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A MEETING AT CORVALLIS

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


CHAPTER SEVEN:

 

Corvallis, Oregon

January 11th, 2008/Change Year 9

 

"Nigel!" Juniper Mackenzie said in glad surprise as the door opened.

"My dear," the Englishman said, blinking his slightly watery blue eyes and shedding his cloak and sword-belt; he was dressed for travel in winter... and not in a kilt.

"I thought you had other business?" she went on. "And you didn't come all the way across the Valley by yourself?"

"I did have business," he said, smiling with a little constraint in it. "But it's finished... and that's what I'm here in Corvallis to talk about."

"But come in, and have something hot to drink!"

He did, putting a parcel on the mantelpiece and warming before his hands before the fire, then taking the cup and draining it. The little sitting-room in the Clan's Corvallan guest-house was warm and cozy enough, with a low blaze in the hearth, and windows closed against a cold slow rain.

"Mathilda's having a nap," Juniper said, nodding to the corridor. "She's overexcited, poor thing. You've heard—"

"Yes, I spoke with Eilir, and heard about Mistress Arminger," the Englishman said, smoothing down his mustache with a forefinger. "Ah... I was... that is, Eilir knew I was coming here to meet you, in any case. With a, um, present."

Well! Juniper thought. He's nervous! That's not something I've seen often!

He cleared his throat and took a deep breath. He also took the package down from the mantelpiece, unwrapping the scrap of cloth that enfolded it and silently handing it to Juniper. Within was a box of hardwood about the size and thickness of a hardcover book, seasoned amber-colored bigleaf maple streaked with darker color, the curling grain brought out by rubbing and polishing. A Triple Moon had been inlaid on the surface in ivory, waxing and full and waning—and She alone knew where the ivory had come from. The Chief of the Mackenzies turned it in her hands, and saw that on the other side the wood had been carved in the likeness of a wild bearded face, a man with curling ram's-horns on his brow; the features were brought out by the carving alone, but the eyes were milky-white opals that seemed to shine with an inner light.

"Why, Nigel, it's beautiful!" she said. But if a gift, why not at Yule? Aloud she went on: "Dennie's work?"

"Eilir found the wood, Astrid the ivory and opals, and I did the basic shaping and metalwork, with some help from Sam Aylward. Dennis very kindly managed the inlay and carving."

He went down on one knee before her and took the box in his hands. "At first I thought I might use the traditional ring," he went on steadily, meeting her eyes. "But then I had a bit of an inspiration. At least I hope so, my dear!"

He held the box up for her, and she unhooked the little brazen latch and opened it. A soft ah! escaped her as she looked within. It was a ring, but of a size to fit around her neck rather than a finger, glowing against the dark velvet that lined the interior of the box; a neck-torc, the ancient royal emblem of the Gael, the gold of it worked in a delicate tracery of leaf and vine. The open ends swelled into a lunar disk and a flame-wreathed sun opposite each other, carved of moonstone and amber.

"Nigel, it's beautiful!" she cried softly, and took it up. "You really thought about this, didn't you?"

His smile was shy, oddly charming on the weathered middle-aged face. "I tried."

Juniper started to put it around her neck, spreading the soft metal a little, then hesitated. "This is meant as an engagement torc, isn't it, Nigel my heart?"

"Yes, my dear. I hope it'll do, until I have a wedding gift—besides myself, that is."

Her smile broadened. She settled it around her neck; it was snug when she let the circle close again with the Sun and Moon on her right and left collarbones. The metal was surprisingly heavy for all its delicacy, and a bit cold. It warmed quickly; she felt her breath grow a little short, and more so after she leaned forward and took his face between her hands and kissed him.

"Then I'll take it in the spirit it's given," she said after a moment. "Beauty, and love, and friendship."

They clasped hands and looked at each other, then laughed. Her smile grew impish for an instant: "The child will need a father, after all."

She laughed delightedly at his astonishment. "No, I'm not, not yet—that would be a miracle, and from the wrong mythos! But I'm still under the Moon, and I always wanted three, you know! For the symbolism? And this time I get to keep the man to help with the chores, which will be a nice change."

"My dear... darling Juniper... you've made me a very happy man, and I hadn't expected to be happy again, you know."

"Not nearly as happy as I intend to make you!" she went on, standing and taking him by the hand. "I've waited long enough."

"And so have I," Nigel said.

He moved with a lithe suddenness and she was swept up in his arms; she could feel the compact strength in his chest and arms.

"First door on the right," she murmured.

 

@@@

 

Second roof to the right, Tiphaine thought.

The Hatfields had built their business up gradually, and the result was a complex of box-like buildings joined to each other higgledy-piggeldy, each with its own tin roof, or covering of salvaged asphalt roofing tile. She avoided the metal as much as possible; even in her soft-soled climbing boots, it was hard to avoid making noise on it, and it was dangerously slippery when wet—and during a Willamette Valley winter, it would be wet about ninety-nine percent of the time. Luckily the Hatfields hadn't skimped, and the roofs had solid heavy-duty plywood or planks nailed to the stringers beneath the waterproofing layer, so they didn't creak much. The sky was overcast, and the streetlights were turned down with dawn near. That made it near enough to pitch-dark up here as no matter, and in her matt-black outfit she was effectively invisible. Everything was covered save for a slit in the tight hood that let her see, and the skin around her eyes was blackened with charcoal.

Katrina had said once that made her look like a raccoon. She stopped for an instant; let the fury wash through her and over her without tensing her muscles or disturbing the even tenor of her breathing. Then she went on, walking step by step, careful to keep below the ridgeline. She crossed it flat on her belly, moving with cautious speed. Sir Jason Mortimer was in a second-story storeroom on this side, with only two guards, according to what the consulate knew. Nobody in Corvallis knew how to keep their mouths shut, evidently.

Yes.

Everything looked the same as it had through binoculars from a taller building not far away. Her chamois-gloved fingers went to her belt. The sling was of leather like her gloves, equally butter-soft, yearling doe-hide tanned with brains. The cup at the bottom was just the right size for the projectile, an egg-shaped thing of sand molded with wax. Lead or stone were too likely to kill...

I miss my crossbow, she thought, as she systematically tightened and relaxed muscles to keep them limber while she crouched in the near-freezing dampness.

She had a little beauty, a pre-Change model with a x7 scope and a built-in crank for reloading, its skeleton body all synthetics and carbon-composites, half the weight of a standard modern wood-and-steel military model and just as powerful. Out of the question to use it here and now. This was taking a long time, but it all depended on how big the guards' bladders were. Hopefully they wouldn't come down to pee in chorus, but that wasn't likely. One would stay by the door at all times; from the files, Hatfield didn't hire incompetents. Right now that would help her. They were concentrating on keeping Mortimer prisoner, not on protecting him.

Ah. Her mind slipped effortlessly back into full alertness. A door swung open, then banged shut again as the spring took it. She looked away to make sure the momentary glow of lamplight through it didn't lessen her night vision, then back. I was right. The man unbuttoned and let loose on a heap of straw and manure near the center of the L formed by the two buildings, with his back to her. There really wasn't much point in staying inside and using a pot, when there was a dungheap so close, and only the house here had a connection to the city sewer system. It was another two hours before either man was due to be relieved.

The stream of urine smoked in the cold wet air. Tiphaine took the ends of the sling in her right hand and the cup in her left, holding it taut but not tight. She kept the position while the man shook off and buttoned back up; it would look suspicious if he wet himself. Then...

Up from the crouch, smooth and steady. A single sweep around her head, and release. Cloven air hummed, a subdued whirr and swish. Then a dull wet thump.

Bull's-eye, the huntress thought.

The man fell limp as a half-full sack of grain. Behind the mask the Association warrior's teeth skinned back from white teeth. She waited nonetheless, counting the seconds against her heartbeat—which was a useful technique for keeping calm in itself. A half-minute passed, and another. The quiet remained absolute, the loudest sound a dog barking for a few moments. She started to move, then froze: footsteps on the street outside, beyond the fence to her right, loud and careless. Her head turned; just a flicker of motion through the boards of the fence, a rhythmic tapping—

Watchman on patrol, she thought; that was a nightstick. No, they call them police officers here. He didn't call the hour, or that all was well, either, as he would have in Portland, or check non-nobles for their night-pass. Sloppy.

The steps faded off into the distance. She waited only a few seconds beyond that; much longer and the guard's partner would come to see what was going on. A rope and grapnel were looped around her shoulder like a bandolier, and she set the two rubber-sheathed hooks on the guttering, over a bracket where the thin metal would be strong enough to bear her weight. The rope dropped twenty feet to the brick pavement of the yard, and she slid down it with the cord locked between her shins. A flick, and the grapnel came loose and fell into her hands.

Half a dozen strides took her to the fallen man; she checked his breathing; it was slow and natural, and the shot had only broken in three pieces when it flattened against his skull, which made it easy to pick up. He hadn't injured himself falling, which was to be expected—most people fell much more skillfully if they were completely limp. Then she peeled back the eyelids to confirm that she hadn't scrambled his brains either; knocking someone out and not doing lasting harm was a lot more difficult than you might think, hard enough with a cosh, requiring real skill with a sling.

Moving with careful speed she opened a leather case on her belt and took out a small hypodermic, pinching a fold of flesh on the inner thigh before she injected him. Working the limp form over her shoulders in a fireman's lift took only an instant. A slight grunt escaped her as she rose; the merchant's man weighed at least a hundred and eighty, better than forty pounds more than she did. It was all solid muscle, too... but then, so was she, if built along more graceful lines. Her nostrils twitched slightly in distaste at the beer-sweat-and-horses scent of him. From the downy blond beard, this was Harry Simmons; the other guard was Dave Trevor, black-haired and clean-shaven, probably because he couldn't raise serious face-fuzz yet. They were both young.

And up we go. You're the luckiest man in Corvallis tonight, did you know that, Harry? Although you and Dave may not think so in the morning. But if I'd been planning this op, I'd have killed you both and set a fire to cover it.

Walking in a crouch she moved crabwise to the door under the heavy weight. This was the tight part of the operation. It was a simple frame door with a knob, salvaged from some house in the suburbs, and it swung open soundlessly. The light within seemed bright to her night-adjusted eyes, but it was dim enough, a trickle from the lantern at the top of the stairs. That was turned down low, but she could see that this end of the big open space of the warehouse first floor was nearly filled with burlap sacks holding something—oats, from the slightly sweetish smell, and a pile of empty sacks as well. That would do nicely.

Tiphaine let the man slide to the ground at the foot of the stairs, face-up; the construction was open, simple two-by-fours and planks, honest carpentry but nothing fancy. Then she slid the haversack off her back for an instant. Inside the black-leather sack were a number of padded compartments, and some held bottles—the label read Vat 69, though it was actually an ordinary brand of Corvallan rotgut made from potatoes. A real bottle with the original contents would buy you the price of a plow-team.

A little of the liquid went into his mouth; then she re-corked the bottle and put it into Harry's hand. Then she reached out and stepped on the bottom stair, hard. It creaked with a satisfying loudness, and she made a single silent bound into the pile of empty sacking. That gave her an excellent view of the stairs from behind.

Light flared as the wick in the lantern was turned up. It didn't move, though, which meant that the excellent Dave wasn't bringing it with him to the stairs. Stringers and plywood creaked over her head as he came to the head of the stairs, looking down.

"Harry? What the fuck's taking you so long? Are you taking a piss, or a vacation? Harry?" He paused at the sight of the limp body sprawled below. "Harry? You all right, man?"

There was a very slight sound, one she recognized without effort. Steel on leather, a knife coming out of a sheath. It went back in when the booted feet and shapeless wool trousers were halfway down the stairs.

"Have you been drinking? And on the job, you stupid bastard? The boss will have your balls for this!"

Another deep breath. The man bent to examine his friend, grunting in puzzlement as he saw the stopper was still in the neck of the liquor bottle, and presenting her with a perfect target. She opened another case on her belt, took the pad of damp cloth in her hand.

Be quick, now. He'll smell it, otherwise.

She leapt. Dave was bigger than she, and strong as an ox, but she had surprise on her side... and the pad clamped tight over his mouth and nose. He staggered and thrashed, fell to the earth, tried to crawl. For a moment she thought she would have to resort to an old-fashioned thump on the head, and then Dave sprawled beside his friend. A second hypodermic made sure he wouldn't wake up prematurely; the cocktail contained scopolamine for amnesia, and something else that produced a splitting steel-band-around-the-brow headache. The overall effect was very much like going on a bender and being very, very sorry that you had when you woke up.

Then she moved, and quickly, dragging them both back into the darkness beneath the stairs one after the other. She opened the Vat 69 again, sniffed with a wince—wine was her drink of choice, and she had a weakness for cherry brandy, but couldn't stomach even the better brands of whisky. And this stuff was vile even by whisky standards. She poured a little onto their clothes, and, taking care to raise their heads so he wouldn't choke, into Dave's mouth. That and the empties she left scattered around would make it very hard for them to deny that they'd drunk themselves into insensibility in the morning.

She looked at the label, then giggled silently and spent a few extra seconds rearranging the unconscious bodies and removing clothing. Let them try to explain that to whoever found them! A few empty but still fragrant bottles scattered around added detail.

Maybe this way is better after all. Never a dull moment in Lady Sandra's service!

Then she took the keys and Dave's belt-knife and headed up the stairs, automatically placing her weight to one side to minimize creaking. The floor above was mostly open storage areas as well, holding bundles of redolent tanned hides, but across one end of the building was a set of three small heavily-timbered rooms with metal doors, used for light high-value goods. There were two stools and a basket that had held a meal near the one farthest from the stairs; the lamp stood on a barrel. A grill was set in the door. She looked through; Sir Jason was on a cot, the room otherwise bare.

"Hissst!"

The sleeping man was snoring slightly, flat on his back; that was doubtless because of the wounded shoulder. Pain had grooved lines in the young knight's face as well, and there was a thick fair stubble on it.

"Hissst!"

This time he woke, rubbing at his face with his good hand. Good. He has to see and recognize me, or this could get awkward. She knew him fairly well, and while his impulse control was poor, his reflexes and muscles weren't. Amateurs also tended to underestimate the difficulties of a resisting subject...

"Quiet, Sir Jason! It's me, Tiphaine Rutherton, of Lady Sandra's Household."

She pitched her to a low conversational tone, less likely to carry or be noticed than a whisper. Sleep struggled with comprehension on the knight's face. His notorious bad temper won out as he came to the grill and she pulled back the mask for an instant so that he could see her.

"Yes, I recognize you. Little Tiphaine, the tomboy lady-in-waiting. Perhaps you've decided you like me after all? Get me loose and I'll forego the dowry."

Mother of God, not now! she thought; that had been two years ago. Aloud: "I'm here on my liege-lady's orders, Sir Jason."

"Dyke!" he spat with sudden fury—more than a casual insult, where the writ of the Holy Office ran; a cold shudder of rage and fear went over her skin.

Then he went on more calmly: "Well, get me out of here, woman! Those maniacs weren't just going to bankrupt me, they were planning on dragging me through Corvallis like a dancing bear."

"Just a second, Sir Jason," she said, putting the key in the lock.

The man tried to push past her as the door swung open; that gave her the perfect position to stamp on his instep, a thrust-kick with the heel of her left foot. He jackknifed forward with a slight shrill squeal of pain as the small bones there cracked like twigs breaking, and then the knife in her hand came down—the pommel, not the blade. It smacked into his right collarbone with a muffled wet snap that left the man with two crippled arms; she followed it up with a swift whipping blow to the larynx, then pushed him back into the little windowless room. He fell backward across the cot, turning as he tried to scrabble away from her. That let her pounce again, one knee in the pit of his stomach and her left hand gripping the longer hair at the front of his head, jerking it to one side to press his face into the bedding.

"Lady Sandra didn't send me here to get you out," she said. "She sent me here to shut you up, you loud-mouthed moron."

He was still conscious enough to feel the cold kiss of steel; then she rammed the blade up under his breastbone, angling slightly to the left. It was an ordinary single-edged belt-knife, more tool than weapon, but eight inches of sharp steel would do the job anyway.

"And you know," she went on to still-twitching corpse, "I really don't like it when anyone except another dyke calls me a dyke."

Tiphaine left the knife where it was; if there were any useable prints on the horn of the hilt, they'd be unconscious Dave's. Now to get out, she should be able to use the courtyard door...

"Hold it! We don't want to harm you!"

A head rose, a man standing on the stairs. Blond, sharp-featured; enough like her to be her brother, ironically enough. No way back. Decision and action followed together; she closed her eyes to get the advantage of a crucial second's adjustment, whirled, kicked over the lamp and leapt forward over his head as it winked out. Darkness descended, not absolute but shocking to anyone expecting the light to continue. In midair she twisted and drew her legs up, landed in a crouch behind him; wood rapped painfully against her shin, but she didn't fall. Instead she was in a perfect three-point stance, two feet and left hand supporting her, the right fist curled back to her ear.

The narrow confines of the stairwell trapped the man above her for an instant. In that instant she struck, hammering a knuckle into the inside of his thigh where it would paralyze the muscle. The leg buckled under him. Tiphaine slapped both her hands down on the wood of the stair as he fell and struck out behind her with both feet, a mule-kick at the shadowy figure behind her at the bottom of the stairs, lashing out with all the strength of her long hard-muscled legs.

Thump.

Surprise almost slowed her as the half-seen opponent managed to get forearms up for a cross-block, riding the bone-shattering force of the blow backward, falling to the asphalt floor of the warehouse.

Fast, that one. Be careful!

Tiphaine let her feet fall back just in time for the man she'd leg-punched to topple back on top of her. The weight drove an ufffff! from between her teeth, but she made her arms and legs springs to push back at him, tossing him head-foremost with his spine to the stairs. With a strangled yell he went hurtling down the stairs behind her, even as she turned and crouched and leapt again; he landed hard, and yelled again, this time in pain.

The ground floor of the warehouse gave her space to move. The man was tangled up with the one she'd kicked. A corner of her mind registered moon-pale hair; Astrid Larsson. The door was temptingly open...

Instead she turned and ran down an alleyway between towering piles of full sixy-pound sacks of oats, the layout flashing through her mind as she moved. A deep bass voice swore outside the doorway, and the floor thudded as a man came through; he'd been waiting outside. John Hordle. Every bit as big as she remembered him but astonishingly quick, right on her heels. If those hands closed on her, she was doomed. It would be like trying to fight a grizzly.

No choice.

She sprang again, landed halfway up a fourteen-foot stack of bagged grain and scrambled to the top like a squirrel running up a tree. Across the top of it, slippery burlap moving beneath the soft gripping soles of her boots. The whole stack thudded and shivered under her as Hordle's massive weight slammed into it without slowing, then started to topple towards the wall in an avalanche that could shatter bones and kill. Desperate, Tiphaine let that fling her towards the window there, launching herself out with her arms crossed before her face.

Crash.

Glass shattered, and the thin laths broke and twisted. Tiphaine's belly drew up of itself—she had a fifty-fifty chance of carving her own guts out and spilling them on the ground, with a crazy stunt like this. At least she wouldn't have to try and explain to Lady Sandra how she'd missed four people lying in wait—

Then she was rolling on the asphalt in the cold darkness, only superficial cuts. They stung, but no tendons were severed, no muscle deeply gashed. Rolling, up on her feet again, and another figure was coming around the corner of the warehouse, clearing a stack of boxes with a raking stride and landing smoothly, beautifully fluent. A woman, as tall as she, black hair—Eilir Mackenzie. The others would be seconds behind her.

Tiphaine turned and leaped again, her foot hitting the top of a wheelbarrow leaned against the cinderblock outer wall of the Hatfield property and giving her a brace for another scrabbling jump. The top of the wall had a coil of barbed wire on it, bad but better than spikes or broken glass. She grabbed, heedless of the sharp iron punching into her palms, wrenched, pulled, flung her body up sideways and rolled across it, pulling with desperate strength as cloth and skin tore.

Whump. The sidewalk outside struck her, nearly knocking out her wind. That wouldn't do.

She was up and running down the street, pulling the rope and grapnel slung over her shoulder loose. As she did she filled her lungs and screamed:

"Help! Police! Murder! Help!" and for good measure added a scream pure and simple, a shriek of fear and pain. Summoning one wasn't all that difficult.

There weren't many houses in this neighborhood, but there were some, and night-watchmen as well. Lights flared, and doors opened, spilling yellow flame-light onto the pavement. A whistle sounded sharply not far away, and a clatter of hooves. The grapnel buzzed over her head and flew out, and the thin strong rope snaked behind it. The tines came down on the peak of a roof, and she hit the side of the building running, swarming up the knotted rope with the strength of her arms alone and fending off with her feet; for a heart-stopping instant she thought the blood on her palms had made them too slick, but the chamois leather gave her enough traction.

No time to stop on the roof, though her lungs burned and the cold air was like some hot thin gas rasping her lungs. She snatched up the rope behind her as she ran, heedless of the risk of tripping, gathered it into a rough bundle and jerked the grapnel free as she passed. An alleyway beyond, another roof past it; she pumped arms and legs to gather momentum, leapt outward—

Behind her a great bass voice shouted: "What a sodding balls-up!"

 

@@@

 

Corvallis, Oregon

January 12th, 2008/Change Year 9

 

Michael Havel stirred the body with a boot, carefully avoiding the tacky red-brown trickle of blood from the death-wound and the corpse's mouth and nose, still congealing in the cold air of a winter dawn. He was thankful there weren't any flies; a few tiny footprints indicated that the rats had been nosing around, though they hadn't had peace enough to settle in for a snack.

"Three guesses as to the cause of death," he said dryly, touching a toe to the staghorn hilt of the knife whose blade drove up under the ribs.

"Gee, that's a toughie," Signe said, her tone as pawky as his.

We've been married going on ten years and we're starting to think alike, Havel thought. Apparently that old saying is true.

Signe wrinkled her nose at the smell, but stooped over the tumbled corpse, which lay in a tangle of limbs and the collapsed cot. The others were out in the open space that made up most of the upper story of the warehouse, apart from Bill Hatfield, who was apparently still reaming out his unfortunate guards down below, near where they'd been found. In between times, he yelled at the police, who were shouting back. The gray light was gradually swelling, as the sun rose behind the clouds.

And am I glad I'm not those guards! the lord of the Bearkillers thought. Assuming it wasn't what it looked like, they're still never going to live it down.

"Look," his wife said, and pulled back the padded gambeson the dead man wore—they made passable winter coats—and the shirt beneath. "Someone broke his collarbone before they killed him. I thought the way his arm was lying was a bit strange."

Havel grunted and leaned over, his hands on his knees. There was a little blood where the skin had been broken, and the bone gave under his probing fingertip. Someone had done exactly that—good sharp fracture, but not enough damage to have been done by a blade. At a guess, something metal and with an edge, but a blunt one.

"Whoever it was did it quick," Signe went on. "One thrust and they left the knife in to cork him."

Havel nodded agreement. Killing with a knife was messy unless carefully managed; but then, anyone who'd butchered pigs or sheep knew that.

"Get Aaron—" he began, when someone cleared his throat behind him. "Oh, hi, Aaron. We need your expertise here."

"My expertise as a theatre critic?" Aaron Rothman said.

Havel straightened and courteously stepped aside as the physician limped into the room; he had a pair of rubber gloves still on, and they went rather oddly with the rumpled elegance of his jacket and turtleneck and trenchcoat. Wherever he'd slept, the slim Jewish doctor hadn't been at the Bearkiller consulate-houses last night, and the circles under his eyes beneath the glasses suggested he'd been burning the candle at both ends. He was all professionalism now, his intelligent brown eyes narrowed in a pleasantly ugly face fortysomething face shadowed with heavy morning stubble.

"Theatre critic?" Havel asked.

"Well, that was an inspired little piece of bitchery with the guards, but it was all put on, you know," Rothman said, a little New York still detectable in his voice though he'd been living in Lewiston, Idaho, at the time of the Change.

At their enquiring expressions he went on: "Whoever did it should have just left them with the bottles; a murderous drunken frenzy followed by swinish collapse. Making it look as if they'd been doing the nasty as well was a bit much. And Vat 69—I ask you! Catty, very catty."

"You're sure?" Signe said, her glance keen. "They were supposedly drunk."

"O delightfully strong-jawed Amazonian queen of Castle Rustic, mother of my honorary nieces and nephew... radar may not work any more, but my gaydar is, I assure you, fully functional. You could draw the shortest line between any two points with either Harry or Dave. Pity. Dave's a bit dishy, in a rough-trade Tom of Finland sort of way."

He struck a pose, and Havel snorted laughter. Aaron wasn't only gay, but outrageously swish—two characteristics which Havel had learned in the Corps didn't necessarily go together. He suspected the doctor enjoyed shocking the rather insular rural community he'd ended up in, as well.

"Gosh, you're making me feel so butch again, Aaron," Signe said.

"Oh, just let me do the makeover! A nice James Dean cut for the hair, the right plaid shirt, that brutally handsome little scar on your nose... OK, OK, let's get back to business."

He stooped over the body, manipulated wrist and limbs, rubbed a little of the blood between rubber-clad finger and thumb to test how much it had thickened, then moved clothing aside to check on the lividity. There was an impersonal gentleness in the way he moved the corpse.

"Someone crushed his foot, too," he said. "That would be quite, quite agonizing. Not as bad as having it cut off and eaten in front of your eyes—" he tapped his own artificial foot against the floor, encased in a trim Oxford loafer with a tassel "— but sufficiently painful. And there was a blow to the larynx, that would have kept him quiet."

Havel grunted again, and looked at the door. "He came over to the door. Someone unlocked and opened it, and then maybe he started out. Whoever was outside stamp-kicked him on the instep, broke his collarbone, hit him in the throat, and pushed him in. Jumped on him as he tried to get away and killed him with a single thrust to the heart."

"Which means the late unlamented probably knew whoever it was and let them get close, not expecting to be attacked," Signe said, with a low whistle. "Slick!"

"Yeah," Have said. "Real pro job. Time of death?" he went on to Rothman.

"Sometime within the last few hours. And the esteemed Mr. Hatfield checked on them before he went to bed, so that narrows it down. The police doctor was right about that at least."

"Right about that at least?" Havel asked.

Rothman nodded, taking off the rubber gloves with slow care—they were hard to replace, and had to be reused after a spell in an autoclave.

"She thought they really had passed out after three bottles of eighty-proof local 'whisky', pseudo, so-called. I can't absolutely prove it but I'm pretty certain one was slugged behind the ear with something heavy but malleable, and the other was chloroformed. Then they were tranked, at a guess with a cocktail including scopolamine. My colleague is competent but she's young, trained here post-Change—not as familiar with the concept of exotic drugs as a big-city boy like moi. Whatever it is, it mimics an alcohol-induced stupor and the aftereffects quite convincingly, including some retrograde amnesia. Scopolamine wipes your short-term memory, so you don't recall what happened before you went bye-bye. Anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or so is blanked."

"But if they don't have anything like that here in Corvallis, where—" Havel began.

Signe and Rothman were both staring at him, a slight look of exasperation in their eyes. "Portland," he said.

Rothman nodded. "I've talked with doctors who work there, a few times. They have quite a pharmacopoeia. Less new production than here in Corvallis, but the Lord Protector's had a scavenging operation of quite remarkable scope going since the first Change Year, stockpiling everything his men could find. No dust from a saint's tomb for him when he's feeling a bit peaked, I assure you."

"Sir Jason here would have made the Association look bad if he talked when the Rangers showed him off," Havel said thoughtfully.

"Astrid says he wasn't going to talk, which cut his value. But having him dead will make the Dùnedain and Bill Hatfield look very bad," Signe said. "Those rumors that we're all fanatics, barbarians and nutcases? What better proof than our dragging a man in and him ending up knifed and dead here in law-abiding Corvallis?"

"We're supposed to have killed him?" Havel asked. "Or at least, Astrid and Eilir are supposed to have brought him into town, and then killed him? Or the Bobsey Twins out there did it?"

"Honey, betcha the rumors are spreading right now. Rumors don't have to be credible, just juicy."

Havel looked at the doctor. He threw up his hands in a theatrical shrug. "No, I can't prove what we all know to be true. Not enough to satisfy a court."

"Not a court here in Corvallis," Havel said grimly.

 

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"Oh, this is bad," Juniper Mackenzie said sorrowfully, as a stretcher team brought the body down the stairs. "This is very bad indeed."

The policeman turned on Hatfield. "Bill, what the hell were you thinking, keeping someone locked up on your lonesome, in the first place? You may have noticed we don't have slavery in this town, unlike some people I could name, and kidnapping's still a crime last time I looked."

Detective Simon Terwen was an unremarkable man in his early thirties with rather shaggy brown hair and a gold wedding band on his left hand, in civilian clothes, denim jacket and pants and tire-soled leather boots, except for the badge on one breast pocket and the shortsword, handcuffs and nightstick at his belt. The constables behind him were in blue uniforms with the same equipment, except that one—the tall man standing next to the close-coupled stocky woman—had a catchpole as well, a shaft with a Y-shaped spring-loaded fork at the end. All three of them looked disturbed; violent crime within the city wall was rare, with no more than one or two murders annually since the chaos of the first Change Year. Most of the small police force's time was taken up with traffic control, enforcing the health and safety bylaws and settling the odd family dispute.

"Lady Astrid, Lady Eilir, Mister Hordle, you all say a figure in black came out of the room where the deceased was held, eluded you and ran away? After calling for the police."

"That's right," Astrid said stolidly. "She was very fast."

"She?" Terwen asked.

Alleyne nodded stiffly, his right hand kneading his neck; there were fresh bruises on his face as well. "From the sound of her voice when she called for the police—which meant that we couldn't chase her, since we were too busy explaining things to your people, Detective."

"Things were completely shambolic," Hordle said. "Like chasing a bloody rubber ball, it was." He turned to Eilir, who spoke to him in sign, then turned back: "Eilir says she was about her size and build, but that she couldn't get close enough to see anything else."

"Well, there is blood on the ground outside the window," Terwen said. "And on the barbed wire, and on the rooftop across the alley. That does tend to corroborate your story... which doesn't mean it's very convincing. I still have a dead body with a knife in it, and it's your employee's knife, Mr. Hatfield, and you were imprisoning the victim without legal authority. You may have noticed judges are getting more sensitive about stuff like that this last little while, Bill."

"That bastard was from the Protectorate, not a Corvallan citizen," Hatfield said stolidly.

"Well, why were you dragging him around?" Terwen said, turning on the Dùnedain leaders.

"He led a bandit attack on our territory," Astrid said, making a dismissive gesture. "We brought him here to explain that to your Faculty Senate, with the rest of the evidence."

"Evidence?" the policeman said.

"There," she said, pointing.

One of the younger Dùnedain helpfully stepped over to a leather trunk stacked against the wall, one of a set designed to go on either side of a pack-saddle, and flipped it open. A few of the spectators stepped back at the spoiled-meat smell, not overwhelming in the cold weather, but fairly strong. The glassy stares of the dead bandits stared out into the room, bloated, smiling with the rictus that draws back the drying lips.

"Oh, Astrid, Eilir," Juniper murmured under her breath. "You girls just cannot resist a dramatic gesture, can you?"

She put her hand in Nigel Loring's. Even then, and despite what must be a chorus of devils beating out a tune on the inside of his skill, Alleyne Loring notice and smiled.

"Thirty-two dead bandits, and we didn't lose one of our own," Astrid said proudly. "And this orch from the Protectorate was leading them against us."

Terwen sighed himself. "You know, Lady Astrid, I actually believe every word you've said. The problem is there's no proof of anything, including who those heads belonged to."

Astrid looked at him, her silver-veined blue eyes puzzled. "But we wouldn't have killed them if they weren't bandits and evildoers," she pointed out.

Eilir made a clicking sound with her tongue. Astrid looked over at her, and the other signed: There's that paper that the monk gave us.

"Ah!" Astrid said. "I'd forgotten that..."

It was in another box, a smaller steel one they used for money and documents. Terwen looked it over; the writing was a fine copperplate, but a little unsteady due to internal application of Brannigan's Special. He held it up to the gray winter daylight from outside, checking that it had the Abbey's watermark—Mt. Angel made its own paper too, at least for official documents.

"Well, this corroborates your story," he said. "Mind if I show this to the Chief of Police? Thanks. OK, you two—" he pointed a finger at Harry and Dave, sitting with numb expressions on overturned buckets "—don't try leaving town, or I will definitely bring charges and you go to the lockup pending trial. There'll have to be a judicial hearing, as it is."

He turned to the Mackenzies and Bearkillers. "You folks know what I did before the Change?"

"No," Mike Havel said. "You weren't a student, like everybody else in this town?"

"Nah, I was a cop. Sometimes I think that's a disadvantage. I may... will need to talk to you all again. Please notify me if you're leaving town before this is settled."

"This is bad," Juniper said again, as he left.

"It was bad when we arrived, Juney. This just makes it worse." Havel said, and looked at his sister-in-law and her companions. "You couldn't, just maybe, have told the rest of us what was going on?"

"We didn't expect Lady Sandra to have Sir Jason killed," Astrid said, a slightly defensive note in her voice. "He was her own liegeman... well, her husband's baron's liegeman. We thought she'd try to rescue him. All she'd have to do would be to get him out on the street and we couldn't take him back."

Signe snorted. "Anyone who underestimates Sandra Arminger's... focus... is going to be sorry and sore," she said. "She's just as smart as the bastard she married, and a lot more clear-headed."

"And sir..." Alleyne said. "Perhaps we were being a trifle vain, but we thought the four of us could intercept whoever she sent and Sir Jason as they left. We also felt that a larger party would have been too likely to be detected. We wanted to catch someone, after all, not deter them from trying at all."

"Yeah," Havel nodded. "That's the way I'd have bet, too. Sandra's got a real pro working for her. Pity you didn't kill her."

"Wait a minute," Signe said. They all glanced over at her. "I've got an idea."

She spoke for five minutes. When she finished, Astrid frowned and spoke. "But what if Lady Sandra doesn't buy it?"

"Then at least we'll be able to see who she uses to contact them. She'll have to investigate."

Astrid smiled sweetly. "Oh, I think I have an idea about that too. A failsafe. We have to be careful. But I think I know the right bait, if it was Tiphaine Rutherton."

Mike Havel glanced back and forth between them. After a moment, he began to laugh. "I see why the Larssons stayed on top of the heap all those generations."

 

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