Read The Dark Volume Online

Authors: Gordon Dahlquist

Tags: #Murder, #Magic, #Action & Adventure, #Fantasy Fiction, #Horror, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Suspense, #Adventure fiction, #Steampunk, #Thrillers, #General

The Dark Volume (7 page)

With a surge of fear she pulled the door open, and dashed outside. She looked back at the house, the wide night sky and the open street underscoring how alone she was. The cabin door hung slack and empty, a mocking mouth in the dark.

HER BREATHLESS arrival at the inn minutes later did not in any way forestall Miss Temple's fears, nor, stepping into the common room, with its low glowing fire and wooden benches, did she find the hoped for comfort of numbers inside. The room was empty. Miss Temple closed the door behind her and dropped into place a wrought-iron latch.

“Excuse me?” she called, her voice not yet as controlled as she might prefer. There was no answer. The only sound was the popping of embers.

“Elöise?” she called, her tone encouragingly firmer. “Elöise Dujong?” But Elöise answered no more than any innkeeper.

MISS TEMPLE stepped toward the kitchen. There she found, again, no person, but the complete trappings of a half-prepared meal: fresh loaves, salted meat, pickled vegetables floating in an earthen crock.

“Hello?” called Miss Temple.

Past the high wooden table was a door to the sort of yard where one might house chickens or tend a garden or dry laundry on poles— or perhaps store barrels of ale (it being the
only
inn in the village, she guessed that the Flaming Star's ale being good or indifferent did not so much matter). But Miss Temple did not explore further. Instead, she closed the door and slipped its latch into place, and returned through the common room to stand at the base of a stairway.

“Elöise?” she called.

There was a glowing lantern somewhere above, but not in view, as the stairway turned back at a tiny landing. She climbed up, boots echoing despite her care. At the top of the stairs were three doors. The two to either side were closed. The lantern light came from the middle one, open wide.

On its narrow bed lay the wrapped bundle Lina had prepared that morning, but there was no other sign of Elöise. Miss Temple took up the lantern and returned to the landing. She looked at the two closed doors and weighed—given that the inn seemed empty, and that no light came from beneath either door—what to her mind was a very minor moral choice.

The first room was certainly let out, for there were several leather travel bags—one on the bed and three on the floor—and an odd long leather case, as if for a parasol, set into the corner. The bags were lashed tight, however, and aside from a chipped white dish smeared with ash she saw no sign of a particular occupant.

The third room had no occupant at all, for the bed was stripped of blankets. Miss Temple sniffed for the slightest whiff of indigo clay, but perceived only a problem with mice under the floorboards. She dropped to a crouch to look under the bed. Directly before her lay a slender book. She picked it up. The book's cover of pale white pasteboard—
Persephone, Poetic Fragments
(translated by a Mr. Lynch)—was finger-smeared with long-dried blood.

She recalled their first meeting, on the train—a man reading such a volume, a straight razor open on the seat beside. The book was Chang's.

BELOW HER someone rattled the inn's front door. Miss Temple leapt out of the empty room, hurriedly set the lantern and the book next to Lina's bundle, and ran down the stairs. As she dashed into the common room, wondering who could be at the door and whether running to them so openly was a very stupid thing, a woman emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on an apron.

“You must be the other young lady.” The woman smiled tolerantly as she crossed to unlatch the door. “I was told you'd arrive.”

Before Miss Temple could say a word—or even fully form the question as to where the woman had been hidden—Elöise Dujong burst in from the street, followed by two men. She rushed to Miss Temple and clasped hold of her hands.

“O Celeste—there you are!” Elöise turned back to the men with a relieved smile. “You see—she is no figure of my imagination!”

“I had begun to think it, I confess,” chuckled the older of the two, a tall, broad fellow with black hair that curled about his ears. He wore a thick traveling cloak that covered his body, down to a pair of black leather riding boots.

“This is Mr. Olsteen,” said Elöise, extending her hand, “a fellow guest at the Flaming Star, who quite nobly agreed to walk with me.”

“Can't have a lady alone in the street.” Olsteen chuckled again. “Not with everything I hear about these mountains!”

“And this is Franck.” The second man was shorter than Olsteen and young, with rough, sullen eyes. His hands—which the fellow persisted in squeezing into fists—were unpleasantly calloused. “Franck is Mrs. Daube's hired man here at the inn—our hostess, whose acquaintance I see you have already made.”

“I haven't, actually,” managed Miss Temple, ignoring the gaze of both men upon her person.

“We have been searching for you, Celeste,” continued Elöise, as though this was not perfectly obvious. “Apparently some of the regrettable events from farther north have anticipated our arrival. When you did not return at once I became worried.”

“We walked all the way to the stables,” said Olsteen. “But they said you had already gone.”

“And yet we did not pass in the street,” observed Miss Temple innocently. “How very queer.”

“Mr. Olsteen is one of a party of hunters just back from the mountains. And both Mrs. Daube and Franck informed me—”

“Of the deaths, I expect,” said Miss Temple, turning to their hostess. “The wretched occupants of that particular squat cottage—across the road and some twenty yards along? Quite recent, I should think, and one can only guess how horrid.”

To this no one replied.

“Because it had no
lights,”
Miss Temple went on, “nor smoke from the chimney—alone of the entirety of Karthe. Thus one draws
conclusions.
But tell me, how many were killed—and, if I might be so pressing,
who
were they? And killed by
whom?”

“A boy, Willem,” said Franck, “and his poor father.”

“Not young Willem,” Miss Temple asked with sympathy, “the morning boy at the stables?”

“How did you know that?” asked Franck.

“She's just come from the stables,” said Olsteen with a shrewd smile. “No doubt this Willem's death was all the other lad could speak of.”

“You are correct, sir.” Miss Temple nodded severely. “People will peck at another person's tragedy like daws at a mislaid seed cake.”

Elöise reached out for Miss Temple's hand.

“But the groom did not say who had
done
the murders,” added Miss Temple, a touch too hopefully.

“I shouldn't expect he did,” said Mrs. Daube.

“Shall we retire for a moment to our room?” Elöise asked Miss Temple.

“Of course.” Miss Temple smiled at Olsteen and Franck. “I am obliged to both of you for your kindness, however unnecessary.”

Elöise dipped her knee to Mr. Olsteen, gently turned Miss Temple toward the stairs, and then respectfully addressed their hostess.

“Mrs. Daube, if it would be no trouble for us to dine in some twenty minutes?”

“Of course not, my dear,” answered the innkeeper evenly. “I shall just be carving the joint.”

THE WOMEN sat side by side on their bed, door latched, whispering closely.

“It is
Chang's,”
exclaimed Miss Temple, holding out the bloodstained book. “I found it in the other room.”

“I'm sure it must be. And
here
…” Elöise dug in the pocket of her dress and came out with a small smooth purple stone and a cigarette butt. She snatched the stone away with her other hand and held out the cigarette butt to Miss Temple. “… is evidence of Doctor Svenson.”

Miss Temple studied the butt-end without success for crimping. “Are you sure it must be his?”

“It was crushed to the floor just
here.”

“But perhaps Mr. Olsteen, or one of his fellows—may they not have been in this very room?”

“As I'm certain many men read poetry.”

Miss Temple did not see the comparison at all.

“I have seen Chang with this very book,” she explained. “The consumption of tobacco is as common as cholera in Venice.”

“Doctor Svenson purchased a quantity of Danish cigarettes from a fisherman,” answered Elöise. “You will see the maker's mark.”

She turned the foul thing in her hand until Miss Temple could indeed discern a small gold-inked bird.

“Well, then,” Miss Temple said, “perhaps it tells us more. I found another such
remnant
—though I do not know if it bore this mark—in the abandoned house I examined on my way back from the livery. If the Doctor had
also
been inside it—”

“You went into an abandoned house? Alone? In the midst of these
murders
?”

“I did not know I was in the midst of
anything,”
began Miss Temple.

“And you just brazenly lied to us all downstairs!”

“What
ought
I have said? I do not know those people, I do not know what involvement they might have had—”

“Involvement?” cried Elöise. “Why should they have any
involvement
—they were trying to help you!”

“But why?”

“Kindness, Celeste! Plain decency—”

“O Elöise! The hair, the bootprints—and now there have been murders
here!
That empty house belonged to the most recent victims.”

Elöise threw the cigarette butt to the floor. “We went looking for you, Celeste—as soon as I learned what had happened, we went the length of the road to the stables! We should have seen you on our way! But you had vanished! I was quite disturbed and frightened!”

“O you had your burly fellows,” said Miss Temple.

“I was frightened for
you!”

“But I have discovered—”

“We have discovered we are in great danger! We have discovered the Doctor and Cardinal were both here—but we do not know if they
survived to
leave!”

IT WAS not a thought that had occurred to Miss Temple. So happy had she been to find Chang's book that the notion of its somehow being a token of his
peril
seemed too cruel a contradiction. It was then, looking up at Elöise—whose gaze had fallen to the cigarette stub—that Miss Temple noticed the tears brimming about the woman's eyes. She saw in an instant that Elöise was right, that anything could have happened, that Chang and Svenson could have been killed.

“No no,” she began with a dutiful cheer. “I'm sure our friends are quite safe—”

But Elöise cried out quite sharply, even as twin lines of tears broke forth down her cheeks.

“Who are you to know anything, Celeste Temple? You are a willful thing who has been happily asleep these past cruel days—who has money and confident ease, who has been rescued from your brazen presumption time and again by these very men who may now be dead or who knows where? Who I have watched over night after night, watched alone, only to have you abandon me at every adventuresome whim that pops into your spoiled-brat's brain!”

Miss Temple's first impulse was to slap the other woman's face quite hard, but she was so taken aback by this outburst that her only response was a certain cold loathing. It settled behind her grey eyes and imbued their formerly eager expression with the watchful, heartless gaze of an ambivalent cat.

Just as immediately Elöise placed a hand over her mouth, her eyes wide.

“O Celeste, I am sorry—I did not mean it, forgive me—”

But Miss Temple had heard such words before, throughout the whole of her life, from her imperious father to the lowest kitchen maid, so often that she divided the persons she knew into those who had voiced—or, she suspected, harbored—such criticisms, and those, like Chang, Svenson, and up to this very instant Elöise, who had not. She was routinely obliged to retain regular contact with those in the former category, but future dealings were irrevocably changed—and as she stared coolly at Mrs. Dujong, Miss Temple ignored what a less forceful person might have recognized on the woman's face as evident regret. Instead, taking care and interest as things once more to bury fully within her own heart, Miss Temple shifted her attention, as if it were a heavy case on a train platform, to the very real and pressing tasks at hand, next to which any
intimate
misunderstandings must be insignificant.

“We shall not speak of it,” she said quietly.

“No no, it was horrid, I am so sorry—” here Elöise stifled an actual, presumptuous sob “—I am merely frightened! And after my quarrel with the Doctor, our foolish, foolish quarrel—”

“It is surely no matter to me either way.” Miss Temple took the opportunity to rise and straighten her dress, stepping deftly beyond the reach of any guilt-driven comforting hand. “My only concern is to confound and defeat this party of murdering villains—and learn who is responsible for these crimes—and whether anyone else survived the airship. Lives are at stake—it is imperative we find
answers
, Elöise.”

“Of course—Celeste—”

“Which brings me to ask, as it was impossible to do so downstairs, whether in your search you glimpsed any other
figure
in the village streets?”

“Was there someone we
ought
to have seen?”

Miss Temple shrugged. Elöise watched her closely, obviously on the point of apologizing once more. Miss Temple smiled as graciously as she could.

“It is only this morning that I have been from my bed. Suddenly I should like nothing more than to shut my eyes.”

“Of course. I will tell Mrs. Daube that we shall be some minutes more—you must take all the time you like.”

“That is most kind,” said Miss Temple. “If you would take the lantern with you and close the door.”

AS SHE lay in the dark, facing the pine plank wall, holding Chang's volume of poetry between her hands, Miss Temple told herself that in all truth it was simpler this way—and who knew, perhaps Elöise's quarrel with Doctor Svenson had been similarly impulsive and shortsighted, the outburst of an unreliable, skittish woman who had, quite frankly, always been something of a bother. She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, feeling a catch in her throat. Nothing was changed—apart from it being that much more important to get back to the city. If she slept on the train, there would be no need to speak to Elöise at all, apart from the sorting of tickets—and no reason to visit her family's cottage either. Miss Temple could find a new hotel. Chang and Svenson could seek her out there. If they were alive.

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