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!
The First Act
Demon Witch of the Willamette
Portland, Oregon 1853
"I thought," said Liam, "that you would be only known by me."
Pete inhaled thoughtfully from his pipe, before expelling an impressive, spiraling cloud into the air. "Details, lad," he said. "I said known, not seen. Others shall see me; only you know my identity. It's out of consideration of you, really. If we are conversing and only you see me, you shall appear very foolish indeed. That would only complicate matters."
Liam looked around the room. There was a desk, two tables with stacks of books and papers, wooden chairs at the tables and desk, and a sofa, the only piece of forgiving furniture in the room. Liam sat behind the desk and Pete at one of the tables, where every so often he clunked embers from the end of his pipe into an ashtray. A pot of coffee and a pot of tea steeped on the other table. There was a lamp on the desk but sunlight streamed in from the windows behind Liam and he turned and regarded the world which greeted him. He was looking at the main drag of town, he somehow knew, and it looked every bit of a frontier village. He could see a trading post, a saloon, and a bit farther down, a small jailhouse. Clumps of fallen branches from the surrounding firs were scattered throughout the muddy streets, where people and horse-drawn carts slogged past.
"I'm not certain things can get much more complicated," he said. "How is it that I understand exactly where we are, and exactly when?"
Pete shrugged. "A bit of a parlor, trick, perhaps," he said. "But the mystery of our environs is not the mystery for which you've been ordained. That mission, I dare say, has just been presented you."
Indeed it had. A very distraught Mr. and Mrs. James Scott had just exited the second-story flat which served as modest quarters for Inspector Liam Knightly, Portland, Oregon's first private investigator. One moment Liam had watched as Pete's cane once again flared to life and was thumped twice on the ground; the next, he was answering the knock on the door of what he somehow instantly understood to be his business quarters.
"We weren't sure about this," James said, as he and his wife Tricia settled onto the sofa. They both appeared to be in their mid to late forties. Pete handed them both a cup of hot tea on small saucers. They nodded in gratitude. Liam sat down at his desk, facing them.
"We didn't know where else to turn," Tricia explained. Her cup clinked quietly, but continuously, against the saucer.
"The law was no help," James said. "Damn marshal. Only interested in matters where there's a fee to be collected. Taxes, dog control, broken street lamps. Ain't no money in this--we can't afford to offer an award."
Tricia lowered the trembling cup from her lips. "May I ask, what is your fee?"
"If you please," Liam said. "What is the nature of your problem?"
Tricia's lips started to move but no sound came. She lowered her head, a stifled sob escaping from deep within her. Her husband placed an arm on her shoulder. "It's our son," he said. "Anthony. Twenty years old. He's disappeared."
Liam furrowed his brow. "Disappeared? A young man of his age? When was it you've last seen him?"
"Three nights ago," Tricia said. "Three nights ago at dinner. There was an argument and he left. We have not seen him since."
“Forgive me, ma’am,” Liam said. “But might you clarify for me what you mean by disappeared? A boy of his age—twenty years, nearly a man—is it not possible he has departed of his own volition? Perhaps to seek his fortune in the hills, like so many others? Maybe there’s a young lady…”
“There is a young lady,” James cut in. “Lucy. They are to be married. She is here in town. They had a fight in our home and he stormed out. But he loves her and intends to take her as his wife. He would not have left town. He would not leave for another woman.”
“Love,” Liam said, “especially young love, can do strange things to a man. Perhaps your boy was so inflamed that he is simply taking several days away to let the passions cool, if you will.”
“Not Anthony,” Tricia said. “No. They’ve quarreled before. He adores her and cannot bear a day apart from her. And he has only the shirt on his back. The rest of his clothes hang in his closet. He took no money. He left his horse. He goes nowhere without Murphy, but he left him too.”
“His dog,” James said. “He loves his dog and takes him everywhere. Look, don’t go getting the idea that I raised a weak boy. Anthony is every bit a man, I will tell you that.”
Liam leaned forward over his desk. “Sir,” he said. “I do not doubt it. Which is precisely my point. Why, given your faith in your son, are you so convinced he has run afoul of some wrongdoing?”
James leaned forward from the sofa. “It is because of my faith in him, not despite of it, that I am convinced. To be gone for this long and in this manner is out of character for him. It would have taken a lot for someone to—” he paused now and put a hand once more upon his wife’s shoulder. Her teacup rattled in one hand; she touched her husband’s comforting hand with her other. “It is out of character for him,” James said.
Liam nodded. Pete, who had sat down at one of the tables and lit up his pipe, now spoke.
"Unfortunate business," he said to the Scotts. "Inspector Knightly is the best, however, rest assured. He will do all in his power to find your boy. For this no remuneration is required."
Tricia looked up gratefully, but James now said, "No fee? We are obliged, but I must ask what kind of enterprise can operate purely out of charity? This is not to be ungrateful--it's just that you are new here, and I'm uncertain of your credentials. Are you a Pinkerton?"
Liam did not need any "bestowed" cognizance from Pete to answer this inquiry. He knew of Pinkerton, his history, and the famed agency and legions of private investigators--who at their zenith outnumbered the tally of enlisted US infantrymen—over which he had presided. Though the agency would have still been in its infancy at the time, Pinkertons, as they were sometimes called, were proliferating and being dispatched throughout the country.
"No," Liam said. "I am independent, but fully bonded, and experienced in my work. As my associate has assured you, this matter shall receive my full attention. Being new here, as you say, I wish to prove my mettle before demanding payment. If I can locate your son, this will aid my standing in town and perhaps then I can set about charging commensurately for my services."
James studied Liam's face. He looked dubious at first but after looking the detective square in the eyes a moment or two, he nodded.
"Alright," he said. "Thank you. We are most obliged. Where do we begin?"
“Your home, if you are willing,” Liam said. “Where you last saw him. We begin there.”
“Of course,” James said. He and his wife stood, and Liam arose as well and walked around from behind his desk. Pete laid his pipe in the ashtray and stood and retrieved the Scotts’ tea. James removed a slip of paper from his shirt pocket and handed it to Liam. “Our address,” he said.
“Come for dinner, please,” Tricia implored. “It is the least we can offer you. Six o’ clock?” She smiled courteously at Pete. “Both of you, of course.”
“We would be most grateful,” Liam said, and he walked them to the door. “Thank you for coming to me. I will do all I can to find your son.” The Scotts thanked him again, and it was upon closing the door after their departure that Liam inquired of Pete regarding his visibility.
“I’m still not convinced,” he said to Pete now, “that the boy is not off somewhere blowing off steam.”
Pete puffed on his pipe and shrugged slightly. “Perhaps,” he said. “Nevertheless, your first assignment has been conferred upon you.”
Liam nodded. “Alright.” He wandered over to his office window. His eyes tracked along the muddy, debris-strewn road, past the supply store and saloon, to the small jailhouse. “But if they’re right,” he said. “If he has been detained against his will, then I am afraid I fear the worst.”
Pete leaned back, inhaled deeply from his pipe and watched the rings drift lazily toward the ceiling, where they flattened and scattered and faded from sight. “As,” he said, “do they.”
Liam’s attention remain fixed on the jailhouse. “We have several hours until dinner,” he said. “I think I’ll pay a visit to a certain city marshal.”