Authors: Gail Z. Martin
Tags: #Urban Fantasy
He walked back to his rented rooms on Second Avenue, not far from East Park, and pulled the collar of his overcoat up to shield his face and neck from the cold rain that had just started to fall. Rain or no rain, the bars on Ohio Street were doing a good business. Music and loud talk spilled into the streets, as did the occasional patron who had exceeded his tab.
German bars, Croat bars, Polish bars—the buildings looked much the same from the outside, but woe to the man who wandered into the wrong place unawares. In the tightly knit communities of Allegheny, as with the other neighborhoods that lined the area’s steep hills, newcomers quickly learned where they belonged.
One of the new electric streetcars rattled by, briefly illuminating the sidewalk. Drostan had chosen his rooming house in part because it was near a trolley stop, and because Ohio Street had been outfitted with electric streetlights. Drostan had had his fill of dark alleys, and had the scars to prove it.
Here and there, you could still see tell-tale reminders of the Conflagration of 1868 and the Great Pittsburgh Flood of 1869, twin disasters that had done enormous damage, both to Allegheny and to the city across the river. Drostan had heard plenty of stories from old-timers about explosions from the severed gas lines and fires burning out of control in the debris floating on the flood waters. The wealthier areas had rebuilt right away. Poorer sections had taken longer, and some of the worst areas had never built up again. Places like where they found the body, down on River Avenue by the suspension bridge, still had blocks that were little more than rubble, where squatters scratched out a meager existence.
Drostan fought the urge to put his head down to duck the rain. It was growing dark, and lower Allegheny was no place to walk without your wits about you. Drostan had a stop to make. He ducked down a side street, counting the doors until he came to a run-down tenement. Under the dubious shelter of a corrugated metal awning, a half dozen young men held court, seated on overturned barrels. A table fashioned from a wide board atop two sawhorses provided ample space for an animated game of dice.
“Yes! Eight the hard way!” A young man with dark blond hair grinned and collected his winnings. A cloud of cigarette smoke hung in the air, trapped by the rain and the awning. The young men grew quiet as they saw Drostan approach.
“It’s just Fletcher,” the blond man said, when Drostan got close enough to identify.
“Still on your winning streak, Ralf?” Drostan asked, eying the small pile of coins in front of the blond man.
Ralf shrugged. “Lucky enough, I guess. You bring something for us?” Drostan eyed the other boys clustered around the table. He would guess they were in their late teens, though hard work and poverty had toughened their bodies and made them jaded. Boys like Ralf took work where they could get it, loading ships and train cars or other odd jobs, and stole or gambled for what they needed when jobs were scarce.
Drostan withdrew a pouch of tobacco and a packet of cigarette papers, showing them just long enough for Ralf and his friends to see what he had before they disappeared into the pocket of his coat. “I brought something for you—if you’ve got something for me.” He leveled his gaze at Ralf, and the young man’s pale blue eyes glinted in acknowledgement.
“Maybe,” Ralf replied.
“Someone got cut up bad down by the river,” Drostan said. “Real bad.”
A dark-haired boy on Ralf’s left glared at Drostan. “We didn’t do it.”
Drostan gave a mirthless chuckle. “No, you didn’t. Whoever did do it had butchering skills.” He described the body in sufficient detail that Ralf and his friends blanched.
“It’s not the first we’ve found,” Drostan added. “But I’d like to make it one of the last.” He paused. “The police worry about murders out in the posh sections long before they make time to look into the bodies people find along the river. I’m not the police. I’d like to make the killing stop—but I need information.”
The boys traded glances, uneasy about volunteering information. “We give you information, you give us the smokes?” Ralf eyed the pocket where Drostan kept the bribe.
In response, Drostan removed the tobacco and rolled himself a cigarette, striking the match against a dry patch of brick beneath the awning. He took a long drag and blew out the smoke. It was good tobacco, better than Ralf and his friends were likely to afford or easily steal.
“People say it’s a
what’s done the killing,” one of Ralf’s friends ventured. He was the smallest of the group, with short, sandy-colored hair tucked into a cap.
Drostan gave the boy a skeptical look, though his heart beat faster at the comment. “Come on. Do you take me for a fool? There are no such things as ghosts.”
“Don’t know what else to call it,” the boy said defiantly. “And I’m not the only one to get a look at it.”
Grudgingly, Ralf and two of the other boys nodded. “We’ve seen something down by the river,” Ralf said finally. “Sometimes it looks like a shadow, only the light’s not bright enough for a real shadow. Other times, it’s a bent old lady. It walks the riverside, right around dusk.”
“Are you sure it’s not just someone having a prank?”
Ralf shook his head. “That’s what we thought, at first. But then dogs went missing, and some chickens. We thought someone was stealing them, or maybe a fox got loose, but that shadow, it’s bigger than a fox.” He paused. “It’s got so most people won’t go anywhere near the river once the sun is low. They’re scared.” He raised his head, as if to assure Drostan than he was not intimidated.
“When did people start seeing the old woman?” Drostan asked, keeping his excitement out of his voice.
The boys conferred. “A while ago,” Ralf said finally. “After Christmas.” It squared with what few facts Drostan had collected.
“Has anyone actually spoken to the old woman, or gotten close enough to know what she looks like?”
Ralf cursed in German. “No. Hell, no. Any time you see her, there’s a bad feeling, like you should be somewhere else. People tried calling the priest to make her go away, but he won’t come anymore. Some of the women wear a saint’s medal, or carry a rosary, as if that would scare it off.” From the look on Ralf’s face, he clearly thought that whatever haunted the riverside was not going to be so easily dismissed.
“You ever seen the shadow—or the old woman—anywhere except down by the river?” Drostan asked, forcing himself to sound casual.
They shook their heads. “I ain’t heard anyone tell of seeing the old woman ’cept by the river,” Ralf said, “but I heard my mother talking with some of the other women. People been having bad nightmares, and a couple of babies died in their sleep, one right after the other. That, and they’ve had a run of bad luck down in the mines.”
Drostan withdrew the tobacco and cigarette papers from his pocket and laid them on the table. “Thanks, boys. Keep your eyes open, and I’ll bring more—if you’ve got good information.”
“We’ve always got our eyes open, and our ears,” Ralf said. “That’s how we stay in one piece.”
“Oh, one more thing,” Drostan said, as if it had nearly slipped his mind to ask. “Have any of you seen a witch poking about recently?”
“A witch? No.” Ralf replied. “We steer clear of hocuses.”
“Let me know if you hear anything.” Drostan made his way back to the street. The smell of sauerkraut wafted on the evening air from a nearby kitchen. Drostan smiled. New Pittsburgh’s immigrants were good cooks. Just on North Avenue, Drostan could sample dishes from across Eastern and Western Europe in the pubs that lined the street, and hear nearly every language from the Continent in the mornings and evenings as workers trudged to and from their jobs. The jumble of accents, languages and cooking smells were a comfortable patchwork, making him feel at home in his adopted city.
Down at the corner, a crowd of men rallied around a man standing on a wooden box. The speaker was a florid-faced man with a strong Irish accent, and he was exhorting anyone in earshot to cast their votes for ‘Dynamite’ Danny Maguire, the construction business owner turned political boss who was the darling of New Pittsburgh’s working men and their unions. Drostan paused to watch from a distance, just for entertainment, and then crossed the street and moved on, eager to be home.
Drostan still wasn’t sure what—if anything—the killings along the rivers might have to do with Thomas Desmet’s murder.
, he admitted to himself. But Brand and Desmet was a long-standing client, often hiring him to validate the background of an antique or the trustworthiness of a potential buyer. He had liked Thomas Desmet, so when George Brand asked him to help them solve the murder, he agreed without a second thought, even when Brand made it clear that they expected a connection to dark magic. That was something else Drostan liked about Brand and Desmet. They knew about his ‘gift’ and considered it an asset rather than a liability.
Drostan reached his doorway and shook off the worst of the rain. “Good evening, Inspector Fletcher.” Mabel Mueller, Drostan’s landlady, greeted him as he entered.
“Good evening, Mrs. Mueller. Whatever you’re cooking smells good.” Despite the evening’s events, Drostan managed a genuine smile. Mabel Mueller, and her husband Otto, owned the home where Drostan rented his room. Part of his room and board included breakfast and dinner with the couple, and Mrs. Mueller’s cooking was an inducement to avoid missing meals.
“I know you’re partial to shepherd’s pie,” she said, smiling at Drostan as if he were an underfed boy. “Otto likes his German meals, but I get hungry for the foods I grew up on,” she said, bustling to set the table. Mabel Mueller was in her middle years, with a figure best described as ‘pillowy’. She ran the kitchen with military efficiency, and kept the house, and the rented rooms, clean and tidy.
“I think shepherd’s pie will hit the spot,” Drostan said, as Mrs. Mueller gestured for him to sit down. She brought him a generous helping, then served a smaller portion for herself and joined him.
“You’re too thin,” she said, offering him a roll with butter to go with the meal. “I should pack you a lunch.”
Drostan chuckled. “I wouldn’t want to put you to that trouble,” he said, and paused to eat a few bites. “I eat when I can, but sometimes things get busy.”
“We’re lucky to have good men like you on the streets, looking out for us,” she replied. “I can’t complain about the officer who walks our beat. He’s always pleasant, and he tips his hat to the ladies.”
That would be Finian, Drostan thought. A charmer, but a bulldog underneath. It would be to Finian’s advantage to win the favor of the neighborhood housewives. After all, the women were in the area all day, and likely to notice anything amiss. Drostan cleared his throat and took a sip of the hot tea Mrs. Mueller poured for him. “Have you noticed anything odd down near the river lately?”
Mrs. Mueller frowned. “I do my best to stay away from the river,” she said, brushing crumbs from her skirt. “Bad area. No respectable person has business down there.”
Inwardly, Drostan groaned.
You’ve offended her. Nice job
. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply anything… I just wondered if you had seen anyone out of the ordinary heading down that way.”
Mrs. Mueller tipped her head and looked at him as if studying a child with a questionable tale. “You want to know what people are saying about the Night Hag, don’t you?”
The back of Drostan’s neck prickled. “Who is the Night Hag?”
Mrs. Mueller shrugged. “No one knows. Maybe just people’s imagination.” But something in the way she spoke said she was not convinced.
“Tell me what people are saying, please. There’ve been some deaths.”
Mrs. Mueller caught her breath. “Local people?”
Drostan grimaced. “We don’t know yet. It was… bad.”
Mrs. Mueller nodded, needing no further explanation. “There’s been talk, at the marketplace,” she said, and took a sip of her tea. “At first, I thought it was just silliness. Superstition. Some of the women come over here and bring the worst parts of the Old Country with them.” Her accent had gotten thicker, a sure sign that she was upset. Usually, he only heard her brogue on the rare occasions when she and Otto argued.
“Tell me,” Drostan repeated. “However silly it may seem. Something’s gone badly wrong.”
Mrs. Mueller’s expression was skeptical, then she gave a sigh of resignation. “The Poles were the ones who started the talk. Stories of nightmares and night hags—evil spirits that look like old women and steal souls.” She shook her head. “Imagine! Such talk nowadays!”
Drostan smiled indulgently. “Something must have gotten them riled up.”
Mrs. Mueller drank her tea, and, despite her protests, Drostan could see that something was upsetting her. “People have been having bad dreams,” she said. “Not just the kind you wake up from and pull the covers over your head.” She paused. “These people dreamed they were fighting off monsters, and woke up thrashing and screaming.”
“Bad beer?” Drostan suggested. “Something they ate?”
Mrs. Mueller frowned. “Perhaps. Mrs. Schmidt at the laundry said her son woke up fighting so hard he tore the sheets, and there were scratches on his arms that weren’t there when he went to bed.”
“Maybe he damaged himself when he was dreaming?”
She shrugged. “It’s possible. Mr. Miller said he’d had one of the dreams himself, and it was so real, he didn’t stop shaking for an hour. He said that an old woman all dressed in black stalked him in his dream, getting closer and closer and coming faster and faster until he was running out of breath. Said it was the Night Hag, come to take him.”
“How did he get away?” Drostan leaned forward, nearly spilling his tea.
Mrs. Mueller gave him an odd look, as if she was surprised he would take neighborhood gossip so seriously. “He said that he began kicking and hitting and shouting, and he woke up fighting with the sheets.”
“So the stories are around the neighborhood. Are people frightened?”
Mrs. Mueller sighed. “Some are. But there are too many real things to be scared of, if you want to be scared. No need to lose sleep over tales.”
Drostan poured them each another cup of tea from the pot in the center of the table. “Is there anyone missing? Anyone who didn’t come home?”