Synopsis of Beneath a Fearful Moon
Constable Aubrey Hartmann did her duty, fought for the Empire and lost her leg in the process. All she wants is a quiet life, and the chance of some fun, romantic entanglements in the frontier town of Aqualinne. When bodies start turning up, slashed from head to toe, she’s duty-bound investigate. As the clues start to point to the reclusive and deadly Fae in the prohibited Old Forest, Aubrey must rely on her war-forged nerves and her trusty Manton pistols. The challenge isn’t just to solve the case, but to survive it.
Back to Buried Treasure
Pulled from the mill pond, the corpse was bloated, swollen into a horrible caricature with a bluish-gray pallor. Aubrey knelt to examine the man, torn between revulsion of his current state and fascination for how he died. Only scraps remained on his body at the wrists, ankles and neck as reminders of the clothes he’d worn. Long, deep gashes crisscrossed him in a rough zig-zag pattern from the top of his head down to his toes. They looked like knife or sword wounds in tight groups of three. Doctor Glocken could tell her for certain, but Aubrey believed the man had died from the first or second cut. Yet the mutilation had gone on for dozens of strikes.
One of the man’s eyes was filmed over white so that only the dark pupil could be seen. The other was missing. The empty socket peered back at her.
Aubrey ran a hand over her face and rubbed her temples as if she could massage away the horror. It didn’t work. She’d been Constable Aubrey Hartmann for going on two years, less than a year of that assigned to Aqualinne. Before that she’d seen worse than this. Far worse. The images from the war never quite went away. The man next her, the Right Honorable Wilhelm Abela, a senior burgher of Aqualinne, reached inside the cuff of his coat, produced an embroidered, scented handkerchief, and pressed it over his mouth and nose.
“You know him then?” Aubrey asked.
“No,” Abela told her. “That is, he’s one of my woodsmen. A timberjig driver. But I don’t know him. I couldn’t give you his name. Josef Marius, my foreman at this mill, will know.”
“Felspar,” Aubrey provided. “Herr Marius already told me. His name is Felspar Hofmann.”
“Well, you know more than I do.” Abela sighed into his handkerchief. “You really don’t need me.”
Abela turned and started toward his waiting carriage.
“This doesn’t look like an engine accident,” Aubrey said, her words stopped Abela.
“No. Of course not.” Abela sniffed at her. “That’s why I summoned you here.”
Aubrey gave the corpse one last look, but there was nothing new the body could tell her. She stood up and brushed the sand from her knees. Her artificial left leg was stiff. The Fae-spelled replacement twinged, with a real, if delayed, sensation. It had taken as much time to get used to the new leg as it had to work her clockwork leg. The metal one had been mangled by the Centaurs, and with good reason. They’d replaced it with a magical leg, also with good reason. At times, it almost felt real. Almost.
“How many seats are you running?” Aubrey shook her left leg. The knee popped and it felt slightly better.
“On a timberjig?”
Audrey nodded. She wasn’t certain why the question occurred to her, but it seemed right, and was harmless enough to ask.
“We have both engines,” Abela said, “though we’ve been replacing the older four-seaters with newer ones when it makes . . . economic sense. Timberjigs are expensive engines.”
The big machines, easily three times the height of a tall man, were a marvel of the modern age. Some timberjigs, like the Montferrands, walked like giants through the forest on saucer-shaped feet. Others, like the Dolbeers, used a set of treads similar to the motive trains to roll over the ground. The engines produced immense heat and smelled of burnt oil. They required the operators to rotate in and out of the appropriately nicknamed “oven” on an hourly basis. The other drivers ran the saws and clawed arms to cut and move the felled timber. It was hard, hot, brutal work, but a solid team of timberjiggers could fell, trim, and transport a dozen good-sized logs in an hour. A good crew operating a timberjig could do twice the work in half the time.
“Even if you remove one man from the crew?”
“Constable.” Abela’s tone suggested he was losing patience with her. “I’ve read penny dreadfuls, and you sound very much like one of those brash, dashing constables who sees the truth when everyone else does not. You don’t really suspect me of this . . . this vile deed, do you? If a man works for me, he gets paid a decent wage, better than any other in town. If he does his job, he stays. If not, he leaves. I have dozens of able-bodied men and women willing to replace him at a moment’s notice. I don’t take an active interest in whether a man operates a three-seat or four-seat timberjig. Further, I have no need to . . . to kill. Certainly not to disfigure. What good would it do me? It’s bad for Aqualinne and bad for the merchants to say the least. And what is bad for Aqualinne is bad for me. I don’t even manage the day-to-day operations. I leave that to the foremen.”
“Of course not,” Aubrey replied. “It’s just background. If I recall, you started your career as a timberjigger?”
Abela sniffed and pressed his handkerchief to his face. Beneath his fine wool and linen coat, she could see the muscle born of hard work flex and stretch. The facts of his low birth and hard work as a youth were something Abela would sooner be forgotten. It hadn’t been easy for Aubrey to uncover. They still limited him, in certain circles, especially the nobility who saw such “new money” as no better than jumped-up children, asking for a seat at the adults’ table.
Aubrey glanced past Abela at the sawmill only a few hundred yards or so away. The sign on the mill, easily as tall as Aubrey, with letters as high her forearm, could be read from a good half-mile off:
Abela’s Woodworks Mill #3
Timber into Lumber
Planing, Planking, & Jointing
Custom Work by Appt. Only
The sign, like the rest of the mill, was meant to be seen. It spoke loudly of the wealth Abela had amassed. He was one the richest merchants in Aqualinne. Three breastshot mill wheels turned, and the sound of hammers and saws on wood could be heard during all the daylight hours. Abela sat at the head of the merchants’ guild. He owned a wood carving shop, another for furniture makers, and most of the mills that supplied them. Nearly any construction job within a twenty-mile radius of the town was his by default.
Abela was also more than a little attractive. His hair was lightly salted with enough gray to make him appear distinguished, but not yet old. Over the past few months, he’d started to make some subtle, but pointed, suggestions to her. He’d been married at one point and was now widowed. Aubrey didn’t have the details and hadn’t the inclination to find them. She and Maritta Veronique, Aqualinne’s full-time newspaper editor and part-time lawyer, were courting. None of that seemed to matter to Abela.
Truth be told, the thought was not altogether unpleasant.
It was usually nice to be wanted.
Except when there was a dead body in the mix.
Aubrey sighed, and turned to face Abela, her shoulders squared as if she expected a fight. She held his gaze and felt the uncertain calm right before a battle. Aubrey kept her stare flat, the kind she would use on corporals who thought the rules didn’t apply to them. Whatever he saw, it unnerved the normally placid burgher. He closed the distance between them so quickly her hand went to the handle of her baton at her waist before she realized he only meant to talk.
“Constable.” Abela spoke as if he’d caught her stealing a cooling pie from the window. “We have an arrangement.”
A wave of heat crept up Aubrey’s neck. She had her fingers in most of the best-lined pockets of Aqualinne one way or another. The Imperium didn’t exactly pay its peace officers the highest wages. It was common knowledge that most constables could be bribed to look the other way, especially by the ever-growing and more powerful merchant guilds. The Imperium even encouraged the behavior in a left-handed way to offset the cost of pensions and increase trade competition of goods that were less than legal. Petty graft and kickbacks were the nest egg of any forward-thinking constable who wanted to afford a comfortable retirement.
“Our . . . arrangement,” Aubrey hissed, “means reports of activities in the Old Forest get only cursory review, provided there aren’t too many, and they don’t come too often. It doesn’t mean I turn my back on murder.”
She stepped back from Abela so that they didn’t look like the conspiracy members they were.
“I’m afraid, sir, and with all due respect, that I need your cooperation.” She was losing patience and didn’t mind letting it show. “I don’t need to insult you by reminding you that my warrant as constable is signed by the Empress herself. That she sent me here to keep the peace and maintain the prosperity of Aqualinne. I’m at your service and the town’s. That includes finding out who killed poor Felspar here and seeing they get the justice they deserve.”
She gave him the same flat stare, her hand rested on her baton. Abela stiffened and daubed at his face with his handkerchief. He was as important as they came in Aqualinne. Aubrey was only the Empress’s constable, her hand in the small backwater known for the wood products that Abela helped produce. There were a thousand like Aubrey serving in every fair-sized town of the realm – former low-level officers who had served well but couldn’t quite make it on a military pension. It wasn’t wise to make an enemy of him, especially with what he had over her.
But she wasn’t without her own resources.
“Yes, yes.” Abela waved his handkerchief from side to side. He wasn’t mollified. Men like him couldn’t be, at least not for long. He reached his hand up to toy with the medallion on the end of his chain of office. It was a silver disk backed by a ring of polished, exotic, golden-yellow wood, most likely taken from the Old Forest. Abela could be brazen in subtle ways. In the sunlight of the day, the wood appeared to glow.
“And?” Aubrey pressed.
“And what, Constable?”
She paused and swallowed the exasperation she felt. She wanted to narrow her eyes, draw her baton, and beat him about the head with it. If this had been the Cimarron battlefields, she’d have had him clapped in irons and chained to a wall until he learned some common sense, or at least respect for her position. That thought sent a slight flush up her face. Hopefully, he would only think her angry.
“What else did you know about him?” she asked.
“I believe he has a family,” Abela replied. “A wife and two children, but so do many of my workers. He’s a decent timberjigger – he and his crew. Not outstanding, but solid, otherwise I’d hear of it from the foreman. Knows . . . uh, knew how to find the rare lumber we need.”
By rare, Abela meant the otherwise illegal lumber taken from the outer skirts of the Old Forest. Essentially, the man had been a poacher, and had no moral qualms about it. Abela as much as admitted to paying him for the risk. Abela had a handful of crews who illegally took the odd tree from the Fae lands.
No one was going to start a war over a few missing oaks.
Useless, Aubrey thought to herself. I might as well question the bartender where Felspar took his evening drink and find out how he liked his ale.
Across the mill pond a flash of light and movement caught her attention. It took her a moment to track, but once she had sight of it, she followed it easily. A wispy, gauzy, slightly luminescent form that moved along the water’s shore. If she hadn’t known better, she might have taken the figure for a child at play. But no child ever moved with the grace and speed that the figure exhibited.
“Burgher.” Aubrey kept her eyes on the Fae creature. “Does this pond have naiads?”
“Hmm?” Abela spoke through his handkerchief. “Oh, I suppose. Most any body of water around here that you can’t step over has one or two.”
“You have accords with them?”
“Of course,” Abela said. There was a light sarcasm to his response. “If we built where a naiad had claim, she’d be nothing but a bloody nuisance. Lure the workers away and leave them in the forest, steal essential parts for laughs. I’d sooner pour resin in all the wheels and cogs than build without Fae approval. Even with an accord, it’s as much like making peace with a bear. Never know when they might turn and take your head off. ”
“I don’t suppose you have a silver spoon, burgher? A new or newly polished one would be best. Or any silver. A penny?” Aubrey had one or two in her pouch, but Abela had pushed her. It was a small revenge, but she would take it where she could find it.
“A few, yes. Gold too.” Abela reached inside his coat and produced a velvet bag with ornate silk drawstrings worked with gold that clinked of precious metals. “Why?”
“It might be that your Fae friends know a bit more than you do.” Aubrey gestured toward the naiad skipping along the shore.
“One does not make friends with animals.” Abela poured the contents of his bag into his hand and sifted. “If they weren’t so damned dangerous, we’d be better off driving them out. They’re termites in the floor.”
He produced a shiny, silver penny with the likeness of Prince Marc, the Empress’ consort, stamped on one side, and the double-headed eagle of the Ludolf-Salian Empire on the other. Aubrey took the offered coin, a week’s wages for most woodcutters like Felspar, and pulled a soft cloth handkerchief from her pocket. She rubbed at the coin vigorously.
“Sergeant Hamnar,” she called to one of her deputies.
Aubrey wasn’t particularly fond of the woman. Not for the first time, she wished Tella was back from her trip. The Subian warrior had insisted on taking a passenger dirigible to visit the capitol, Grazburg. She was fascinated with how the gears and steam and glass all worked together to achieve wonders and wanted to see the points of interest. She also had a way with the Fae that couldn’t be learned. But Tella was in Aqualinne by choice and worked with Audrey out of respect and curiosity. She was not a deputy of the city, duty-bound to obey Audrey’s orders. Jexi Hamnar, on the other hand, was young, idealistic, and had an annoying eagerness to always do the right thing. She was too young to have experienced battle but had the kind of fire that made for heroic corpses. The ones the Imperial Court liked to toast at funerals and grant posthumous medals to show foot soldiers as examples of perfect sacrifice for the Empire. Aubrey didn’t really like heroes— they tended to get the people around them killed.
“Constable?” Hamnar said.
“What do you know about the Fae?”
“Just the stories,” Hamnar replied. “And the usual children’s games. Chasing a will-o’-wisp through the hills or trying to follow a spriggen back to buried treasure.”
“I thought not. This will be valuable. Have Antol and Elke take the body to the icehouse. Antol can arrange for Dr. Glocken to review the body and send his report. You’re with me.”
Hamnar nodded and moved to pass the orders to the other deputies.
Aubrey turned back to Abela.
“Thank you for your time, burgher. I’ll keep you updated on the investigation.”
Abela gave her a half smile.
“If you must.” He moved back to his waiting carriage, climbed inside and was gone.