Authors: Gail Z. Martin
Tags: #Urban Fantasy
“We were grounded for a long time,” Jake said wistfully. “But you know, even when he was giving us a talking-to about that, I had the feeling that, secretly, Father thought it was a grand romp.” He fell silent, lost in memories.
Nicki regarded him sympathetically for a moment, and gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Do you remember when your dog Spratt got hit by a wagon?” she asked. Jake nodded.
“Your father never faulted you or Rick—or any of us—for crying about it,” Nicki recalled quietly. “He told you that feeling sad meant we really loved Spratt, and it was okay to miss him.”
“I remember,” Jake said in a muffled voice.
“And do you remember how your father came home early from the office, and he helped us hold a proper funeral, and then he made us each talk about our favorite memories of Spratt? And then he told us that was what really mattered, those memories, and never forgetting him,” she said, giving Jake a gentle nudge in the ribs.
When he said nothing, she continued. “I know there’s a big difference between Spratt and your father. But Uncle Thomas was right about the memories. We’ll get to the bottom of the murder, Jake, I promise you,” Nicki swore. “But your father is more than his murder. Remember all of that, not just the end.” She met his gaze. “And believe me—we will find the people who did this and make them pay. Count on it.”
T’S A BLOODY
mess, that’s what it is.” The police sergeant said with a grimace. “Barely enough left to tell it was a person, God rest his soul.”
Drostan Fletcher looked down at what remained of the corpse. He had seen worse in Burma, when he had served with Her Majesty’s Army, before coming to America. Those were not memories he wanted to recall.
Just a few feet away, the swift currents of the Allegheny River slipped by, swollen with the runoff from snows upstream. The namesake city of Allegheny was just across the river from New Pittsburgh, its larger and more prosperous neighbor. The air smelled of glue and pickles, a combination Fletcher no longer found odd given the number of factories that clustered along the riverbanks.
“D’ya think it mighta been a wight?” Sergeant Finian was still staring at the remains. His voice carried a heavy Irish brogue, just as Drostan was sure people heard the traces of Scotland in his own burr, though it had been years since he had left his native land.
“What on earth would make you think that?” Drostan replied.
Finian shrugged. “I heard tell the Indians called these parts the ‘dark places’, back in George Washington’s day. They thought there was something evil here, and steered clear.” He nodded toward the body. “Maybe they were on to something.”
It was so like the English to ignore the cautions of those who knew the land best, Drostan thought with a sigh. That was a lesson the Brits didn’t seem to learn, no matter where they roamed. Scotland, Ireland, the Colonies, India… so many warnings unheeded, and so many needless deaths.
“Hardly something you can put in your report, now, is it?” Drostan remarked.
Finian flushed. “Can’t imagine the Captain going for it, no, that’s God’s honest truth for you,” he said. “So what’s your take, Fletcher? You don’t have to report to the likes of Captain Boyle.”
Drostan Fletcher sighed. Boyle wasn’t a bad cop. He was smart and tough. But like a lot of cops, he had the imagination of a cabbage. Most of the time, that wasn’t a bad thing. Cops dealt with hard facts, and too much imagination could get in the way. A good cop was methodical, detailed, unwilling to engage in suppositions that did not corroborate with evidence. But sometimes, closing a case took more than that.
“I don’t have a ‘take’ yet,” Drostan replied. “But I’m not happy to see another corpse, and certainly not on the same stretch of riverbank.”
“That why the swells hired you? Bet it makes them nervous, bein’ so close an’ all,” Finian said, with a nod of his head. Even though Drostan couldn’t see the brownstone neighborhoods from here, he knew well enough what Finian meant. Allegheny was a strange mixture of industry and luxury, immigrants and wealth.
Tanneries and soap factories, packing houses, and pickle manufacturers lined the banks of the wide river. So many German immigrants crowded into the cheap rooming houses and inexpensive neighborhoods that folks called the area Deutschtown. But just a few blocks farther on Ridge Avenue and the Mexican War streets, rows of brownstone townhomes and impressive residences were home to some of New Pittsburgh’s wealthiest families, the men who owned the factories and employed the immigrants. Finian didn’t need to know that Drostan’s employer wasn’t from this part of town, and that his real concern didn’t lie with the murdered vagrants.
“How will you make your report?” Drostan asked. Finian was scribbling in his notebook, and took a moment to finish before answering.
Finian grimaced. “Not much I can say except the what and the where of it, now is there? We’ve got no who or why, and there’s little enough of the body left, I’m not even sure of the how.” Finian eyed the uneasy patrolmen waiting a little ways off next to a morgue wagon. “Dr. Sheffield won’t have much to work with.”
Sheffield, the county coroner, already had his hands full, Drostan reflected. The bodies had started showing up a few months before, working their way up the Monongahela River from down near Richeyville until they finally reached the big city, then across the Point and now along the Allegheny River. The bodies were always found on the riverbanks, in deserted areas screened from view by warehouses and factories. Since the dead were vagrants, indentured servants, and poor immigrants, police authorities had taken little notice.
“Fella probably came down here for a smoke or to finish off a bottle of whiskey and got more than he bargained for,” Finian replied, looking at the savaged corpse.
Drostan’s mouth quirked into a mirthless smile. Padraig Finian had a good eye for detail, and a disciplined imagination.
If you keep your head down and your mouth shut, you might make captain yourself one day
, Drostan thought. Until then, Finian was a good man on the job and an even better man to raise a pint with.
“You got any leads on that last girl that got killed?” Finian asked. He nodded for the other officers to come closer with a stretcher and blankets, though they would be better served with a shovel and bucket. A few moments later, the policemen’s curses suggested the body was disintegrating. Drostan pointedly looked away. He had seen carnage before, too much of it.
“No,” Drostan replied. “And her name was Alice. Alice Hancock.”
“Yeah, I remember,” Finian said. “I just don’t like using her name. Got a niece named Alice. Gives me chills thinkin’ about it.”
“If I hear anything about your murders that might be useful, I’ll let you know,” Drostan said, shutting his own notebook and slipping it into the pocket in the lining of his coat. Finian had helped him out more than once, and Drostan returned the favor whenever he could. Good relationships inside the police department made his job a little easier. But the real reason Drostan was here had to do with a hunch that, for reasons he didn’t dare try to explain, the murder of a business owner over in New Pittsburgh just might have some connection to the string of unsolved murders along the rivers. And Drostan was almost certain the connection had to do with magic.
“Appreciate your help,” Finian replied. “I’ll stay in touch,” he added with a nod. “And until we catch whoever—or whatever—did this, best we were all watching our backs.”
Drostan glanced around. There were bystanders, watching the police silently from a distance. No reason to think any of them was the murderer, but perhaps they had seen something. The police gave them no notice, but Drostan could not escape their watchful gaze, staring at him as if daring him to take down their testimony. “Do you mind if I hang around for a bit?”
Finian looked out over the bleak, garbage-strewn strip of land and the dark, swift river beyond it. “That’s up to you.” He pulled his uniform coat closer around him against the wind. “Personally, I can’t wait to get back to the station and get some hot coffee.”
Drostan watched the police finish up and return to their wagons, waiting until the last of them had pulled away before he walked over to the small cluster of onlookers standing silently off to one side. It grew colder as he approached them, and he wished he had worn a heavier coat.
“If anyone saw anything, now would be a good time to mention it,” Drostan said, looking from face to face. There was an old man, probably a vagrant, with a grizzled beard and sunken eyes, who smelled of whiskey and licorice. Next to him was a teenager, raw boned and pale, and from the Old World cut of his clothes, Drostan guessed he was a day laborer, fairly new to America. A dark-haired woman clutched her shawl around her over her bodice, which still showed more than a proper woman would reveal. Drostan figured she was a tavern waitress, maybe even a prostitute. A peddler stood sullenly off to one side, as if he did not wish to be associated with the others.
“Well? I’m waiting—and I’m cold. Anybody see what happened here?”
“’Twas the Night Hag.” The woman lifted her head defiantly, as if Drostan might question her right to testify. Her accent bore traces of her native Polish. “I’ve seen her.”
“Who is the Night Hag?” Drostan asked, his voice gentle so as not to frighten the woman. The immigrants who crowded Allegheny’s and New Pittsburgh’s working class neighborhoods did not always think well of the police, often for good reason.
“You don’t have to talk to him.” The teenager eyed Drostan warily. “You don’t owe him anything.”
The woman’s eyes were fearful. She’d been through a lot, most of it bad, Drostan guessed.
“Please. It might help keep someone else from getting killed.”
“I didn’t meet the Night Hag myself, you understand,” the woman said finally. “My bad luck was running into a good-for-nothing boyfriend, but that’s an old story now. But I like this place, with the river and all, so I stay here. Only lately,
started walking here.” The woman wrapped her arms around herself. “I don’t like her.”
“You mean the Night Hag?”
The woman nodded. “Back in my country, we had a name for her.
, we called her,” she said, and moved as if to spit on the ground. “She would come to people in the night and steal their breath, sit on their chests, make them die. Very bad.”
” the peddler muttered. “Tales to frighten children.”
,” the teenager said. “Such things, bad witches, are real.”
“Did you see her, the Night Hag, with the man who was killed?” Drostan asked.
The woman shuddered. “I saw a man walking alone. He seemed to be waiting for someone. He stepped into the shadows and then there was a scream.”
“And after that?”
“I saw a figure that looked like a bent old woman. She was leaning over him. Then she disappeared.”
Drostan looked at the others. “None of you saw anything?”
“I’ve seen the old woman before.” It was the gray-haired vagrant who spoke. “I’ve seen her hunting. I stay clear of her, even now.”
“Where did she come from?” Drostan asked. “The killings… like this one… they’re new.”
“There’s strong magic in this city,” the woman said. “Three rivers come together. Caves in the hillsides, and mines underneath the ground, stirring up what’s been buried. Fires burn night and day,” she said, with a nod toward where the smokestack flames of steel mills were visible for miles. “So many people from so many places… they bring their magic with them. I told the witch there’d be more killin’s.”
“Witch?” Drostan asked.
“From the old country, came nosing around a while back. Couldn’t tell him no more than we told you. Haven’t seen him since.”
“I’ll come back,” Drostan promised. “If you see anything, please let me know.”
The young man gave a cynical laugh. “There will always be killings in a place like this. You can’t stop them all.”
“Maybe not,” Drostan said. He looked at each of them in turn. “But this wasn’t an angry lover or a robbery or bad whiskey, or a deal gone wrong,” he said, looking at the peddler. “This was a predator, and she’ll kill again.”
“You know where to find us,” the old man said. “We’ll be here. We’ll always be here.”
One by one, their forms shimmered, like dust in a moonbeam. Gradually, their outlines faded until nothing remained except the faint smell of licorice. Drostan turned and walked back to the road and the cold comfort of the single electric streetlamp.
Even with an eyewitness, it’s nothing I can take to the police,
Drostan thought, his mood bleak.
And if I turn up knowing too many details without a good explanation… well, we’ve been down that road before.
Falling under suspicion of being an accomplice to murder—even if never proven, even if wholly untrue—had finished his career with the Scottish police. New Pittsburgh was supposed to be a fresh start.
It would be so much easier if I could just ask the victim.
Drostan sighed. That wasn’t likely to happen soon. It took a while before the dead showed up as ghosts, if they were going to show up at all. So Drostan was on his own.