Ten Acts of Penance
A Serialized Release
*Note: Welcome to Ten Acts of Penance, a serialized work which shall be released through my blog in installments averaging 2-3/month. Each chapter will be archived separately, though the book will build toward a cohesive whole. For anyone joining midstream, each chapter will for the most part be able to stand on its own, but this intro and a link to the prologue will be provided with every release, as it will serve as a reference/launching point for any ensuing chapter. As with pretty much anything I present here, I welcome feedback and suggestions in the comments section, as they will prove very useful when I edit for a final draft of the completed book.
I hope you enjoy!
Liam headed toward the jailhouse alone. Pete, citing exhaustion from the long (though instantaneous) journey, opted for a nap on one of the two small beds in the tiny quarters adjunct to the office. He was already risking admonition from Him, Pete reminded Liam, and so it was best to minimize their degree of intrusion into life events and the fabric of time, and best to keep their accommodations and trappings as modest as possible. Besides, he said, the nature of each of Liam’s tasks was such that no one of their journeys would be terribly long. And the tasks were indeed his, Liam’s; Pete could not become directly involved.
It was just as well, Liam thought as he stepped out into the bright, but dank afternoon. He seemed—based on a cursory glance at the others bustling past—to be appropriately attired, but he was still new in town, and going about with another stranger would only draw twice the attention.
Christ, the odor was oppressive. He had seen and inhaled awful things before—foul and rancid things, putrefaction, death—but it was all he could do now to keep from covering his mouth and nose with the kerchief which protruded slightly from his breast pocket. The scent of rot and decay and sewage was overpowering—yet everyone else went about their business apparently inured. Amazing, Liam thought, what you could get used to.
There were some things he prayed he never would.
He jumped quickly to his left now as a horse-pulled cart tromped past, splattering his trousers with speckles of mud and, from the smell of it, worse. His trousers? He had, of course, neither seen nor worn them before in his life. Could all of this be real, he wondered. Maybe he was dreaming. Maybe this was Heaven; maybe it was hell. Smelled like hell, this much was certain. And felt like it. Thoughts of his family surged through him and paralyzed him where he stood. He began to double over like he had after…after receiving the call, but from somewhere within him a voice told him this was weakness, that he must use his pain, use his love, for strength.
He straightened up, and kept going.
Stench aside, it was beautiful country. A forest of firs and other timber pressed in from either side—it was as though seeds for a town had been dropped accidentally by a traveler passing through the heavy woods. And if his memory of old history classes was correct, early traders and settlers had indeed referred to the area as “The Clearing,” owing both to its convenience as a stopping point along the west bank of the Willamette River, and the abrupt juxtaposition of its appearance. Sea captains became quickly enamored of the Willamette, as the depths of its waters accommodated larger, ocean-going vessels which normally were unable to travel so far up-river.
Liam passed the trading post and the saloon, outside both of which several horses stood tethered, tails swatting futilely at swarms of biting flies, and occasionally lowering their heads to lap at the murky puddles at their feet. When he got to the jailhouse, he paused and glanced around to see who might be watching—it would be best not to be seen. Once inside, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust; there was only one small window, and no lamps lit.
“Marshal?” Liam called.
“You must be new.” The voice emanated from the darkness behind the bars at the far end of the jailhouse, and was freighted with no small measure of derision. “I can tell from the looks of ya, but even more so by what you just said.”
Liam stepped closer. “How’s that?” He squinted and could see movement from the back of the cell, a shape and features slowly forming, and suddenly he to which said shape and features belonged sprang forward with a cry and bared teeth and grabbed the bars with pale, dirty hands. Liam regarded him, unflinching.
“Ah, hell,” the prisoner muttered, the starch draining quickly from his voice. “Sorry ‘bout that. A man gets bored to hell in a cage. Just thought I’d see if I could scare ya, is all.”
Liam stepped closer still, now but a foot from the bars clung to by the man. “No apology required,” he said. “But some clarification would be appreciated. How is it asking for the marshal is a strange thing to do in his own office?”
“ ‘Cause anyone from around here knows he spends more time at the bar—or at Frieda’s—than he does here.”
“You don’t know Frieda’s?” the man scoffed. “You just get here today or something?” Liam was thankful when the man didn’t wait for a reply. “Frieda’s boarding house—if you wanna call it that. Any man who’s lived a day knows what goes on there, the marshal included. And I’ll be damned if he don’t partake in plenty of it himself. That and the drinking. Locks up the likes of me but he’s off indlugin’ in that which he’d just as soon arrest another man for and collect his fee. A damn hypo—hypa—whatever that damn word is.”
“Hypocrite,” Liam said.
“Yeah,” the man behind the bars said. “That.” He released his grip and motioned toward Liam’s clothes. “Tell me you got a smoke in one of ‘dem pockets,” he said, hopeful.
“Hell.” The prisoner slumped back toward the bench at the back of the cell.
Liam studied him in the darkness. The man’s face suggested a peculiar honesty Liam had come to find unique to petty criminals. Not innocence, mind you, for a criminal was just that, but a rawness, a candor. There was no excusing lawbreaking, but there was sometimes understanding it. Like Valjean with the loaf of bread, most everyone had a story.
“What are you in here for?” he asked the man.
“Well that’s the humor of it all,” the man said, sitting up on the hard bench. “Though not too funny on this side of the bars. Drunkenness, if you can believe it. I’m arrested for drunkenness, by a lawman who himself is at this moment no doubt more sheets to the wind than I was.”
“Really. Mosey down to the saloon if you need proof.”
“I believe you,” Liam said. “I wonder, in fact, if you might be able to tell me a few other things.”
The man eyed Liam for a good long moment. “Maybe,” he finally said. “But you first. Who are you, first of all?”
“A fair inquiry. Liam Knightly, private investigator. New here.”
“New indeed,” the man said. “I could use a smoke.”
“Answer some questions,” Liam said evenly, “and you’ll get it.”
The man in the cell nodded. “Alright,” he said. “Shoot.”
“Anthony Scott,” Liam said, in a lowered voice. “Know the name?”
“Nope. Sorry. I still get my smokes?”
“We’ll see. Twenty years of age. Engaged to a local girl. Been missing three days. Hear anything?”
The man in the cell shifted where he sat. “No,” he said, in almost a whisper. “Missing, you say?”
“Yeah.” Liam watched the man intently. He’d expected him to be as dubious as he had been upon first hearing the account from the Scotts. But the man looked nervous now, frightened. “Know anything of it?”
“Of him, no,” said the man. “But if you were from around here, you’d know.”
“Know what, exactly?”
“He ain’t the first. To go missin’, that is. He ain’t the first.”
Liam stepped forward until he was flush against the bars. “Tell me more about that.”
The man’s agitation piqued. He shifted again and his eyes darted to and fro. “No,” he finally said, looking down. “No. I don’t know nuthin’ more.”
“I’m good for the smokes.”
“Forget the damn smokes, stranger. Just leave me be.”
Liam stepped back from the bars.
“Well,” he said. “I cannot force you. I am obliged for that which you’ve shared.” He started to turn.
Liam paused. “What did you say?”
“Aw, don’t take offense,” the man at the back of the cell said. “Your kind has been called worse, huh?”
“Indeed. Do you have something more to say?”
The man leaned forward from the bench.
“You’re new here, right? Start on something easier, my friend. You ain’t likely to have a right slew of cases if you’re making this one your first. Leave it alone, I say. Start with something easy.”
Liam stepped back to the bars. “I am obliged for your consideration,” he said. “But a cop doesn’t build a career looking past the case he has before him. I’ll stick with this one, thank you, and I’ll see it through.”
The man in the cell looked plaintive, panicky. “I done warned you,” he said. The already pale finger of light which filtered through the small window at the front of the jail grew more obscure—a patch of clouds must be moving past, Liam figured. The man in the cell disappeared for a moment from his view, while Liam waited for his eyes to adjust again.
“Warned me of what?” Liam asked.
“The witch!” The man’s pallid face materialized suddenly against the bars, inches from Liam’s own. Liam startled slightly, but did not flinch or step back.
“The witch,” the man said, what little color which had remained in his features draining away with these two words. “You may be new, but it won’t be the last you hear of it.”
Liam rolled his eyes. He’d hoped for something tangible, useful. “You’re drunk,” he said.
“No,” the man said, shaking his head. “I mean, yeah, sure, I was drunk. Last night. That’s why I’m in here. But nothing sobers you up like a night in a cage. I was drunk, but she’s real, and she almost took me last night.”
“She’s a demon, flatfoot, that much I know. Legend has it her man left her for another dame years ago, leaving her so broken-hearted she went and took her own life. Cut her wrists, then bled out and drowned in the river. She haunts the Willamette now, they say, and sometimes sneaks into town and hunts for young men to take for her new groom.”
“She’s been seen in town, you say?”
“She’s been seen,” said the man behind the bars. “Though few live to tell of it. They say she has secret tunnels beneath the town, and that’s where she drags them lads away.”
“And she tried to drag you?”
“Yeah, she tried. I was drunk, but there was something else—she hexed me, I tell you. I fought like mad, ‘spite of my condition. I was lucky, got away. That’s when the marshal found me, carrying on and riding my horse like a bat outta hell. I was lucky, and I don’t care to try my luck by telling you anything more, I think.”
The man became once more subdued with these last words, and slunk backwards until he disappeared into the darkness. Liam inhaled deeply. “Much obliged,” he said, before turning away again and heading for the door. When he opened it a blade of daylight cut into the room, partly illuminating the man at the back of the cell. “If there’s any truth to your tale,” Liam said, stepping halfway out of the jailhouse, “you just might be in the safest place possible.”
“Watch your back, flatfoot. You won’t see her coming.”
Liam closed the door.