We Make Our Own Tragedies
"Murder?" Rivas snorted. "I thought you just said it was a slug monster?"
"Think of it as being a really creative choice of weapon."
She pointed to the ground.
"Inside the room, there were trails left by the slug going to and from the window, but here there are no trails, not even a sign of one. So, unless we're dealing with a Zol slug that has learned how to fly, someone brought it here, then took it away. This ground is too hard for footprints, unfortunately."
"Wait a minute. If the killer was standing here, waiting for his monster to finish up, how come we didn't see him?"
"It was three in the morning," Alys said. "It took time for people to get here. They had to wake up, shake off the sleep, realize that they'd heard a scream and decide to go help. They'd throw on some clothes, maybe take the time to get a weapon. These back windows face the desert, and people would run to the door, on the other side of the house. Despite their name, slug biomonsters kill and engulf their prey quickly. By the time you and the other villagers got back to the bedroom, it was gone and the killer had left."
Rivas turned to Crane.
"So this freakshow owner could have done it."
"But...but I don't have a Zol slug."
"He's right," Alys said. "If the killing had been done by a meta slug, a sand newt, a carrion crawler, or an abe frog, then I'd say it could be him. It wasn't, though. Mentally, she inventoried the contents of Crane's tent, explored her memories of the zoo cages. Had there been room for a Zol slug's pen to be concealed inside a chest or under a false bottom? She didn't think so.
So, what next? Her mental question was immediately echoed by Rivas.
"Solve the crime. We figure out who had a reason to kill these people, and above all we find the slug. For all we know, the murderer might have more victims in mind. Professor, what would someone need to keep a Zol slug in captivity?"
"Hm, well. Obviously they'd need a strong cage, at least two feet on a side. It would be a tight fit but I doubt the slug would care so long as it was fed. The bars would have to be close together, or an enclosed box would be even better, because it could compress down and squeeze through a space that's...I'm estimating, here, but I'd say six inches on a side would be wide enough for it to get through."
Crane frowned, rubbing his hands together.
"What would be especially important is that the creature needs a dark, damp environment. I'm sure that as a hunter you know that you find slug-type biomonsters and their relatives in caves, and that they are especially vulnerable to heat and fire. Regular water baths could help the monster retain moisture, but leaving it out in the sun would be lethal. That's why I have that shelter constructed around my meta slug's cage."
Alys nodded. She remembered the shelter, basically a second tent, and the cage as well, which was made of sturdy steel bars with inch-square holes. Beyond that, the four sides were covered with glass. Slugs attacked active prey by spitting their acid, and Crane's beast might have been very hard on his customers if the sides had been left open.
"They'll eat almost anything organic, plant or animal matter, so feeding it would not have been difficult," the professor concluded his lecture. "It could easily subsist on garbage."
"Especially," Alys said, "since the killer would want to keep it hungry, to insure it would attack the victims."
"Oh, yes, quite. I hadn't thought of that, but of course it would be quite untrainable. Now, an ooze might be a different story, but they consume their prey by engulfment and slow digestion, and would never have inflicted the kind of damage we saw." He shuddered as the memory rose up, cutting away at his scientific detachment. Alys could sympathize; if she died in battle she wanted it to be something clean and simple like a knife in the belly, not something exotic that would leave everyone around her scratching their heads.
Changing the subject, she asked Rivas if the other victims had had any family.
"Elder Karl had a wife and Doc a couple of sons."
"I'll want to talk to them, then, and have a look at the other murder scenes."
Jed Karl's home wouldn't have qualified as a mansion in a town like Aiedo or Zema, but it was twice the size of any other home in the village. Alys' knock was answered by an elderly woman in a long, loose dress cinched at the waist by a silver chain.
"Yes?" she asked in a soft voice. Her eyes were violet, and they had dark shadows in their depths.
"Mrs. Karl? My name is Alys Brangwin; I'm a hunter from the Guild in Aiedo, and I'm looking into the deaths of your husband, the doctor, and the watch captain."
"Oh, I see. Yes, they certainly are not what one would expect in a village like ours."
Professor Crane shuddered again.
"Three men murdered in their beds in such a horrid fashion!" he exclaimed. "It's..." He shivered again and did not finish his sentence.
"Murdered?" Mrs. Karl said, her voice questioning, but not shocked or frightened. Alys wondered if grief had dulled her emotions, left her drained of energy. The woman looked curiously at the professor, then nodded slowly. "Yes," she added, "there may be something to that. It makes sense, you see."
That was a curious thing for a widow to say.
"It makes sense?" Alys repeated. "Why?"
"They were such good friends, ever since boyhood, and they became the three most important men in Monsen. It was fitting that they died as they had lived, together."
Alys wondered about the links between them, and if that had provided the motive for murder.
"Could we see the scene of the killing?" she asked the widow.
"Oh, of course, though I'm not sure of what good it would do you. I've had it quite thoroughly cleaned since the incident."
That was unfortunate, but certainly understandable. Whomever had cleaned the room had done a very thorough job, too. There were no traces of blood, acid, or slime, nor any evidence that people had been there at all. It was as pristine and perfect as the widow's parlor.
There were two pieces of evidence, though, that no amount of scrubbing could remove. One was the bed, its headboard and footboard ornately carved from light hardwood--and too narrow for two people to share. The other was a cut-glass decanter, an exquisite piece of Native Motavian work, half-filled with a luminous green fluid. Alys removed the stopper and sniffed. Her face grew hard as she replaced the top.
"Felka," she said quietly. It was an intoxicant, brewed from a native herb. For the blue-furred native race, it produced an effect not unlike strong wine, but for Parmanians like Alys it was considerably stronger and extremely addictive. If this was Karl's nightcap, she wasn't surprised that his wife no longer shared his bed. Presuming that she didn't have cause and effect backwards.
She shook her head. This wasn't getting her anywhere. Alys preferred action, a foe she could confront in direct combat, not trying to analyze tiny scraps of information and deduce a complex series of events from them. That was why she was a hunter, not a law enforcer.
"Let's go," she said. "I still need to see where the doctor died and talk to his sons."
"Son," Rivas corrected. "Only Morton will be there."
"Yeah. Doc and his second son never got on too well, not since the doc's wife died. If Doc said the sun was shining, then James would swear up and down it was midnight."
"In that case," Alys said, "maybe it's James we should talk to."
James Peck was a blacksmith, a tall, clean-shaven man with a barrel-shaped torso and massive arms, who looked to be about thirty-five. His pale blue hair was cut short, almost shaved. When Alys and her escort entered his shop he was just getting the fire going. His reaction to their introduction was succinct.
He turned back to the fire.
"One of the men was your father," Alys said.
"Good riddance to bad rubbish."
"With an attitude like that, you're painting yourself as a suspect."
That got him to look up, at least.
"If I was going to kill the old bastard, I'd have given myself the pleasure of beating his head in with my fists, not dressed it up like a damned horror show. We all thought it was some kind of monster attack. What makes you call it murder, anyway?"
"It was a monster attack," Alys told him. "The monster was set on the victim by another person, though."
James rounded on her.
"What? And you think I'm capable of that? I don't care if you are Alys-bloody-Brangwin, I won't take that from anybody!"
A fist the size of a sledgehammer head shot out at Alys' skull. Since blocking it would probably break her arm, Alys moved her head to one side, letting James' fist sweep past, and when he was off-balance from the miss hooked her foot behind his ankle and sat him down on the floor.
"That's a pretty hot temper you've got there," she noted. "You give away your swing too much, though. That's something to work on if you're going to make a practice out of fighting hunters."
He got to his feet, the rage dimming as quickly as it had appeared.
"Man, James," Rivas said. "We may have been in a couple of bar fights together, but even I'd know better than to try that." He turned to Alys. "By the way, I've been thinking...I'd just like to thank you for keeping me and my pals from doing something we'd never have lived down. And," he added, "for not kicking our hind ends while doing it."
Alys was genuinely surprised by the man's contrition. She hadn't figured him for the type to admit his failings publicly.
"Um, you're welcome," she managed.
"You too, Professor. We were scared, but that ain't no excuse for being so stupid." He stuck out his big hand. "I can't speak for anyone else, but can you forgive me?"
Crane extended a hand in return.
"Oh...oh, yes," he stammered. "It's perfectly understandable. Quite ordinary pack behavior in the face of an unknown threat. I really should have anticipated the response sooner and taken steps to offset the natural result of my being an outsider."
Alys wasn't sure whether Crane had just given a very clever putdown or not.
"Wait a second," James said. "Rivas, you didn't get that mob together like you were blathering about, did you? Man, that's dumber than anything I've done. What if you'd gone and killed someone?"
"This time, nothing happened," Alys cut in, "but the next time we might not get so lucky. People get scared and they stop thinking. That leads to trouble. If we don't catch this killer, something is going to go wrong sooner or later. I need answers to my questions, James; I can't waste my time knocking you down all day."
"Even I wasn't dumb enough to swing at her," Rivas noted in an undertone.
The blacksmith nodded.
"Yeah, okay. Shoot."
"Why didn't you and your father get along?" She spotted the lie before it even got off his lips and added, "The real reason."
James nodded again, a little shamefaced, and then glanced at Rivas and Crane in turn. Alys understood.
"Could you two go wait outside for a bit? Try not to get into too much trouble." They left without a fuss.
"All right," Alys said, "it's just you and me, now. What makes you glad he's dead?"
"We never did get along much, but the reason I hated him was because he killed my mother."
Yes, Alys thought wryly, that would do it.