Lee A. Eide
Rosenthal Darius ran headlong toward the body. He pulled up three meters away. A rapid-fire series of blinks failed to change the identity of the victim. Eyes huge with horror, revulsion, and amazement, he tried to yell for help. A croak floated ineffectually through the stone corridor. After a whispered supplication to the gods for strength, Rosenthal found his voice and feet again. He ran through the hall yelling, "The king is dead. The king is dead. The king is dead..."
Barton M. Brighton, Chief Inspector of the Reliable Peacekeeping Company of Grandeur, was at the scene thirty minutes later. The seat of the imperial government of Ulangstias was here in Grandeur. Rising crime rates prompted the king to change the city's law enforcement system three years ago. The imperial government still hired its own palace guards and city watchmen but rape, theft, assault, and murder investigations were handled by private firms. Pay was based on arrests and convictions.
Inspector Brighton approached Seth Samson, the SOD (Scene Of Death) technician.
"Inspector," Samson said while nodding at Brighton.
He gazed down at the body.
"Good god, it really is the king," he murmured.
The two men studied the sight not two meters away. A black, gold and midnight-blue scaled snake, now dead itself, was wrapped around the monarch's body from head to toe. Chewing its way through various points in the skin, it had wound its way around the king's body in alternating layers. First layer under the skin, next on top of the skin, then back under the skin and so on. Serpent and human head lay side by side. Inspector Brighton turned to the SOD tech.
"Cause of death?"
Seth tried unsuccessfully to stifle his laughter while pointing at the serpent-enveloped body. "It's not official yet but I'd say the snake did it."
"I didn't ask what killed him; I asked what he died of."
"It'll take a few hours to get the two separated. I imagine the cause of death won't be determined until tomorrow morning at the earliest," Seth said.
Brighton shrugged his shoulders. "Guess it is not really that important. The first and best goal is to determine whose snake it was and why it was loose," said Brighton.
"Obviously a wizard is involved. This isn't a normal snake. It is deceiving because the thing is coiled around the body but I'd guess if it was stretched out we'd have a snake over a seventy-five meters long. That along with the way it chewed through the skin precludes it being any snake from this world."
"Seventy-five meters?" asked Brighton doubtfully.
"Oh yes. You see, if you look really closer you will see it has coiled itself around the body twice. Each strand of the death coat, if you will, consists of two widths of the animal's body."
Brighton snapped his fingers. "Serpatis Lexisa."
"What?" asked the technician.
"Serpantis Lexisa. That is an extraplanar serpent is summoned by a magic user for the sole purpose of killing what or whoever the summoner commands it to. After accomplishing that mission, its body dies while the spirit returns to the other dimension in search of raw material from which to mold another snake body for use by future magic users."
"Oh yes, I had forgotten you studied the magic arts for a time in your youth," said Seth.
"Dropped out of the magical arts program to study law enforcement." He shook his head. "And this is where I end up. Looking at dead bodies and trying to figure out who could have done something so atrocious."
"No shortage of suspects. The Magic Users Convention started last night. Two thousand wizards, mages, sorcerers and would-be magic users from around the world here in Grandeur for a week.!! Ye gods, there will be chaos and mischief every night until they leave."
"Oh my, this is going to be much worse than I thought," said Inspector Brighton. "However, since most magic users prefer to channel their powers in less violent pursuits unless involved in a cause or mission, we can eliminate most of the magic users from suspicion. My feeling is that whoever summoned this creature to kill the king did it at the request of someone else. Someone else who wanted the king dead must have hired a magic user to help them achieve their deadly goal. In that case, the wizard is only another weapon and we have to find out who the wielder of that weapon is."
Seth nodded, then turned to stare at the pile of bones and cold flesh that used to rule the country.
Brighton rested against the cold, gritty stone wall, his ragged breaths slowing slightly. He'd just scaled the eight-hundred-fifty-step staircase leading to the royal living quarters. Queen Regalia's royal chamber overlooked the capitol city from a perch that would make vultures dizzy. Outside the wind hurled heavy sheets of rain against the ancient, weary stone blocks of the fortress. Just ahead a puddle formed where the rain blew in through the round window. He sidestepped the puddle enroute to the queen's quarters.
Three strides from the room he heard, "I thought you'd died of a heart attack on the way up."
The room wasn't the sleeping quarters he'd expected but rather an antechamber. Instead of a bed and bureau the room was filled with books, tapestries and the sweet perfume of the queen. Against one wall stood a stone fireplace, the blaze battling with frosty winds swirling around the room. The queen stared out the window at the raging storm.
"That is quite a climb," he said.
"Firms up the legs, especially the calves and thighs," replied Queen Regalia. She turned to face him.
"I would imagine. Well, I know you are very upset and I have much work to do so I will get right to the point --"
"Wouldn't you like something to drink, Inspector?" she asked while advancing toward him.
"A glass of water would be fine," he replied.
"Nothing stronger? Ale or wine perhaps?"
Brighton's eyes had shifted their gaze steadily downward during her sentence. By the time perhaps issued from those regal, velvety lips, he was staring at the most fat-filled part of the queen's anatomy. Feeling like a criminal himself, Inspector Brighton snapped his gaze back up to the woman's face.
"I said, ale or wine, Inspector?"
"Water is fine, thank you."
After getting his water, she poured a goblet of red wine for herself.
"Are you celebrating or mourning?" he asked.
"A little of both, I suppose," she replied.
"But why mourn? You will inherit Edward's fortune. That should make you happy."
"I was living a life of luxury when Edward was alive. And I did not have to make any hard decisions about the kingdom. Edward did all that unpleasant, messy work, or found someone to do it for him. Now I must do all those dreadful things until, and if, I remarry. The old scoundrel would have probably died of natural causes in another five or six years anyway. For me to risk life imprisonment or execution for a life where I would have to actually work to maintain my life of luxury would be, well, absurd. Nice try, Inspector, the inheritance angle sounds good at first but if you think about it, you will see how ridiculous it is."
Brighton nodded. He cast a cursory glance at the rampaging rain while noting the explosions of thunder and giant's breath of wind flow. He sipped the water while trying not to be taken in by the queen's physical charms.
"Did not the king wake you when he left to tour the magic convention?"
"No. He did that a lot. Walk around in the middle of the night, I mean. The stress of ruling the kingdom got to him. When he couldn't sleep, Edward either drank or walked around the castle."
"Last night he went beyond the castle. His body was found in a hallway fifty meters from the Grandeur City Center," he said.
"I guess he feeling more stress than usual," she replied.
"Maybe he feared for his life," offered Brighton
"If he did then it was damn foolish to be walking around the corridors unescorted late at night," she said.
"True. Did he talk to you about anyone in particular whom he feared?"
"No, no he didn't. I think he feared failure more than other people."
For some reason, Inspector Brighton believed her. About everything.
"Thank you, Queen Regalia. If I think of any more questions or have any news about the case, I will get contact you."
She turned from the fire to face him.
"I would enjoy that, Inspector, I really would."
Brighton and his assistant, Delbert Dillygent, sat in the inspector's office at the Reliable Peacekeeping Company of Grandeur. Brighton had just returned from questioning Drullkeg at the Dragon's Snout Ale House, the ex-warrior's place of employment. Outside the storm raged on as raindrops exploded off Grandeur's cobblestone streets.
"We can put Drullkeg at the bottom of the list, Delbert."
"Why do you say that?"
"The man is certainly capable of murder but the manner in which the king was murdered is a bad fit for Drullkeg. If Drullkeg wanted the king killed, he would have done the deed himself with his bare hands, not hired a magic user to do the dirty work."
"Yes, I see your point," Delbert replied.
"By the way, where is our finely-tempered, ever-polite, always considerate boss?"
Delbert chuckled before saying, "Mr. Brownstone is out of the city on some sort of business."
"What of our pay rations?" asked Brighton.
"Well, there's bad news in that regard, Inspector."
"What do you mean?"
"Mr. Brownstone left a message on my desk. It says because of unforeseen difficulties, our pay will not be forthcoming until next week," said Delbert.
"Unforeseen difficulties, Mr. Dillygent?" said Brighton.
"Indeed sir. Those are the exact words."
"I see. That is most unfortunate. However, we have work to do and until proven otherwise, I will assume that our pay for this work will be coming to us next week like Mr. Brownstone says. Meanwhile, there is a royal murder case to be investigated. Now then, what have you found out so far?"
"Couldn't talk to Freddy 'Second' Fiddle," Dillygent said.
"Why not"? asked Brighton as he took off his soaked outer tunic.
"Out of the city. He's on holiday in the Tropical Forest Valley. Won't be back for five or six more days, according to the one neighbor. Sides, he just finished building that fancy stone mansion on top of the hill by the palace. He paid the builders so much money that I would imagine he's not got much left for paying off wizards to assassinate royalty."
Brighton nodded. "What about The Midnight Assassin? He may not be rich but his country's government is."
"He's on the list to be questioned," Delbert replied.
"Very good. Before you go, did you get a list of the attendees at the Magic Users Convention?"
"Right here," said Dillygent while handing a piece of parchment paper to Brighton.
"Notice any shady types when you were writing all the names down?" he asked.
"Bout half the list, to be honest with you," the assistant replied with a laugh.
"I mean unusually shady for a magic user."
"In that case, there was one name you might be interested in. Saruke the Mysterious."
Inspector Brighton's eyes grew noticeably larger and brighter. He said nothing. Just stared out the window at the rain exploding as it bombarded the ancient cobblestone streets.
"Sir? Did you hear me? I said Saruke the Mysterious."
He turned his now smiling face back toward Dillygent.
"Delbert, my friend, I believe I will go have a little chat with our magic using guest."
"You really think Saruke crossed the line this time?"
"Very possibly. Perhaps he is innocent but on the other hand, this may very well be the last conversation Saruke the Mysterious has as a free man. Is he staying at the Imperial Inn also?"
Inspector Brighton donned the outer tunic, still heavy with moisture but less so than before, and nearly ran to the door. He whirled to face Dillygent.
"Come along. We shall go to the inn together. There is a killer to be found!!"
The downpours had ended but the legion of dark clouds hovered ominously overhead. Though early afternoon, it looked like dusk. Inspector Brighton and his assistant split up just minutes ago. After following the desk clerk's directions, the inspector found Saruke's room. The wizard let him in. Brighton was in no mood for chit chat.
"King Edward Fiddle the Eighteenth was murdered last night by a snake summoned from another dimension --"
"A Serpatis Lexisa," offered Saruke the Mysterious.
"How did you know that?" asked Brighton.
"It's the only extraplanar serpent that will attack a man," said the gray- and black-robed wizard with an impatient, bored voice. Saruke reminded him of Calreesine, one of his instructors at the Magic Arts Academy several years ago. Thoroughly knowledgeable in the magical arts but unable to hide his impatience and intolerance of others who couldn't grasp the concepts as quickly and easily as he could..
"It is also one of the few spells that leaves marks on the summoner's body after the spell has been cast. Because the tiny dimension in which the serpent is imprisoned is composed solely of a blue powdery substance, the magic user, who must reach out to this other plane with both mind and hands, invariably gets this blue powdery substance all over their hands and arms when grabbing the snake. It works its way into the skin and leaves the skin blue for up to a month."
"Really? That is interesting. Is this first-hand knowledge or did you read it in a textbook somewhere?" Brighton asked.
"Both. Every Magic Arts graduate learns of it in school. As for actual experience, I was forced to use the spell on my last adventure," said Saruke while lighting a pipe decorated with bat and star designs.
"A rich nobleman from the Valley of Saints heard a story about a cave filled with precious metals in the middle of Widowmaker's Swamp. Too scared to brave the expedition himself, he hired a band of fools to look for the cave. I was part of the band of fools," said Saruke the Mysterious before puffing thoughtfully on the pipe.
"Why do you say that?" Brighton asked as he sat on the dirty, stained table by the room's only door.
"In exchange for a thousand gold pieces each, we risked life and sanity to look for a fictitious treasure trove. Once past Cypress Point, every step is an adventure in finding solid ground. Step in the wrong place, you're up to your neck or higher in mud or swamp water. Throw in the poisonous two-headed eels, giant flying spiders and the thousand or more viruses, most of them potentially life-threatening, that you could catch, the journey is one for fools."
"Why did you summon a Serpatis Lexisa?"
"Sheer desperation. The band of fools started six strong but was down to three after the second night. By the next nightfall, only two of us remained, myself and Knoph Waterson, a light but savvy warrior."
"How'd the others die?" asked Brighton.
Saruke waved away the question with a motion of his left hand.
"The swamp claimed them, one way or another. Details aren't important. The important thing is our party was down to two, meaning the odds of getting out of there alive were growing worse with each passing second. Knoph and I approached the spot of this supposed treasure trove. Twenty meters from the cave's entrance we see a human guard. He yells at us to stop but we had come too far and suffered too much to turn back that easily.
"I noticed a spider emblem on his shield. That meant the rumors of alliances between humans and the giant swamp spiders were true. There was a horn lying just behind the guard. Guessing it was used for signalling his spider friends, I whispered to Knoph that we had to take him out before he got to his horn. If we had to fight more than four or five of the spiders at once, we'd be dead. Knoph winked at me and started running as fast as he could through the swampy waters while preparing to fire his long bow.
"I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that the two fought. Knoph was getting the worst of the battle so I decided I had to kill the guard quickly before he reached the horn.
"Why kill the guard? You could have snuck around the two during the struggle and snapped up the horn," said Inspector Brighton.
Saruke glared at Brighton with black eyes the size of a lizard's
"The man had throwing daggers. I didn't want to risk dying from a knife in the back."
"What about the treasure? Was there any?" Brighton asked.
Saruke made a sound like a pig's snort.
"Only a treasure if you're a giant spider. Just drawings and paintings on the cave walls that were made a long time ago by the first giant spiders that ever lived, I suppose. Four lives lost and nearly two more and for what? A thousand gold pieces for me and a cave with spider drawings." Saruke shook his head while staring out at the gray day.
"So Knoph survived.?" Brighton asked.
The wizard nodded his head.
"Back to the spell, you obviously know how to perform it. That means you could do it again if you had to."
"Yes but I would only do it if I thought my life or the lives of my friends were in immediate danger. I would not summon a killer snake for mere money, Inspector. I do not lust after gold pieces that badly. I have killed and will probably kill again but only in the heat of battle with dangerous enemies."
"A killer with a moral code," Brighton asked with a little smile.
"That's right," Saruke said while peering right at him.
"I still need to establish your whereabouts this morning between two and three o'clock," he said.
"In my room looking at the stars, staring at the bats and drinking a mug of ale," answered Saruke the Mysterious.
"Staring at bats?" he asked.
"There were five bats flying around just outside my room. I've always been fascinated with them."
"I noticed the designs on your pipe. Can anyone verify your story?" asked Brighton.
"Unless the bats can speak, no," answered the magic user.
Brighton fell silent as he rubbed his chin and peered intently at Saruke. The wizard puffed away at his pipe, his eyes returning the inspector's gaze. Nothing was said for several timeless moments. Then the inspector hopped off the stained table and approached Saruke. "I cannot decide about you. You are so forthright and open about everything, something most killers are not. Still, you are the most likely suspect to date."
Brighton walked over to the round window, right hand slowly rubbing his chin while he peered at the grayness outside. He could smell the wet cobblestones just outside the inn. Suddenly he whirled around toward Saruke.
"Wait a minute, you said this spell was one of the few that left a mark on the magic user."
"Yes. The blue marks on the hands and wrists."
"Let me see yours," he demanded.
Saruke turned his palms up and pulled the wool fabric of his robe sleeves back. Patches of dark blue dotted both hands and part of the left wrist.
"But I told you this can last up to a month. I was in the Widowmaker's Swamp three weeks ago," said Saruke.
"Those blotches look damn fresh to me," he said.
"You're making a big mistake if you think I did it."
"I would be making a bigger mistake if I did not arrest you now. The city, probably most of the country, will be wanting answers very soon. When a king dies, people want to know who is responsible. I cannot risk losing the primary suspect in a case of this magnitude. I am sorry but I have to take you in."
Dillygent and Brighton were back in the inspector's office. Delbert's questioning of Nafarious Killian revealed the sometimes killer had a castle-rock solid alibi for the time of the murder. He was still a suspect because he could have hired a magic user to do the killing.
"Who else would want the king dead?" asked Brighton.
"Why are you asking me?" responded Dillygent."You just arrested Saruke the Mysterious. You've got your man."
Brighton shook his head.
"I think he may be guilty but I am far from convinced. He does not seem like a hired killer. And as I said before, the magic user who summoned the snake is only another weapon. We still have not determined who hired the wizard."
"Who else would want the king dead?" asked Dillygent.
"No one that I can think of at the moment but the truth will surface," said Brighton. "It is a question of how long it takes for that elusive creature to rise to the top. We must somehow speed up the process."
The two fell silent. Heavy, still moments passed painfully, like gallstones. Just then the door flew open. Brighton recognized the red-faced, sweat-drenched, raven-haired beauty straight off.
"Miss Visionnery, what in earth has put you in such a state?" he asked.
"I've just come from the city jail. I tried to convince them they have the wrong man locked up but they told me I had to speak to you."
"Why do you believe the wrong man has been arrested?" he asked her.
"Because the T.N. was accessed this morning just after the murder," said Iam A. Visionnery.
"T.N.?" asked a bewildered Dillygent.
"That would be the Teleportation Network, correct?" said Brighton while looking to Miss Visionerry for confirmation.
"Right. I was meditating this morning around four o'clock. I sent my thought waves out for a tour of the other dimensions when I saw this shape fly down the Northern Corridor of the network. By the color pattern and frequency of the light pulses, it appeared to be a frightened wizard."
"This T.N. is in another dimension?" asked Dillygent.
"Yes. In this other plane of existence bodies move much faster but times passes more slowly. To the person teleporting, it doesn't seem like they're moving that fast but when they step back into this dimension, barely any time has passed," explained Visionerry.
"I should have thought of that before," began Brighton."The city was not really sealed off because the Teleportation Network was operable. Still, this person, if it was wizard, could have been leaving the city because he was tired of the craziness at the convention --"
"Listen to yourself. 'Tired of the craziness'? We're speaking of magic users here, Inspector," Dillygent said.
"Point taken. Allr ight then, I admit we need to investigate this but we need to access the T.N. ourselves. Can you do it?" he has asked Miss Visionnery.
"No, I can only see its operation in my mind. To access it requires strong magic by a knowledgeable, experienced practitioner. Saruke, for instance," she said.
"Release the main suspect to help track down a long shot? Oh Mr. Brownstone would love that!!" said Brighton. After a moment's hesitation, he threw up his arms.
"This case has been unconventional from the beginning. Why stop now?"
"Miss Visionnery, you will come with me. Saruke and I will need your help in locating the T.N. As for you, Delbert, watch things round here. Explain to our boss, if he ever shows up, what is going on. And get an update on our pay rations."
Brighton and Visionnery were through the door in seconds.
Brighton's mind was still muddled from the surreal ride on the Teleportation Network. After they stepped through the fabric of reality, things got really weird. Now they were back on solid ground again.
"Should have dressed warmer," grumbled Saruke.
"We will not be here long," responded Inspector Brighton. "Keep moving and we will be fine. Miss Visionerry, can you get a fix on where this fleeing fugitive is?"
Hugging herself for warmth, the raven-haired beauty closed her eyes, eyebrows and facial expression evincing intense concentration.
"I see an inn bathed in luxury and wealth. Inside is a cavernous banquet hall with servants taking away plates and clearing off tables. A great feast has just ended.The wizard was there but must just left."
"I know the place.The Opulent Inn.You can see the rooftop right over there," said Saruke while pointing to the spot.
Fifteen chilly minutes later, the trio stood in the inn's lobby. A slight, worried-looking man behind the front desk said,"We're full. You'll have to go somewhere else."
"We do not seek lodging, good sir, but are here on official police business. I am Inspector Brighton and these are my...associates."
"Police? What city police force are you on?"
"Grandeur. Now then, I need to see a list of guests that have arrived since three o'clock this morning."
"Not many. Let me see here," he said while running a finger down a sheet of paper.
"Just three. A mother and her child checked in at five o'clock this morning," said the clerk."
"And the other?" Brighton asked.
"Flanders Spelling checked in at about four-thirty this morning."
Saruke snapped his fingers.
"He was at the convention last night," he exclaimed. "So that little bugger is involved. I never trusted that shifty-eyed, sneaky little rat."
"Where can we find this Flanders Spelling now?" asked Brighton.
"Down the hallway to your left," said the clerk. "Number Twelve."
"Thank you," said Brighton before turning to the other two. "All right, let's get on with it."
A short time later, Brighton rapped at the door to number twelve. A stocky, orange-haired man opened the door. "Flanders Spelling?" asked Brighton.
"Who wants to know?" he asked.
"Inspector Barton M. Brighton from the Reliable Peacekeeping Company of Grandeur. We are here to investigate a murder.I have to ask you a few questions."
Flanders tried to shut the ornate oak door but Brighton's right hand shot out and grabbed his wrist.
"I am afraid I must insist that you answer my questions, Mr. Spelling."
The stocky wizard stepped back and motioned them into the room. Before Brighton was two steps into the room, Flanders dropped onto the chair so hard that the inspector feared it would be a pile of splinters. It held up somehow. Flanders buried his face in his hands.
"He said it would work, that sonofabitch, and I believed him."
"Who said what would work?"
"For twenty thousand gold pieces, I convinced myself it would work," said Flanders between sobs.
"Twenty thousand gold pieces?"
Flanders pulled hands away from his face and nodded.
"By whom?" he asked.
"Mr. Brownstone? What is his first name?"
Spelling stared at him.
"You should know. He's your boss, for God's sake."
"My boss paid you twenty thousand gold pieces to kill the king?" asked Brighton incredulously.
"But why in the world would he do that?" asked Saruke.
"He called it a costly but essential investment in the future," began Flanders. "He thought if --"
Brighton broke in, "Brownstone thought if the Reliable Peacekeeping Company of Grandeur could solve a spectacular, terribly well-publicized crime like the murder of a king that our reputation would skyrocket and that there would enough additional business from the private sector to compensate for the money lost over the past several years. The contract with the Imperial Government was based on arrests and convictions in each district. In our district, crime rates have been so low because the criminals know how good we are so they stay away from our area.
We had become too good for our own good. Since there was no way to make more money off the government contract, Mr. Brownstone decided to hire a wizard to kill the king. Of course, there had to someone to take the fall for the real murderer, someone who had the ability to perform the spell, who was in the city at the time of the murder and most importantly of all, had proof on his very body that he was the killer."
Saruke smiled and waved his hand as if introduced by name.
"That's right," said Flanders. "Brownstone heard of your adventure in the Widowmaker's Swamp and knew you'd still have the blue marks on your hands and wrists. All I had to do was perform the same spell and pin the blame on Saruke."
"Once Brownstone discovered we'd used the Teleportation Network" began Delbert, "and taken Saruke out of jail, he figured the truth of his scheme would be revealed before long. 'Too ashamed to live', the note said. After entering the royal fortress under false pretenses, he reached the queen's quarters and leaped off the balcony. Terrible mess at the bottom."
"Terrible way to die," Brighton said.
"Yes, knowing on the long flight down that your life is about to come to an utterly degrading, painful end."
"I meant for the city," the inspector said. "With all the wizards about, Brownstone could have hired another one to summon the Serpantis Lexisa to kill him. Would have saved the city the expense of cleaning up the terrible mess outside the castle."
Lee A. Eide is a disgruntled-accountant-turned-postal-worker from Burnsville, Minnesota (by day, for now until novel sales take off). Publishing credits include:
The Darkness Below -- an epic horror/science fiction novel released by Denlinger's Publishers, Ltd. (http://www.thebookden.com); available formats are POD softcover, eBook, and Rocket eBook.
Dead Man's Plan -- suspense/psychic/mystery novel released by Denlinger's Publishers, Ltd.; currently an eBook and will be a POD softcover and Rocket eBook sometime in 2001.
Agent of Darkness -- horror novel to be released by Denlinger's later this year in the same formats as the other two novels.
He's Paid His Dues -- feature-length article in REFEREE magazine's August 1997 edition; paid $175.
***One Body -- daily meditation in the May/June 2000 edition of THE UPPER ROOM, a Christian daily devotional guide. Paid $25.
My current project is Intersection With Eternity, the sequel to The Darkness Below, and also a screenplay-adaptation of The Darkness Below.
Visit Lee A. Eide's web site