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 Demon Witch of the Willamette
image courtesy of dreamstime.com
He closes the door and shields his eyes against the suddenly garish sunlight but his thoughts are of witches and demons and hell. Of the first two he gives no consideration, but of the last he has come to believe, for no matter his physical location, it is where his heart and soul have resided ever since the call came and his world was ripped asunder. An eternity of flames and damnation gives him no pause, for if he is not to be reunited with his wife and child, then damnation is already his. He must solve this case, witches be damned, and then he must pass nine more tests. “Each,” Pete had said, “greater than that which precedes it.” And so be it. He would not rest and he would succeed, or die again trying.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
When he pushed the saloon door open and the light washed over the inhabitants within, they looked at him like possums caught ransacking garbage cans in the night. Their expressions quickly shifted to that of agitation, however, as they regarded the stranger in the doorway.
“Either come in, or go back out.” The marshal. He stood at the bar shielding his eyes, sunlight reflecting off his badge, a shot glass and two bottles of whiskey perched before him. Another man, apparently a random local, sat on a bar stool a few spots down; the barkeep, standing opposite the marshal and polishing glasses, sneered in Liam’s direction.
Liam released the saloon doors and stepped forward. He doffed his cap slightly. “Gentlemen.”
“Well, well,” dripped the marshal. “I do believe it’s our savior.” The barkeep chuckled, and continued polishing glasses. The local lowered his head, took a sip of his drink and looked straight ahead. Liam’s mind quickly assessed the scene, as had long since become habit. Three men, unless anyone else was in the lavatory. The marshal had made a show of his revolver—looked to be a Colt 1851 Navy—when he’d turned to regard Liam. There was surely a gun behind the bar. The local at the end of the bar might be armed too, but Liam could discern from his demeanor that he was not likely a threat.
His own weapon was unloaded, though this was hardly common knowledge. This was also part of the deal, apparently--part of that minimizing disruption to life events and fabric of time stuff Pete was so insistent upon. Killing people, Pete reminded him, hardly constituted minimal disruption.
“I can understand your feelings, marshal,” Liam said.
“Can you now?”
“I think so. New man in town, a lawman where one already presides. I don’t expect a welcome wagon.”
The marshal threw back a shot, and set his glass down on the table with a thud. “Just what is it you do expect, savior?”
“A little assistance, perhaps,” Liam said, maintaining square eye contact. “And maybe a few answers.”
“Now why would I assist you, if you’re here squatting in my territory, as you so kindly just admitted? Answers? Find your own.”
Liam shifted his weight ever so slightly, so that he knew the outline of his firearm would be discernible, however innocuously. Not to make a show of it, but to make it known. This was something any lawman learned. The marshal stiffened, and Liam knew he’d noticed. Good.
“You’ll assist me, marshal, because you have taken an oath to protect the good people of Portland, have you not? A young man has gone missing, and I understand his parents called upon you for help.”
The marshal shot a quick look at the barkeep before returning his attention to Liam. "The Scotts," he said. "What of it?" He turned and faced Liam. His right arm dangled near his revolver. Liam eyed the barkeep.
"Whiskey, please,” Liam said. He hadn't checked with Pete as to if alcohol consumption was within protocol, but in this moment he did not care: he needed to have the bartender's hands where he could see them. The barkeep glanced at the marshal, who, without taking his eyes off Liam, proffered a slight nod in return. The barkeep retrieved the whiskey and a tumbler and began to pour. Liam eased up to the bar, retrieved the billfold he didn’t know but somehow knew he had, and extracted a dollar from it. The barkeep’s eyes widened as Liam tossed it in his direction. “Keep it,” Liam said.
He faced the barkeep as he plucked up the glass, but his peripheral vision was strained intently on the marshal. Another trick of the trade he’d learned: all officers, no matter their eyesight, developed acute peripheral vision. Failure to do so could get you killed. He threw the whiskey back with one swig, and pushed the tumbler back toward the barkeep.
“Another,” he said.
This was surreal. He had neither felt nor tasted the liquor go down, and he’d glanced quickly down at himself to ensure it had. That he hadn’t spilled it; that it hadn’t coursed through him and exited as though he were a vapor. And yet was he anything more than that? He did not know. But a good detective amassed information, stored it, called upon it when needed. And now he knew that in one sense he had clearly been granted a corporeal form, a body, his body, which others could see. A voice, his voice, which others could hear. But certain aspects of the physical world had no impact upon him whatsoever. What was he, exactly? All he knew is that the more he dwelled upon this elusive question, the less focused he would become upon the task at hand. And this was only the first.
“Obliged,” he nodded to the barkeep, who had just refilled his whiskey. He angled toward the marshal, who had eased his confrontational posture, bellied back up to the bar and thrown down another shot of his own. “The Scotts,” Liam repeated. “Why didn’t you help them?”
The marshal fixed indignant eyes upon him. “There is no case there,” he said. “As if it’s any of your concern.”
Liam paused his glass near his lips. “They’ve made it my concern,” he said. He threw back his drink. Again, nothing. Not the faintest taste, texture or buzz.
“Your problem,” the marshal sneered. “I hope they dug up some payment for you, ‘cause they offered squat to me. I’ve got a job to do, and I don’t get paid ‘less I do it.”
“And are those the matters you swore to pursue?” Liam asked. “Dogs. Streetlamps?”
“You’ve got nerve waltzing in here and calling me out on my business, boy. You have a family, savior? I do. Got to feed them, too. Ain't no way I can do that taking on charity cases which are nothing more than wild goose chases. The damn boy probably tied one on and is flopped out somewhere with some broad whose name he don’t know or if he does, it ain’t her real name anyway.”
“I have a family,” Liam said.
“Well then you know.”
“Yeah. I know.”
Liam nodded at the barkeep, who refilled his glass again, looking none too pleased to do so. The marshal refilled another of his own. Both men downed their drinks.
“I’ll tell you what, savior,” the marshal said. “Maybe I’ll help you out a tiny bit, being as you’re a family man like me. Come back here tonight, after supper time, when the place fills up and folks have loosened up a bit, if you catch my meaning. Lips loosen too, as I’m sure you know. Maybe the lad was in here, after all. Maybe someone saw him. Maybe they can tell you something.”
“Well then I shall do that,” he said. “Thank you, marshal.” The marshal grinned, a most unpleasant sight. Liam repressed a smile of his own. The marshal was amateur. But he was an amateur with a gun, and so he must play his cards carefully all the same. He withdrew another dollar from his billfold and pushed it toward the impassive barkeep.
“Gentleman,” he said, and proffered another doff of his cap. He pushed back from the bar and walked toward the doors at angle. Once outside he inhaled deeply and the scent of dung and sewage assaulted him once more. He made a mental note that he would need to inquire of Pete why his olfactory senses, of all things, had been left so intact. But for now he had more important matters to which he must attend. He checked his timepiece. 4:00 p.m. Two hours until supper at the Scotts.
But first, the river.
Liam knew that by that point in history, the Willamette Valley had become the destination of many 19th-century pioneers heading west along the Oregon Trail. Burgeoning with sediments left from prolific rainfall and flooding, the valley had induced many of the settlers to try their hand at farming. But the history was not entirely quaint: the settlers encroached increasingly on Native American lands, conflict erupted, and the Oregon state government removed many of the natives by military force.
Liam wondered with what forces he would be soon doing battle. He harbored some notions. Witches were not chief among them, but as he toed the banks of the Willamette, the hazy murk of twilight descending upon it, the mood and setting certainly seemed rife. He’d found a quiet bend of river, where small streams and tributaries diverged and wound through thickets of brush and marshland. Despite how populous and active the river valley had become, ample undisturbed sections remained, and it was easy to see how someone could come and go in the stealth of night, were they so inclined.
As the light ebbed away from the valley, shadows grew more brazen and danced along the banks. The wind and current rustled reeds and branches and this along with the dancing shadows suffused the air with Liam had to admit were macabre rhythms. He could only imagine what a drunk man might see.
But the fact was, they had seen something. Also fact, people had disappeared. A pale light downriver began to infiltrate the now heavy darkness of night, and Liam squinted toward its source. Several small steamships were moored perhaps a hundred yards downriver. He knew the Willamette was an important artery of transportation, but also that vessels encountered an up to that point impassable barrier upriver, in the Willamette Falls. Ships which absolutely needed to get beyond the falls had to be portaged; the rest routed along the various connections with the rest of the Columbia River system, on their way, in many instances, out to sea.
Interesting, Liam thought.
But it was getting late now, and so he turned and began to pace briskly back to town, where he would wake Pete and get ready for supper. They should not keep their hosts waiting.