Krizner, with a handkerchief pressed against his sweating, pallid face, made a count of the bodies. A long twenty minutes later, he declared to Thijis that approximately seventy-four souls appeared to have met their end in Keynish Helg’s wine cellar. Or had at least been stored there. Thijis himself put the number at something closer to eighty-three.
“An exact count won’t be possible till we—” Krizner broke off, retching into his handkerchief. He’d held it in for quite a while. Thijis had to give him that.
“Until you get them out of here and do a proper inventory, yes,” said Thijis. The matter was complicated by the fact that the rear chamber, in addition to several more impressive stacks of whole cadavers, also housed a scattered collection of body parts ranging in condition from well-preserved to slightly better than mush. Given the lumpy pools of ichor that graced the depressions in the uneven stone floor, it was more than likely that an exact count of Helg’s victims would never be possible.
Whatever solution Helg had doused them in had done a remarkable job preserving most of the bodies and avoiding the stench of decomposition. Too remarkable, in fact: it didn’t seem to fit with Thijis’ understanding of physics. Even embalmed, nothing could prevent the long term decay of dead flesh, and killing a hundred people in such an organized manner wasn’t something one did in a matter of days. Man might be able to fight off Nature at times, but Nature always won in the end. He made a mental note to discuss the matter with the coroner. For the moment, he supposed he’d have to file it under hand-wavy University wizardry and leave it at that. Krizner would be proud. Not that he’d give him the satisfaction of saying so.
The fumes coming off the bodies were almost as bad, however, and Thijis regretted not bringing his chemical mask, a rebreather of his own design currently sitting quite uselessly on one of his worktables at home.
“Would you say, Inspector Krizner,” asked Thijis when the older man seemed to have finished gagging, “that this constitutes reasonable cause for the arrest of Doktor Helg? Unless you think the maid did it.”
Krizner glared at him.
“Good. Don’t move him yet, just post two of your constables directly outside of the laboratory. I still want to read whatever Gebbing has on him before we disturb the scene further.”
Krizner, clearly happy to have something to do that would take him out of the cellar, left to round up two of his men.
Alone with the scene, Thijis took a deep breath and, after immediately regretting doing so, tried to concentrate on what his other senses were telling him.
He approached what appeared to be the fresher end of the pile of remains, nearest the iron gate leading into the wine cellar proper, and selected a subject at random. He settled on the body of a young man. He looked to be around twenty years of age. He had the tanned skin and sandy brown hair of an islander. Why do we call them that? Thijis wondered, not for the first time. Oridos itself was, technically, an island, though all that separated them from the northern shore of the continent of Westalen and the massive heights of the Pillars of the Gods was a narrow, canyon-like inlet known as the Deep.
Oridosi history was one of Thijis’ hobbies, of which he had many. Dalia would call them obsessions, but then, if Irik and Dalia could agree on anything they’d still be living in the same house. Not as if that’s her fault, though, is it?
Contrary to what he understood to be the norm, Thijis found that true focus involved an act of surrender rather than an act of control. When he was young he had realized that allowing his mind to drive itself forward led to the most productive lines of thought. Trying to constrain it to a single subject only gummed up the works. He didn’t think linearly, was the problem. Some people did. That didn’t make them unintelligent, necessarily, just different. One track. The upside to this was that they made good leaders: their thinking was elegant, minimalist. They could make decisions quickly and confidently. The downside was that they were, at least in Thijis’ experience, more likely to be wrong. Accuracy, truth, correctness—call it what you would—came from testing and review. From the analysis of data, coupled with intelligent intuition. Logic alone was insufficient.
He allowed himself to think on Oridosi history as he examined this islander boy’s body. One part of his mind considered the formation of the Deep, an event lost in time and with no apparent record that Thijis had ever been able to find, despite the fact that Oridos had been inhabited for thousands of years. This led him to consider the general dearth of records in Oridos dating back much beyond the last few centuries, a fact explained away universally as a result of frequent political upheaval and the unavoidable corruption of time. All of the interesting questions of Oridosi history came back to this, whether you were a University professor or a hobbyist. Why had their ancestors left such poor accounts of their lives?
Another part of his mind observed the pallor of the boy’s face, touched the spongy tissue, now soft, the hardening of recent death long past, and peeled back an eyelid. The eyes were cloudy and dim, but otherwise unremarkable. His body was relatively clean, aside from marks on the heels: definitely transported then, the corpse dragged, with difficulty, by a man holding it under the arms.
There were two general camps of Oridosi historians. The realists, or so they called themselves, who argued that the explanation for the lack of written records in a city as developed and ancient as their own was manifold and undramatic. Political change, the influence of various religious sects, war with the northern tribes before the Khorye Pass collapsed, and a warm, humid climate made for a poor environment in which to archive data. Several libraries had burned, over the centuries, and most of the city’s most important public buildings had been sacked and damaged at one time or another. It stood to reason, therefore, that all of these facts added up to the disappointing but pragmatic conclusion that there weren’t many old books preserved in Oridos because nobody had been interested or able enough to do so.
Aside from a sickle-shaped scar on his lower abdomen, which Thijis suspected was the result of a cheap appendectomy, the islander boy’s body seemed normal. Aside from the fact that it was stacked, dead, in Keynish Helg’s morgue of a basement, of course. He moved on to the next one, a young woman with dark hair.
Thijis subscribed to another theory, however, one put forward by a small number of rebellious academics that viewed the “realists” as pawns of the establishment. This theory, though admittedly somewhat impervious to experimental testing, held that there were no written records beyond a certain point in the city’s past because the city’s founders recorded events in another manner entirely. It was known that Oridos was once home to a civilization more advanced than their own; there were still ruins in the city that contained machines and other implements beyond the understanding of even the University itself. What if the abilities of these men, these true Oridosi, had surpassed the need for such crudities as paper books?
Her breasts were ample and well formed, a fact Thijis noted in passing with little interest other than the professional. Aside from the fact that she was days dead, the smell in this place was enough to dampen even the most deviant of sexual appetites. There was a time when Irik Thijis might have questioned whether a normal human being could ever become aroused in the presence of a dead body, however beautiful it might have been in life, but that time was long past. He’d attended enough autopsies with nervous young inspectors to realize that the male body reacted to tits first and death second. Not to mention what the medical students at the University were rumored to do with the recently deceased…
In the end, this theory seemed far more logical to Thijis, who thought the realists’ explanation too convenient. Something would have survived, something more than they had. Not a single public ledger or record of parliamentary proceedings or deed of real property survived from before the time of the city’s rehabitation, three hundred and more years ago.
It was when the branch of thought surveying the broader questions of Oridosi history came to its close that Thijis finally noticed something that had thus far eluded him. As always happened, letting his mind play in the chaotic field of its own diversions had helped.
The corpses stacked before him were all young. Not just the two he’d inspected, all of them. His mind suddenly in overdrive, he walked briskly through the first chamber and into the second, avoiding the bloody, chemical scum on the floor when he could. Every one of them. Certainly all the ones he could see clearly—and though he wasn’t about to go digging, he’d be willing to bet the bodies on the bottom of the pile were just as youthful.
Finally, a pattern. He liked patterns. And the next part was the most fun of all:figuring out just what kind of sick, twisted pattern it was.
* * *
He had stepped out onto the front steps for some fresh air and was trying to get his pipe lit when Abney reappeared, strolling like he had the day off. Thijis couldn’t help but notice that he wasn’t carrying anything with him.
“So?” he asked around his pipe stem when the man made it up the steps. “Where is it?”
Abney straightened in a way that suggested he was about to say something stupid or self-important or both. Thijis groaned.
“I’m to report directly to Inspector Krizner, Mr. Thijis,” the boy said, ruining the effect by nervously sucking his teeth after he’d finished.
“Krizner’s occupied,” said Thijis, “you can report to me. Now where’s—”
“Orders from Chief Inspector Gebbing, Mr. Thijis, you understand,” said Abney. “Orders is orders, sir.” The boy appeared quite pleased with himself.
“Listen to me, you little—”
Krizner’s booming voice intervened just in time, saving Thijis the embarrassment of having to investigate his own assault on a young city constable.
“What is it then, Abney?” Krizner barked.
“Ah, sir,” said Abney, back to sucking his teeth. “Chief Inspector, sir, he directed me to speak to you privately, sir…”
“Very well then, boy, step inside and let’s have it.” For all his defense of the boy as “not a bad sort,” Krizner didn’t appear to have much more patience for Abney than Thijis did. The two of them stepped through Helg’s front doors and closed them. Thijis managed to get his pipe relit and puffed at it thoughtfully, wondering whether Gebbing was just being difficult or if Keynish Helg was less of a known quantity than he’d thought.
The suns stood out above the rooftops of the mansions across Kammerend Boulevard, and the street was busy with the lacquered carriages of the Oridosi upper crust. There wasn’t enough foot traffic to constitute a crowd, but people were definitely beginning to notice their presence. Thijis watched as the constables at the bottom of the steps dealt with the onlookers, politely putting off the respectable ones and sharply chiding the servants and stable boys that stopped to gawk. Street rats and gutter trash would likely have merited a kick from these two, but there weren’t any of either breed in Kammerend.
He had smoked down half a bowl of crab and decided on the next move in a standing game of chess he had with an old drunk at The Fourth Tribe by the time Krizner opened the door again. He came out alone, clearing his throat wetly and fishing in his jacket pocket for a cigarette. Coughing, he opened his cigarette case, selected a perfect, white cylinder, and started patting himself looking for a lighter.
Thijis’ watch dinged, and he popped it open while offering Krizner his own lighter. The inspector flicked it a few times before he got a flame. Thijis heard the crackle as it lit and Krizner inhaled, the soft, squeaking sigh as he exhaled. The sudden sharp smell of cigarette smoke in the air. He let the man get another drag in before he asked.
“So,” Krizner said. “You want the short version or the long one?”
“So would I, but short’s all I got,” said Krizner, spitting a gob of yellow phlegm onto Helg’s granite threshold. “Gebbing wants us out. Sending in an Undersheriff and some of the Prosecutors’ boys.”
Thijis wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. This thing had been a whole different game of knocker since he found a wine cellar full of bodies. Stuffed-shirt brass, stomping around the place looking important? Sure. Gebbing’s own portly presence, gliding like a hot air balloon through the crime scene? Maybe. Definitely a spin job for the press. But nothing like this. He’d choked a little when he heard it, but managed not to cough his lungs out. He hoped he wasn’t turning green.
“What the fuck, Krizner,” he said, finally.
Krizner pursed his lips, looked at his cigarette, already half ash, and smoked it to the coal. “Fucked if I know. I’ve got to lock the place down. No one in or out, until.”
“Until I get told otherwise.”
“What about Helg?” Thijis asked.
“He’s to be left as he is for now.”
Thijis thought it over. The lungful of crab smoke, more than he’d normally inhale during the day, had his mind spinning and racing, all of its different planes and strata thrumming to a hyper, smoke-induced beat. Several alarms sounded at once.
“Krizner,” he said, doing his best to remain casual. “Abney hasn’t been downstairs.”
The inspector shook his head. “No one has, other than you and me.” He looked mournfully at the butt between his fingers, then dropped it and scuffed it out on the granite with the sole of his boot. After a moment he gave in to whatever internal debate he’d been having and got out another cigarette. Thijis handed over the lighter wordlessly. Flick, flick; crackle; squeak; sigh. Thijis watched his face closely and saw it when it hit him. Krizner looked at him sidelong, his cigarette drooping a little.
“Got it, then, do you?” Thijis asked.
“Fucking…” The inspector trailed off, and Thijis could tell just by the look on his face that half a dozen different scenarios were now unfolding in his head, all of them bad for the both of them. Next would come the unfortunate and utterly necessary consideration of covering his own ass. Could he count on Thijis? Would he have to burn him, or was there a way to wriggle out of it together? Would he still be a rat if he ratted on a contractor?
Thijis could almost have smiled, if he hadn’t been shitting himself. Self-preservation was the bread and butter of law enforcement.
Krizner had almost thirty years on the job, and he was smart enough to know a cover up when he smelled it. He also knew when something was above his rank and pay, and what that meant for things like justice and order.
“The boy who came for me said the regular kid was sick, that he’d been sent instead,” Thijis said, drawing deeply on his pipe. “But Gebbing didn’t send him at all, did he?” Stupid. Your grandmother wouldn’t fall for that one.
Krizner didn’t immediately respond. The cogs in his head, having suddenly shaken off the veneer of rust that usually encrusted them, were whirring too quickly.
“How was it that you came to be here, Inspector Krizner?”
“Godsdammit.” Ooh, blasphemy. The Holy Church of Oridos didn’t take kindly to lapses into pagan cursing. Proper Oridosi swore by the name of the one true God, and paid for it. “Fucking constable from another precinct ran into the station house, says some maid came in, sobbing and worried. Ran it over to us once he heard the address. Probably never was a bloody maid.”
“Someone makes Helg’s dinner. Someone knew something was going on,” Thijis said. Krizner only threw his cigarette down the stairs in disgust. One of the skull-cracking constables below looked up in momentary annoyance, then realized who had thrown it and turned back around quickly.
“It’s time for you to go, Irik,” said Krizner.
“Orders is orders, eh?”
“Orders is orders.” Thijis watched as he spat again and opened the door.
“No particular reason I need to have been here, is there, Oskar?”
Krizner turned, half in, half out. “We’re here who’s here, Irik,” he said ominously.
There was no shortage of dirty secrets in a town like Oridos. Gebbing was privy to many of them, and his boss, the Sheriff, likely knew even more. If Thijis and Krizner had stumbled onto something the powers that be wanted kept under wraps, there would be worse than hell to pay. Gebbing shutting down the crime scene certainly seemed to indicate that he knew something about Helg’s…activities. Apparently someone else thought Gebbing shouldn’t be the only one.
You didn’t get to be Chief Inspector without making a few enemies, and Barend Gebbing hadn’t stepped lightly getting to the top.
Abney came out with Thijis’ case a few moments later, and after checking that it hadn’t been too poorly closed up, he made his way down the stairs. A young reporter he recognized from the Tribune was hurrying down the broad sidewalk as he walked back toward the nearest cabstand. He was tempted to grab the man and make sure he knew Irik Thijis was on the scene, if only to make it harder for Gebbing to come down on him later. But he didn’t. Instinct blared a warning, telling him to keep as low a profile as possible.
The point of this little escapade might have been to make Helg’s horrors public, but whoever had done it had brought Thijis into this with purpose. They’d gone out of their way to do so. And Thijis was beginning to realize that he took it personally.