"So, I'll be hunting down a fugitive for the Termi town law," Alys Brangwin said with a smile. "It seems like I've done this before."
Paul Denton, the town's Chief Marshal, didn't smile. He'd have said it was too much work for a man his size. Alys knew better; Denton was an example of the better class of lawman to be found in Meribia's towns. He was quick-witted, reasonably well-educated, honest without being naive, and cared about his town and the people in it. More than one of Alys's jobs as a hired hunter had brought her to Termi, and she'd come to see the burly marshal as one of the people she could rely on. If he wasn't smiling at a friend's humor, she figured there was a reason.
It turned out there was.
"This one isn't the same," he said. "For one thing, you'll be hunting a murderer, a nasty little cur of a sneak thief who got fast with his knife once too often."
Alys scowled at that. She hated professional thieves, who made a career out of other people's misery and more often than not had a couple of dozen excuses ready to justify why it was all right to steal instead of doing honest work.
"For another," Denton continued, "this one is personal."
"You knew the victim?"
Denton shook his head.
"That isn't it. I did know her, but only because of someone else. She was one of my son Ivor's friends, a girl he...I won't say dated, but they went out together now and again. He was the one that found the body and caught the killer red-handed."
"Wait a second. You said 'caught'?" That didn't hold together too well with the idea of hiring a hunter to chase down the fugitive.
Denton nodded, a grim look on his face.
"Yep, you put your finger on it. He found the killer, but the little snake ran for it and got clean away."
Alys sighed sympathetically.
"That has to hurt."
"Damn hard," he agreed. "That's why I asked the Guild for you right off instead of just asking them to post a general listing. You haul this sneak back in and the boy made a mistake, one he can learn from. The guy gets away, though..."
Denton didn't finish, and he didn't need to. Alys understood well enough without him having to lay his heart bare in words that the marshal's son would blame himself for letting the killer escape and he'd feel that guilt for a long time. It made her wonder just how good a friend the dead woman had been to him, and it made her wonder something else, too.
"Offhand, why is it that Ivor thinks he should have captured the man at all? I mean, most people I know don't just dive in and take on a thief, particularly one who's also a knife fighter standing over a fresh kill. Is he a soldier?"
Denton gave her a wan smile.
"You're still a sharp one. Actually, you might say he went into the family business. He's one of my deputy marshals."
"He'd have been halfway down the peninsula after Val by now, except the town council doesn't want its lawmen operating outside their jurisdiction. Tourists, you know."
Alys remembered that from previous visits. Termi thrived on tourism; it was a prime vacation spot for visitors from other towns who came for the coastal climate and to visit the Hill of the Person of Courage dedicated to the ancient heroine Alis Landale. The town council, sensitive to the opinions of so many people from other towns, did not want to appear that they were in the habit of empire-building by sending its law officers on official business outside the area where their authority was certain. As a hunter from Aiedo, Alys could do the job on behalf of Termi's marshals without offending the sensibilities of the local politicians. That kind of legalistic hair-splitting generally made her teeth ache, but it was a good commission if she succeeded and that eased the annoyance significantly. Alys always preferred when the stupidity of others worked in her favor.
"You'll want the complete details, of course. I'll let Ivor tell them to you. It'll give him a chance to feel like he's doing something productive, and since he's the eyewitness it'll work better for you anyway to get it from him without my editing."
"That'll be fine. Did you have anything else for me?"
Denton shook his head, making his thick jowls quiver, then reached over and yanked a bell-pull. The door opened to admit a short, blonde clerk with a jaunty ponytail.
"Take Alys to see Ivor."
The clerk took Alys through the large, airy marshal's headquarters to a large side-room which looked to be the office of the deputies. Though there were several desks and wooden chairs, only one was occupied, making Alys wonder if Denton had arranged it.
"Deputy Denton, this is Alys Brangwin. The Chief Marshal sent her to talk with you."
"You're Alys the Eight-Stroke Sword?" the deputy said. He'd been looking glum, but brightened at Alys's name. This was the precise opposite of Alys's reaction.
"Please, we'll get along better if you don't go using that stupid nickname," she groaned.
The clerk slipped from the room while Ivor Denton had the good grace to look sheepish.
"Sorry, Miss Brangwin."
"Alys, then. I was just so glad that it's you who's come from the Hunter's Guild. I know your reputation as the best hunter on Motavia."
She grabbed a chair from the nearest desk, pulled it over, and sat down.
"Don't waste your time flattering me. Let's get to the point."
Ivor nodded. He had a bit of his father's look to him, with a square build and broad shoulders, but lacked the Chief Marshal's sheer bulk, still possessing the fitness of energetic youth. He wasn't much past twenty years old, which explained a bit of his obvious hero-worship towards Alys, combined with the fact that he was desperate with hope that she would be the heroine he needed her to be, to cover what he saw as his own mistake. He took a deep breath and began the story.
"It was two days ago, in the morning. I was off-duty until nightfall, and I'd arranged for a swimming date with Rilah--that's the victim, Rilah Jenson. She was a friend; we'd known each other since we were children. As teenagers we'd dated now and again, more again than now as time went on." He didn't quite look at Alys, and she deduced that Ivor himself wasn't sure if Rilah had been a kind of habit, a girl to have fun with when his serious emotions were not engaged with someone else, or if he'd hoped to make her something more.
"Rilah had her own house, where she lived with one housekeeper; she had a high-class dress shop but that was a separate building nearer to downtown."
"She must have been doing very well for herself."
"Yes, quite well. She did excellent business with wealthy tourists, especially, who wanted something with a hint of the exotic to remember their trip by. Anyway, when I got there I found Barrett waiting outside, leaning against one of the big palms at the head of her front walk."
"Gart Barrett. Rilah's...boyfriend, I guess you'd call him. On again, off again, yeah, but more on than off. I can't say he was my favorite guy, but then again in that situation who would be?"
"I'm guessing that you weren't exactly happy to see him."
"Not," Ivor admitted, "in the slightest." He plunged on with the story.
"Denton," the other man replied. He was scowling a bit, clearly displeased, then burst into a sudden grin. "Well, this should answer one question, at least."
"You're here to see Rilah, right?"
"Yes," Ivor answered, then could not help adding, "We were going to go swimming this afternoon."
"Oho! That might explain it."
"Why I've been cooling my heels out here for the last half-hour."
"I'm beginning to think she's a bit put out with me. Mita took my message in, but Rilah hasn't deigned to let me in."
"The housekeeper." He grinned slyly and added, "I'd have thought you'd been around often enough to know that."
Ivor wanted to snarl at his rival's insult, but kept his cool with effort, not wanting to give Barrett the satisfaction.
"So if you've been obviously ignored, why wait?"
"Simple. I want to see if Rilah's just in one of her moods, in which case you'll get the closed door treatment, too, or else it's just me that has the problem. Flowers aren't cheap, and I don't want to start apologizing until I know if I actually did something wrong."
"I guess we'll find out now, won't we?"
Ivor strolled up the walk and knocked on the door. Meanly, he hoped Barrett would get an eyeful of Rilah letting him in--to say nothing of strolling out with him in her bathing costume. The best revenges were the ones where you didn't have to do a thing.
Only, no one answered the door.
Ivor knocked again.
"Rilah!" he called. "Mita?" Again, however, there was no answer.
He stormed back down the walk to the grinning Barrett.
"At least I got the door open."
"See here, Barrett, this isn't some stupid game, is it? They're really in there?"
"Unless they snuck out a back window. No one's come out that door since I've been here."
"Then why doesn't Mita answer? A caller might be anyone, a relative, even an important client." His brow furrowed as he tried to work it out, the deputy marshal starting to take precedence over the man. "I think we should check things out. Something might have happened; someone might be hurt."
Barrett nodded, his smile gone. He followed Ivor back up the walk and waited while he peeked in at one of the front windows.
"Barrett, there's someone on the floor in there!" he hissed. He unslung his heavy truncheon. "Stay behind me."
The door was unlocked; the knob turned easily and Ivor swung it open into the room. Like a lot of Motavian homes, the foyer was combined with the living room, and on the far side the figure of a blonde woman in a plain brown dress and white apron was sprawled face down.
"Mita!" Barrett gasped. Ivor went over to the woman and found that she was breathing, just unconscious. She looked to have been struck across the back of the skull.
"She's been knocked out," Ivor said.
"Where's Rilah?" Barrett yelped.
Ivor's answer was interrupted by a soft scuffling noise from the rear of the house. Someone was there, apparently startled by Barrett's raised voice. The marshal darted down the hall, Barrett at his heels, and burst into the bedroom. A wiry man with a shock of bright green hair was standing at the window, just putting his foot up on the sill, a large pouch bulging at his hip. Drawers and cabinets had been yanked open, their contents spilled out, and ornamental boxes of the type used to hold jewelry lay open and empty on the vanity table.
"Stop for the law, thief!" Ivor cried, but the green-haired man didn't hesitate, squirming through the narrow window. Ivor sprang across the room, but the thief squeezed through just in time to avoid his grip. The narrow window, Ivor realized, was almost too tight for his larger frame and broad build; he'd have to squeeze and wriggle through, probably taking a minute or more. He'd make better time just going out the front door and running around the house, but either way the practical truth was that the thief would have too much of a head start to catch. He turned to try it anyway, and then all thoughts of pursuit were cut off. Barrett was standing, staring wide-eyed at the bathroom door.
"Ivor!" he said, his voice halfway between a gasp and a shriek. "It's Rilah! He's..." Barrett swallowed nervously. "He's killed her!" He lifted a shaking finger to point, and when Ivor turned to look he, too saw the corpse of the girl he'd come to visit, the leather-wrapped handle of a knife jutting from her chest.