*Last chapter before the climactic conclusion to Act One!
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 Act(Ten Acts, comprised of a handful of chapters each) 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/Act. 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!
Book One, Demon Witch of the Willamette
The Scotts' humble cabin lay about a mile outside the heart of town. It had been dark for some time now and the woodlands in which the cabin resided rendered the evening darker still. But the flickering lamplight from within the abode beckoned them forward. Pete rapped gently on the door with his cane.
The door was drawn back a moment later and Mrs. Scott, wearing an apron over her clothes, her hair pulled back, greeted them, blushing slightly. "Thank you so much for coming," she said. "Dinner is about ready. Do come in."
Pete nodded amiably and stepped inside first. He handed Mrs. Scott a fresh-baked loaf of bread they'd purchased from the town baker on the way to the Scotts'. Liam had worried the detour would cause them to run late and inquired whether Pete could just make some bread appear, as he'd clearly done with other things. Pete had given him another one of those looks Liam was growing quickly accustomed to, and nodded upwards. "They're a bit particular about bread."
Mrs. Scott thanked them profusely for the gift and carried it over to the table where Mr. Scott and a pretty, coquettish young lady sat. “Lucy Hemshaw,” James Scott said now. “Anthony’s fiancée.” Pete and Liam both doffed their caps and bowed slightly.
“Ma’am,” they said in unison. Lucy arose and executed a quick curtsey, before moving quickly to the small kitchen to assist Mrs. Scott. James motioned Pete and Liam to be seated. Dinner was placed onto the table in heaping portions: stew (“James shot a few good squirrels today,” Tricia said proudly), beans, corn, and the bread they had brought. There was a large pitcher of water and a steaming pot of coffee.
“Would have liked to have served a nice fish as well,” James said. “No luck at the river today.”
“No worries at all, good man,” Pete said, ladling himself a large helping of beans. “No worries at all.”
“It all looks wonderful,” Liam said.
“If you please,” James said. “We say grace before meals.” Pete stopped mid-ladle, a singular look of sheepishness spreading over his face.
“Sorry,” he said. “Of course. That is always appreciated, you know.”
James looked at him strangely a moment but bowed his head. Each of his guests did likewise. “Lord, thank you for this bounty, please bless this meal and bless our friends and their mission for which you’ve sent them. We ask Godspeed in their quest to find our dear son, Anthony. We give profound thanks and ask all this in your name, oh Lord. Amen.”
Dinner began and everyone ate heartily, silently, for a time. At length, Liam regarded young Lucy.
“My dear lady,” he said. “Forgive me the impertinence of accosting you with this over dinner, but I know you appreciate time is of the essence.”
She put her fork down. “Please, sir.”
Liam nodded. “Thank you. Please tell me about three nights ago. About your fight with Anthony.”
Lucy glanced at the Scotts. “It’s okay, dear,” Tricia said, and put a hand on Lucy’s. Lucy smiled gratefully.
“We’re engaged, sir, as I think you know. We are to be married and I’ve every intention of being a proper and doting wife, but Anthony…” She paused, blushing. “He is a man, after all—I don’t begrudge him such feelings. But I have forsworn to save myself until my wedding night.” She looked down.
“It’s alright,” Liam said. “It’s quite alright. So, you resisted him, and he grew upset?”
“I know it’s not very Christian of our boy,” James said. “But he’s young, and those fires burn hot in a boy his age. We are sorry for sweet Lucy here, but she understands Anthony is a good man, and would have come to his senses.”
“Of course,” Liam said. Pete sipped his coffee and took in the conversation. “So he stormed out,” Liam continued.
“Yes,” Lucy said meekly.
“Forgive me once more then,” Liam said. “But given the point of contention, are you certain, absolutely sure, he would not have sought even temporary affection elsewhere? I am sorry for asking.”
“NO,” Lucy replied, not meekly. “No.”
Liam decided to let it rest for a moment. Dinner continued, and they all spoke of trifling matters. When the table fell silent for what felt to Liam an uneasy spell, he regarded James. “Your fishing,” he said. “On the Willamette, I presume?”
James looked up, an impaled hunk of squirrel meat paused near his lips. He glanced quickly at his wife and daughter ‘n law to be. “Indeed,” he said. “No luck today.”
Liam looked at their hosts. Time was not on their side, he knew. “I am a detective,” he said firmly. “You have asked me to find Anthony. It was not hard to notice the uneasy looks you just exchanged at mention of the river. Tell me just what it is you think happened to your son.”
“The witch.” Tricia.
“Dear,” James chided, but Tricia shot her husband a quick look and he let her continue. Fascinating, Liam noted. James seemed a decent man but hardly one to defer to his wife out of chivalry. Clearly he at least believed the legend possible.
“The witch of the Willamette,” Tricia said. “By now you may have heard of her.” A quick sob escaped from Lucy but Tricia squeezed her hand and the girl gathered herself.
“I have,” Liam acknowledged. “And this is the prime theory to which you subscribe?”
“Yes,” Tricia said. “Others have disappeared. Nothing else stands to reason.”
“I take it,” James Scott said, “you do not share in our conviction?”
Liam inhaled deeply. “A great detective once said, ‘Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains—however improbable—must be the truth.’ Anything is possible. I intend to leave no stone unturned.”
When they'd thanked their hosts one more time, bid goodnight and stepped back out into the now slightly chilled evening, Liam realized how exhausted he was. At first he presumed it to be in the physical sense and perhaps to whatever degree he retained a physical existence, it was. But as he gazed upward through the sporadic apertures in the tree line, at a clear and star-mottled night sky which would not for another century and a half be obscured with the pollution to which his generation had become accustomed, he understood it was something more. A body grew tired; his body, he knew, was merely on loan. He was a soul, whose fate still hung very much in the balance, and souls grew weary. Ten Acts of Penance, and he'd not yet adjudicated the first.
But the time grew 'nigh. He would return to the saloon, as the marshal had all but dared him, but first he would visit Frieda's, the boarding house. Anthony's parents and fiancé had insisted no matter his state of agitation he would under no circumstances have sought the company of another woman, particularly in such a place as that. Liam was in fact inclined to believe them but he also knew that flaring passions sometimes stirred irrational and uncommon behaviors. But there was another reason he knew he must call upon this house of questionable repute.
"We'll walk together back to town," Pete was saying now. "I'll take my leave back to our quarters then. You have places to go, and by now I'm sure you know they are ones I cannot attend with you."
Liam nodded. He mused silently that it might be nice if his companion would thump his cane and transport them instantaneously the mile back to town--alas, he was learning quickly that Pete was selective about which "parlor tricks" he was willing to employ. They walked silently for a time, Pete pausing occasionally to rest his feet. At length, the faint lights and oppressive stench from town presaged their return.
"I reckon we part here," Liam said, eyeing a part of town where he knew the boarding house stood. "I guess I'll see you later."
Pete regarded him squarely. "One way or the other, yes."
"I may be too late."
Pete nodded. "Yes. That is possible. Your job at this moment is to find out."
Liam frowned. If he were too late, he was almost disinclined to deprive Anthony's parents and fiancée of their otherworldly suspicions--the horrors of things imagined, he'd long-since learned, were sometimes more palatable than the horror of things proved true.
He inhaled deeply, the heavy crush of grief overcoming him once more. He closed his eyes. He must focus on the Scotts' pain, not his own, if he were to accomplish redress for either. He opened his eyes, nodded and turned to go. After a few steps, he turned back. Pete had withdrawn his pipe and was striking a match.
"Forgive me," Liam asked, "but what of your job?"
Pete paused mid- inhalation and raised an eyebrow. "My job?" He extinguished the match with a quick shake.
"The gate," Liam said. "Is it unattended?"
Pete smiled wryly. "It's never unattended," he said. "The lines would be worse than Disney."
Liam grinned, his first in what seemed an eternity. Pete raised his cane and pointed to the section of town toward which Liam had begun to head.
"Get out of here," he said.
Liam was reasonably certain it was the first time he'd received such a greeting, but it did not offend him the least. It was, in fact, encouraging.
"Are you Frieda?"
The woman who'd greeted him looked him up and down. He regarded her in turn. Her heavily-mascaraed face was pretty at first glance but belied, it appeared to Liam, the true number and hardship of her years.
"Aye, sailor," she said. "I am. What are you looking for tonight? Place to stay? Company for the night?"
"Neither, in fact." Liam watched as her face registered disappointment, then annoyance.
"Then what? I got whiskey. Can sell you some bottles on the cheap--won't set ya back nearly as much as the saloon."
"Thank you, no." Her annoyance transformed into anger.
"Then you're wasting my time," she snapped. "I know who you are--new lawman in town. Means a whole lot of nothing to me. 'Less you're gonna arrest me for something, I think I'll be asking you to take your leave."
Liam suppressed the slight grin attempting to creep across his face. She was like something out of a spaghetti western.
"Soon enough," he promised. "I'd like a quick look around. Maybe talk to a few of your boarders."
Frieda folded her arms. "Just why would I let you do that, lawman?" She sneered. "And lawman or not, what kinda man turns up his nose at the chance at a pretty lady, or a bit of whiskey?"
Liam took no umbrage. He was busy surveying the scene and contemplating his next move. He could play the heavy hand and force his way upstairs, but it was not time to make a scene. He was about to acquiesce to Frieda's demand for his departure when he heard footsteps--more than one pair--descending the stairwell which climbed out of sight behind her. A young, scraggly-looking fellow, his arm dangled capriciously around a sweet-smelling, painted lady, clomped into view. They both paused near the bottom of the stairwell upon spotting him.
“You there,” Liam said to the man.
“What the hell do you want, stranger?” The perfumed girl tugged at his arm.
“Easy, baby,” she said. “He may be law.”
The scraggly lad scoffed. “Town’s got but one marshal. And I ain’t up to no different than him.”
“You work on the ships?” Liam asked.
“Yeah, I work on the ships.” The scraggly man motioned upwards with his head. “Same as most of the fellas up there. We work hard, ships are always undermanned, we deserve a bloody break every now and again. What’s it to you?”
“Nothing at all,” Liam said. “Enjoy your evening.” He turned to Frieda, who eyed him even more warily than before. “I am sorry for the intrusion. I think I shall pay another visit to the saloon.” He turned and went to the door.
“You do that,” she called after him as he stepped back out into dark of night. “You just do that.”