We Make Our Own Tragedies
The mood in the blacksmith's shop had been remarkably light under the circumstances, but James' revelation destroyed that in an instant.
"When you say 'killed,' do you mean it literally? He murdered her?"
James shook his head, dropped his huge frame onto a bench.
"No, he didn't stick a knife in her, or anything like that. She killed herself, but he was the one who drove her to it."
"What did he do?"
"I don't know. She didn't tell me, and he wouldn't talk about it, of course." James sighed heavily, anticipating Alys' next question. "It was twenty-two years ago. My parents had a huge fight. Mom had been out somewhere, and when she came back she was steaming mad. She all but dragged my father off into his office, slammed and locked the door behind them, and then..."
"It was a screaming match," he admitted. "Mostly her, but him too, sometimes. I couldn't hear what they were actually saying; the door was too thick, though I've tried and tried to think, to remember. After over an hour, he came out. He looked angry, but also...ashamed, as if whatever they were fighting over was his fault and he knew it, no matter how angry he was."
He paused, then swallowed hard.
"After a couple of hours, I went into the office, because I was worried about Mom. She'd been crying, and I asked her what was wrong. She looked at me and said, 'I can't tell you. I can't tell anyone, because it would come back on you. But...but I can't live with him any more. Then in one move she picked up a scalpel and cut her throat. She died right there in front of me. I couldn't do anything."
"No," Alys agreed, "I doubt that you could have." She wasn't sure that he really felt the same way, but that was another matter entirely.
"I don't know what it was that drove her to it, but it must have been awful. Father said that Mom was...unbalanced, out of her mind. Mort believed him, but he wasn't there. He didn't see it happen. She was out of her mind all right, but from fear and worry, not because she was crazy. From that moment, he wasn't my father anymore, not really. Not in the way it counts."
He looked plaintively at Alys, a man older than she was gazing at her with the eyes of a frightened child.
"And I don't even know why!"
Neither did Alys, but she had a feeling that someone did.
She found Crane and Rivas waiting outside for her, tension on their faces.
"Rivas," she said, "you're a friend of his, right?"
"Yeah, James is a buddy."
"Why don't you go talk to him? He could use a...buddy right about now."
"It must be hard for him, dealing with that for more than twenty years," Crane noted sympathetically.
"Oh, Professor," Alys added, "would you meet me back at your zoo? I'd like to see how you keep that meta slug alive; it might give me a couple of clues as to what the killer's doing. I've got one other thing to check out and I'll meet you there."
"All right. Um...if you could, would you be quick? You may have stopped them once, but I am a bit concerned that Rivas' change of heart is not universal among the villagers."
"I don't think it will take too long."
Then, having dispatched her escort, she headed back to the Karl home. Some things were more easily discussed between women.
Alys caught up with Professor Crane about an hour and a half later. He was filling a water tank connected to the slug cage from a wooden keg.
"Ah, Alys! You're just in time. You see, this tank has what amounts to a slow-drip filter, a plug of cloth that spreads out along the inside of the bars. Water flows along this cloth and drips into the cage from above, generating an adequately humid environment for the meta slug."
"I'm impressed," she said softly.
"Oh, yes, it is quite a challenge to keep a creature alive and well outside of its native environment. Evolution favors those life forms which are best adapted to where they live, and so it is rare to find a being capable of prospering in a variety of different environments." He looked up at her, met her eyes. "But then, I don't suppose you really wanted to talk about monster biology, did you?" he said sadly.
"Not really, no."
The professor sighed heavily and set down the keg,
"I suppose it was only to be expected. Crime is hardly my native environment, for all that I've thought about it for years."
"You made a couple of slips," the hunter agreed. "You knew that Karl and Peck had died in their beds without being told, and you knew that it had been over twenty years since the break between James Peck and his father."
He shook his head ruefully.
"No, keeping my knowledge to myself was never one of my areas of expertise, I grant. I presume you know why, or you wouldn't look so downcast."
"Mrs. Karl told me. She'd told Mrs. Peck, the day after it happened, but Mrs. Peck couldn't live with the truth. No one else ever knew, except the three dead men, never knew that the three most prominent men in the village had gotten drunk and more on felka and raped the young wife of a traveler who'd accepted the Karl's hospitality for the night."
Alys sighed. She hated situations like these, where every side came out dirty no matter how she tried to see it. The villagers had tried to lynch Crane without any evidence other than their own fears, the victims had committed a heinous crime, Mrs. Karl and Mrs. Peck had been unwilling to hold their husband's sins up to public justice, and Alys' own client had turned out to be the murderer.
No, somewhere at the core of the Eight-Stroke Warrior was still a little girl who wanted the heroes to happily-ever-after and the bad guys to get what was coming to them.
"Do you know," Crane said, "what was truly pathetic?"
"Tasha was always much stronger than I was. A lot like you, as a matter of fact. She never let what had happened to her haunt her life. She confronted the reality of it, accepted it, and moved on. I was the one who had insisted on running, leaving town. I was the one who could never get it out of my head. I'd failed her, you see, failed to protect her as a husband should. I didn't have the strength—I never have, you realize.
"So, when Tasha died last year, I finally decided to have my revenge. I came back here—no one recognized me; it had been two decades and I'd only stayed one night, after all. From that point, it was just as you described it. I'd kept the slug hungry; I brought it to the window and let nature take its course."
"It wasn't this slug, though, was it?" Alys was still convinced the huge monster was far too big to fit through the narrow windows of the cage roof.
"Actually, it was—or at least, part of it. My own lasting contribution to the science of biology. Through careful study and experimentation, I developed a chemical compound that reverses the process of fusion from Zol slugs into meta slug. Upon being dosed with this compound, the meta slug splits by fission into two Zol slugs, one of which I could take with me as needed."
"Then when you brought it back, the two fused into one meta again?"
"Exactly. It was the perfect hiding place. No one could find the Zol slug, because it didn't exist when I didn't need it."
Alys could have asked if he'd hired her so that he'd have an independent expert on monster biology on hand, someone who could, as she had, testify that the meta slug wasn't responsible for the killings. She could have asked that, but didn't. There were some answers she preferred not to know.
"So what now?" she asked the professor.
"What do you mean?"
"You're a murderer. Yes, the victims were no prize and they probably deserved everything they got, but you still murdered them."
"Ah, I see. Do I press a hidden switch and open all the cages, forcing you into a dramatic duel to the death in order to bring me to justice?"
"No; there isn't anything like that. I've already checked. The question is, do I have to hurt you to keep you from doing something stupid?"
"I suppose that letting me go would be out of the question?"
"If you'd done it for your wife, I'd be tempted, but you told me yourself that you didn't, and I believe you." Twenty-two years of a sore spot on the ego didn't cut it as a valid motive for murder in Alys' book.
"Yes, I suppose punishment is inevitable. Shall we go, then? No doubt the villagers will be waiting for answers."
"Just make sure you give all of them. If you'd done that back then, none of this might have had to happen."
"Perhaps not, Alys, but then, none of us—not me, not them, not even Tasha—had your willingness to confront a difficult situation head-on. We can only be who we are."
"You're wrong, Professor," she said quietly. "We can all try to be someone better."
Yes, Alys thought wryly, that would do it.