Disclaimer: Not a lot. A few rude words. Maybe not for the very squeamish. The main character is lesbian, but since she's the only woman in the story there is very limited ALT potential.
THE GRAVE ROBBER
By Jane Fletcher
There couldn't be many people who liked Jared. Rabid dogs have more charm - even after they've been dead and decomposing for a few months. I wouldn't be surprised to learn his own mother had mixed feelings about him. However, you didn't hear much said in public, on account of Jared having even more money than nasty habits. Not that he attempted to buy friends. He wasn't that naïve and it wasn't his style.
What he did buy was the services of a dozen men who looked as if they were capable of ripping your arms off and having trouble remembering why they shouldn't. All the more worrying, since they looked to be the sort of fighters who don't like using bows and arrows because they can't even remember which part to hold onto and which part to let go of. The sight of them was able to inspire an impressive theatrical performance from the most wooden of actors. Anyone could give the impression that they thought Jared was a very nice man. I should know. I was currently doing it myself.
I even considered doing the reciprocal act of 'and I'm a sweet little girl', except I had a good idea what Jared would do with sweet little girls and didn't want my guess confirmed, so settled for an act of 'competent yet respectful equal'.
I leaned forward to give an air of sincerity while forcing my face into a regretful smile. "I'm sure it is an interesting proposition, but I don't work for hire."
Nobody in the room moved a muscle, but they did it in such a way as to suggest that pretending I hadn't spoken was the only alternative to doing something nasty with large clubs. I thought I froze as well, but to my surprise, my voice kept on going. "On the other hand it pays to be flexible. If you have some specific requirement... it could be mutually beneficial... as a favour..." I was babbling, which is a good time to let other people do the talking. I shifted back in the chair. "Why don't you tell me more about it?"
Jared belonged to the 'make them wait' school of intimidation; although the effect was marred by his own lack of patience. He fidgeted with his clothing. Maybe, by drawing attention to it, he hoped to impress me with his wealth. One button off his jacket would have paid for my own farmboy-down-on-his-luck attire several times over. However, I was mainly left stunned by Jared's bad taste. The candlelight rippled over a nauseating display of clashing colours. At last he turned his head and looked straight at me.
"The stories say you're a pretty good thief." His voice was very high, probably a result of being kicked in the balls too many times during his youth. I'd imagine it was the sort of thing a lot of people would have wanted to do.
Not fully trusting my own voice, I gave a modest shrug in reply.
"This job... it shouldn't be too much of a challenge - if the stories are true. Though some of the songs I've heard about you... Corrine, the Queen of Magpies, and all that crap. But I guess you aren't responsible for the drivel the bards make up."
This time my shrug was apologetic.
Jared went on, "I mean, if you'd stolen half the things they say, you'd have more money than me. But this job, it's easy... even for a woman... no matter how lousy you are as a thief." He made a couple of squeaks that might have been a laugh. I didn't know if I was supposed to join in. It was obvious he was trying to bait me, but less clear if there was a reason for it, other than habitual nastiness. "It isn't even stealing, I was the one stolen from. I want you to get my property back - if you've got the guts to try."
Jared tried to deliver the last words as a jeering challenge, but the undertones weren't convincing. Then I noticed the tick by his eye and the tension in his hands. The realisation there was someone who frightened even Jared startled me enough to ask, "So who has this property at the moment?"
Nobody laughed. I felt it wisest to follow the example, but it was an effort. I spent a few seconds examining my hands while I composed myself. "Um... are you talking metaphorically?"
Several of the hired heavies shifted ominously. Maybe they thought I was insulting their employer, and that 'metaphorically' was another word for 'bullshit'.
Jared understood what I meant, though he wasn't any better pleased. "It's a genuine ghost. The spirit of a slag who's dead. IT ISN'T A FUCKING JOKE!"
"I'm sorry. I just wanted clarification, not to give the impression I wasn't taking you seriously." Although, of course, I wasn't. Despite Jared raising his voice, I was suddenly feeling a whole lot happier. In my mind, he had just sunk to the level of gullible fool, and that's a sort of person I'm always quite happy to deal with - on a professional basis. I'm a little bit more fussy about my friends. "So, can you tell me about this property of yours? Such as, what is it?"
Jared glared at me. "You don't need to know that."
"Then how will I know that I'm bringing the correct item back to you?"
"It's in a box."
"You can describe this box?"
"I'll make sure you know how to get the right one."
"You know roughly where it is?"
"It's in a crypt." Jared's voice had gone through 'high' and reached the level of 'squeaky'.
I was going to have to phrase my questions carefully. An acquaintance had told me Jared didn't have a sense of humour, and had shown me the scars to prove it. "Oh yes, that would be where the ghost comes in?"
"Yes." Jared's shoulders twitched in a repressed shudder.
"And this ghost was the one that stole your property?"
"Don't be stupid. Ghosts pass through solid objects. How could it pick anything up?"
I nodded sagely, while fighting to keep my face deadpan. "Yes... you're right... I wasn't thinking." I paused thoughtfully. "So how did the box end up in the crypt?"
"You don't need to know that." Jared snapped back.
"I just thought there might be some useful informa..."
"I said you don't need to know."
"Okay. Fair enough. Um... Is there anything that I do need to know?"
"You bring the box to me and there's fifty gold crowns in it for you. Titch and Ho-Jo will take you to the graveyard... show you where the entrance to the crypt is... make sure you don't try doing a runner."
"I wouldn't do that." I protested. Certainly not with fifty gold crowns at stake and, if I wanted to escape, I was certain it would require more than two gentlemen called Titch and Ho-Jo to stop me performing my famous disappearing act.
Jared lurched out of his chair and came to stand over me. I fought to keep my face impassive, although personal hygiene was obviously not a major preoccupation of his. "Just one other thing, and this is the really important bit. When you find this box, you don't look inside." Jared stabbed a finger at me to emphasise his words. "Understand that. What's in the box is no concern of yours. You don't want to open it."
I felt Jared showed an amazing lack of insight into the nature of human curiosity, as well as a misplaced faith in his powers to intimidate. The box's contents had just become of great interest to me.
The graveyard was spread across a hillside overlooking the town. We stopped in the shelter of a small clump of fir trees, a stone's throw from the gate. The field of white stones looked serene in the warm sunlight. A funeral was in progress. Either the deceased had been very popular, or from a very large family, or someone had spread rumours that they would be giving away money at the wake afterwards. Over one hundred people were milling around.
There was still no real reason why we shouldn't proceed straight to the crypt. How were the mourners to know that I wasn't a member of the ghost's family, paying my respects? Then I glanced down at my clothing. Jared hadn't mentioned the social standing of the crypt's owners, but unless they were a clan of street beggars, I was going to have trouble passing it off. Maybe I could grab a cloth and pretend I was there to do the cleaning?
I chewed my lip while considering things. Actually, I wanted more information about whole situation. Waiting for the funeral to end would give me the chance to question Jared's henchmen. The problem was, from the sideways looks that Ho-Jo had been giving me, I had a pretty strong suspicion of the topic he wanted to talk about.
I decided to give it a try - I might be wrong. "We'll wait until the funeral is over. I don't want to attract attention."
I found shady spot, with a soft dry layer of old pine needles, and sat down. Titch and Ho-Jo joined me immediately. From their relieved expressions, I got the feeling that they were in no hurry to meet the ghost. This impression was strengthened when Titch fumbled out a hip-flask and took a hasty and rather generous swig from it. He then pulled a faintly sheepish grimace and passed the flask around.
Ho-Jo took quick gulp, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then turned to me and asked, "Corrine, is it true what the songs say about you? That you... you know... go with other women."
I couldn't restrain the sigh. Oh, what a surprise - I'd been right! And it always amazes me that the words never vary. If Ho-Jo could read, I'd suspect him of having a script hidden up his sleeve. Maybe someone, somewhere, schools morons in the words, until they can repeat them from memory. I've been through the conversation so many times I could have recited Ho-Jo's lines for him.
Ho-Jo waited for me earnestly, though there was no reason why. We both knew he had his next question ready, pretty much regardless of what I said. I took a swig from the flask before replying, going for simple honesty. "Yes."
"So, you've never... um... been with a real man?"
I could even have put the 'um' in the correct spot. I was about to select one of my standard responses, although none of them had better than one in ten chance of killing the conversation, when Titch cut in.
"Ho-Jo, you wanker!"
I stared at Titch in amazement. It was one reply I had never tried, but judging from Ho-Jo's face, it might well work. And Titch hadn't finished. "So what are you going to offer? Tell her you've got a big hard dick?"
Ho-Jo actually blushed, although bragging about his anatomy wasn't due in the script for another eight lines. "Well... you know... I just thought..."
Titch snorted in contempt. "If you'd thought, you'd have worked out you were setting yourself up as a poor second to a cucumber."
Amazement was left standing in the dust at the rear. I realised my jaw was sagging open and shut it. Titch was somebody you would never have suspected of original thought - or any other sort of cognitive practice. He looked like he walked though brick walls as a hobby. His nose had been broken a few times but you just knew the bricks had come off worse. As you might guess, Titch was one of the largest men I've ever seen. There was probably a similar witty origin to Ho-Jo's name that I hadn't bothered to find out.
The three of us were outstripping the gravestones by way of silence. I was still utterly lost for words. Ho-Jo was staring at his own groin, and appeared (although one couldn't be certain) to be visualising cucumbers. Then Titch gave a 'little boy' grin at me and said, "My big sister, Nita, she's like you. She likes women. She talks to me about it."
I nodded slowly. "Yes." The frequency of my nodding increased. "Right." There wasn't much else you could say.
Titch's grin broadened. "When this is over I'll take you to met Nita. The pair of you can... you know..."
Regrettably, I did know. Nita had done a stalwart job in educating her brother, but had obviously not yet got as far as explaining that women like her and me might have slightly more elaborate specifications for a lover than merely 'female'. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ho-Jo lift his head. You could tell he had picked up on the implications and was reviewing his scripts, searching for the one ending with, 'Can I watch?'
However, I wanted information, and there was no harm letting them both think they had a reason to be my friend. Accordingly, I gave Titch the sort of smile you give a prospective brother-in-law, and Ho-Jo the sort of smile you give a prospective audience, and gestured in the general direction of the graveyard. "So what's the story behind this ghost thing?"
Ho-Jo was keen to move to a topic of conversation that was unlikely to involve cucumbers. "It's Rosalyn, the boss's ex-wife."
"Ex? She left him?" I queried.
"And now she's a ghost?"
Titch joined in. "Yes. She never wanted to marry the boss."
I had no trouble believing that. "Why did she?"
"She didn't get no say in it."
Ho-Jo provided a fuller explanation. It was a sad fact that he was the brighter of the two. "Rosalyn came from one of the old families. Filthy rich. She wouldn't have looked in the boss's direction, even to spit, but he was fixed on her. So he kidnapped Rosalyn's brother - heir to the house. The boss said he'd cut the boy's balls off if she didn't marry him. There was a lot of to-and-fro, but in the end the family gave in, 'cause they were desperate to get the brat back intact. Once they were married, the boss was part of the family, so they weren't going to set the law on him. Rosalyn did it for her brother's sake, but after a month she went and hung herself. The boss was heartbroken. He was pig-sick for weeks."
Jared, heartbroken, took a lot of imagining. Unfortunately, the image of Jared, pig-sick, was all too easy to conjure up. To distract myself I asked, "Do you know what's in the box? Or how it came to get to the crypt?"
Ho-Jo shook his head. "Don't know what's in it. Nobody does. A keepsake of Rosalyn, I guess. But getting here - that was a young man, Rosalyn's childhood sweetheart or something. He stole the box from Jared and disappeared. The boss spent months tracking him down to find out where the box was. When we caught him, the sweetheart said the contents belonged to Rosalyn so he'd taken them back to her - where she'd been put, in the family crypt. That unnerved the boss a bit; he's always been a bit shaky about ghosts and things. So he sent Snorkel to pick up the box."
Titch interrupted, his expression even blanker than normal from remembered disbelief. "I couldn't get over Snorkel. I've worked with him for years. Nothing scared him, but when he came back from the crypt... he wouldn't meet our eyes. He was white; shaking. He couldn't get the words out to describe what he'd seen, just mumbled about the ghost. He'd been the boss's man for years, but he wouldn't go back to working for him. He left town a couple of days after and hasn't come back."
"And is that the end of the story?" I asked.
Ho-Jo shook his head. "The boss don't give up that easy. He threatened a cleric into exorcising the crypt and getting the box."
"He risked upsetting one of the temples?" Jared must have been desperate.
"Nah. We picked up the cleric selling fake relics in the market. He'd been thrown out of his order for helping himself to the temple silverware. But Jared reckoned he'd still know the right words to say to the ghost."
"How did the cleric get on?"
"No idea. Nobody ever saw the man again."
I leaned back and stared at the tree-tops. The story was a bit more involved than I'd expected, and I didn't like the way it was stacking up.
Titch tapped my knee to get my attention. "The third time, the boss sent two cheap thieves who had been skimming on their cut to him. He said either they got the box or he'd have the boys beat crap out of them. They went into the crypt..."
Ho-Jo cut in. "I don't think they did. I was with Lenny, waiting for them outside, and they weren't in long enough. I reckon they went just past the inner door, counted to ten, then came out screaming."
"They described the ghost." Titch persisted.
"Except they couldn't agree about what colour it was."
I didn't need to hear any more. Despite the complicated account, I was able to pull a very simple story out of it. I waved goodbye to the fifty gold crowns.
Over in the graveyard, the funeral was still going on. I don't know what god the deceased had worshipped, but its priests certainly wore unusual headgear. The ceremony had reached the sing-along stage and looked as if it might have another hour to go.
I announced my intention of taking a short nap. Ho-Jo looked at me, wet his lips, drew a breath about to speak, then looked at Titch and said nothing. I thought that maybe, when this was over, I should go and see Nita. I felt, at the very least, I owed her a drink.
A sprinkling of wild flowers lined the paths between the graves, their colours bright against the white marble. The sun was dropping towards the hilltops behind us, the soft light added to the aura of peace. Birdsong and the splashing of water were the only sounds - well that and the crunch of gravel under Titch and Ho-Jo's feet as they shuffled nervously. The boys weren't happy.
We stood in front of the mausoleum raised over Rosalyn's family crypt. The statue of a woman with fountains of tears squirting from her eyes was a bit questionable, but the rest of the exterior spoke of the family's refined good taste, money and sophistication. It wasn't surprising that one of its members would rather dangle by her neck than remain married to Jared.
Despite the pleasant surroundings, I didn't want to waste more time than necessary on the pointless charade. I hopped up the flight of three steps to the door. It was locked. I was about to reach for my lock-pick, when Ho-Jo sidled up behind me.
"I've got a key." His voice was nearly as high as Jared's. His face was so white it was just as well everyone else had left the graveyard - he'd have been mistaken for one of the walking dead.
Ho-Jo shoved the key at me and retreated hastily to the security of Titch's side. I stared at the brass object lying in my hand, feeling vaguely insulted. They could have pretended that the job required the talents of a thief. But I had more to worry about than wounded professional pride. I unlocked the door and slipped through.
Immediately inside, was a small anteroom, with archways left and right. It made no difference which I took, since they both opened onto the main hall of the mausoleum. I waited in one of the entrances while my eyes adjusted to the dim light from the row of slits under the eaves.
Soon, I was able to pick out the details. It was a large chamber, dug into the hillside at the rear. There was space to lay a dozen coffins end to end, which might have been forward planning by the mausoleum's architect - wealthy families can be prone to runs of bad luck when there's a will in dispute. The style was austere, but everything was made from the finest materials, just so visitors would know the absence of ornamentation was due to decorum, not lack of money. On the back wall was another doorway. This would be the entrance to the crypt.
I paced the length of the room and wondered what to do. I was being set up, and I don't mind admitting I was worried, although not by the talk of ghosts. I've spent a large part of my working life walking around on my own, at night, in places with blood-soaked histories. If ghosts existed, I'd have run into one long before now. You don't need to be frightened of the dead. It's the live bastards you have to watch out for.
It was all pretty obvious to me. Rosalyn would never have owned anything that wasn't worth a fortune. She probably had solid gold toothpicks with diamond tips. Jared kept hold of something he'd got from her, and you can bet it was more than just her toothpicks. The sweetheart put the box in the crypt. Jared was too superstitious to get it himself so he sent his most trusted man. But Snorkel double-crossed Jared and swiped the goodies. He concocted the tale of the ghost, spent a few days acting odd to back it up, and then scarpered before Jared got over his fright enough to become suspicious.
It was irrelevant whether any of the others had got as far as the crypt. With any sense, they'd have seen the danger in taking the empty box to Jared. By now, he must have worked out that he'd been duped. Jared's reputation and ego couldn't take the knock - especially since Snorkel had got away with it. Jared needed someone to blame. Whoever delivered the empty box would be accused of stealing the contents and accusing a known thief would make it more convincing. For the sake of publicity, Jared would use the full extent of his unpleasant imagination. I was very keen that the scapegoat would not be me.
I paced back up the room. The walls were of polished marble. However, there was a carved inscription that provided all the finger-holds necessary. There aren't many walls I can't climb. I try not to demonstrate my human-fly act during daylight, unless absolutely unavoidable, since I don't want gossip getting to the aristocracy that they ought to lock their skylights, but I didn't think there was much chance of the crypt's residents telling on me. I reached the high windows and peered out.
Titch and Ho-Jo had retreated slightly and were anxiously attempting to look in all directions simultaneously. I was certain they wouldn't try to rescue me from the crypt if I didn't come out. I was also certain that they weren't going to run away and leave the door unguarded. Even with the delay caused by the funeral, night was still a couple of hours away. It was tempting to wait and see how long fear of their boss overshadowed their fear of ghosts, once dark arrived, but Jared would undoubtedly send someone to check up on us well before their nerve broke.
I jumped down and looked around the main hall. My aim was to follow the example of Snorkel and the cleric and get out of town quickly. I reckoned that, after another hour of standing outside, it wouldn't be too hard to talk Titch and Ho-Jo into going somewhere else.
My eyes fixed on the door to the crypt. It would a lot easier if there was a back door out. Also, although good taste is all very well, it was a decidedly boring room. There was a wait ahead of me and nothing to occupy my mind. Even if I couldn't find a way out, it might be interesting to see Rosalyn's coffin.
There was a lantern and tinderbox on a shelf inside the door to the crypt. Once lit, the lantern revealed a long flight of steps leading down still deeper into the hillside. The stairway was wide enough to take a party of pallbearers and a king-size coffin. The air coming out was cold and smelt of damp and decay. The passage walls had been carved smooth, but were now adorned with trails of matted spider's web and dust. Presumably, this is the correct fashion for entrances to crypts, since Rosalyn's family could easily afford the services of a janitor to clean it down once in a while.
At the bottom of the stairs, the way opened out into a long vaulted gallery. On either side were niches, each holding a stone coffin and decorated with an effigy of the deceased. I'd lay money that these were highly flattering. No family could be that consistently handsome and athletic. They were the patriarchs of the family and other revered members. Rosalyn would not be there. She was a woman. She had committed suicide. And, by far the worst of all, she had married beneath herself. She may have done it so that the heir might one day have heirs of his own, but it wouldn't get her a better spot in the crypt. I set off down the hall, searching for a likely, out-of-the-way site for disgraced family members.
Halfway down the gallery were archways on either side, giving access to secondary chambers. The ceilings of these rooms were lower and without ornamentation. Rather than individual niches, the coffins lay on shelves running the length of the walls. There were no effigies, flattering or otherwise. This was clearly where the less exalted corpses went. A faint breeze blew from the right - it might even take me to my hoped for exit.
I entered a corridor, too long for the lantern light to reach the far end. Several small hexagonal rooms lead off, holding the coffins of children, women, a few favoured servants and a couple of dogs. My footsteps echoed back out of the darkness as I passed from one to the next.
The cold breeze repeatedly tickled the back of my neck. Eventually I reached the very end of the corridor and the source of the draft. It was an air vent, drilled through rock to the surface, 20 yards above my head. The sides were chipped and rough. I could have climbed it easily, if it hadn't been 6 inches in diameter. Hope of a back door always had been a long shot.
One last archway opened off the corridor. I could immediately see it was different to the others. The walls had been chiselled flat but not polished. The floor was uneven. The roof was so low a tall man would have to duck. From what I could see of the tomb beyond, it had all the elegance of a shop cellar. It looked like a very good bet for Rosalyn's final resting place.
I walked the short distance to where the chamber opened out and came to a sharp halt, unable to keep the grimace from my face. The smell of decay had been getting stronger as I progressed through the crypt. Here it was overpowering. It seemed that I had found the source. The coffins should all have been lead-lined and sealed, but one of these cheap models could not be properly air-tight. As I stood there, the light from the lantern wavered, fading to nothing before flaring up again. The combination of the smell of death and the unexpected gloom jolted me. The back of my neck tingled. I had the nasty sense that I wasn't alone. Suddenly I desperately didn't want to be there. In a flare of panic I backed away, and then stopped.
I don't believe in ghosts, and I can't afford to be frightened of the dark. I shook my head, angry at myself. If it had just been the smell I would simply have walked away. I didn't need to find an empty box. But I'd let myself be spooked. If I gave in to it, keeping my nerve the next time would be harder. I'd have liked to take a few deep breaths to steady myself, but with the stench of putrefying remains it wasn't a good idea.
I advanced resolutely to the centre of the room, holding the lantern high. These coffins didn't even get a shelf to sit on. They didn't merit a plaque either. Still, it was easy to spot Rosalyn's coffin. As a new arrival, it was relatively free of dust. The real clue, however, was the small wooden casket on the ground beside it.
Before touching the box I forced myself to examine it calmly, to see if I could learn anything. The lid was closed, but it was no surprise to see that the catch was sprung open. A flattened scroll of paper stuck out from underneath. I placed the lantern on top of the coffin and picked up the box. As I did so, something shifted inside - something light. There was no chance of gold bars, but it wasn't completely empty.
A quick check of the scroll showed it was a prayer for banishing evil spirits. Evidently, the corrupt cleric had got this far, so it was doubly certain that whatever was left in the box wasn't worth taking. The onset of curiosity washed away my last trace of nerves. I turned the box around to get the best light from the lantern, and then lifted the lid. I really wish that I hadn't. My lunch and I were destined to part company.
*******Titch and Ho-Jo both severely compromised their tough image when I burst out through the doors and stumbled down the steps. Titch made a sound like a mouse with a hernia. Ho-Jo acquired a suspicious damp patch on his clothing. I ended up on my knees in the gravel. But, after a couple of minutes, they got the idea that nothing else was going to emerge from the mausoleum and their feet shuffled into my field of view.
Ho-Jo mustered the courage to ask, "Do you have the box, Corrine?"
What I'd seen might give me nightmares, but the memory certainly helped my act of abject terror. My hands were shaking and I knew my face was bloodless. I was still heaving, although my stomach was now empty. I let my head fall back so I was looking more or less in their direction. The expression of horror on my face must have had an affect since they both took a step back, leaving me free to spend a bit longer gulping in clean air.
"The box... do you have it?" Ho-Jo repeated.
I didn't bother replying. I reckoned they would eventually realise they couldn't see the box and work out the answer for themselves.
Titch cleared his throat. "The boss said you had to get the box."
I managed to focus on his face, thought better of it, and closed my eyes. Jared would have given them instructions on what to do I failed. I had no wish to find out what the instructions were. Jared's contingency plans were monotonous in their reliance on broken limbs. However, as I'd hoped, they were both sufficiently frightened that talking them into leaving the graveyard immediately shouldn't prove too challenging.
"The ghost... Rosalyn she... It was... was...." I gasped.
"You saw the ghost?"
I nodded. Then opened my eyes and stared at him. "She's given me a m-m-message... for Jared. She wants to keep the b-b-box. If he sends anyone else she's going to... come after him. And she said... she..." I shuddered to a stop.
"What's the message?"
"I have to tell Jared in person. She knows all about him. As proof it's her... she described this scar..." I gestured vaguely. The scar seemed a safe bet. It would be too unjust if Jared hadn't acquired a few over the years.
I hoped it would be enough to convince Titch and Ho-Jo into taking me to him. The trick was not to sound as if I was trying to talk them into something. Overplaying the scene would be dangerous. The pair might jointly have the intellectual prowess of a turnip, but they wouldn't have survived in their line of work without a suspicious nature.
To my relief, after a long silence, Ho-Jo said, "The boss ought to hear this."
Two hands grabbed me under my armpits and hauled me to my feet. In fact a little beyond that point. I didn't mind if my shoes weren't making full contact with the ground. My legs were quite happy not to support me.
By the time we reached town, the streets were packed with evening traffic as the markets closed down for the night. Not wanting to attract attention, my two minders loosened their grip on me. The press of people also created a problem in walking three abreast. They still stuck close. Ho-Jo went in the lead, while Titch walked behind with his hand on my shoulder. However, I was ready to take my chance when it came.
We entered the main approach to the market. The crowds were in full flow. Carts fought their way up the road. At one point was a bottleneck, where a cargo of beer barrels was being unloaded. A cart laden with apples was trying to negotiate the gap. To the accompaniment of swearing from all around, the driver urged his horses on, completely blocking the road. While we shuffled along behind the tailgate I evaluated the possibilities, especially the entrance to a side alley, a few yards ahead. This was going to be my best opportunity to escape.
I dived forward, wrenching my arm free of Titch's grasp, and rolled under the cart. Ho-Jo reacted immediately, shouting and leaping onto the apple cart, over the load, and down on the road ahead. Titch dropped back to guard the other side. But, as I hoped, they were expecting me to emerge from beneath the beer wagon. What I did was hang on until the apple cart was level with the alley and make my escape that way.
I pelted down the passageway. I estimated I had only a few seconds' lead. Hopefully, it would be enough. I darted around another corner into a dead-end, with blank stone walls on either side, two stories high. It didn't look it, but for any cat-burglar it was twenty feet of the most climbable wall you could wish for. I flew up it.
I'd just dived over the low parapet at the top when Titch and Ho-Jo appeared below. They took one look at the empty passage and then ran on. The pounding of their footsteps faded. I rolled onto my back and looked up at the evening sky. With any luck, Titch and Ho-Jo would make a thorough search before going to tell Jared they'd lost me. It would give me time to get across the rooftops, collect my things from the tavern, and slip out of town in the dark. Snorkel had the right idea - in fact, two right ideas, both the ghost and going.
I sat up and looked around, wishing there was something to drink. I wouldn't have turned down rainwater in a gutter. The taste of vomit was still bitter in my mouth. My lips twisted in a grimace, remembering the cause.
Sick. Sick didn't begin to describe Jared. The contents of the box weren't his, and never had been.
Female body parts.
Mutilated female body parts.
The remains were now too mummified to be totally certain when the damage had been done. Had the injuries been inflicted on a living wife, who had been too proud to hide her contempt? Or performed as revenge on a dead one who had wrecked his plans? Either way, it left Jared as evil, and all the more so for wanting to keep the remains as a trophy. For Rosalyn's sake, I hoped it was the second option, but didn't hold much hope of it. It would explain why she killed herself, but it had been the wrong thing to do. She should have killed Jared.
It went a little way to soothe my faith in the human race that neither Snorkel nor the disgraced cleric had thought Jared should reclaim his memento of barbarism. Even a hired thug and a swindler wouldn't stoop to his level. Nor would I - a thief.
The sound of footsteps returned. I ducked down again and peered through the small hole over a downspout. Titch and Ho-Jo stopped at the junction with the dead-end.
Ho-Jo shook his head. "I'm sure I saw her duck in here." His voice was amplified by echoes off the walls. "She can't have just vanished."
Titch took a few steps forward then stopped sharply and retreated. "Perhaps she did. You don't think the ghost got her, do you?"
"The... nah... it's..." Ho-Jo was as incisive as ever.
Titch went on. "It's just... she was supposed to take a message to the boss, but she run off. Perhaps the ghost got her for not doing what she should've."
Ho-Jo flexed his shoulders to hide a shudder. "Well... I don't know... we'll make a last search. I might have been mistaken." He looked up and down the alley. "She might have gone into Kelly's yard. We'll check there." The pair jogged away.
It was time for me to go. I got to my feet, but paused to look down at where the two men had stood. I thought about the things we fear. We tell stories about ghosts and monsters and devils. We imagine foul, inhuman fiends on the other side of existence. We invent things that don't exist as a cover, because it feels safer than the truth.
For real horror you need to look inside some of the people around you - people like Jared.
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