Ashes

By Paul R Green

Orland Clay hawked and spat out a blackened gob of saliva. Bent double with hands on knees he watched wearily as the spitball hit the street, and slowly oozed down the soot-stained cobblestone leaving a slick silvery trail like a deformed slug.
The crack of splintering timber brought the young guard’s head up in time to see the final death throes of the burning building. The main roof beam rent in two, each part crashing through what was left of the first floor and stirring a cloud of glowing embers to dance and swirl like fireflies in the night sky. The searing wave of heat and debris roiling out from the conflagration forced the young guard to turn away and cough up another soot-blackened gob.
“You alright there, lad?” A meaty hand slapped him on the back, startling Clay for a second. The deep, mellifluous voice belonged to Clay’s sergeant and mentor, Churt DePard. Clay pulled in a deep breath, the hot air tasting of burnt wood and, rather disturbingly, roast pork as he inhaled and straightened to answer his superior.
“Just getting my breath, Sarge.”
“We’ve stopped it spreading at least. Get some water in you then come find me, lad. I want your knowledge on this one.” The big man put a fatherly hand on Clay’s shoulder before striding away to bellow orders at the townsfolk who had stopped passing buckets to gawk at the building’s final collapse.
Clay watched for a moment, wondering what knowledge he could possibly possess that the veteran sergeant didn’t.

***

The fire had burnt out, reducing the warehouse to a smouldering ruin of smoking ash and charred, stunted beams that to Clay’s mind looked like a giant, twisted hand clawing at the grey winter sky. Scattered amidst the wreckage, though the bulk of them were near what should have been the exits, lay a number of burnt bodies; most seared to the bone, and none of them promising any means of identification. A disturbing number of the them were too small to be adults. Clay looked at his ash-caked boots and tried not to think too hard as to just what that ash consisted of. He’d been stood for a while now, waiting for his mentor to speak; knowing better than to interrupt him while thinking. At least his feet were warm, he thought, thanking the gods the cobbles had retained some heat from the blaze.
“I’ve seen enough. Let’s go.” Clay was startled from his thoughts and forced to jog after his
sergeant as he strode away from the smoking remains.
“Where are we going? What did you see?”
“You’ve seen what I have. Tell me.”
Clay had half expected this, the gruff sergeant had for some reason taken the young guard under his wing; occasionally drawing him into investigations where other watch members would either not see the bigger picture or took the easy option and ignored it. Along the way DePard would challenge Clay, forcing him to think about his reasoning as well as his actions; teaching him how to be more than just a fight-breaker and a turn-key. For his part, Clay, quite liked the special attention and insight that his mentor was providing, though he could do without the occasional jokes made at his expense by his other more traditional colleagues.
“The fire was obviously deliberate.”
“Obviously?”
Clay smiled. This was all part of the game; he had to explain his reasoning.
“Yes; the warehouse was clearly being used as a doss house; with all the refugees arriving since Kerrigan started his crusade, they’re springing up all over town. And although it’s possible someone could have knocked over a lantern or candle or some such, that wouldn’t explain how the fire spread so quickly, nor why so many people were unable to escape. I spotted what looked like chains where the doors would have been, so it’s a reasonable assumption that the doors were fastened on the outside. You could argue that it was an accident and that the doors were regularly sealed this way to prevent either discovery of the unsanctioned dosshouse or theft of the warehouse contents proper,” he paused.
“But” DePard hadn’t slowed, another one of his quirks; he was of the opinion that it was always better to be going somewhere, even if he then had to change direction should new evidence present itself.
“I’m inclined to think that the killer either knew they’d be trapped inside or brought the chains himself and made sure of it. Either way, it’s murder.” He looked to DePard.
“Not bad, Clay, but without an explanation for the rapid spread of the fire you’re still relying upon conjecture as to it being a premeditated act of murder.”
“I’m no expert but looking at what’s left of the place, most of the damage is to the external walls. Agreed?”
DePard nodded.
“And, yes, the inside is badly burned, but the fire was fought from the outside in, which begs the question if the fire had started inside the property then why isn’t that where the worst of the damage is.”
DePard grunted.”Well then, lad, where do we go to act upon this deduction?”
“Seeing as the fire was on the edge of the Warrens; King B.”
The sergeant actually stopped. King B was a notorious criminal, running a city wide gang of
prostitutes, thieves, and assassins. He was also the de facto mayor of the Warrens. The watch, those of them not on his payroll at least, had been after him for years, but King B was a cautious man with a keen mind and had so far kept out of gaol. He was also very difficult to get close to, relying upon a chain of henchmen and go-betweens to act as buffers.
“You know where to find him?”
“He’s not hard to find. Hard to get to yes, but not hard to find.”
Clay turned back the way they had come, allowing himself the hint of a smug grin as his sergeant was forced to follow.

***

Churt DePard had seen a lot of things in his lifetime; been in some tough places, but there was something about the Warrens that he always found disconcerting. He tried to put it down to his watchman’s instinct reminding him that he was in an area of the city with a much higher than average crime rate, and a virtually nonexistent watch presence, but he knew deep down that it was something else; something much older and primal. It was in the way everyone moved; slow and deliberate, never turning their backs. It was the way everyone watched you, whether that be the bold stares of the bravos and street toughs, or the surreptitious glances of those lurking in the shadows. Even those that could be described as regular citizens, the merchants, smiths, butchers and beggars all seemed to stop what they were doing and stare balefully as the watchmen passed by.
For his part, DePard projected an air of calm authority, back straight, hand on sword hilt, though his eyes constantly swept his surroundings for any sign of trouble.
“In here.” Clay indicated a bakers and stepped inside. DePard followed.
The smell of fresh bread, a favourite of DePard’s at the best of times, was like an exotic perfume after the pungent smells of the city streets, and the heat from the ovens provided a welcome respite from the winter chill.
The bakery was busy as loaves were loaded into baskets to be delivered in time for breakfast to those as could afford it, the work overseen by a short fat man with arms that could shame a blacksmith. Seeing the two men enter he turned to face them as he continued wrapping bread. The broad, yet handsome face was marred by a scar running up from his chin through his lips and along one side of his nose; the light scar tissue vivid against his dark skin.
“Orland. How good to see you. If you’re here about my guild fees, though, you should know that I have strong views when it comes to extortion.” The deep baritone only slightly effected by the scar.
“Don’t worry, uncle, I’m not after your money.”
The baker mimed a relieved sigh. Then moved round to smother Clay with a powerful embrace; the young guard thinking it a good job his cloak was white as his uncle’s flour covered arms wrapped around him. The baker stepped back, affectionately patting Clay’s cheek.
“Well I know it’s not a social call. You rarely visit, and when you do you’re always considerate enough to come out of uniform.” He smiled and turned to DePard. “It’s not that we have anything against you Doves but the neighbours are apt to get nervous when a couple of white cloaks come visiting. Especially when one of them’s Churt DePard.” He held out a flour covered hand.
DePard was surprised at being identified but managed to keep his expression neutral as he
accepted the strong handshake.
The baker gave the sergeant an apologetic look.
“There’s a lot of folk round here still bitter about Goven Chandler.”
DePard sniffed. “Goven Chandler was a rapist with a taste for young flesh. I’d kill the bastard again in a heartbeat.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, sergeant. Don’t get me wrong. Folks round here wanted him dead. They just wanted to do it their way; make sure he suffered.”
“He suffered.” DePard’s eyes were ice.
The baker still gripped DePard’s hand.
“Of that I do not doubt. However, his victims’ families don’t think it was enough. I think they were hoping for a more protracted experience for mister Chandler. That, and for him to go to his death with fewer testicles of course.”
“You don’t get fewer than none.” DePard’s expression hadn’t changed.
The baker grinned, slapped a floury hand on the sergeant’s shoulder and released his grip on the other hand.
“Are you sure you’re not from the Warrens, Sergeant?” He rocked back on his heels before moving back behind his counter. “Now what can I do for you?”
Clay stepped forward.
“I’ll get straight to the point and not insult you by asking if you heard about the fire on Wagonway Road.” Clay said as the baker returned to wrapping loaves.
“Terrible news. I hear there were folk caught inside?”
“At least twenty; some of them children. And not caught, trapped. The doors were chained so they couldn’t escape.”
The baker’s chestnut eyes, the irises rimmed with a speckle of lighter brown, flicked up to meet Clay’s. For a split second fire seemed to flash from the hazel specks.
“We need to know who did it, Uncle, they need to be stopped.”
The fire was gone, tamped down to a less noticeable, but much hotter slow burn.
“There’s plenty talk on the streets and in the inns, especially those around the docks about how the refugees are becoming a problem. How the city should be housing them elsewhere. Not our problem, sort of thing. That’s just human nature, though; no one likes to share too much and some people have a different concept of what constitutes too much. This though, if it’s true,”
“It is.” Said DePard.
“Then this is something else.” He stared at DePard, judging him. “My business is fortunate enough to get a lot of customers, Sergeant; it gives me an understanding of this community. I’ll keep my ears open.” He shifted his attention back to his nephew. “Now, do you want a couple of stotties to take away?” He was already wrapping a couple of the flat breads.
“Thank you, Uncle. You don’t get them up our way.”
The baker handed Clay the warm parcel as he saw the guards to the door.
“All the more reason to visit us more often, Lando; out of uniform though, eh?” He said giving Clay a hearty slap on the back as he ushered them onto them outside and closed the door.

The wind whipping down the narrow street stripped away all warmth and the comforting aroma of fresh bread, replacing them with the rotten smells of decaying street waste and the biting cold of winter. Clay tucked the parcel into his tunic, enjoying the warmth it provided, before pulling his cloak tight and looking to his sergeant.
“So your uncle knows King B. Should I be concerned?”
“No. I’ve chosen my side.”
DePard nodded his approval.

***

Bokeem Clay watched his nephew and DePard as they walked away. He was angry, and the anger was building. He was angry that the boy had come here in uniform. He was angry that he’d brought the sergeant. He was also angry that someone had committed such an atrocity on his patch. But that was nothing compared to how furious he was that someone had committed such an atrocity on his patch without his say so.

***

The glow of the lantern threw light into the open warehouse space as Hero pulled the door open and stepped inside. He winced at the overpowering smell of fish, wishing his boss had chosen any of the many other buildings he owned as he pulled his kerchief up over his nose in a futile attempt to suppress the stench. His boss followed him inside, his face only flickering slight acknowledgement of the offensive odour. The five other men, King B’s employees all, were also employed as dock hands and therefore seemed immune to the smell.
One of the men, a tall, heavy set bruiser, pulled the door shut against the winter night and took his place by The King. He somehow seemed even larger when stood by his boss. The others split up to light more lanterns.
Suspended upside down from an overhead beam at the rooms centre, three naked men – none of them over eighteen – their hands bound behind their backs, slowly twisted at the end of the ropes lashed around their feet.
Bokeem Clay approached his prisoners until he stood just in front of them. Three of his men moved behind the captives and held them so they faced their boss.
“It has come to my attention that one, two, or maybe even all three of you, can assist me in my enquiries.” The King’s voice echoed around the large room.
The captives said nothing.
“Let me make this simple for you. I know that your group was responsible for the fire and
subsequent deaths at the warehouse on Wagonway Road. I know that you three boys were in the Tack spouting your vitriol just before the aforementioned conflagration. What I would like you to tell me is who started the fire, and who gave the orders. That’s all. Two names and this all ends for two of you.”
The King studied the three men as his words sunk in. Their faces a curious purple, a combination of the cold and the blood settling in their heads. None of them had the look of real killers about them, though he knew they were responsible for the fire. They were cowards; hiding behind the mask of their cause, bravado swelled by the group they belonged to, committing their despicable acts through fear of losing face in front of their so called mates. Never realising those very same mates were as like to be feeling the same peer pressure and fear of rejection. Bokeem Clay despised men like this, but he knew just how to use them.
“Hero.”
His man stepped forward.
“That one.” He pointed to the largest of the three prisoners, and walked off to the manager’s office in the corner of the building where one of his men was brewing a pot of coffee. There was no need for him to watch as Hero lowered the selected captive to the ground and manhandled him through a side door.

***

As Bokeem was pouring his third coffee Hero entered and nodded. King B joined his man and they returned to stand before the two remaining captives. He took a sip of his coffee before speaking.
“I know you’re curious as to the fate of your friend. Right now your limited imaginations
are conjuring up all sorts of unpleasant scenarios involving red hot tongs, bread knives and
toasting forks. All you need to know, however, is that your friend told us what we wanted.”
He took another sip of coffee, savouring the warmth as much as the taste as the hanging men’s eyes darted from him to each other and back. King B smiled; they were his.
“Now what many people fail to recognise about using torture to extract information is that the subject, in this case your absent colleague mister Reeves, is just as likely to tell his questioner what he thinks he wants to hear as he is to tell him the truth.”
Again, he gave the men time to digest what he’d said as he took another mouthful.
“So, what that means is, and I’m sure you bright young lads have already figured this out, is that we require some form of corroboration; a verification of your colleague’s claims so that we don’t act upon inconclusive information. I’m sure you understand.”
“It was Solomon Pitt made us do it.” Both men spluttering out the name almost instantaneously. “He said it would send a message.”
The King nodded.
“Pitt planned the deed no doubt. And he did send a message; just not to the people you boys
think.”
A look of understanding appeared on the face of one of the prisoners.
“It wasn’t about the Northerners. It was about the warehouse. The message was for you.”
“Clever lad. And he chose you boys to deliver it. Obedient young pups, blinded by hatred and fear.”
He said waving his mug in their direction.
“And you two,” he said, “went through with it. You two, and your friend back there, carried out his plan and burnt those women and children to death over geography. And that, that’s on you. Pitt might have sent you but no one made you do it. That’s just how lickspittles like you justify your cowardly actions to yourselves.”
He handed his coffee to Hero, trading the tin mug for a bread knife.
“A man is responsible for his own actions. Always.”

***

DePard pulled the last of the potatoes from the patch he kept behind the barracks, checked it for rot, and satisfied there was none, added it to the sack by his side. The crop was small, he’d been busy and hadn’t been able to tend his garden as well as he’d have liked; he was also late in harvesting. Still, he’d have some good compost next season, he thought, looking at the pile of rotting waste he’d fenced off in one corner. He stood, brushed dirt from his knees and turned to see Clay waiting by the door.
“We’ve been left a gift.”
“Oh?” Said DePard.
“A man named Reeves was bound and left outside the Tack. Roper and DeMarc found him this morning when they went back to help with seeing to the remains.”
“He hurt?”
“Broken nose, a few bruises. More scared than anything. Claims some upright citizens overheard him bragging about his deeds and took the law into their own hands.”
DePard chuckled. “In the Warrens?”
“Don’t be so dismissive of the Warrens, Sarge. The watch might not be welcome but the folk there do have a code.”
“Don’t fuck with King B?” De Pard chuckled again. “Don’t pout lad, I get it. Places like that, they breed closeness. A sense of community you don’t find in the likes of Park Square and Temple Grove. But whether they think so or not, they still come under our watch, and as much as I’d like to believe that some good citizens handed over this Reeves out of a sense of community and public duty, I think we both know that your uncle wouldn’t have delivered him to us unless there was something to be gained. I think we need to have a word with this Reeves.”

***

The forge was an old guard tower at the rear of the western barracks. It had been heavily damaged in the big siege over twenty years ago and was now mostly a hollow shell. About ten years ago the then head of the watch, a man named Thorn, had had the rubble cleared from the one ground floor room that still had four solid walls, if not a ceiling, and began using it for the questioning of prisoners. The room was an old store and therefore windowless; light, what little there was, came from torches in the wall sconces of the room above – or at least those that could be safely reached.
Reeves was strapped to a single chair in the centre of the room. The chair itself bolted to the floor, but the main feature of the forge wasn’t the walls, or the light, or even the chair; it was the smell. The room reeked of fear, as if every man who had sat in that chair had sweated a part of himself into the porous stone floor and over the years that essence, that physical manifestation of hopelessness and defeat had spread drop by oozing drop until it permeated the whole room and the very walls were now covered in a nervous sheen.
Reeves watched fearfully as DePard and Clay entered and took their positions. The younger guard moved behind him leading Reeves to naturally try and follow his movement. The thick leather restraints prevented him turning his head far enough leaving him to speculate on, or more likely worry about, where Clay was and what he was doing.
A noise brought his attention back to the big sergeant who set down a small table in front of the prisoner. Resting on the table was a cloth bag. DePard pulled a scroll from his belt, opened it up and read from it.
“Crispin Reeves. Of an above average height and stocky build with hair of a clean straw colour and eyes of blue. Tattoo depicting the sigil of Crispin the Defender on right forearm.”
“Nowt wrong with that. Crispin is a hero to this city. Me Mam named me for him.”
DePard ignored the interruption.
“Lives with parents and three brothers above the kilns off Artisan Square. A few overnight
detentions for drunken affray and common assault. All of them off the back of trips to the Warrens. Seems to me you’re the type of boy who likes trouble. There’s no other reason I can see for you to be straying so far from home.
“I’m a citizen of Stonelake; can walk where I please.”
“True enough, lad, and as a citizen you’ll know the punishment for murder.”
“I’m not of age as to be hanged without witnesses to the crime. I know that much.”
The boy tried to hold DePard’s gaze but couldn’t and squirmed in the chair as his eyes broke away.
“A lawyer now are you, boy? Well, just so you’re clear, how you’re tried is at the discretion of the magistrate, and the opinion of the watch weighs heavily upon her decision. Which, as far as you’re concerned, means I get to decide whether you’re tried as man or boy, and whether your future’s in chains or on rope. What say you, Clay? Is Crispin here merely a confused young boy lead astray by a wicked bigot, or is he a true grown man who knows his mind?”
Reeves jumped as two hands clamped onto his shoulders. He tried unsuccessfully to jerk his head away from the hot breath that suddenly spread across his neck.
“These are the shoulders of a man, sergeant. Broad and strong. I say he hangs.” The breath
disappeared along with the hands, as Clay slipped back into the shadows.
Before Reeves could gather himself DePard suddenly leant forward, bringing his face within inches of the boy’s.
“The way I see it you’ve spent your time playing at being a big man. Well congratulations, Crispin, you’re being treated like one now. And will be right up to the point of your execution. No doubt you’ve been to a hanging, lad; stood laughing with your mates as the
prisoner danced his last jig. Will they laugh at you I wonder? Point to your soiled britches and makecrude jokes as you gasp your last, and your mother pulls at her hair and wails.”
“It was Pitt. Solomon Pitt.” The words came through ragged, tearful breaths.
DePard smiled as he leaned back.
“And where would I find this Solomon Pitt?”

***

For the second time in as many days DePard and Clay found themselves standing in front of a burnt out building. This time it was the remains of an inn called The Phoenix. DeMarc joined them from where he’d been talking with an old man.
“Let me guess,” said DePard, “a tragic accident. No witnesses.”
“Actually plenty. The old man says there were about a dozen of them. They nailed the doors shut, doused the walls in oil and put torches to the place. Anyone who tried to leave caught a crossbow bolt for their efforts.” He indicated the charred remains of a figure draped through what was left of a window. “They were all masked though, of course.”
“Of course. Any survivors?”
“Not sure. The old geezer reckons he saw someone jump from an upstairs window into the canal, but he also says he caught at least a couple of quarrels. Roper’s leading a search along the banks to see if a body or trail turns up.”
“Good work. Let me know if he finds anything. And see if you can’t get a better description from the old man.
“Will do, Sarge.” DeMarc headed back toward the witness who was starting to slope away. “Oi, Grandad! I’m not finished with you yet.”
DePard turned back to Clay, “I’m hungry. Fancy a stottie?”

***

“I hear the good citizens hereabouts found you your arsonist.” Bokeem Clay said from behind his counter where he was pre-slicing a loaf – ‘For the widow Fens, you understand. She has trouble with her hands. Arthritis.’
“Seems we may have a copycat. I’m sure you’ve heard about the Phoenix.” Said DePard.
“A tragedy. One of the oldest inns in Stonelake. Well, the site is. If memory serves this is the third Phoenix to be built there. The original inn was called The Refuge, believe it or not; burnt down during the trout riots. Stood less than a year before taking a direct hit during the siege. The second incarnation lasted a whole decade before mysteriously burning down one night. Funny thing was the landlord’s wife just happened to be visiting her sick aunt that night, so only her notoriously unfaithful husband was killed.”
DePard actually laughed at that, surprising his protege.
“And now this. Maybe they should change the name.”
“Or find a new trade?” said DePard.
“Indeed. Something less prone to incident and accident.” Bokeem mused.
“Like baking?”
“Ah, but baking can be a hazardous profession,Sergeant; too many ways the unwary amateur can be burnt.” The baker juggled a hot loaf as if for emphasis.
“And quite a competitive business I would think.”
“Cut-throat.” He said with a smile as he drew the serrated blade of his bread knife through the loaf. “Was there a purpose to your visit, Sergeant? Or is this just a social call?”
“Oh, let’s call it a bit of both. I just thought that now we’ve become acquainted I’d keep you abreast of what’s going on. Think of it as a public service.”
“Well, as you now know, we’re a tight-knit community in the Warrens, Our Lando’ll tell you; so you needn’t have bothered.”
DePard smiled a grim smile. “It’s no bother. I’m quite happy to call in whenever I’m passing, which will be much more often from now on I think, due to all the recent trouble hereabouts.”
“Oh, I think that’s all blown over now, Sergeant. The arsonist is safely locked up in your very own cells, and his co-conspirators appear to have befallen a tragic, yet poetic fate at the hands of the very community they purported to have represented. I did try and tell you that the people round here prefer our own form of justice.”
“And I’m sure I don’t need tell you that I represent the law here. Me, your nephew here, and any other man wearing the White. Much as we appreciate the community’s assistance in the capture of Crispin Reeves, we’ll take a dim view of any vigilante actions. You break a law in my town, I take you down.”
The two men’s eyes were locked on each other.
“As a respected voice of the community you can spread the word at your next resident’s meeting.” DePard said.
Bokeem Clay held the sergeant’s gaze for a moment more before shifting his eyes to his nephew. The younger guard, didn’t flinch, causing his uncle to give a grudging shrug of respect.
“Until next time then.” He said indicating the door.
The two guards exited the bakery and slowly walked back to their barracks as a light snow began to fall from the grey sky.

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