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Chapter One

Rain, cold rain, as icy as only a midwinter night could make it, dripped despairingly into the dismal streets of the city of Haldene. It should have cleansed the pavements, but instead it left them looking slick and oily; glistening with a dubious sheen, but not clean. There was a single lamp burning outside a warehouse two doors down, but although the flame burned bravely, it did little to illuminate anything beyond the immediate area of the door it hung above. The rain soaked through everything; the piles of refuse waiting for the rag-picker beside each warehouse and tavern door, Tal Rufen's waxed cape and the woolen coat beneath it—

—the limp and lifeless body of the street-singer at his feet—

More wavering light from his storm-lantern moved uncertainly across her pale cheek and gave her a cheating semblance of life. She sprawled in a strange, contorted snarl of limbs and wet garments, lying half on her back and half on her side, with her arms outflung to the uncaring sky. Her own ragged cape, a garment of the poorest and shabbiest kind, threadbare and patched and heavy with rain, had been thrown partially to one side as she fell. It had not given her much protection from the cold and rain when she had been alive, nor had the thin chemise that served her as a blouse, now soaked and clinging to her thin torso, nor the coarse-woven skirt, torn and muddy about the hem. Her feet, though not bare, wore "poor-man's boots" of thick stockings clumsily made of scraps of yarn salvaged and reknitted, and soled with leather likewise salvaged from some other article too worn to save. Harness-leather, Tal thought, judging from the wear spots on it; her feet were slim enough that pieces cut from a worn saddle-girth would be just wide enough to serve her as soles. Such make-do foot-gear wouldn't serve to protect from rain and not much from snow, but they would have served to keep the feet out of direct contact with frigid cobblestones.

Her instrument, a tambour-drum, lay a little way from her hand, skin-down in a puddle on the street where it had landed when she fell. It was a very cheap drum, quickly made, undecorated. A drum was the usual instrument of the poorest musicians because drums were the most inexpensive of all forms of music-maker. The rim was already warped by the rain; one of the cross-braces had popped out, and even the skin would be ruined by now. No longer useful, it was another piece of flotsam for the rag-pickers and scavengers, who would soon be quarreling over the rest of the girl's meager possessions.

She had been faintly pretty—would have been quite attractive, if poverty and hunger hadn't already left their marks on her in the form of bad teeth, a sallow complexion, and lank hair. The witnesses said she had a pleasant enough voice, but made up for all deficiencies of face and voice with a sunny, outgoing disposition. Unlike some, apparently she had never supplemented her street-singing with other sources of income; she'd never, at least in the course of cursory questioning of those who knew her, ever been known to sell herself as well as her songs. She was too proud, said one of the local stall-keepers who'd come to identify her body, a man who sold hot drinks and fried fish in the nearby fish-market where she made her usual stand. He'd meant that in the best possible sense and as a compliment, for the thin body beneath the threadbare clothing would only have attracted the attention of someone mistaking her for a preadolescent.

The cause of her death was obvious enough, even without the witness to the murder. Despite the rain, blood the color of black rubies still stained the front of her chemise and soaked into her skirt in a dark blotch; not just a stab-wound, a blow like this one told Tal a tale of rage, rage against the victim that a simple thrust of the knife could not purge. Her murderer had practically disemboweled her with a single stroke.

And that simple fact just did not fit. 

The stall-keeper had seen her murderer accost her; he'd even overheard a little of the conversation. The man had offered a job, spoken of a gathering of friends in one of the more reliable dockside taverns who wanted a bit of lively music, and had even mentioned another musician who had agreed to come. So far as the stall-keeper knew, he was a stranger to this part of the docks; the girl had spent the last year or more at the corner in front of the stall-keeper's stand, and the fellow swore he'd never seen the man before today. Nor had the girl herself shown any sign of recognition when he'd spoken to her.

A piece that doesn't fit. This murderer was a stranger, by the accounts, and bloody work of this level of savagery only came from the desperate power of a wounded animal, or the rage of someone formerly close to the victim. How could a stranger have built up such a terrible anger against the girl? That level of anger needed reasons, and a long and careful nurturing, both of which required previous acquaintance.

The stall-keeper was somewhat in shock and hadn't been able to throw any light of knowledge on this terrible situation.

Nor could the single witness to the murder itself, a boy of about nine who sat a few yards away, shivering in the shelter of his mother's tavern—the one to which the girl had allegedly been invited—so traumatized he was barely able to speak. He rocked back and forth slowly with his arms wrapped around his thin torso. The boy only knew what he'd already told Tal; that the girl had been walking alongside a man as the boy waited outside the tavern for the bread-baker to make his delivery. The man had stopped and pointed to something on the river; the girl had turned to look. While she was distracted, the man had taken his knife from a sheath at his belt.

Then with no warning at all, the man stabbed her viciously, ripping upward with such force that he lifted her off the ground, caught on the cross-guard of his blade. His fist drove all the air from her lungs in a great, choking gasp, leaving her unable to cry out. Not that it would have done her any good, for she bled her life away too quickly for help to arrive. The boy had been completely paralyzed with shock and terror, able only to shrink back into the shadows in hopes that he had not been noticed, and certain he was about to be murdered on his own doorstep. That instinctive reaction might indeed have saved his life.

The man had shaken the girl off the knife as if he was shaking off a bit of fish-gut. That was the analogy the boy used, and it looked apt judging by the way the girl had fallen. She hadn't been dead when she hit the pavement, but she was dying. She'd made a single abortive attempt to rise, one hand clutching the wound in her stomach, before she fell back again, and died in a gush of blood.

The man had ignored her, just as if he didn't realize he had just murdered someone. He had looked around, his face frozen in what the witness said was "a horrible look." Tal wished he knew just what that "horrible look" was; the expression might have given him more clues.

Then the man had dropped the knife casually beside the body, walked straight to the edge of the dock, and kept going, falling right into the Kanar River. The current was powerful here and the water cold and deep. Not even a strong swimmer would survive long, and Tal expected to hear that they'd pulled the murderer's body out of the shallows by morning.

That was the point at which the boy had run for his mother, who had sent the tavern's peace-keeper for the constables rather than going out and investigating herself. You didn't live long in the wharf-district by throwing yourself into the darkness after a murderer. She and her son had stayed safely in the tavern until the constables arrived.

The witness had been very clear on one thing that had Tal very puzzled: the murderer had dropped the knife beside the body. Between his cursory examination and the witness's description, Tal judged that it was a very unusual knife, three-sided, like an ice-pick or a stiletto, with a prominent hilt. And here was the last of the pieces that did not fit, for the knife was gone. If someone had rifled the body in the time it had taken the boy to run to his mother, and his mother to get the constables, then why was the clothing completely undisturbed and why was the girl's meager pouch of coins still on her belt? Why steal a knife, especially one that had been used in a murder?

That was the real question; for most people, even the most hardened dock-rat, the idea of merely touching such a weapon would be terrifying. There was a superstition about such knives; that a blade that had once tasted a life would hunger for more, driving the unfortunate owner to more murders or to suicide.

All of these things were small, but they added up to a disruption of the pattern that should have been there, familiar and inescapable. But there was a pattern this case did fit: a series of four similarly horrific murders that had taken place over the past six months. All of the victims were women, all were poor, all were street-entertainers, and all were murdered between midnight and dawn.

All had been killed with a similar, triangular-bladed knife, and presumably all had been murdered for some reason other than money. He could not be sure of that last, because this was the first such murder to have a witness.

Three of the cases had been marked as solved. Two of the murderers had committed suicide on the spot, even before their victims were actually dead, and one murder was attributed to a man who'd been picked up the next day, raving and covered with blood, and quite mad. All of the women had lived alone, without lovers, husbands or children, in small coffin-like basement or attic rooms in tenement houses, rooms too small for a normal-sized man to lie down in. They owned little more than the clothing they stood up in, a rude pallet to sleep on, and their instruments. They eked out a precarious existence, balancing rent against food in a desperate juggling act played out day after day without respite.

They were like hundreds, thousands of others in the city, yet in this they were different. They had not died of cold, disease, or starvation; someone had murdered them, and Tal was convinced that there was more to these murders than simple random violence. There was suspicion of sorcery and enchantment being involved—there always was such talk around murders, more from superstition than actual suspicion. While he had seen the evidence of magic often enough, from the legerdemain of street tricksters to the awe-inspiring, palpable auras of "high magic," he preferred to look for more conventional explanations than the supernatural. Tal believed that it was wisest to look for the answers that came from what normal people could devise, afford, and enact, and kept his deductive powers "clean" since it was all too convenient to chalk up uncomfortable mysteries to dark forces.

"Tal, it's time to go." The words, uttered, he now realized, for the third time, finally penetrated his consciousness. He looked up, to gaze into the weary and cynical eyes of Jeris Vane, the constable who shared night-duty in this district with him.

"You aren't going to learn anything we don't already know," Jeris said, as if explaining something to a brain-damaged child, "We have a murderer, and he's already taken his punishment into his own hands. The case is closed. Let's go back to the station, fill out our reports, and make it official."

Tal shook his head stubbornly, holding up his lantern to illuminate Jeris's face. "There's something about this that's just not right," he replied, and saw Jeris's mouth tighten into a thin, hard line. "I know it looks cut and dried—"

"That's because it is," Jeris snapped, water dripping off his hat brim as he spoke. "There's no reason to pursue this any further. We have what we need—one victim, one criminal, one witness, one suicide, end of question."

"But why would—"

Jeris interrupted him again. "Why is not your job, or mine, or any other constable's. What and who, maybe, but not why. We don't worry about the reasons people do things. We catch them, and after we do, we hand them over to the Justiciars, the gaolers, and the executioners. Worrying about things that are not part of your job will only bring you trouble. I'll be at the station when you decide to straggle in from meddling in things that aren't your business."

With that, the unpleasant man turned, and splashed up the rain-slick cobbles towards the district station, leaving the scavengers to do their work. For a moment more, Tal hesitated, hoping he could glean just that tiny bit more information from the scene.

But he wouldn't, and in his heart he knew it. Even if he brought in a mage, at this point, the mage would learn nothing. Rain was running water, and running water washed away magic. Just as in the other four cases, which had all taken place on rainy nights (as if there was anything other than a rainy night this time of year!) there would be no trace of anything magical on or about this body.

That was one more thing that didn't make sense about any of these murders. People weren't murdered in the street on rainy nights, they were killed at home, or in rooming houses, inns, or brothels, where it was dry and at least a bit warmer than on the street—or they were killed in taverns and public houses, where it was dry and the chill made people drink more than they had intended to. But no one picked a victim, then took her out into the pouring rain to kill her. This was another odd circumstance that linked all five of these cases.

There was something very wrong here, and he wanted very badly to find out what it was before any more women were murdered.

He hesitated a moment longer, then followed Jeris back to the station. Perhaps by now they would have found the body of the murderer, and he would learn something more.

The rain showed no signs of letting up, and would likely continue until dawn. Rain, rather than snow, was the dominant winter weather pattern in Haldene, and there were some who longed for snow instead. Tal didn't; granted, snow did make it easier for a night-constable to do his job, for with a layer of snow on the ground, nights were brighter, and fresh snow made it possible to track a night-criminal in the less-trafficked parts of the city. Even if he got into an area where there was a great deal of activity at night, if he'd left prints in the snow, a constable could look for soles that matched those prints. Nevertheless, Tal didn't care for snow any more than he did rain.

What I would like would be to have a dry winter instead of a wet one—a winter where no rain fell until spring.  

He lengthened his steps to catch up with Jeris without losing his dignity and running. It was foolish, but a great deal of status within the ranks of the constables depended on appearances.

"You called for the wagon?" Jeris asked, as Tal came up to him.

"Right after the woman sent for the constables and I responded," he replied—and as if to prove that he had done his job, the body-wagon rattled around the corner ahead of them, heading their way. The wheels rumbled on the cobblestones, and the cart itself rattled as the uneven surface jarred every separate board and bit of hardware. Those were the only noises it made; the pony hauling it, its rain-slick hide a mottled dark-on-dark, never made a sound, and the wooden horseshoes it wore were muffled (as per city ordinance for horses at night) by leather boots tied over the hooves. The driver, enwrapped in his regulation black-hooded cloak, spoke not a word as he drove past them. In a few more moments, the girl's body would be ingloriously tossed into the back of the cart, covered with a black-dyed bit of canvas, and taken away to the city morgue which was operated by the Church. In weather this cold, they'd probably keep her there for a week, hoping for some friend or relative to step forward, claim the body, and pay for the burial. At some point, however, they would give up, and with reluctance and scant ceremony, drop her pitiful remains into a shallow, unmarked paupers' grave in Church grounds at the Church's expense. As a murder victim, and not a suicide—and in default of any evidence that she was not a loyal daughter of the Church—she was the Church's responsibility. The only paupers that the Church was not responsible for were nonhumans, suicides, pagans, heathen, and heretics—all of those placed themselves out of Church hands by their beliefs or actions. If no relatives came to claim them, the city would dispose of them in Potter's Field, in the pits left after clay was dug up.

This assumed, however, that the medical college didn't need a subject for dissection. In that case, a priest would bless the body and hand it over, and the girl might have a real marked grave, although the bits and pieces that had once been a human being would not be reassembled before burial. It would be the medical college's job to pay for that burial and, to do them credit, they did not skimp on ceremony or expense.

In either case, he doubted that it would matter to her. She was done with the envelope of flesh, and what became of it could not concern her anymore, outside of a haunting. But assuming that there was something beyond that envelope—and assuming she had any reason to be concerned with anything in the "here and now" anymore—surely her only concern would be revenge. Or justice; there was a fine line between the two that tended to blur in most folks' minds, including Tal's. He was not convinced that she had or ever would have either revenge or justice, even if someone pulled up the body of the man who had killed her in the next few moments.

On those other four occasions of the past several weeks, someone had written "case closed" after a murdered woman's name because her killer had slain himself. And in a few more days or weeks, another woman had died in circumstances that were all too similar to the previous, supposedly-closed case. Either there was a sudden rash of murder-suicides going on in this city, or there was something very wrong with the deductions of the city constables.

"You're asking too many questions, Tal," Jeris said, as the wagon passed by. "The Captain doesn't like it. You're taking up too much time with this obsession of yours."

"Too much time?" He felt as if he should be angry, but he was too tired for anger. He weighed his next words down with heavy contempt. "Since when are you concerned with my private interests? Most of this has been on my own time, Jeris. The last time I looked, what I did with my own time, whether it was bead-work, plowing, or criminal investigation, was no one's business but my own."

Jeris grunted scornfully. "Charming hobby you have, Tal, and frankly, I don't give a rat's ass what you do on your time off. The only problem is that you've cooked up some half-crazed idea that there's a force out there, walking the night and murdering women. Even that would be all right if you kept it to yourself, but you can't do that, can you? You have to tell every gypsy bitch and street whore you meet why she should be more careful at night, as if a few stupid cows more or less in this town would make any difference to anyone."

Now anger did stir in him, dull and sullen, smoldering under a heavy weight of sheer exhaustion. It had been a long night before this happened, and the end wasn't in sight. Jeris's arrogance made him want to give the man a lesson in humility—and in how it felt to be the one under the hammer. "So far, there've been five murder victims that look enough alike to make anyone with a brain think twice about them. These murders are too damned similar to be coincidental, and these murders don't fit the patterns of anything I've ever seen before, not in twenty years as a constable. Just for one moment, why don't you play along with me and pretend I'm right? Don't the women who have to be out in the street to make a living deserve to be warned of danger?"

A sudden gust of wind blew rain into their faces. "They're street-trash, Tal," Jeris replied crudely, never once slowing down to look at him, just pulling the brim of his hat down over his face. "Anybody out on the street at night instead of decently home where she belongs is out looking for trouble. Try getting it through your head that scum doesn't deserve anything. They aren't worth considering, but decent, tax-paying citizens are beginning to get wind of your stupid idea, and they're getting nervous. The higher-ups don't like it when citizens get the idea that there's something dangerous on the street that the constables can't stop."

Tal's anger burned in the pit of his stomach, warming him more efficiently than his sodden cloak, but he knew better than to make a retort. Jeris was a boot-licker, but as such, he had the ear of the Captain, with an eye to making himself—Jeris-the-upstart—look better. Jeris had only been a constable for four years to Tal's twenty, but he was already Tal's equal in rank and probably his superior in advancement prospects because of his lack of personal modesty and his artistically applied hostility. Ordinarily, Tal wouldn't have cared about that; he'd never wanted anything more than to be a good constable, maybe even the best if that was how things turned out, keeping the streets safe, solving the cases that were less than straightforward. But Jeris-the-toady, interested only in what the job could gain him, grated on Tal's nerves and enraged his sense of decency. This was not the least because Jeris represented not only everything Tal found despicable in the city constables, but also precisely the kind of constable who would advance through ambition and eventually become Tal's superior in rank. Captain Rayburn was exactly like Jeris—and when Rayburn gave up the job, no doubt Jeris would be promoted into it.

So Jeris was only reflecting the sentiments of Those In Charge; "street-trash" didn't matter. Forget that those who Jeris and Rayburn styled "street-trash" were also tax-paying citizens; Rayburn would dismiss that simple truth with an unverifiable allegation that everyone knew that the "street-trash" cheated to avoid paying their taxes and so did not warrant service.

As if the "good citizens of Haldene" that Rayburn favored never did anything of the sort! How did he think some of them got their fortunes?

That didn't matter; really, nothing was going to make any difference to the Rayburns and Jerises of this world. The real fact was that the underdogs of the city had no power in the politics and policies of the city, and never would, and for that reason, Rayburn and his ilk discarded and discounted them, always had, and always would.

Tal slowed his steps deliberately, allowing Jeris to splash on ahead. Let Jeris, the ambitious, be the one to file the initial report. Let him get the "credit" for the case. Tal would file a second report, and he would see if Jeris could find a way to explain the missing murder-weapon, or the myriad of discrepancies and illogics in the story.

Then again, it probably wouldn't matter if he couldn't. This was just another inconvenient blot on the record, an "unfortunate incident" that no one would bother to pursue any further. Neither the victim nor the murderer were of any importance to anyone who mattered, and thus it would be simpler and easier for the authorities to ignore everything connected with them.

That realization—or rather, the final acceptance of something he had known in his heart of hearts—sickened him. If he had not been so weary, he would have been tempted to turn in his baton, badge, and braids as soon as he reached the station and find some other job in the morning, perhaps as a private guard for one of the wealthy merchants.

But he was tired; his head ached, his joints complained, his stomach was knotted into a burning ball, and the only thing he could really muster any enthusiasm for was the fact that his shift would be over in an hour or two and for half a day he would no longer have to tolerate Jeris and his ilk. In fact, by the time he reached the station, made out his report, and did the follow-up with the searchers at the river, it would probably be time to stop for the day.

He plodded on, head down for many reasons, through the cold wind and intermittent rain, and because he had deliberately lagged behind Jeris, when he arrived at the station he discovered that the other constable had already commandeered the single clerk on duty at this time of night. That meant Tal would have to write out his own report, instead of dictating it to the clerk.

One more miserable item in the long list of the evening's miseries.

The station, a cramped, narrow building, three stories high with a basement lockup for violent cases, was unusually busy for a cold and rainy night. The waiting room was full, and the sergeant at the desk looked as haggard as Tal felt.

For a moment, he simply leaned against the wall and let the warmth and babble wash over him. With oil lamps along the walls and a small crowd pressed together on the benches, there was enough heat being generated to make up for the fact that one of the two stoves supposed to heat the place was cold. This was the Captain's idea, a means to economize during the hours that Rayburn was not on duty, and never mind that there were other people who were forced to shiver through the coldest hours of the night due to his economies. This was the only part of the building that the general public ever saw, but it was enough to make them nervous. No one ever came to the station who was not forced to.

The first story consisted of one main room and several smaller offices and the ward-room behind them all. The main room had a half dozen benches arranged in front of a desk; at the desk sat the Duty-Sergeant, and on the benches were ranged a variety of folk who either had complaints that needed a constable's attention, or were here to see about getting someone out of the general lockup on the second floor where drunks and minor troublemakers landed. They were the source of the nervous babble, and unfortunately, also of a variety of odors, none of them pleasant. Sweat, dirt, garlic, wet wool, beer, and wet rawhide; bad breath and flatulence; and a hint of very cheap perfume from the one or two whores waiting to register complaints—the people who came here at night were not among the city's elite by any stretch of the imagination, and they brought the "atmosphere" of their lives with them. Judging by the crowd out front, the offices were probably all full, either of constables interviewing witnesses or constables interviewing people with complaints. More accurately, given the attitude of the night watch, the truth was closer to enduring than interviewing. 

The second floor was divided into the general lockup—a temporary holding area for drunks, vagrants, general "undesirables," and as many participants in a fight as could be rounded up—and a second ward-room. Third floor held the records. It would be quieter up there, but much colder. There was a clerk in the records-room by day who refused to work if the stove wasn't fired up, but there was no one to keep it stoked at night, and no one cared if the prisoners in the lockup were comfortable.

The harried Sergeant barely acknowledged Tal's presence as the latter entered and saluted. Since he was dealing with three different arguing parties all at the same time, Tal didn't blame him. Instead, he went in search of pen and paper to make his report, and a relatively quiet corner to write it in.

When he finally found both in the ward-room his headache was much worse and his jaw ached—and he realized to his chagrin he'd had it clenched tight ever since Jeris started in on him. It was enough to give him a deep throbbing at the root of his teeth, which faded slowly as intermittent shocks of pain until only a background discomfort remained.

By that time, the Sergeant had managed to throw out all three of the contending parties, which had cleared the waiting room considerably. While he'd been searching for writing materials, Jeris had finished his report. The Sergeant gave him a look at it, and as Tal had suspected, no mention was made of a missing murder-weapon or even that the weapon had been something other than the usual belt-knife.

He went up to the third floor in search of quiet. With his fingers stiffening in the cold, Tal rectified those omissions, wishing a similar headache and bout of indigestion on Jeris, who, according to the Sergeant, had chosen to go off shift early once his report had been written.

When he came back down, with his stack of closely written papers in hand, the Sergeant waved him over to the desk.

"The riverside search-team come in, Tal," he said with a gleam in his red-rimmed eyes. "They found the body of a man they figger was the murderer. What's more, they know who 'twas."

He handed the new report, a short one, to Tal, who read it quickly, his eyebrows rising as he did. The body certainly fit the description that the boy had given, and he had been identified almost as soon as he had been pulled from the water by a most extraordinary chain of coincidences.

Both the discovery of the body and the identification were exceedingly fortunate for Tal, if not for the prospects of turning in his shift early, for he had not expected the body to turn up until it floated by itself. But as luck would have it, a barge had gotten torn from its moorings this afternoon before he arrived for his shift; it had run up against a bridge-pier downstream, then sunk. Now the usual scavengers were out in force on the water with all manner of implements designed to pull cargo out of the water. One of the scavengers had netted the body and brought it up. As it happened, several of the river-rats had recognized who it was immediately, though they had no idea that the man had murdered a girl before drowning himself.

So now Tal had his identification, and the search-crew had happily retired from the scene, their job completed.

The Desk-Sergeant had the particulars. The murderer had been the owner of a shabby shop in Jeris's district, who made a living buying and selling secondhand goods. The scavengers had sold their pickings to him more than once, and knew him not only by sight, but by habits—and the one who had pulled him out was actually in the station waiting to be interviewed.

Although Jeris had officially declared himself off-duty, the Sergeant noted (with a sly smile) that he was still proclaiming his genius in the second-floor ward-room to the clerk and anyone else who would listen. "The boy come to witness wants out of here," the Sergeant said. "He's not likely to wait much longer." He did not offer to send someone after Jeris.

The Sergeant was as old a veteran as Tal, and with just about as little patience for boot-lickers. They both knew that since the shopkeeper was from Jeris's district, it would look very bad if someone else took the report because Jeris had gone off-duty early and had not bothered to check back at the desk.

"Any sign of Jeris checking back in, then?" Tal asked.

The Sergeant shook his head. "Not that it's your job—"

"No," Tal replied, deciding to get subtle revenge by grabbing the interview for his own report—which was, without a doubt, what the Sergeant had in mind. "But a good constable concentrates on the case, not the petty details of whose district the witnesses and victims come from."

"That's the truth," the Sergeant agreed. "Your witness is in the fourth crib along, right-hand side."

Tal collected more paper, left his initial report with the Sergeant, and found the man waiting patiently in one of the tiny cubicles in the maze of offices and interview-rooms in the back half of the first floor.

There were oil lamps here as well, and it was decently warm at least. Maybe too warm; as Tal sat down behind the tiny excuse for a desk at the back end of the room, he caught himself yawning and suppressed it.

He had brought with him a steaming cup of the evil brew that was always kept seething in a pot on another pocket-sized stove in the first cubicle. Allegedly, it was tea, though Tal had never encountered its like under that name anywhere else. It was as black as forbidden lust, bitter as an old whore, and required vast amounts of cream and whatever sweetener one could lay hands on to make it marginally palatable, but it did have the virtue of keeping the drinker awake under any and all possible circumstances.

The witness had evidently been offered a cup of this potent concoction, for it stood, cooling and barely touched, on the floor beside his chair. Tal didn't blame him for leaving it there; it was nothing to inflict on the unprepared and unprotected, and offering it to a citizen came very close to betraying the Constables' Oath to guard innocent people from harm. He just hoped it wouldn't eat its way through the bottom of the cup and start in on the floor, since he'd be held responsible.

"I understand you and some of your friends located the body of a man who drowned?" he said as he slowly dropped down in the chair, after setting his cup on the table within reach of his right hand. "Can you tell me how that came about?"

The young man, lean and sallow, with a rather pathetic excuse for a beard and mustache coming in, nodded vigorously. "We been salvagin', an' I hooked 'im. Knowed 'im right off. Milas Losis, 'im as got the secondhand story on Lily, just off Long, in the Ware Quarter."

Tal nodded; so the murderer had not even come from the same quarter as the victim, although Wharf and Ware were next to each other and in this district. Still, Lily Street was a considerable distance away from Edgewater, where the girl had made her usual stand. And more significantly, Edgewater held nothing to interest a dealer in second-hand goods, being the main street of the fish-market. With luck, this boy would know a bit about Milas Losis.

"Did Milas Losis have any reason to want to do away with himself?" he asked.

The boy shook his head. "Hard t' tell about some of these old geezers, but not as I think. Shop was doin' all right, old man had no family to worry about, an' never had no reason t' want one. Useta make fun of us that came in and talked about our girls—told us he'd be laughin', and free in a brace of years, an' we'd be slavin' to take care of a naggin' wife and three bawlin' brats, an' wishin we was him." The young man shrugged. "On'y thing he ever cared for was chess. He'd play anybody. Tha's it."

And I doubt that the girl was one of his chess partners. "Did he ever show any interest in music?" Tal persisted. "In musicians? In female musicians? In women at all?"

To each of these questions, the boy shook his head, looking quite surprised. "Nay—" he said finally. "Like I said, on'y thing he ever seemed to care for was his chess games, an' his chess-friends. He could care less 'bout music, 'e was half deaf. An' about wimmin—I dunno, but I never saw 'im with one, and there wasn't much in 'is shop a woman'd care for."

After more such fruitless questioning, Tal let the youngster go. The boy was quite impatient to be off doing something more profitable than sitting in the constable-station, and only pressure from the team searching for the body had induced him to come here at all. There were a few more hours of "fishing" he could get in before traffic on the river got so heavy that he would legally have to stop to allow day-commerce right-of-way and pull his little flat-bottomed salvage-boat in to the bank until night. He had money to make, and no reason to think that Milas had been the victim of anything other than an accident or at worst, a robbery gone wrong.

Tal sat at the tiny desk, staring at his notes for a moment, then decided to go prowling in the records-room again. This was a good time to go poking through the records, for during the day, the clerk defended them as savagely as a guard-dog, allowing access to them with the greatest of reluctance.

He took his notes with him, since the records-room was as good a place as any to write his addition to the report. Besides, now that he officially had the identity of the murderer, he wanted to check the file on current tax-cheats, debtors, heretics, and other suspected miscreants to see if Milas was among them. There was always the barest chance that the girl was a blackmailer who'd found something out about him that could ruin him. Not likely, but best to eliminate the possibility immediately, and leave Jeris no opportunity for speculation.

As he had expected, the old shopkeeper's records were clean. From the complete lack of paper on him, it would seem that this murderer had, up until this very night, led an amazingly boring life. There wasn't a file on him, as there would have been if he had ever been noticed during a surveillance or a raid on an illegal or quasi-legal establishment.


So, once again, he had the same pattern. The perpetrator was perfectly normal, with no previous record of violent or antisocial behavior, and no indication that he was under undue stress. He had no interest in weapons, music, or musicians, and none in women—and no obvious dislike of these things, either. He had no record of interests outside his shop except for chess.

In short, he had led an utterly blameless and bland existence, until the moment that he pulled out a knife and used it on the girl. He even had a perfectly good reason to have an odd knife; anyone who owned a secondhand shop would get all kinds of bizarre weapons in over the course of time.

Maybe I'm going about this wrong. Maybe I should be concentrating on the missing knife. It seems to be the one thing that ties all these cases together.  

Very well, then; it was an unusually long knife, with a strange, triangular blade, a bit longer than a stiletto. Tal had seen knives like that, very occasionally, as part of the altar-furniture during certain holy days. No one ever touched the knives during the service, and they were evidently the remnants of some earlier, older ceremony. Tal was not particularly religious, but one couldn't help picking up a certain amount of religious indoctrination when one was in school, since the schools were all taught by Priests. He'd had the knack even then for putting things together that other people didn't particularly want put together, and his guess was that the knives were from an old, pagan ceremony of sacrifice that the Church had coopted and turned into a holy day. Good idea, that—if people were going to celebrate something, make them celebrate your ceremony. Keep them in the Church all day so they can't go out and get up to an unsanctified frolic in the woods and fields. . . .

Tal sat back in his chair for a moment, thinking about that. Perhaps it was the late hour, but his imagination, normally held in check, began to paint wild pictures for him.

Some of the more lurid tales that had given him goose-bumps as an adolescent rose up out of memory to confront him with bizarre possibilities. What if some of the knives in Church regalia were the original sacrificial knives of an unholy, blood-drenched ritual out of the ancient past? What if this one was one of those knives, one of the cursed blades out of legends, craving blood now that it was out of the safe hands of the Church magicians? Could it be taking over the murderers somehow, and forcing them to use it so that it could drink its fill of blood and lives as it used to do?

But why pick musicians as targets? And most importantly, where did it go when it wasn't killing someone?

More to the point, have I got the chance of a snowball in a bakery oven of convincing the Captain that a knife with a curse on it is going around killing people?  

Not likely. Captain Rayburn believed wholeheartedly in magic, but in magic of the practical kind. Cursed weapons were a matter of legend, and not something to be found lying about in this city.

What do I have for proof? A handful of men who killed for no apparent reason, who all used, if not the same knife, a very similar knife. They all murdered women, who were also street-entertainers. Rationally, even I have to admit that killing entertainers could be nothing more than a matter of convenience and coincidence. The only woman who is likely to go off with a stranger is going to be either a whore or an entertainer, and of the two professions, a whore is going to be more suspicious than an entertainer. Finally, the murder weapon always vanishes, and the murderer often commits suicide.  

Not a lot of "proof" for anything, and no proof whatsoever for the notion of a knife with a mind and will of its own.

Stupid idea. I must be getting light-headed from lack of sleep.  

What were the possibilities that fit this particular pattern? The reasonable possibilities that is, not some tale-teller's extravaganza. The religious angle did have possibilities—a cult of some kind was actually possible. People would do some very strange things in the name of religious belief, including commit murder and suicide. Odd cults sprang up in the Twenty Kingdoms from time to time, and most of them were rightfully secretive about their practices and membership. The Church did its best to wipe out every trace of such cults once Church officials got wind of them, either directly or by threat of Holy Wrath. And while the latter might not impress anyone not born and steeped in the fear of the Sacrificed God, practically speaking, since every law-enforcement official in the Twenty Human Kingdoms was likely to be a loyal son of the Church, there was secular wrath to deal with as well as Holy Wrath.

That's a dangerous suggestion to make, though. Politically sensitive. It wasn't that long ago that there were people saying nonhumans were demonic, and accusing them of this kind of bloodletting. Claim that there are humans going around doing the same thing—Captain isn't going to like it if that comes up again.  

Still, it was the most feasible and would explain the disappearance of the murder weapon, or weapons. Other members of the cult could be watching the murderer, waiting for him to act, then nipping in and stealing the ritual dagger when he was done.

That's more reasonable than a dagger with a curse on it. I'm more likely to get the Captain to believe that one, even if he doesn't much like it. I don't like it, though; what if he decides that it's nonhumans who've somehow seduced humans into their cult?  

Another outside possibility was that there was a slowly spreading disease that drove its victim to madness, murder, and suicide. People who went mad often had a mania about certain kinds of objects or whatnot. He personally knew an account of a hatter who went about trying to bludgeon redheads, for instance—and that could explain why all the victims were musicians. Maybe the disease made it painful to listen to music!

But in that case, why were they all killed with the same kind of weapon, and where did it go afterwards?

His death-black tea grew cold, as his thoughts circled one another, always coming back to the mysterious, vanishing daggers.

Until tonight, there had been the possibility that the women were being marked by the same person, who also murdered men, possibly witnesses, to make the crimes look like murder-suicides. That possibility had been eliminated tonight by the presence of a witness who had not been detected.

Lastly, of course, it was possible that Jeris and the Captain were right. There was no connection; these were all acts of random violence.

But there were too many things that just didn't add up. There had to be a connection. All of his years of experience told him that there was a connection.

His resolution hardened, and he clenched his jaw. I'm going to solve this one. No matter how long it takes, no matter what it costs. For a moment, the anger and his resolution held him. Then he looked down at the papers on the desk and his cold tea, and snorted at his own thoughts.

Getting melodramatic in my old age.  

Still . . . He picked up the pages of his second report and stood up.

Idiot. It's duty, that's what it is. Responsibility, which too damn few people around here ever bother to think about. I became a constable to make a difference; too many young asses these days do it for the uniform, or the chance to shove a few poor fools about. And the rest take up the baton as a quick road to a fat salary and a desk, and political preferment. Damn if I don't think Jeris did it for all three reasons!  

He made his papers into a neat stack and carried them down to the Desk-Sergeant, who accepted them without the vaguest notion of the thoughts that were going through Tal's head. By now, it was quitting time; the constables for the next shift were coming in, and he could return to his two rooms at the Gray Rose, a hot meal, his warm bath and bed, and a dose of something that would kill his headache and let him sleep.

He could, and this time he would, for there was nothing more that he could learn for now.

He went out into the cold and rain with a sketchy salute to the Sergeant and the constables coming on duty. He hunched his shoulders against the rain and started for home.

But somewhere out in that darkness was something darker still; he sensed it, as surely as a hound picking up a familiar scent.

Whoever, whatever you are, he told that dark-in-the-darkness silently, I will find you. And when I do, I will see to it you never walk free again. Never doubt it. 

The darkness did not answer. But then, it never did.


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