Authors: John Dechancie
“It is strange,” Rance said as he took a seat, “that all depends on the heavens.”
“All power derives from the universe at large,” Benarus said.
“But the natural philosophy in use down hereâ”
“Is but a transform of universal forces. Be quiet and let me get started.”
After asking Rance his birth date and questioning him about the circumstances of his upbringing, Benarus busied himself among books, maps, and charts. Rance looked around the room. Scholarly things put him off. He had been bred to regard such activity as beneath men of quality. At the same time he secretly held learned men in high regard, even envy.
Benarus worked in silence. Rance became bored and studied patterns in the carpet.
“Wait just a damned minute here.” Benarus wiped off his glasses, put them on, and reapplied a compass to a set of coordinates on a chart.
“Gods. It can't be.” Benarus jumped to his feet.
Alarmed, Rance rose. “What is it?”
“Get out of my way!” Benarus pushed past him and fled through the curtain.
Rance followed him outside. He was not a second too early.
It appeared in the sky first as a star, then as a bright moving comet, then as a ball of flame. When it hit Benarus's house it demolished it, scattering the flinders all over town.
Benarus got up and brushed himself off. He put his hands on his hips and stared at the flaming ruins of his business and his abode. He cursed vilely, colorfully, and well. Then, turning on Rance, he said, “Of all the philosophers in all the towns in Merydion, you had to pick my shop to walk into!”
“What was it?”
“I'll show you.”
Benarus led him through the smoking wreckage of his shop and home. Rance put out a hand to ward off the heat.
Benarus pointed to a pit, newly formed, at the center of which lay a twisted mass of red-hot metal. “There. See? A metal-bearing sky-stone. When the air burns the stone, iron is yielded.” He turned on Rance. “I hope you're satisfied!”
“I am not satisfied,” Rance said.
“As to your damnable curse,” said Benarus, “the only way you will get away from it is to leave the Earth! Do you hear me? Leave the Earthâforever!”
“Do you have a spell that could do that?”
Benarus said, “Eh?”
“A spell that could transport me to another world. Perhaps one where the sky-stone came from. Are there not other worlds than ours? On some far star, perhaps?”
Benarus scratched his head. “Perhaps. No telling, really. But as to sending you there . . . Gods damn it, you caused my house and home to be destroyed! You're cursed! Get away from me!”
Rance edged closer to him, menacingly. “I'll stick like dung to your shoe.”
Cringing, the philosopher backed away. “What? Get lost, you walking catastrophe!”
“Walk? That I shall certainly do. I'll dog your every step until you help me.”
“Why me?” Benarus wailed. “What in the name of the gods can I do?”
“You're a natural philosopher, a wizard. You can figure something out to counteract this curse.”
“But it's hopeless! The Zinites were powerful magicians. You should have heeded the warnings, practiced safe grave-robbing, whatever.”
“I'll make camp right over there,” Rance said, pointing to an empty field across the road. “You can't do anything about it. And there I'll stay. Next it might be an earthquake.”
Benarus sneered. “Heaven forfend, I'd hate to have my rubble bounced.”
“Or a plague.”
Benarus sobered. “Plague?”
“Or locusts. Or any other disaster. The only thing you can do is abrogate this curse!”
“But it's impossible. Iâ”
“Is that a boil on your forearm?”
Benarus looked. “What? Oh, that, I hadn't noticed . . . ye gods.”
“Yes, looks like a case of the creeping flux.”
“Damn! Here's another one.” Benarus lifted the edge of his tunic. “My legs!”
Benarus scowled at him. “I have a question. Why does this curse never seem to bring bad luck to you personally?”
“The dead can have no luck, good or bad.”
“I see. Not only is this curse cruel, it's manifestly unjust! Only the innocent suffer.”
“Life's a bother, is it not?”
“And then you get married. All right! You have me by the short hairs. I will do my best to rid you of your curse and me of your miserable company.”
Benarus suddenly looked thoughtful.
Rance asked, “Something?”
“That sky-stone could be the answer. Celestial magic is powerful. Too bad the Earth sets up interference.”
Rance suddenly had a thought. “Could sky magic be worked in a place that was partially shielded from the Earth's influence?”
“Yes, I suppose. But where would one find such a place?”
Rance surveyed the ruins. “Your barn has survived almost intact. Have you a cart and an animal to pull it?”
Benarus nodded, then eyed his tormentor suspiciously. “What exactly is going through that strange mind of yours?”
“i still say we should try to escape.”
Thaxton put a finger to his lips as the door to the library opened. In walked the butler, bearing a tray. He was tall, thin, and white-haired.
“Pardon me, gentlemen . . .”
Thaxton said, “Quite all right, Blackpool.”
“Would you take some sherry, gentlemen?”
Blackpool served the sherry and left. Thaxton sipped, then asked, “You were saying?”
Dalton crossed his legs, scowling. “I suppose you're determined to see this thing through.”
“See what through? You mean try to solve the murder? That's a job for the police, old boy. No, we were witnessesâ”
“We didn't see a thing.”
“We heard shots, and that makes us witnesses.”
“Maybe. We've given our testimony. Let's bugger off.”
“Now that would raise a bit of suspicion, wouldn't it?”
“I suppose, but we'll be back in the Castle and beyond the reach of the law and anybody else.”
“We should stay to see if Inspector Motherwell has any further need for us. Besides . . .” Thaxton sipped again. “These seem rather good people.”
“One of whom is a murderer,” Dalton said sardonically.
“Oh, well, that sort of thing can happen anywhere.”
The library door opened again, and in walked Inspector Motherwell, whose jurisdiction was based in the nearby hamlet of Festleton-upon-Clyde. After him came Colonel Petheridge.
“You gentlemen look quite comfortable,” Motherwell said with an edge of irony in his voice. “After a murder.”
“Haven't had time to get upset,” Dalton said. “Isn't that right, Lord Peter?”
Motherwell's snide grin faded. “Lord . . .?”
“Haven't had time to think, what with all the hugger-mugger,” Thaxton said. “You were saying, Inspector?”
Motherwell's manner changed considerably. He was a large man with wispy red-orange hair and a ruddy complexion. “I was going to say that you gentlemen are free to go. Certainly you aren't suspects, seeing as how you were with Colonel Petheridge when the shooting occurred. Thank you for your testimony, Lord Peter. And you . . . Misterâ?” Motherwell hastily paged through his notebook.
“Dalton. Cleve Dalton.”
“Sorry, sir, yes. Mr. Dalton.”
“I imagine you'll be wanting to get back to Durwick Farm,” the colonel said.
“Oh, the farm can wait,” Lord Peter Thaxton said. “Blasted nuisance, this, having a neighbor shot not a mile from my property.”
Dalton rolled his eyes and looked innocently out the window.
“No doubt, no doubt,” Motherwell said. “But these things do happen, now and then.”
“Yes, they do,” Thaxton said. “Tell me, Inspector, would it be a breach of security to inquire whether you have any suspects?”
“There are any number of suspects, or none, depending on how you look at it. Anyone could have done it. There were plenty of people out there with a shotgun today.”
“Yes. Ten in all. I've heard all the names, but I wonder, Inspector, if you'd refresh my memory.”
Motherwell consulted his notebook. “Well, let me see. There was Mr. Thayne-Chetwynde, Mr. Grimsby, Miss Daphne Pembroke, Sir Laurence Denning, Mr. Wicklow, Mr. Thripps, Amanda Thripps, a Mr. Geoffrey Ballifants . . . who incidentally is not a localâ”
“Honoria's half-brother, from up Middlesborough way,” Petheridge supplied.
“Yes. And another guest, this one hailing from a good deal farther away.”
“The Mahajadi,” Petheridge said. “Not a bad young bloke, for a wog. Royalty, you know. Here to visit the Queen.”
“His name's . . . Pandanam.” Motherwell wrinkled his brow. “Panda-nam. Mouthful, that. Also Lady Festleton's mentor, is he not?”
“Oh, yes,” Petheridge said. “Bloody heathen nonsense. Dancing, yammering prayers. Hideous stuff.”
“Strange,” Motherwell said, “him being invited to hunt.”
“Honoria insisted. Broadminded girl, she is. As I said, though, not a bad bloke. For a wog.”
“And the colonel, here,” Motherwell continued. “That completes the hunting-party roster. Oh, forgot the gamekeeper, with the dogs. He didn't have a gun, though.”
“Quite a list,” Thaxton commented.
“But we have no suspects,” Motherwell stated, “unless you count Lady Festleton.”
“By Jove!” The colonel's monocle dropped from his eye. “What the devil do you mean by that, Motherwell?”
“Sorry, Colonel. I realize you're a longtime friend of the family. But I'm afraid we can't establish that anyone else was near Lord Festleton at the time of the shooting. Ground's quite mucky. Only two sets of footprints, his and hers. Her ladyship says he was dead when she got there. Yet there is the problem of the lack of powder burns, which would be expected if the gun had gone off in a fall.”
“Well, someone shot him from cover, by Jupiter.”
Motherwell shook his frizzy head. “Not a chance. The shot scattering won't allow it. He was shot at close range. Not point-blank, but close, within the clearing. By someone standing about eight feet away.”
“Well, good God, man. How did the old girl do it?”
“How did she get the gun off him, her dressed in slippers and tutu? Did she overpower the poor bloke? Judo, perhaps?”
“Colonel, the point is moot,” Motherwell said, ignoring the sarcasm. “The earl wasn't shot with his own gun. It had not been fired.”
“Well, there you have it,” the colonel said. “Honoria couldn't have done it.”
“She might have used another gun and hid it.”
Petheridge scoffed. “You can't be serious about this.”
Motherwell stiffened. “His lordship, here, asked a question, and I answered it. I did not say I was about to arrest Lady Festleton for the murder of her husband. There's simply no evidence. However, she did have the means, the opportunity, and . . .”
The colonel's right eyebrow arched imperiously. “And what?”
The colonel's sails spilled their wind. Apparently he did not find the notion out of the question. “Oh, I see.”
Thaxton began, “I wonder if it would be indelicate of me to inquire . . .?”
The colonel and the inspector looked at each other.
Petheridge shrugged and turned away. “Bound to find out at some point.”
Motherwell nodded. “Yes, well, how shall I put it? His lordship was a bit of a Don Juan.”
“Cocksman extraordinaire, is how I'd put it,” the colonel muttered, looking away.
“Yes, well. At any rate, it was a constant source of friction between the lord and lady. They had frequent arguments. In fact, Lady Festleton was not above physically attacking her husband, on occasion.”
“Can't be denied,” the colonel said, then suddenly turned on Motherwell. “But she's not capable of murder. I've known her since she was a whelp. She's spiritedâbut a murderess? No.”
“I should have thought,” Thaxton said, “that an Orientalist such as Lady Festletonâand I gather she is . . .”
“Oh, yes, quite,” the colonel said. “Loves all the bloody wogs.”
“She was in the middle of something when she took a sudden notion to run out into the woods,” Motherwell commented. He paged through his notebook. “âDance-meditation,'it says here. In costume, which you noticed when you saw her from the road, Lord Peter.”
“Er, yes, but as I said, I caught only a glimpse.”
“Sorry, my lord, you were saying something about her love of Eastern lore?”
“Yes,” Thaxton continued. “Isn't that stuff about forbearance, peace of mind . . . you know, pacifism, asceticism, and all that bosh?”
“Yes. Are you saying that her hotheadedness belies all that âbosh,'as you call it?”
“Merely pointing out a possible incongruity,” Thaxton said with a smile. “Don't pay me any mind, Constable. Just musin', don't you know.”
Motherwell nodded. “Yes, well, I'm open to suggestions. But I'm afraid I don't quite know what you're driving at, my lord.”
“Let me ruminate awhile,” Thaxton said.
“Very well, my lord.”
A knock came at the library door. The door opened and a uniformed policeman stuck his helmeted head into the room. “Oh, there you are, sir.”
Motherwell said, “Yes, Featherstone?”
“Found something in the woods, sir.”
Featherstone entered, carrying an object wrapped in a white handkerchief. He carefully set it on a library table and revealed it. It was a single-barrel shotgun, both barrel and stock sawed off severely. The resultant weapon was scarcely bigger than a pistol.