Lana walked along the street two paces behind Cria. She jogged for a couple of steps to catch up with her employer and fall into step alongside her. They were both sweating and the black cobbles of the road radiated the morning’s heat along with the tang of horse dung baking on the stones which gave spice to the smell of a city full of moderately filthy people. Lana eyed Cria’s lightweight grey robe with a certain envy and, not for the first time, wondered whether breeches and boots were really the practical choice in the summer.
The street was one of those streets that didn’t go from anywhere in particular to anywhere else in particular and so, despite being in the prosperous part of the Citizen’s quarter and quite near the market, it was only moderately busy.
The landlord of the Black Horse Inn propped his doors open as they walked past and several people casually sauntered into the pub, pretending that they hadn’t been waiting for the moment since sun-up.
When they reached the largest house on the street Cria stepped back to look up at it causing a carrier with a great pack on his back to swear and dodge her. The timber framing of the house was carved with the symbols of prosperity and protection that would usually be found on a rich merchant’s home.
‘Hmm,’ said Cria. ‘The carvings are the bare minimum for the magic to work.’
Lana saw that Cria was right; the carvings had no elaboration, no flourishes, as if the carver had been told exactly what was wanted and that he wouldn’t be paid for a single extra chisel stroke. She saw that most of the top storey windows, usually the servants’ rooms in a prosperous house, were dusty and not curtained. She wondered whether the owner was a miser or just running out of cash.
A boy carrying three large fine white loaves on a tray came up the street, his tongue stuck out of the corner of his mouth as he carefully negotiated the pavement with his precious load. He turned into the archway of the merchant’s house and they followed him through to the courtyard behind to find him carefully backing through a door into the house. They caught a glimpse of a kitchen and a waft of cooking and then the door shut behind him.
Sergeant Luthor of the City Heart guardhouse was leaning against the stable wall. When he saw them he made a comment out of the side of his mouth to the young constable beside him who shifted uncomfortably and gave a faltering laugh. The sergeant shoved his thumbs into his belt and walked forward with a swagger.
‘Well, Truthseeker,’ he said, ‘I think there’s really no need for you to be here.’
Cria gave a brief, hard smile, ‘I’ll take a look anyway, Luthor. Your Captain knows that I like to look at every untimely death and she kindly let me know about this one.’
Luthor clenched his jaw and stood back. He looked at Lana with narrowed eyes as they passed and she saw a disbelieving sneer twitch up the corner of his mouth. A peasant working with the Truthseeker, walking alongside her as if she were an equal, Lana fixed her eyes on the stable ahead of her and ignored his stare.
The ground floor of the stable building contained three stalls with three contented horses and a bay containing a small pony trap of the design common in the city which allowed for it to be carried like a sedan chair over the steps which divided the city.
‘No cart,’ said Lana, noting an empty bay beside the carriage.
‘No,’ said a voice behind them. ‘Ours has been at the wheelwrights for months. Harrion Jennasline preferred to borrow one from a neighbour whenever we needed one, rather than get it fixed quickly.’ They turned to find a stocky young man in a russet red tunic. His black eyebrows joined in a scowl over grey eyes. ‘It was a pain in the arse. Three horses and no cart. Bloody ridiculous.’ It was a well-worn complaint.
‘You are?’ asked Cria.
‘Grenla.’ The young man gave the stiff bow of a citizen. ‘I look after the horses, dogs and all the joinery, metalwork and yardwork of the place.’
‘Who else works here?’
‘There’s me, Niall the cook and housekeeper, Dan the house-youth and Brenda the gardener.’
Grenla sniffed. ‘Horses and gardens he loved, aside from his money of course. He’d spend anything on his horses and garden but everything else had to rub along on small change.’ He sniffed again and, indicating an outbuilding on the opposite side of the courtyard with his thumb added, ‘I’ll be in the workshop if you need me.’ Lana watched as he walked away, glanced over his shoulder at them and shut the door of his workshop behind him.
Cria walked up to the ladder that led up into the loft and started looking closely at it and at the dusty earthen floor around it.
‘That wasn’t there,’ Luthor shouted from the gateway, and started jogging towards them ‘that’s how we can be sure it’s a suicide. He took the loft ladder up there with him. That’s another ladder. The ladder that belongs there has been pulled up after Harrion Jennasline.’
‘Yes, I can see that,’ said Cria and looked up at the Sergeant. She pointed to two deeply worn dents in the floor, closer together than the feet of the ladder which stood there, ‘The ladder which usually stands here is much narrower than this one.’
Luthor stood awkwardly for a moment, shrugged and walked back towards where his constable stood.
Cria started up the ladder and when she reached the opening she carefully examined the rough edges of the hatch. Lana stood at the bottom of the ladder, waiting for Cria to finish whatever she was doing. The sweet smell of hay and horses filled the air and she looked at the ground Cria had been examining. She wondered what the Truthseeker had seen there to catch her attention, to her it was a scuffed mess.
Above her Cria gave a small exclamation and Lana looked up.
‘There is a small amount of blood here on the side opposite to where the ladder leans. A protruding nail has obviously caught someone. It is on the upper edge though so it can’t be that someone hit their head.’ She gazed thoughtfully into space for a moment then gave a shake of her head and continued up into the loft. Lana hurried up after her.
A body wrapped in a shroud lay on the dusty wooden floor, incongruous among the hay and sacks of feed. The end of the rope dangled from a beam and the loft ladder leant into the dusty angle where the roof met the floor. Herbs lay scattered among the dust and scraps of hay that littered the floor around the body. Lana winced at the sight of the herbs; they meant the Deathspeaker had already been and performed the last words ritual.
Cria shouted down the ladder for the sergeant. His head appeared in the opening a few moments later by which time Cria was on her knees looking closely at the dusty floor
‘Did the Deathspeaker report any words from our victim?’ Cria didn’t pause in her examination.
‘Just something about his money. “They’re always after my money,” or something like that anyway.’
‘Thank you. And in the future,’ she raised her voice as Luthor began to leave, ‘let me see the body before the Deathspeaker comes.’
‘Sorry Truthseeker,’ Luthor said heavily, ‘but I didn’t know you were going to waste your time with this. Truthseeker Daleen wouldn’t.’
Once the surly guard had gone back down the ladder Cria turned to the body and unwound the shroud slowly, muttering some words of prayer for the dead man as she did so.
She put the herbs wrapped with him to one side sending a pungent whiff of corpsemint into the air and then she examined his thin, sharp, heavily browed face and the livid red mark around his neck. She lifted his eyelids and looked into his bloodshot grey eyes and looked for his tattoos of which he had only rank and motherline tattoos. When she had turned Harrion onto his face to examine his back she pressed her lips together, frowned and beckoned to Lana and pointed to a lump which had bled a little hidden in his hair. Cria shook her head, rolled him onto his back, replaced the herbs and wrapped him in his shroud again.
Lana picked up the noose from where it had lain on the floor. It had clearly been cut from one of the coils of rope that hung on hooks from the roof and was a competently tied hangman’s noose but otherwise it was fairly unremarkable. She passed it to Cria who glanced at it and turned it over a few times in her hands then put it aside.
A sturdy stool designed to form a short set of steps stood against the back wall and Cria placed it by the opening in the floor and stood on it to get a close look at the pulley just above the loft hatch. Lana saw her reach up and pull something from it and carefully wrap it in a square of linen from her pocket.
‘What’s that?’ Lana asked.
‘Hair.’ Cria said grimly.
‘Oh. So this isn’t suicide?’
‘Not unless the dead man hauled himself up into the loft using the pulley.’
Lana smiled. ‘I’ve seen dead men do stranger things.’ Cria gave her a sharp look and Lana added, ‘but this doesn’t look like magic.’
‘No. Plain, ordinary murder.’ Cria replied and looked around the loft. A large stack of feed bags stood at the back and she walked over to have a look.
Lana followed and ran her hand through the grain in an open bag, ‘This is really high quality feed. Grenla was right about loving his horses more than his people.’
Cria was looking in a nook behind the pile of sacks. She walked to the gable end and opened the shutter to let in some more light and then walked back to the nook.
‘Someone sat here,’ she said.
Lana looked around her tall companion and saw that the straw was flattened. ‘Maybe Grenla comes here to skive off.’
‘Maybe,’ Cria hunkered down into the nook and peered over the tops of the sacks. ‘Not a very comfortable spot for a break. Dark, a bit damp here where the water comes through the tiles. Smells a bit too, since the muck heap is just the other side of the wall. No it is not where I would choose. However, you can see the place that Harrion died from here, and you would not be seen easily either.’
‘That’d reduce the chance of his last words pointing to the murderer.’
Cria nodded, ‘Although, you would be surprised how few murderers think of that. They do it in a rage and then try to cover it up afterwards. Mind you, last words are rarely very intelligible.’ She stood, smoothing down her robes. ‘Right, we had better speak to the other members of the household.’
Down in the courtyard the guards were lounging in the archway where they could watch the people coming and going in the street.
Cria pushed open the back door of the house and they stepped into the large kitchen, filled with the smell of a meaty stew. Copper pans were arrayed on hooks on a wall, their gleaming bottoms shining in the sun from the doorway. Over the fireplace stood a large doughy man with hairy forearms and a white apron bending over the bubbling pot of stew.
The boy they had seen earlier was sat on a bench by the wall. He was busy ramming a sandwich of white bread and meat into his mouth and at their entrance he devoured the last mouthful and slipped out of the room. The three white loaves stood on the wooden table, one substantially demolished. The man stood straight, brushed his hands on his apron and looked at the newcomers and then the loaves.
Cria raised a questioning eyebrow.
‘Well,’ he said, as if explanation was called for, ‘He usually wants me to get the lower grade oat bread, but it’s a -,’ he paused and looked uncomfortable ‘Well, it’s an unusual day.’
Lana couldn’t help but let out a small, incredulous laugh and Cria gave her a quick frown.
The man blushed. ‘I suppose you couldn’t care less about that. Sorry. I’m Niall Smith, cook and housekeeper.’ He gave the deep peasant bow. Lana returned it and Cria gave the small bow of the gentry.
‘Niall,’ Cria began, taking a chair at the wide kitchen table, ‘What can you tell me about your master?’
‘Oh,’ he looked over his shoulder towards the door into the house and then out to the garden as if hoping for escape, ‘well, I’m sad he’s gone, didn’t think he was the sort to do that.’
‘It is alright Niall,’ Cria said, ‘We will not be overheard if that is what you are worried about. I have a mark of the Lawyer’s Silence.’ She turned her head so that the big man could see the magical tattoo curling around her ear among her greying hair.
‘Oh,’ he relaxed, ‘He liked to squeeze every penny until it whined but I figured that’s why he’s a rich man. Lots of people didn’t like him much but he’s never been unkind to me.’ Niall hooked a kettle over the fire and sat his bulk into a wide armed chair that fitted him perfectly. ‘Quite the opposite in some ways. I’d never get a cooks job up with the gentry, but here I do everything, cook, housekeeping, laundry. Up with the gentry, begging your pardon ma’am, I’d be some under-servant boy.’
‘So he is thought worse than he was?’
‘Well, if you’re just looking at the penny pinching he was pretty bad ma’am. But I liked him in his own way. He never had any friends or lovers round, only business people. And some people had better reasons not to like him I guess.’
Cria leaned back in her chair with her long dark fingers resting on the table edge. ‘Oh?’
‘Well, for example the gardener, Brenda, does several of the gardens round here and he really screwed her down on her contract. He pays almost half what the other owners do.’
‘Why didn’t she leave?’
‘He negotiated on behalf of the other owners, got a good price for all of them. Full time job for her. Then told her that she’d charge him a whole lot less for the work on his garden or he’d knock over the whole contract leaving her without the work.’
Cria pushed back her chair. ‘Is she in today? Brenda I mean?’
He nodded and Cria and Lana left the kitchen. Out in the courtyard Grenla was leaning in the doorway of his workshop, rubbing the palm of his left hand with his right, his sleeves rolled up to the elbow, the edge of his motherline tattoo just visible on his forearm. He watched them as they walked under a rose arbour into the garden.
Ahead of them Lana could hear rustling and they came out into a garden full of roses and herbs where the smell of soil and greenery freshened the air. A rounded back bobbed behind some low rose bushes and Lana cleared her throat. The gardener stood up, squinting against the sun under a broad brimmed leather hat. She was a small woman made of taught rope and leather, burned by the sun and cured by her own sweat.
‘Greetings,’ said Cria. ‘You must be Brenda.’
Brenda threw an armful of the yarrow she was harvesting onto the sheet beside her, sniffed and said ‘Yeah?’
‘What can you tell me about Harrion?’
‘He was the tightest arsehole this side of the High City. Not surprised he offed himself, there can’t have been much pleasure in a life doled out in farthings.’ She bent and briskly cut another armful of yarrow.
‘We do not think that he killed himself.’ Cria said. Brenda straightened in surprise. Her frank hazel eyes looked straight into Cria’s.
‘You don’t say. Well, can’t say I’m shocked someone would want to off him either.’ She bent again and Cria turned away, back towards the courtyard.
As they walked under the arbour Cria said, ‘Did you see she had bandaged her hand?’
Lana nodded, she had noticed the scrap of dirty cloth around the woman’s right palm.
‘Whoever did this lowered themselves from the loft after drawing the ladder up and caught themselves on a nail in the roof opening, just a little nick but it might warrant a bandage if you were working with soil.’
‘Should we arrest her?’
‘No I shouldn’t think so?’
They emerged into the courtyard to find it was empty. The soft swish of a plane smoothing wood came from the workshop and Cria crossed to the barn and pointed to the ladder.
‘Well, we will just look at that opening again. Go up would you.’
Lana went up into the loft and waited as Cria shuffled the ladder away below her. It was peaceful in the narrow shafts of sunlight dancing with dust motes with the sound of the horses munching and shifting below, despite the neatly wrapped corpse lying on the planks.
Cria’s voice drifted up and disturbed her reverie, ‘Just lower yourself from the loft hatch and jump down.’
Lana did as she was asked and, as she landed, she swore under her breath and then put her palm to her mouth to lick the small nick in her palm from the nail in the edge of the hatch.
‘Shit, I knew it was there too, could have put my hand next to it,’ she said, muffled by her hand in her mouth.
‘Anyway, you have naturally put your left hand on the spot, not your right.’
‘You’d have to be doing it really strangely to put your right hand there. Oh, I see.’
‘And I know who has a sore left hand.’
The sounds from the workshop had stopped and when they stepped inside they found it was empty. A long bench was scattered with tools of various sorts and the air smelt of sawdust and pungent oils and varnishes. A clamp held a chair seat and next to it were piled four turned legs.
‘He does beautiful work,’ Cria said, ‘I recognise the workmanship from the furniture in the kitchen and much of the woodwork in the barn.’
At the other end of the room were a chair and more tools hung on the walls alongside a small unlit fireplace with a kettle. A small loft was accessed by a ladder and while Cria was admiring Grenla’s handiwork Lana went up a few steps and looked into the roof space.
‘He obviously lives here,’ she said, ‘there’s a bed and a few personal bits up here.’
The room darkened as Grenla appeared in the doorway.
‘Can’t a man go to the shithouse without people snooping in his gear?’ He looked quickly from one to the other of them.
Cria turned and Lana hopped down from the steps in an easy jump.
‘Please do sit down,’ Cria said, quiet and stern.
‘What do you want?’ Grenla asked. He obeyed her and perched on the front of the seat and jiggled his leg. Lana stepped forwards until she was a pace behind his chair. She could see the sweat stains and fraying around the neck of his tunic; it had been repaired once before but the fabric was getting thin. He glanced back at her and stopped jiggling his leg.
‘Show me your hand, Grenla,’ Cria said.
Grenla opened his right hand, calloused and hardened from years of work. His sleeves were rolled down now so that Lana couldn’t see the tattoo she had glimpsed earlier.
Cria sighed. ‘Both of them.’
He opened his left hand slowly. It had a small puncture in the palm.
‘I bet you swore when you did that.’ Cria smiled at him and he nodded and gave a nervous laugh. ‘Just like Lana did,’ she continued.
Lana stepped forward and opened her left hand to show the fresh mark in her palm. Grenla started.
‘So, Grenla Jennasline, do you want to tell me why you did it?’ The man paled visibly at her use of his mothername and Lana raised an eyebrow as a piece of the puzzle fell into place for her. Grenla was related along the maternal line to Harrion, and might have some expectation of inheritance.
Grenla leaned forward and buried his head in his hands.
‘He was just so bloody tight when my Mother was struggling so much.’ He looked up at Cria with a pleading look on his face. ‘She’s his sister and she is so close to the edge, she lives like a bloody peasant and yet here he is in this big house, and he won’t even give her a farthing.’ he broke off, his voice choked.
‘And so?’ Cria asked.
‘Don’t you see? He got me here doing all his shitwork and carpentry, gave me a loft to sleep in like a dog and made out it was some kind of charity.’
Cria shook her head, there’s never an excuse for murder, her expression said clearly.
‘Well, what would you have done?’
She turned away and looked down at the nascent chair on the workbench, reached out to run a finger along a grainline cleverly used in the carving of the seat. ‘You have a talent, Grenla. And now it will go to waste but you could have used it. It was honest work at least.’
‘Honest work!’ Grenla spat the words and rose to his feet, his face red. Lana stepped forward and put her hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down into the chair. ‘You don’t get it. I could have been an artisan with a shop in the Heart if he had given me just a little start. He didn’t want that though. He shat on that dream so I could mend his door latches.’
Cria looked at him sadly and stepped to the doorway to call the guards. Luthor appeared in the doorway with a ‘what now?’ expression on his face.
Lana stood with her hand on Grenla’s shoulder. He had buried his head in his hands again and his shoulders shook. Cria stood in front of him with her back to the guard.
‘You must arrest Grenla, Sergeant.’ Cria said.
‘What, why?’ Luthor stepped into the room.
‘Because he murdered Harrion Jennasline.’
Luthor laughed incredulously but the laugh trailed off as he looked at Grenla.
‘I can give you all the specifics later,’ Cria said wearily, ‘but his mothername is Jennasline and he thought he would inherit some money and property, or that his mother would at any rate.’
‘Oh. I see.’ Luthor stepped forward to take Grenla by the arm. As the sergeant grabbed him, Grenla gave a yell and surged to his feet, his face red with rage and horror.
‘No I won’t! You won’t hang me!’ He raged and fought against Luthor who had him by one arm. Lana grabbed onto the other and Cria stepped back against the workbench as the short, muscular woman and the brawny guardsman quickly drove Grenla to his knees. He wept angrily as his hands were tied firmly behind his back and he was pulled up to standing.
Cria turned away as they forced him from the room.
Outside Luthor turned to Lana jabbing a finger into her face ‘I don’t need your help arresting my prisoners, sewer rat.’
Lana resisted the urge to break his finger and said ‘Oh?’
Luthor sneered. ‘And tell your Mistress we’ll bring this up before the magistrate, no need for her to bother.’
Lana smiled, her eyes narrowing. ‘So you get the credit? Hoping for a captaincy? I can only hope that you get the position you deserve.’
Just behind Luthor the young Constable’s mouth twisted and he found an urgent need to scratch his moustache. The Sergeant’s sneer faltered as Lana turned away from him and headed back into the workshop.
Cria was stood, staring down at the chair. She sighed and looked up as Lana came in. They both stood in silence for a moment.
Cria said ‘We ought to get back to my house. We could have lunch on the way, it must be gone noon.’
‘Thank the gods, I was starting to wonder when I would die from hunger.’ Lana said and added, ‘You can talk me through this case.’
‘Oh it was simple,’ Cria gave a little dismissive wave of her fingers as she walked out of the workshop. ‘I do not know how Luthor could miss it. We will take a detour on the way back to book a hearing and I shall present it to the magistrate myself, since the sergeant has been so impolite.’
Copyright © Elizabeth Cutts March 2015