An Encounter With a Stranger

My luck did not hold for it never does.

On one such occasion ten of us gathered, with four or five always at a table in our cards, while the rest mingled about talking and drinking. Aside from myself and the generous Don Antonio, there was the treasurer Lope de Alcedo and several friends of his, including one strange looking fellow I had never set eyes upon before. He was dark haired and dark skinned but with the most piercing blue eyes I have ever seen. I sat at the table most of the night, as was my habit, and acquitted myself well, accumulating a generous pile of reales. Several times, especially as I began to take the treasurer’s coin, I caught the stranger gazing at me from the corner of the room when he thought my eyes were on my cards.

I wondered at his interest and, deciding that it could hardly be friendly, I made a great show of getting full in my drink, talking loudly and unsteadily, all the while keeping a careful eye on the man. Fortune stood by me that night and I kept up my winning ways, which led to much dark muttering by Don Lope and the others at the table. This kept on for some time, as we played deep into the night, the others cursing me and their ill luck, the hours growing heavy on everyone’s faces.

My mood, which had been as bright as my fellow players’ had been foul, turned ugly when, after losing a hand, I reached into my purse to pay into the pot and found it lighter than it had been. Though I had no proof, beyond my own native instinct, I immediately turned and locked eyes with the blue eyed stranger. He returned my gaze, the smallest of grins touching his lips. I marveled at his ability to steal up beside me and take the coin right before my eyes where it sat on the table. Had the others noticed? Unlikely, they were all too consumed with me and their own gloom with the play going against them.

I had no sense of when or how he might have pulled his trick. As I have mentioned to you before, all my senses are very keen and on this night, though I had been acting quite the drunkard, I had taken only a cup or two of drink. And yet he had slipped past my guard, stealing right from under my eyes, without my even noticing.

I vowed then, as I paid out my debts and settled into the next hand, that I would not allow him to succeed in his game again. I slipped my dagger out from my belt and kept it in my lap, my left hand clenched around it, within easy reach of my purse on the table before me. And there I kept my eyes, even as I played on through the next hands, never glancing again towards the newcomer, though I knew he was watching me like a falcon studying its prey from afar. I know only too well the charlatan tricks that can be played, the deception of appearances, where one is there and then not there. No fool am I, I recognized a fellow traveler.

When he came next to lighten my purse I was well prepared for him. As he reached out, making a show of passing by the table, I brought my dagger down upon his hand, the blade gouging right through his flesh and lodging itself in the table trapping the stranger there. He let out a yell that quietened the room and I leapt up from chair, snatching my purse from the table, calling him a devil and a thief.

My strategy was poorly thought out though, for he was a friend of Don Lope, the treasurer, as were most of those there that night. My only friend in the place was our host Don Antonio and he did not dare risk his friendship with the treasurer over someone as inconsequential as me, a decision I cannot blame him for. He did step forward and plead for peace, to no effect, as Don Lope and his friends drew their rapiers against me.

I drew my blade as well, thinking only of how I might engineer an escape with my vitals intact. Before the mob could come at me I brought my rapier down upon the stranger’s still-trapped hand taking off two of his fingers. He snarled at me, more like a beast than a man in that moment, and then pulled my dagger free and came at with the rest of them. Though I parried furiously I was unable to stop them from raking me with their blades. I managed to fend them off only enough to allow me to exit the house, little good it did me, for I was still menaced at all sides by Lope de Alcedo and his companions.

Leave his guts on the street, Don Lope said to his friends, his voice heavy with drink.

I shall still have more stones than the lot of you, I told him with a sneer. You are as unpaved as any village.

This caused a general uproar among the half dozen or so men brandishing their weapons in the darkness. They were advancing upon me when Don Antonio, Lord bless him, came round the corner with the Alcalde of the city, who he had roused from his bed at that late hour. That man called a halt to the proceedings and had me arrested, calling on all the others gathered to follow him to give their statements as to what had occurred.

Strangely, the newcomer with the blue eyes was nowhere to be seen among those who trailed behind me and the Alcalde, cursing and muttering at their poor luck in being unable to finish their task. I, of course, was infinitely grateful that they had failed in that, but something else was troubling me. I was certain that the stranger had come out with the rest of the mob in pursuit of me as I had made my feeble retreat, but at some point in between the ensuing scrum and the arrival of the Alcalde he had vanished. If his fellows had noticed they made no comment on it, either among themselves or to the Alcalde. Where then had the man gone, and to what end?

I had plenty of time to dwell on that, for I was thrown into jail, clapped with irons, and set in the stock. I passed a cold and miserable night, bleakly pondering the terrible state I now found myself in. The next day the sun rose and with it came my friend Don Antonio, as true a gentleman as one could wish for, and my master Don Tadeo, who spoke with the Alcalde, a man he knew, and had me let out of the stocks and irons. The Alcalde would not free me, though, for the witnesses had all sworn statements against me.

Surprisingly, no mention was made of the stranger, the harm that had come to him, or the theft which had precipitated all the events. It was as though he had never been present. I protested to the Alcalde that I wished to press charges against this man, but he waved me away. Neither Don Antonio nor I knew the man’s name and the Alcalde had not seen him when he’d come upon the scene, so for all intents and purposes he did not exist. The charges against me had nothing to do with the stranger. It seems that in the scuffle that had broken out I had, while making my frantic defense, landed a blow on the face of one Mendo de Quinones, which required some seven stitches.

As they were unable to secure my release, in spite of their many and considered pleas to the Alcalde, both Don Tadeo and Don Antonio left me to my fate in the jail, promising to return with what help they could muster. In spite of their cheerful bravado at our parting, I knew my situation was bleak. Neither of my friends had the standing that Lope de Alcedo did in Cuzco and that, combined with the fact that all the witnesses spoke against me, meant I was almost certain to be facing a penalty, no doubt a few years with the army in Chile battling the savages that roam there.

So began my first spell of imprisonment, though it would not be my last. At the time, the specter of unending days lying before me, filled with poor food and miserable conditions, as the case ran through its gauntlet of appeals, left me in a state of dread and despair. Those nights did not pass easily. Neither do these nights before me now, though I have had ample time to grow accustomed to them.

from The Maleficio Chronicles

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A Journey to Garden

It was the embarrassment of seeing her husband carrying on with that girl at Ven Lusch’s soiree that brought Marsina Ven Denon to her decision to leave for the family summer house. All of Yurital had seen him that night, and everyone would have noticed when he left with her and not Marsina. The infidelity she could accept, after a fashion. It had been that way from the beginning of their marriage after all. Though it left her bereft, she was willing to overlook it, for the sake of their daughter Jacyma, to spare her the embarrassment and shame to come. And so she had become the kind of woman who, in the early blush of youth, she would have scorned as a fool for remaining married to Nyco Ven Denon.

She would have stayed, would have continued on the path she had chosen, had he not made so public, so obvious, his betrayal and scorn for her. That she could not countenance. Not after she had laughed off – or worse, bitterly fought against – anyone who had warned her of her husband’s ways when he had begun to court her. She was not just some naïve girl blinded by love. And when it had become clear just how much a blind fool she had been, it was far too late. She could not admit to having made such a mistake, her pride would not allow it, and then Jacyma had come and there was that to consider. But no more.

Her parents were no help. Every time she came to her mother in tears for consolation she received condescension, as though each wrong that her husband committed was a mark against her own character. Sometimes Marsina even felt that this was true. That had been the case when she had visited them the morning following the soiree, her mind still clouded with the wine she had drank, nearly two bottles worth, in her rage against her husband. It had consumed her and the hazy washed out feeling that accompanied her on her journey to her parents’ house seemed to be the direct consequence of it.

“I always said he was a fool,” her father had said when she announced, upon arriving, that she was leaving her husband. “Didn’t I say that?”

This was directed at his wife who frowned at him and tsked at her daughter. “I suppose it’s for the best.”

She did not announce her intention then, but once the rains had passed, and the threat of washed out roads and landslides with it, she told them both that she would be leaving early for the summer house. This predictably was met with consternation from her mother and anger from her father who forbade her to do so. She remained firm in her intentions, refusing to be turned from her decision by either of them.

There was some reason for concern over such a journey. A group of Hautlyren, calling themselves the Resistance, had been the talk of Yurital all through the rainy season. After emerging the year before, they had rampaged throughout the lowlands this season taking several important towns. A large number of forces had been committed to putting the insurrection down but their success had been middling to say the least. Many had succumbed to lowland diseases and there had been numerous cases of desertion, with some of the forces joining the rebels. Victories had been few.

Garden, where many of the Yurital elite, including Marsina’s family, had their summer homes, was near the lowlands and if the war were to spread it would come first there. Few expected that to happen, the Resistance hardly seemed a formidable foe. Yet they continued to persist. There were rumors that they were receiving support from some neighboring states and of whole villages of lowlanders being impressed into their service. Word was that once the dry season began they would begin an assault on the highlands, the heartland of the Niedellun.

Marsina paid no mind to such talk. That was the men’s world with its obsessions and paranoia and she distrusted it as much as she distrusted her husband. Nothing, not the dissolution of Niedellun itself, could dissuade her from journeying to the site of so many of her cherished memories.

She left first thing one fine morning before the sun had even risen, taking the train south from Yurital. Though she had a first class berth, she kept Jacyma on her lap, both she and the child dozing on and off throughout the morning. Sometime after she had taken her lunch in the dining car the train halted and did not move for over an hour, much to her frustration and Jacyma’s delight. The track they were on wound its way through the mountains that separated Garden from Yurital and for the moment they sat overlooking a gaping chasm that ended in a forest covered valley far below.

There were several more stops and starts on the journey of varying length, severely delaying their arrival at New Gerunn so that it was near nightfall when Marsina disembarked from the train. Making the last part of the journey stranger still was the fact that the stewards, normally so attentive during such delays and quick to pass on any information they might have, went through the car almost furtively, not looking at any of the passengers. There was a general disquiet among all the travelers at these developments, with many low murmurs and shared looks of concern.

Their reception at New Gerunn did nothing to ease Marsina’s unease. Normally there would be any number of porters fighting to help with her bags but the station was nearly empty. The ticket counter was closed, though the late trains were surely still to arrive as it was only just after supper. Abandoning her bags for the moment, she took Jacyma out to the street to see about finding a roadster that would take them to Garden. There was only one idling on the corner, the hautlyrun driver leaning against the hood playing with a toothpick and eyeing her with that blank expression so many of them adopted.

When she asked him to take them to Garden that night the expression vanished and his eyes widened in disbelief. “Haven’t you heard Ma’am?” he said to her. “They say the Resistance is coming up from the lowlands.”

“What does that matter?” she said to him, her weariness making her cross. “The army will stop them and I have to get to Garden tonight. Will you take me?”

“I don’t know Ma’am. They say the roads aren’t safe. Everybody’s been coming north today, nobody going south.”

Jacyma was exhausted and restless at her feet. Marsina knew a tantrum would not be far off if she did not get them into a car and on their way soon. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, “I just need to get to Garden. I can make it worth your time.”

He considered this, the toothpick flicking from one side of his mouth to the other. At last he said, “Why don’t I find you a hotel for the night Ma’am. You and the child can rest and I’ll take you first thing tomorrow morning. Maybe the news will be different tomorrow. But even if the news today is wrong, it’s not good to be on the road tonight. There’s folks who’ll be out thinking they can do what they please, you understand Ma’am.”

Though she very much wanted to be in her own bed, to sleep without thoughts of the trials she had endured in Yurital with the difficulties of the road left behind her, she relented seeing the reason in what the hautlyrun said. He happily ushered them into his car and went and retrieved her cases and then drove into New Gerunn, finding them a hotel with rooms available. He left them there promising to return at first light the next day to take them to Garden if the news from the south was good.

From The Uninvited

Icarus

They used to sit beneath the sunrise staring at the crested sky, intangible in its very presence, looming over their contorted bodies. She would whisper something to him and he would think to himself, you are slipping through my fingers.

She fled, his twisted and gnarled ruins, leaving him to wander without escape. He talked endlessly to strangers, to whomever he would meet, because he could not bear the silence that persisted, hanging on. Sorrow and joy, he thought, were the same bird flying for the sun.

He could still flee, he told himself, to some lost distant place. There he would think he was away from harm, her memory like a ghost in the mist as he sacrificed another to her name.

The Body in the Coulee

The body lay part way down the coulee, right before the slope turned shear and plunged to the creek below. The night had hidden it, but the arrival of dawn made its presence obvious. There were several sets of footprints from where the body lay to the road, clearly marked in the muddy spring ground. Even as the new day’s light revealed these details the first flakes of snow began to fall, wet and heavy. For a time the earth resisted their intrusion but eventually the storm proved too much and the ground turned white, covering over the tracks.

Wayne Johnstone was the one to find it later that morning. He caught sight of the red jacket out of the corner of his eye from the tractor where he was tubgrinding feed for the cattle. Thinking it was something that had come off of a passing car on the highway, he drove up to the fence of the pasture by the lip of the slope to see what it might be. Something in him recognized just what and who it was without really looking and he sat in the tractor, his hands clutching the steering wheel, feeling very cold. After a time he clambered down the hillside, now slick with the accumulating snow, to confirm his suspicions.

Half an hour later a police car drove slowly up the driveway in the main yard, pulling to a stop in front of the ranch house where a woman sat on the porch, a dog at her feet and a hood thrown over her head to keep off the snow.

“‘Hello Diane,” Martin said as he stepped out of the car.

She just nodded, “It’s down there by the coulee,” she said pointing. “You can take your car if you think it can make it through the mud.”

“I’ll be alright.”

She paused, and then she said, “We called him. Wayne said I probably shouldn’t, but I had to.”

He nodded, “He’s down there now?”

“Yeah.”

He drove on through the yard down the laneways, pens filled with cattle still with their winter coats on either side, until he came to the far pen that connected out to the pasture. He sat there a moment to gather himself and then stepped out of the car, putting on his hat to keep the snow off. The pasture was almost entirely covered over in white, ruining the scene no doubt. If the weather forecaster on the radio was correct his drive back to town would be interesting as well by the time he was through here.

He climbed into the pen and set off for the pasture, nearly losing a shoe in the mud as he went. It smelled rank, a winter’s worth of manure and urine thawed and filling his nostrils. The cows ambled, and the calves darted, out of his way as he went, the footing growing more solid as he came to pasture. Still, he was glad he had not been tempted to try his luck with the car. The last thing he needed to add to the day was conducting a murder investigation while his vehicle was being pulled out of a pasture.

When he came to the fence separating the pasture from the coulee he saw them standing down the ridge a ways, looking down at the body, wiping the snow from their eyes. He cleared his throat and swung over the fence as they both turned to him. He just nodded at them and knelt down by the body. The face was mostly blown away. He could see the outline of one eye socket and most of the jaw, bits of brain and skull. Her neck and chest were perforated with pellet blasts. The blood was that curdled dark color, clumping against her skin and the earth below. He sighed and stood up, turning to Leonard.

“It’s her alright,” Leonard said. “That’s her jacket and shoes.”

Martin looked at Wayne, “Anybody else been down here but you two?”

Wayne shook his head.

“Alright. Why don’t you and Leonard head back to the house and wait for me. I want to look around a bit. Cory should be here pretty quick.”

“What’ll they do with the body?” Leonard asked, his tone odd.

“He’ll have to take it into town. Botha will have to look at it. We’ll take care of it.” He turned from them and knelt again by the body.

The snow had already obscured whatever tracks were around, but it seemed clear to him that she had been dragged here from the road. There was not enough blood around her, given the extent of her wounds, to say nothing of what had happened to the rest of her head. Why then had she been left here where the body would be easily discovered. A few steps farther would have taken whoever had carried her to the lip of the coulee where gravity would have carried the body into the darkness and trees. Of course, if all this had been carried out in the dead of the night without the benefit of a vehicle’s headlights, assuming the perpetrators were concerned about drawing attention to themselves, then whoever it had been might have thought they were closer to the precipice than they in fact were.

He paced from the body to the road. The fence along the ditch ended before the coulee started, and he wondered briefly why Wayne hadn’t bothered to extend it. There were no tracks into the ditch, which was hardly surprising given the snow. He climbed onto the road, kicking at the damp blacktop. It curved just ahead along with the coulee, the two running nearly parallel briefly, before the road curved again to wrap around it. The snow was coming down so heavily he could not see beyond that.

He went back to the body, snapping on the rubber gloves he had brought as he went, feeling faintly ridiculous as he did so. Wiping his eyes clear of water and snow he gingerly turned what was left of her head towards him and pulled back her remaining eyelid. The eye beneath was cloudy and the body itself stiff with rigor mortis, no doubt helped by the temperature, which had hovered around the freezing mark for most of the night through to the morning.

Martin stood, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth thoughtfully, and started to pull his gloves off when he spotted Cory heaving his bulk over the fence and waved him over. The ambulance drive wandered over, his jeans tucked into his unlaced work boots, his jacket open to the elements as well. He was unshaven and, as he came up alongside, Martin caught a whiff of booze.

“Late night?”

“Oh,” Cory said with a wave of his hand.

“You good to drive yet?”

“I made it here didn’t I?”

“Don’t make me put the fucking breathalyzer on you,” Martin said. “I’ve got enough shit to deal with without you cocking things up.”

Cory waved his hand again and turned his attention to the body. “Kristi Taid.”

“Yes,” Martin said.

“Cause of death shouldn’t be a problem anyway.”

“No.”

“Well, how you wanna do this? Bring the stretcher down from the highway, probably the easiest.”

Martin agreed and Cory returned through the pasture to where he had left the ambulance parked beside Martin’s car and then drove back through the yard and down the highway to where the coulee began. Martin met him there and they carried the stretcher down, moving the body onto it and then struggling back up the slippery ditch to the ambulance.

“Take it in to Botha then?” Cory said, turning to head to the cab of the vehicle.

“Yes,” Martin said. “And for fuck sakes Cory don’t phone anyone, don’t let anyone know. This is an RCMP investigation now.”

Cory didn’t reply, giving him another wave and then was on his way. Martin sighed and swore again under his breath. He stood and watched until the ambulance had disappeared into the snow that formed a wall to his vision on the other side of the Johnstone yard. He shivered and started on his way back to the yard, already thinking of the questions he would have to ask Leonard.

From The Devious Kind