(A sequel to “Shriek, Memory”)
© 2008 by Walter Reimer and Eric Costello
Characters © their respective owners
“The Wise Ones, surprisingly, didn't hold my defence of Lancaster against me. In point of fact, they seemed to be very sanguine about the whole thing. One of my aunts shrugged her shoulders at me and said that the matter was taken care of at its heart. Odd choice of words, but Wise Ones always do that. Keeps one off balance.”
Kara Karoksdottir (also known as Kara-daughter-Karok among family members in her Uplands home) paused in the act of appending another note to the last page of the transcript and frowned. The case of Althing v. Lancaster had concluded with the death of the defendant, presumably of a heart attack, and Magistrate de Pathe had declared the proceedings ended.
But her disquiet lingered.
She was an attorney, taught to cherish facts and to revere the truth above all else, while essentially swimming in a sea of lies every time she walked into a courtroom. At least, she reflected, contract disputes didn’t ordinarily lead to people dying.
But the Gift-that-was-Burden was in her blood, going back many generations, and she couldn’t shake off her feelings like water.
The vixen jotted another few notes before closing the folder. She stared accusingly at it for another long moment before stuffing it into the back of a filing cabinet.
“Are yez okeh, Sir?”
At his vulpine sergeant’s question Inspector Stagg looked up from his desk. The whitetail buck had a frown on his face that had only deepened after the autopsy report into Lancaster’s heart attack. “I thank you for asking, Sergeant. I know that my actions cause you some uncomfortable moments at times.”
“It ain’t that, Sir. I mean, Lancaster bein’ dead an’ all, an’ no way o’ findin’ out whether or not he actually done those things way back durin’ the Wars.”
“True. Tell me, Sergeant, did you participate in the Gunboat Wars?”
The fox’s ears laid back. “Yeah, Sir, I did. It’s not usually something we want brought up – it’s kinda close to the bone, you know what I mean? Lotta furs got killed, an’ some – well.”
Stagg nodded gravely. “And I perceive that the death of the alleged ‘Red Hook’ has you wondering, as well.”
“Yes, Sir. You remember that case a couple years back, Sir? The one with the idols up in th’ Uplands?”
“Quite clearly, Sergeant.”
“Shame we can’t ask th’ Gods ta throw in their two shillings, hanh?”
Stagg’s brows furrowed. “Yes,” he said finally, “it is a bit of a shame.”
The phone ringing cut through the Inspector’s brooding and he picked up the pawset. “Detective Bureau . . . Good Morning, Doctor. How can I . . . oh? You as well? We’ll be there presently. No, thank you. Good-bye.” He hung up the phone and looked at Sergeant Brush. “It seems I have a partner in my musings. Dr. Meffit wants us to stop by the autopsy room.”
The fox nodded as he stood up, trying not to hide his distaste at having to go to the hospital before lunch.
A scheduled flight from Seathl landed at the airport on Eastern Island shortly after lunch, and as the passengers disembarked one of them, a slim coyote, paused and sniffed the air. He headed for the baggage claim and Customs area, pausing again only long enough to shed his suit jacket.
It was a rather warm day, after all.
When he reached the Customs officer he gave the woman his passport and watched as his suitcase was carefully inspected. The officer noted the silver likeness of a bird on the red-and-black booklet and asked, “Business or pleasure, Sir?”
Oswald de Bruce smiled as he took back the booklet. The silver effigy denoted a member of Rain Island’s government. Given the nation’s egalitarian sensibilities, the ‘official’ passport wasn’t used very often.
Not even the Ambassador had one.
“Business only, Officer,” he said pleasantly.
Soon after leaving the airport the man hired a water taxi to take him to a hotel on South Island, and after checking in he emerged from his room wearing only a pair of cutoff trousers and the small medicine bag secured by a thong around his neck. He slipped the room key into his pocket and headed for the jungle trails, selecting which way to go seemingly at random.
Presently the trail forked, but he took a third path, straight into what some people called “three-yard jungle.” He found a small clearing created by the falling of a huge tree, sat on the decaying stump and waited.
Nearly silent footfalls.
After a long moment, a pressure as someone sat down, her back against his. He swished his tail out of the way to avoid having it sat on.
“You came.” The voice was female, in English with a strong accent, as if the speaker hadn’t spoken English in a long time.
He smiled. “How could I not? The Great Raven came to me.”
“I saw - through the fire.”
“There are . . . concerns.”
“True. The balance . . . “
“Could be disrupted.”
“That is our thought as well.”
He crossed his legs, paws cupping a knee as he leaned back, feeling an opposing pressure through his fur. “There will be risks. Will it work, do you think?”
He felt the woman’s shrug. “Who can say? The Gods, perhaps.” A sigh. “Euros are such children at times – so unpredictable.”
The coyote chuckled. “Ah, ah, ah. Be careful,” he said teasingly. “I remind you - I’m Euro. Gonna diaper me, then?”
An answering chuckle.
The pressure left his back, and he turned in time to see a retreating feline back, bare of clothes above the grass skirt. She paused and looked back at him, a coy look from the Wise One. "Perhaps later," and she retreated into the shadows.
“Inspector, Sergeant,” Dr. Meffit said, “I’m glad you could come over on such short notice.” The doctor took off his pince-nez glasses, polished them with a pawkerchief and replaced them on his muzzle. “It may be nothing, but I wanted to discuss it with you both.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Stagg said. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Lancaster,” Meffit said bluntly. “I know the original ruling was a heart attack, but there were some aspects of it that seemed – peculiar. So I went over my notes, and then re-examined the body.”
“And your findings?”
A frown crossed the striped black muzzle. “Ordinarily, a patient with heart trouble has blockages in one of more of the vessels that supply blood to the heart. Lancaster, on the other paw, shows no sign of anything wrong. For lack of a better term, his heart is sound as a bell.”
“Interesting,” Stagg murmured. “Disease? He complained of feeling ill after dinner the night he died.”
“I thought about that, but he seemed quite healthy. Which made me start thinking.”
Meffit nodded. “Certain substances – digitalis, for example – if taken or taken in high amounts can induce a heart attack. Usually it breaks down by the body’s own processes, making detection difficult at best. Or part of a foxglove plant may have been introduced into his food.”
Stagg’s muzzle set in a stern frown. “If he was poisoned, that makes the constables at the Jail immediately suspect, Doctor. If I am to start investigating the Constabulary itself for corruption, I shall need more to go on.”
“I know that, Inspector. Rest assured I’d never bring this up unless I had a genuine concern. In fact – “ Meffit broke off as the phone started to ring. He answered it, listened to the caller and hung up, whiskers quivering.
“Trouble, Doc?” Brush asked.
“I’m not sure, Sergeant. That was Miss Lopp, at your office, Inspector.”
“Are we wanted back at the station, Doctor?”
Meffit looked perplexed. “All three of us are, Inspector.”
“Miss Lopp,” Inspector Stagg asked as he entered the Detective Bureau, “I’m told that we are wanted. What’s going on?”
“Oh! Um, he’s in there, Inspector,” and the rabbit doe pointed at the inner office door. She looked a bit flustered.
“Ever-thing okeh?” Brush asked her quietly as Meffit and Stagg headed for the door.
The secretary nodded. “Yes, Sergeant. It’s just – I never thought I’d see one so far from home.”
The fox looked puzzled at her reply and followed the buck and the mephit into the office.
A coyote wearing a suit looked up from his seat beside Stagg’s desk and smiled as he stood up. “Inspector Stagg, I presume?” he asked the buck.
“I am. And you are?”
“My name’s Oswald de Bruce. My credentials, Inspector.” He gave his passport and a folded paper. He smiled as Stagg read the materials.
The buck’s ears flicked at a soft churr, and he turned to see a mixture of emotions flickering rapidly across Sergeant Brush’s face. His vulpine brush seemed about to start bottling out.
De Bruce noticed it as well. “Relax, Sergeant. I’m not a Wild Priest.”
Brush swallowed hard. “Take yer word fer it,” he muttered as he smoothed his tailfur down.
Stagg gave the paper and the passport back to de Bruce. “A – registered – shaman? I was unaware that Rain Island licensed their clergy.”
“It was part of the act that set up the Synod back in ’30, Inspector. It helps to weed out the charlatans and the deluded.”
“And your passport?”
He smiled. “It was necessary to establish my bona fides, Inspector. Otherwise you’d have no reason to believe what I have to say, apart from the reaction from your sergeant. Please relax, Sergeant; I’m not here to cause any trouble.”
“Then why are you here, sir?” Stagg asked. “Apart from scaring Sergeant Brush?”
“To begin to answer that, Inspector, let me start by saying that under Rain Island law, the testimony of a properly registered and licensed shaman is admissible as evidence in court and is considered facially true.”
Stagg frowned and glanced back at Brush who growled, “Funny ideas they got up there, Sir.”
“Indeed. I suppose it’s what a culture considers reliable evidence.”
The fox nodded, keeping a wary eye on the coyote. Stagg sat down as he asked, "So I return to my question: What brings you here?"
"Your analysis is spot on, Inspector. A ... rather delicate case ended somewhat abruptly here recently." His eyes met the buck's. "I'm here to help you see the truth."
Stagg nodded as he sat down. "For the moment, I will accept what you say, Mr. de Bruce. You say that you are here - summoned, or guided here, perhaps? - to reveal the truth in the Lancaster case? You are a witness? Or know of a witness?
"I'm sure you've heard the old expression, Inspector - 'God is my witness.'" The canine grinned. "When the Raven came to me He explained that things were out of balance. Justice had been served, but you and these others still had questions."
"Such as: how was justice served, and by whom?" Meffit asked.
A nod. "And the truth about the incident at Lunda Point twenty-five years ago."
There was a pause. "Sergeant," Stagg said quietly, "I'd appreciate your input on this matter, right now."
Brush looked uncomfortable. "There's things th' Wise Ones can do, Sir. Never seen it myself, but as a kit I heard my Ma talking with her sisters." He nodded at the coyote. "Her sisters . . . y'know, Wise Ones. Just like sommea my pop's sisters."
"I ... see. So what he's claiming is true?"
Meffit spoke up. "And how do we know he's just not spinning some fanciful tale?"
"I would tend to doubt that a fur traveling on an official government passport would go to such lengths to tell a tale to a mere detective," Stagg said.
"Thank you, Inspector."
"As for relative truth of what they would say...well, that would be my, or our, individual judgment itself."
"Actually, Inspector, when I mentioned the incident at Lunda Point I meant that you would see it for yourself."
Kara sighed happily as she changed into native dress and took a water taxi to Main Island. It was always refreshing to leave the cares and troubles of the Euro legal profession behind for the weekend, and even two days spent at home with her family seemed to recharge her.
Even her two younger brothers would be a welcome sight after having to deal with Lancaster and others like him.
The first indication that something was going on came when she entered her parent’s longhouse.
Her father wasn’t there, which was a sure sign that either her aunts or his in-laws were visiting.
The second indication was the sight of her older brother’s children playing in the garden just outside.
She frowned. This can’t be good, she thought as she entered.
“Kara-daughter,” her mother said, “enter-thou and sit. Wise Ones-present emphasis desire with you speak.”
The vixen gulped, because arrayed before her in the longhouse’s living room were all of the Wise Ones in the family.
There being no available chairs, Kara sat down on the floor – and listened at first with incredulity, then with skepticism. When the oldest of them, her father’s older sister, finished speaking, the young vixen snorted.
And received a swat across her muzzle for her pains.
Stagg raised an eyebrow. "A re-enactment, sir? You do realize the site has been destroyed by a storm."
"I had heard, yes. No re-enactment, Inspector, but the actual event," de Bruce said with a sober expression.
"I should think that a physical impossibility, unless you have some mechanical invention that you should bring to the attention of your local patent office." The buck’s cane tapped on the floor. "Something that would fit inside a police call-box, perhaps."
The coyote chuckled. "I'm not sure that would work. Rest assured, Inspector, that if you agree, you will see what happened that day with crystal clarity - as sure as you see me now." He thought a moment, then smiled. "It might help if you consider it a kind of seance."
"Ah, yes. They were popular in my homeland. Almost as popular as the furs who liked to debunk them."
De Bruce cocked an eye at Brush, who was suddenly looking as if he were about to bolt from the room. "It takes a great deal of effort, Inspector, which is why it's not usually done. I ask you to have an open mind."
"But how is this . . . well, let's be blunt, time travel . . . accomplished?"
"I'm not asking you to actually *do* anything, Inspector, except have an open mind and sit comfortably."
"I hardly have the training that a Wise One or a shaman has for this sort of thing. Put another way, that is not how my brain is constructed." He turned to Meffit. "Forgive me, Doctor, but I imagine you are the same way. Surely, Sergeant Brush, with his family tree..."
De Bruce raised a paw. "You won't need to - neither of you. I will have assistance from one of the Wise Ones here." Brush's eyes bugged out. "None of your relatives, Sergeant, rest assured."
"Kiki ain't involved in dis, is she?"
A knowing smile. "I'm sure she knows by now, Sergeant."
"Dat . . . I don't doubt. Lookit, Sir, just my opinion, see? Goin' 'round messin wit' stuff ya ain't trained fer . . . an' I dunno, y'know, Wise Ones . . ."
"One of the Wise Ones will basically open the door, and I'll hold it open." His ears dipped. "A very simplistic way of putting it, I'm afraid."
"I'm sure, sir. Difficult concept to render intelligible." Stagg looked at Meffit, who appeared clearly unconvinced, and all three looked up as the door opened and the State Counsel walked in. There was a murmured conversation in Spontoonie as Brush brought his up to date.
"It helps to explain it, Inspector,” de Bruce said, “if you've been raised in a culture that not only calls upon the Gods, but sometimes expects a call back."
"Ah. Not my culture, to be sure."
"Which will make this somewhat difficult."
"But not impossible?"
"No, not impossible."
"Not to you."
"To whom, then?"
"As I said, it takes a great deal of effort. Most of it'll be on my part."
"I see. So the risk is yours. Why undertake it?"
"Because I was told to." He waved a finger as his tail wagged. "If God tells you to do something, you do it, Inspector."
The occasions when Inspector Franklin Stagg was rendered speechless were rare enough to be counted on one paw.
This was one of them. It was several moments before anyone spoke.
“The question remains,” Meffit said finally, “why? Why do this, just for our benefit?”
De Bruce looked troubled as his paw strayed to the small lump discernible under his shirt. “It’s a delicate matter, Doctor. AS you’re aware – and from what came out during the trial – some of our militias did go pirate. That revelation was a matter of great strain between Rain Island and Spontoon, and a balance was eventually struck between us. With this trial and the unanswered questions about it, that balance may be disturbed. And, with things as they currently are in this part of the world, neither side can afford to become estranged.”
“A true Deus ex machina,” Stagg observed dryly. “So Lancaster’s death was . . . prayed for?” He scratched at one antler. “Or does the supernatural rely on living agents?”
The coyote smiled at the whitetail buck. “Didn’t the saints sometimes act as living agents? I was born and raised Catholic, Inspector.”
That caused Stagg’s ears to twitch upward. “An . . . interesting change in the course of one’s life.”
“Yes, it was, and a bit disturbing, I can tell you. I was even an altarpup, but I started having these dreams when I reached my twentieth birthday. My parents sent me to a doctor, our parish priest and, yes, a psychiatrist – after two sessions he sent me to a shaman." He sat up straighter. "When you dream of gods, Inspector, they're usually trying to say something to you. And all three suggested I see a shaman.” He smiled. “So, here I am.”
De Bruce looked to be in his early forties. “Ain’t dat what they calls ironee?” Brush asked. “Yez bein’ a coyote, an’ all, an’ here yer followin’ da Raven’s orders.”
“The Gods choose who They will, Sergeant. You of all the people in this room should know that.” De Bruce stood up. “I’m going back to my hotel; I’m staying at the Tropic Haven on South Island, Room 103. If you agree to this, please call me tonight. We’ll start the ritual tomorrow morning.” He shook paws with the Inspector and the Doctor, then approached the two Spontoonies.
The State Counsel took the offered paw and asked, “Are you certain we can see the truth in this matter?”
De Bruce nodded. He turned to Brush. “I won’t offer you my paw, Sergeant. I perceive that you wouldn’t accept it anyway.” He gathered up his passport and other papers and left the office.
Inspector Stagg regarded the tips of his hooves for a long moment before remarking, “An . . . interesting person, and I have to admit it’s an intriguing offer. Doctor?”
Meffit looked irritated. “An intriguing offer, yes, but why doesn’t he just come out and tell us?”
Brush spoke up. “Prolly can’t, Doc. See, when a Wise One gets a whatchercallit, a call-up, she can’t talk ‘bout it till she gets th’ okeh.”
“I’m surprised you give any credence to this, Sergeant.”
Orrin Brush looked uncomfortable. “What’s Spontoonie’s close ta da bone, Doc,” and he glanced to one side to see the State Counsel nodding. “’Sides, when yez got as many Wise Ones in my family . . . “
Almost on cue the door banged open, Brush whirling as his paw reached for his pistol. “What? You!” he gasped.
His older sister stood framed in the doorway, looking as if she hadn’t slept in a week. “Orrin . . . did a man named de Bruce come here?” she asked as she sat down on the edge of his desk.
“I gather you may already know the answer to that question, Miss Karoksdottir,” Stagg replied.
She nodded, looking up at her brother and a long conversation ensued in Spontoonie, Kara’s voice sounding almost scared while Brush’s tone was alternately sarcastic and angry. Finally he growled, “I ain’t b’lievin’ dey put yez up ta this, Kara. Or that you’re agreein’ to it.”
“Yeah, well, they’re waiting for you at your home, Orrin – all of them, including Great-Aunt I’illi.”
At the name Brush’s tail and ears dipped. “Her, too, huh?” He muttered under his breath. “Fine, I’ll go. But I AIN’T likin’ it.”
“I don’t like it much either,” his sister said. “But I guess it’ll be like seeing through the fire, or something like that.”
All this got from Brush was a disgusted snort.
Timing was important, de Bruce told Stagg when the Inspector telephoned him, and the coyote had told the buck that the place would be ready for them at eight the next morning. The place was nowhere near the site of the former Lunda Point, and that was explained rather elliptically as “closer to where we’ll need to be.”
Stagg had merely accepted the information, and had passed it on to the others.
Even a hundred yards off the main road on Main Island the forest was well-nigh impenetrable, but a space had been cleared and a tent was set up and waiting as Stagg, Meffit and the State Counsel were ushered in by what was obviously a junior Priestess.
An opening in the top of the tent’s peaked roof (high enough to clear Stagg’s antlers easily) let smoke from a small campfire drift out of the structure. Several low camp stools were arranged around the fire.
De Bruce looked up from the fire and smiled as the others were shown in. “Good morning!” the coyote said cheerfully as he stood and adjusted the bark-cloth loincloth he wore. In addition to the loincloth he wore two earrings in his left ear, affairs made up of raven and eagle feathers that hung below his left shoulder. “I’m very pleased you could all make it. Please, have a seat and make yourselves comfortable.”
Meffit did a quick count of the chairs and asked, “You’ve missed one.”
“Two, actually, Doctor,” de Bruce said. “The Wise One and myself will sit on the ground. We’re still waiting on – ah! Good morning!” he exclaimed as Orrin and Kara were shown in, escorted by a feline Wise One in her full regalia. The Wise One said something to Brush, who replied in an almost sullen tone then flinched out of the way before her claw could flick out and strike his ear.
Kara paused as she moved to sit down, taking in the sight of the shaman as he momentarily turned away from her. Her thickly-furred tail wagged a bit, and he turned and caught her blushing. “I’m afraid traditional dress is required, Miss Karoksdottir,” de Bruce said with a grin. “I hope it won’t be too distracting for you.”
“I’ll close my eyes,” she offered.
“Fine. No peeking,” and he wagged a finger at her with a short laugh. “Gentlemen,” he said, addressing himself to Dr. Meffit and Inspector Stagg, “as I said yesterday the effort and most of the risk will be borne by myself, but I do have a few things to say to you two.
“Number one, you will have to trust that what you will see is not any type of hypnosis, nor is it mesmerism or what have you. The wood making up this fire is not drugged. All I am asking you to do is to watch the fire. While you watch, I want you two to think of a person.”
“A person?” Meffit asked.
“Yes. Someone who was close to you and is now departed. I am asking you to do this because I may need some assistance – you and the Inspector are not familiar with our traditions, and the help may be needed if we’re to succeed here.”
“A family member?”
“Whoever you feel you were close to, Doctor.” De Bruce glanced at Stagg. "I recall that you are a widower, Inspector."
A nod. "Your voice tells me you still hold her in your heart."
All the buck could do was nod.
"Good. When the rite begins, Inspector, I want you to call to her, soul to soul." He leaned close. "Evoke."
A ghost of a fond smile tugged at Stagg’s lips. “That, Mr. de Bruce, would be more along the lines of a reflex, and not a rational thought.”
“Excellent. So, we’re all here, and we’ll begin.”
De Bruce and the Wise One sat, and as the others gradually subsided and gazed into the fire the coyote started a low chant. The notes, mostly long drawn-out syllables, seemed to blend in with the muted sounds of the fire and the breeze outside the tent.
I’ve been here before, Franklin Stagg realized with a wrench. Hard to believe it was less than a year ago . . .
He had been gazing into the fire as the shaman chanted, and had closed his eyes; when he reopened them he was standing up to his hocks in a dense white fog, probably the same fog he had encountered when he’d had his near-death experience in January.
All that was missing was . . .
And there she was.
Diana was standing in front of him, dressed in an ankle-length dress that closed demurely at her neck.
His breath caught on the sudden lump in his throat.
Somehow, he found his voice.
“Diana – “
She smiled at him, then touched a finger to her lips.
He understood. “Ah. So, you still can’t speak?”
She nodded, but her smile was everything he could wish for.
“I take it, then, that you are to guide me through this gateway?”
She nodded again, and beckoned him to follow her. As she turned she looked at him over one shoulder, and flicked her flag at him.
He followed her, noting that for some reason the ankle-deep fog had turned an interesting shade of pink.
At a certain point (he noted that he was walking without the use of his cane, another point of similarity with his experience earlier in the year) the fog started to thin out and other shapes appeared, shapes that resolved themselves into the other members of the group.
He turned to say something to Diana and started when he saw her walking away. “Wait! Wait, please,” he said.
She paused and turned to face him.
“Can you – will you please stay with me?”
The (ghost? Spirit?) of his wife looked pensive, then smiled again and mouthed the words, I am always with you, Love. A slightly sly smile touched her lips, as if she’d managed to put one over on Whoever was preventing her from speaking. She turned away, flicked her flag at him again and walked off into the fog.
Stagg sighed and brushed a tear away from his muzzle, then took stock of his surroundings.
The fog was starting to lift, and there was Dr. Meffit to his left and the State Counsel to his right, with Orrin and Kara . . .
The Wise One and the shaman were only pale shadows, with the vague outlines of something else superimposed over them.
The fog cleared away completely and Stagg noted that he was now standing some twenty feet in midair. The Spontoonies seemed fairly at ease with the idea, while Dr. Meffit trembled, his tail bottling out and raising over his head.
Stagg tried his voice. “Doctor . . . remain calm, please.”
The doctor’s voice shook as he replied, “Easy for you to say, Inspector. I’m not quite comfortable with heights.”
“Something tells me that we wouldn’t fall even if we tried. Look down, Doctor. Do things seem odd to you?”
The skunk looked, and gave another start. “Yes, they do. We should be over the woods we were sitting in,” he said, “and now we’re over – Lunda Point . . . “
It was a different time of day and a different season, and the shape of the land had changed to what it was before the storm washed away the crumbled rock face of the point. “I’m not sure how he managed it,” Meffit said aloud to himself. “Some sort of illusion, a mass psychosis . . . “
“Who led you here, Doctor?” Stagg asked.
“Hmm? Oh, a young man I knew in France – medic, promising young chap. He died two days before the Armistice.” Meffit caught himself, and looked a bit less skeptical.
“Yes, Sir?” the tod replied. He and his sister had been conversing in low tones as they stood watching the scenery below their feet.
“Pay close attention, please,” Stagg said. “We may want to compare observations when this is over.” There was a commotion and two groups of furs emerged from the trees, one set tied up and prodded along by the other group who wielded a variety of weapons.
Kara pointed. “Look! There’s Warren!”
The others moved around, watching intently as the tableau below played itself out.
Whoever or Whatever was guiding them through the incident wanted them to see everything, and indeed nothing was held back.
Not even the young woman’s rape.
Lancaster was easily recognizable by the red anchor tattooed onto his depilated back.
The woman was then bundled into the ice box, shot and then buried in her lonely grave.
Days and night flew past, flickering like a strobe light to mark the passage of time. Figures occasionally moved across the landscape, and the foliage changed as seasons and weather came and went. Finally there were other figures, and digging, and the ice box was unearthed and its contents saw the light of day again.
There were several more strobing days and nights, then a storm and the suggestion – or shadow – or impression – of a vast paw reaching down and wiping the entire spit of land into the sea.
Fog drifted onto the scene and thickened . . .
Stagg sat back, blinking.
He and the others were back in the tent, the fire still smoldering. The pressure of the earth on his ruined right hoof told him that whatever he and the others had experienced, they had returned from it.
Kara looked ill.
Brush and the State Counsel looked angry, while Meffit looked subdued.
He himself felt – well, actually buoyant; he had seen his wife again.
And this time it wasn’t a nightmare, for she had smiled at him, and he knew she still loved him from beyond the grave.
The pain of separation was still there, and would always be, but for now there was some consolation.
He looked around, and started to rise out of his seat, paw groping for his cane.
De Bruce was sprawled on the ground, mouth hanging open and eyes rolled up in his head.
The Wise One was starting to come around, shaking her head groggily and gratefully accepting Kara’s assistance in getting to her feet. Meffit saw de Bruce and lunged from his seat to check on him.
“He’s only unconscious,” the mephit said after listening to the man’s heart. He shook him, and the coyote started to blink.
“Ummnnghk . . . oh, hello, Doctor . . . was I out long?” De Bruce asked after he was helped into a sitting position. He drew his knees up, stuck his muzzle between them and merely breathed for a few moments before lifting his head and asking, “Did you see what you needed to see? Miss Karoksdottir? Are you satisfied?”
The vixen shuddered and glanced at the State Counsel, who nodded. “I think we’ve all seen the same thing, Mr. de Bruce. We’ll be going now. As far as I’m concerned, Lancaster had it coming to him.” She and the State Counsel left the tent with the Wise One, who was looking none the worse for wear.
De Bruce watched them go, then looked up at Stagg and Brush. “Are you all well? As I said, it takes some effort.”
“Are yez okeh?” Brush asked. “Helluva thing to do . . . I’ve heard stories ‘bout goin’ too far.”
“Those stories are exactly right, Sergeant. But it was necessary that you be shown the truth.” He laboriously got to his feet. “I didn’t think it necessary, though, to show the young woman’s, er, violation. Please, accept my apologies on Their behalf.”
“So they watched, and only intervened to put Lancaster to death a quarter-century after the fact,” Stagg observed. “Why wait so long?”
“The truthful answer is ‘I don’t know,’ Inspector. Remember your Bible, after all – the ways are sometimes mysterious.”
A dip of the antlers showed that the buck conceded that point. “Indeed.”
"Ordinarily they never intervene directly." He glanced at the remaining furs in the tent as the fire died away. "Like I said, I was told as I was spiritwalking that Warren was directed here to confess and die."
"That's how you knew to come here," Meffit said. "Confess . . . but not to a Wise One."
De Bruce nodded. "Warren had his own god. We keep to what we're comfortable with, by and large, Doctor. You sense it yourself when you go to Temple, do you not?" He stretched, yawned. “But while he may not have been Catholic, isn’t it telling that he demanded to confess before the only priest who had been here during those times?”
Stagg raised a paw. "You raise some provocative and interesting points, sir - but that still doesn't explain how Lancaster died. If it were poison, one could hardly call it divine intervention."
De Bruce gave a slow smile. "There are times when we are told to do something." he said softly. "And there are ... consequences for disobedience."
"Should I accept that as your confession, then? Or an admission of conspiracy?"
"Without being warned that what I say could be used against me?" The coyote shook his head. "No. It’s merely a statement of fact, acting in my judicial capacity as a licensed and registered shaman. Which office, by the way, grants me diplomatic immunity."
A day later . . .
De Bruce again wandered into the jungles of South Island and seated himself, waiting.
Presently he sensed her presence again, and felt her sit against him. “It worked, I judge,” he said. “The balance has been maintained.”
“Until next time.”
“Of course.” He half-turned his head a grin touching his lips. “Is ‘perhaps later’ still - ?” he left the question dangling.
She stood up and he heard her walk away. At a rustling sound he turned to see the feline give him a coy grin as she shed and dropped her grass skirt to the forest floor.
He smiled, rose, and followed her.
“All in all, Inspector, a very interesting tale,” Father Merino said a few days later as he, Stagg, Meffit and Rabbi Steinmink sat in the rectory garden of Saint Anthony’s. The rabbi and the priest were playing their usual afternoon game of chess. “Some philosophers have suggested that prayer is a kind of magic, so on a certain level – “
“But if a shaman and a Wise One pray for such an outcome, Augustus,” the Rabbi asked, “is it murder?”
Merino smiled faintly. "If it is, Jacob, I might have something to answer for . . . "
An enquiringly raised eyebrow from Stagg. "Oh?"
"Yes," Merino nodded. "Another pirate raid. It . . . endangered St. Anthony's, and the furs within. I . . . well, I called down a curse on the pirates heads." An almost fey grin. "And it worked, too, you know that?"
“But we have no way of knowing whether your – curse, for lack of a better term – was truly effective,” Meffit pointed out.
"Well," Merino said, reflectively, "I must confess I'd like to think so, at any rate."
Stagg smiled faintly. “I don’t doubt it. Of course, another question might be whether they have the authority to carry out such an act, morally or otherwise? Are their actions mere wishes, or do they carry something more?”
Steinmink advanced a rook a few spaces. “It's an interesting question. I think a little light reading of the Talmud tonight may give some answers.”
“Another question: Is the action morally right?” Meffit asked.
Merino regarded the chess board, and moved a bishop. “I suppose, Doctor, that it all boils down to one central question, one that has bedeviled us for centuries . . .”
The bishop took the rook.
“What is justice?”