?”
Will started a bit.  Me?  Even Ammerman seemed taken aback.  A small knot of Ammerman’s other associates had gathered in the far corner of the store, a cluster of blank expressions.  Louis, Frederic, Milton…and Emily.  Even paler than usual.  Will’s heart skipped a beat as she met his glance.  If Ben noticed, he was tactful enough not to say so.  “Will?”  he repeated.  “Tell me what you see here.”
“Aw, come on, Ben,”  Ammerman interrupted.  “That yer idea of an ‘investigation’?  Hand things over to a kid?  That how a ‘leader’ does things?”
“As you’ve so often reminded me, John, I am not in any formal capacity this community’s leader.  And as I have just pointed out, I am in no sense an investigator.  Haven has no one with any such expertise; crime here consists primarily of theft and barroom brawls.  Your associate elected to fetch me here, despite my lack of authority, and I am doing my best to assist you.  Will?”
Will swallowed, then approached the corpse, his moccasins squelching in the slowly congealing pool.  He hadn’t the slightest idea what to do, but with Emily watching, he elected to make the best show of it he could.  He reached out for Ramesh’s cold, lifeless wrist, and found no pulse.  “Well,” Will said, as authoritatively as he could manage, “he’s dead.”
“’at’s some quality detective work, right there,” Ammerman snorted.
Will looked the corpse over.  If something in me demands to look at this crap, then let it help me now.  The body wasn’t bruised, or battered, or disheveled in any sense.  He was the same man with whom Will had shared a nodding acquaintance, dignified and almost prissily neat, except for the fact that he was completely covered in blood with his head half off of his body.  “So, were there, um, signs of a struggle?  Did he have any enemies?”
“Only th’ whole damn town.  He was with me, r’member?”
“Will makes a reasonable point,” Ben interjected.  “If a man is killed, one would expect him to fight his killer.  Especially a ‘free man’ such as your associate here.  Where are the signs of a fight?  How could a struggle of the sort we’re postulating result in death by a single, clean wound of the sort we’re observing?  And how does the victim of such a crime wind up simply sitting against the wall?”  He and Ammerman shared a long look.
Will interrupted with a question.  “Was the front door open when the body was discovered?”
Ammerman looked over at Milton.  Milton was a tiny, almost completely bald man with a persistent squint.  More to the point, and very distinctively, Milton was old.   He had famously chosen to retain the borderline-decrepit body in which he’d initially incarnated.  One night at Luther’s, Will had asked him why; he’d replied in clipped, educated tones that “to waste an incarnation for cosmetic purposes would be inefficient.”  As he looked over the gruesome crime scene, Milton’s face was screwed up in puzzlement.  “Truth be told, I’ve been wondering about that since I arrived.  As it happens, the door wasn’t open.  It was closed and locked from the inside.”
“Was anything taken?”
Milton shook his head.  “Not so far as we’ve been able to discern.”
“Wasn’t much to take, was there?” Ammerman interjected.  “Ain’t even a quarter of the way back to havin’ the inventory we had when th’ hillmen cleaned us out.  You may recall that lil’ incident, Ben?”
“You seldom neglect to remind me of it.”  Ben had been stooping beside the corpse, he straightened up, then addressed his comment to the employees in the corner.  “Well, we are fortunate in one respect.  Murder does not pay in Haven, for fairly obvious reasons.”  He looked each of the four of them over carefully.  “All we need to do is wait for Ramesh to incarnate again, and ask him who his killer was.”
“I was wondering when you’d get around t’ that,” Ammerman said.  “That’s the other mystery.  Wasn’t nothin’ taken, but there is somethin’ missin’.”  He paused.  “Ramesh’s heartlight.  No sign of it.”
Ben blinked a couple of times, then turned to Ammerman.  “Surely, the Redoubt…”
“What, did ye think we’d come t’ye before checkin’ the Redoubt?  We went down there straight away.  Empty.  Besides which, he wouldn’ta gone there.”  Ammerman glared.  “Don’t think it ain’t occurred t’me an’ mine that some in this community don’t care for us, much.  We got us a plan, me an’ mine, fer when folks rise up an’ initiate force against us.  Any man o’ mine dies at another man’s hands, that man’s soul seeks me out straight away, so I can rally the troops, get us armed and ready.  Been waitin’ some time for a move to be made against us.”  He gestured at Ramesh.  “Looks like it’s started, don’t it?”
“Don’t allege conspiracies without evidence, John.  Is it possible that Ramesh chose The Light?”
“B’fore lettin’ us know who did ‘im?  That sound like Ramesh t’ye?”  Ammerman shook his head.  “Most loyal man I ever had, might be.  Even if he was movin’ on, his soul woulda come to me first, gave me an’ mine a warnin’”
“I suppose he would.”  Ben thought for a moment.  “This was Ramesh’s…second body, as I recall?”
“Second.  Thirty-four years in it.  First incarnation took three days, second less’n a week.   Not as fast th’ second time as Will, here, but that’s still damn fast.  Damn strong soul that man had.  He was good for four incarnations, easy.  No way he’d bail out on ‘em, neither, loyal man like him.  This don’t smell right.”  Ammerman turned to Will.  “Say, boy, they treatin’ you right out on Phillip’s farm?  Seems we got us a job openin’ here after all.”  He gave a wicked grin, gesturing at the corpse.
Will took a quick look at the corpse, then at Emily, still standing in the corner among her chosen companions.  “I think I’ll pass,” he mumbled.
Ammerman laughed.  “Reckoned y’might.  Hell, might be no one’ll ever wanna be part o’ my outfit again, after this business.”  He looked at Ben for a long moment.  “Might be that was the whole point of it.”  He raised a finger, as if in warning.  “Won’t shut us down, though.  Won’t shut us up, neither.  Gonna keep on’ keepin’ on.  Might ought be we’ll be a bit more vigilant, though.”  His eyes narrowed.  “Yeah.  Might be we’ll be eternally vigilant, here on out.”  He turned back to Will.  “That aside, door’s still open t’ye, boy.  Come t’ me, ye come in as a free man an’ an equal.  Come tell me a few things.  Might ought be I’ll have a few things t’ tell ye as well.”
Ben looked at Will, then back at Ammerman.  “Will will do as he feels best.  In the meantime, I commend you for choosing to take further precautions.  Whether you believe it or not, John, I mean you no harm.”  He turned to go.  “We will need to inform the community of this event at the next meeting; better to have it out in the open than allow the rumor mill to do its work.  We will all need to be on our guard.”
Ammerman nodded.  “On that, anyway, we agree.  You keep yer eyes peeled for a heartlight, Ben.  Believe I’ll do the same.  I’m a damn sight interested in what Ramesh has t’ say.”
Ben went out the door and down the steps, Will following in his wake.  As they reached the bottom of the stoop and turned towards the street, there came a call from the doorway.  “Will?”
Will turned and saw Emily ducking out the door.  His heart immediately vaulted into his throat.  You said you needed me to go away for a while.  Has it been a while yet?   Her face was drawn, her eyes alert.  She descended the steps quickly.  They shared an awkward glance.  Will struggled mightily for the right thing to say. 
You wanted to be around people who challenged you, Emily.  Is this the sort of challenge you had in mind? You wanted to handle your own monsters.  Now that there’s one on the loose, how are you handling it?
He wondered, but said nothing. 
“I wanted you to know,” Emily said, “that I did ask Ammerman about the Seraphim.”
It wasn’t what Will had been hoping or expecting to hear.  The surprise must have shown on his face, because Emily hastened to clarify.  “Don’t worry,” she said, “I asked as if it were my own question.  I didn’t tell him it was you who wanted to know.”
“What did he say?”
Emily cocked her head a bit to the side.  Her eyes were strange.
“He told me to find out what you knew about them.”

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