Crooked

Rain seeped out of the sheet of gray hanging low overhead. The sound of running water flowing through gutters competed with the pattering of the heavy droplets hitting the cobblestone directly. Gram peered down at the small, shield-like badge affixed to his cloak. He wiped off the raindrops that collected on it, and then surveyed the scene ahead of him, water dripping from the hem of his hood.

            “Who the hell kills a baker…?” he said, crouching down.

            The blood spilling out of the door of the bakery ran slick with the rain flowing around the stoop. The baker’s plump hand hung over the steps, still caked with flour that hardened in the creases of his fingerprints.

            “Also…why is a baker working in the middle of the night?”

            An officer behind Gram shifted his weight, the lantern on the pole in his hand creaking in its hinge. “Eh? What makes you say that?”

            “Flour on the hands.”

            The officer glanced past the baker’s body, sprawled out halfway across the threshold. The large stone oven was a sooty black mass in the corner, no spark of life in its belly. The warm light of a single lantern on the counter of the bakery blanketed the body and steps, pushing back against the night.

            “But the oven ain’t going, so…” the officer said.

            “Curiouser and curiouser. Any witnesses, Jennas?”

            “Nothing more than the shot and someone running off. No description. Could be a man, woman, or a goddamn demon.”

            “Never heard of a demon using a ‘lock before…I’d hope we don’t have to worry about that.” Gram pushed himself up, setting his left hand on the sword sheathed to his hip as he looked around the small alleyway.

            “…makes our job easier – won’t have to call in the Ivory,” Jennas said, sniffing.

            “Perhaps, keep those demon hunters on call though, just in case.” Gram stared down at the body again. “Tell the chirurgeons they can haul the body out; at this point he’ll just get in the way.”

            Jennas pivoted on his heel and waved over a small group of men garbed in black that stood next to a carriage parked a few feet down the street. They came up to the entrance to the bakery with a stretcher, and then swarmed the baker’s body on all sides. They pulled him from the doorway and turned him over onto his back, the blood soaked into his shirt shining in the lanternlight. Gram took a good look at the baker’s torso as the chirurgeons placed it on the stretcher – a single entry wound right in the diaphragm.

            “No apron,” Gram mumbled. “Certainly not working.”

            As the chirurgeons took the baker’s body away to the carriage, Gram and Jennas stepped inside the bakery. The smell of day-old bread was palpable, the creamy scent of butter faint in the corners of the establishment. Gram came up to the counter and placed a hand on it as he looked around.

            “He lived upstairs, yeah?”

            “Yee,” Jennas said.

            “Quite the nice place for a baker…did he live alone?” Gram asked.

            “Neighbours reported the incident, confirmed he had no other family in Altroim.”

            “Does this seem a little too…large for one man?”

            Jennas leaned his lantern pole against the doorframe and put his hands to his hips, sniffing.

            “Yee, could fit a family in here, a big one. Like me mum’s.”

            The strong smell of flour reached Gram’s nose, and he lifted his hand up from the counter, out of a small pile of flour. He clapped his hands and a puff of white popped from his palms.

            “See if you can find a ledger.”

            “Y’thinking he ain’t on the up ‘n’ up?”

            “This place seems a mite big for one man, too much for a baker’s earn. Let’s rule it out, or confirm it.”

            Jennas replied with “Yee” and began rifling through the usual spots one might keep an official ledger.

            Gram peered over the counter, where the baker would mill about in his work. A dainty sprinkling of flour rested on the floor, trailing from the counter to a wall full of small doors opposite the counter. Gram moved behind the counter to follow the flour trail, coming to the wall of small doors. He ran his finger over the edge of one, and it tilted open like a trough, the powerful scent of flour exploding from inside. Gram looked into the dark drawer, reaching for a scoop that stuck out of the mound of white powder. He swung the scoop back and forth deep through the flour, catching on something small and metallic. Gram picked a coin out of the trough and then tossed the scoop back, closing the drawer.

            “I found some manner of ledger,” Jennas said, appearing with a large, thin book held up in his hand. “We’ll have to give her a good thrice-over when we get back to the Hall. What’chu got?”

            Gram pointed at the door. “The baker had flour on his hands, but as you said, the oven isn’t on, and he also wasn’t wearing an apron.”

            “Right. But he still had flour on him?”

            “There’s a trail of flour from the trough here,” Gram walked up to the counter. “Over to the counter, here.”

            “Something in the trough, then?”

            Gram held up the flour-caked coin. “Something in the trough then.”

            “A coin? Izzat money?”

            “Money zat iz, and I doubt it was alone.”

            “We’ll have to see if he’s been seen with anyone in particular.”

            Jennas reached for the notepad at his belts after pinning the ledger under his arm.

            “Seems like…he was seen often visited by Farrier Gestral…from…Southend,” he said, leafing through the pad.

            “A smithy? In Southend?”

            “Definitely gonna be paying him a visit, aye?”

            “Let’s clear out of here for now, get the cordon down and whatnot. Tomorrow, you can give that ledger a peek at the Hall while I check out this blacksmith.”

            Gram and Jennas quietly filed out of the bakery, sure to give it one final once-over before a team of helmeted officers shuffled in.

~

            Around mid-morning Gram made his way to Southend, the titular south end of town. Mostly rural, with industry giving way to more of the fields, manors, and the cemetery. The smithing house of the farrier-of-interest was just past one end of the northern cemetery wall, its stout chimney belching out a soot-black pillar that faded into the blue morning sky. As Gram drew closer to the house, a series of clangs lacking any sort of rhythm echoed into the open air. Gram ran a gloved hand through his sandy-colored hair as he stepped into the room, the heat of the forge a thick wall that pressed against him as he entered.

            “Hello!” he called.

            The clanging stopped, and a short, balding man stepped out from the workstation.

            “Huh!? What?!”

            “Would you happen to be Sir Gestral?” Gram stepped further in, scanning the man.

            “Who’s asking?”

            “The law?” Gram tapped the silver badge on his cloak.

            “OH! Uh…pardon…I’m a tad muddled in the morning.” Gestral pulled large, almost unfitting black work gloves from his hands, and wiped his brow with his forearm.

            Gram hummed an acknowledgement and took in the workshop. A meager line of weapons hung on a wall near the entrance, swords and axes, all with misshapen blades and small divots in the shape of a hammer head on their broadsides.

            “So how’s the smithing, Gestral?”

            “A little hot, a little loud, what can you do, aye?”

            “Right. How long have you been set up here in Southend?” Gram asked, running his finger along the edge of a saber hanging on the wall. It was smooth, no chance of cutting flesh, let alone his glove.

            Gram could only make out several terribly-crafted blades, no firearms in the shop from what he could see.

            “Going on…methinks eight or so years. Aye, eight years,” Gestral replied, tossing his work gloves atop his anvil.

            Gram spun on his heel, twisting the dirt floor beneath his boot. “Business must be fairly decent then…”

            “It’s…business is okay. Apologies for me asking, Politia…uh…”

            “Gram.”

            “Gram, aye…what might I do for you this morning?” Gestral crossed his arms, covering his dirtied, white sleeveless shirt.

            “A baker in the Upton Blocks was murdered just last night,” Gram said, setting his hands on his belt, making sure to brush his cloak aside to give the farrier a decent view of the iron cuffs dangling from the right of his hip.

            Gestral’s eyes shot to the cuffs and then darted about his workshop. “A…a baker, you say? Sad tidings, to be sure.”

            “Sad tidings indeed. Witnesses questioned in the area say they often saw you with him.”

            “Ah, well…even I can’t deny my sweet tooth, sir. Would that be a crime?” Gestral flicked his thumb across the bottom of his nose, sniffing.

            “Plenty of bakeries between here and the Blocks. I s’pose those nobles found it curious a farrier from Southend would find himself up in an aristocrat’s bakery so often.”

            “Well…I…”

            “Would you happen to have any ‘locks in your shop, Gestral?”

            “No, sir. Gundpowder an’ the forge aren’t a recipe I’m fond of…” Gestral’s voice trailed off at the sound of hoofbeats approaching.

            “You expecting a client?”

            “N-no…?”

            “I’m not here.” Gram slid behind the forge, crouching down behind a workbench.

            Gestral fumblingly busied himself at his anvil when footsteps on the dirt scuffled inside the shop. Gram pressed himself against the brick of the forge’s back, leaning down beneath the legs of the workbench.

            “Gestral, it has been too long,”

            “…never thought I’d see you again.”

            “Why the glare, old chum?”

            Silence, but then the farrier said, “I heard Dolden…is dead.”

            “Dolden? What happened to the old boy?”

            “No idea, but you appearin’ from Upton certainly doesn’t seem right, either.”

            Gram noted the mention of Upton, stored it in the back of his head.

            “So no reunion for the Thicket gang?”

            “Not with Dolden dead, an’ certainly not after you disbanded the gang.”

            Gram caught a glimpse of the hem of the visitor’s shoulder cape from beneath the workbench. It was faint, but there was a patch of white embedded into the fibers. Gram would have wagered Jennas that it was flour. The rain from last night would have washed it away in the killer’s escape, but if he had whatever was in the flour trough in his possession, another helping of the powder could have fallen onto them in the seclusion from the rain.

            “So why are you here?”

            “To the point, then – your share, do you still have it?”

            “My share? What of it?”

            “I call upon you as an old compatriot, I need it.”

            “Oh piss off, we split that loot fair and square, and now you want what’s mine?”

            “Gest, don’t make me ask twice.”

            Gram heard the scuffle of feet, the clang of a hammer falling to the dirt.

            “I’ll say ‘piss off’ twice, you ain’t anything to me no more, can’t boss me around or take my cut. That was the deal, ‘member? We score the margrave’s estate, split the loot, and split the gang, none of this, this-this-this…” Gestral stammered.

            Gram heard the clack of a wheellock pistol’s hammer twisting on its hinges.

            “Hey now…I ain’t got none left but a small bit, no use to you. Barely of use to me.”

            Gram reached under his cloak, inching his own wheellock from its holster under his shoulder.

            “Then you’ve outlived your usefulness,” the visitor said.

            Gram jumped up from behind the workbench, whipping his pistol ahead of him. The visitor spun around, the red cape over his arm flaring as he yanked Gestral in front of him. He rested his pistol on Gestral’s shoulder, pressing the barrel into the crook of his neck.

            “The law binds you!” Gram ordered, stepping out from behind the workbench. “Drop the ‘lock.”

            He scanned the visitor, his head barely peeking out from behind Gestral’s head and shoulder. A man who definitely knew how to hide, his dress was fairly well off, befitting the implication of a man from the aristocratic districts like the Upton Blocks. His blond hair was slicked back with styling oil, and a single sharp, green eye stared, unblinking back at Gram past Gestral’s shoulder. The visitor’s pistol sank from Gestral’s neck.

            “Toss it before you,” Gram said.

            The ornate pistol disappeared behind Gestral’s back. A small hole erupted with blood over his heart as a loud crack filled the workshop. Gestral cried out as loud as the gunshot, and he flew forward towards Gram. Gram caught the farrier and they both fell to the dirt floor. Gram thrusted his pistol forward, hovering over Gestral’s body draped over him. He trained it on the visitor who was already flying out of the doorway, his flour-stained cape unfurled neatly, bringing the crest of his house to bear – a golden horse, rearing amidst a sea of the cape’s crimson. Gram squeezed the trigger and another crackle of gunfire muted the roar of the smithy’s furnace. His target too far away, and in such a compromised state, Gram’s bullet missed its mark.

            “Dammit!” Gram lowered his gun to inspect Gestral. “Hey, hey are you there?”

            The farrier groaned, his breathing hoarse. Dark red seeped into the chest of his grimed shirt. The visitor knew what he was doing. He could have shot the farrier in the neck or head, an instant kill to stop him from singing to the authorities. Instead he went for a shot in the back, fatal, but not immediately so, enough for an officer to prioritize the victim over the assailant.

            “Stay with me, come on now.”

            “That bastard…you saw…he…” Gestral’s breath slowed into a single, long exhalation as his body rested limply.

            “Yeah…I saw.” Gram stared out of the workshop’s doorway, watching a cloud of dust follow the escaping man he was sure was the killer, and doubly sure he didn’t like who he really was.

~

            Gram trotted with purpose through the rows of desks in the East Altroim Constabulary Hall, the long beams of sunlight from the tall windows washing the floor with a warm gold. Jennas sat hunched over his desk, running a finger along the lines of the ledger with one hand and taking notes on a pad with the other. Gram fell into his chair and the desk across from Jennas, letting out a deep, long sigh.

            “Heard about what happened at the smithy’s.”

            “Two dead bodies is not how I wanted this case to progress,” Gram said, crossing his arms and slouching down.

            “Sure the baker and the farrier weren’t fond of that either, aye?”

            “How goes the ledger?”

            “There is definitely a discrepancy here between what that bakery made, and values in the Blocks. Whatever the killer took from him, probably a nice stash of coin. Baker was usin’ it to supplement the pricey expenses, most like.”

            “I’m inclined to agree. The smithy’s killer demanded some sort of share of loot from him. Mayhap that’s what saw to the baker getting a bullet.”

            “Did he happen to say what it was for? Why he did it? Or…who he is?”

            “It’s not like he confessed with an open heart.”

            “Some day it will happen, I swear.”

            “I have…a hunch, though.”

            “What’s that?”

            “What is the house with the horse on their coat?”

            “It’s…House Camleff, innit?”

            “Right…I was afraid of that.”

            Jennas looked up from the ledger, and leaned over his desk as far as his stocky frame would allow. “Are you implyin’ what I think you are…?”

            “I honestly wish I wasn’t.”

            “There’s no other man to that house but Chief Constable Artego Camleff. Some count from the northwest, innit?”

            “Correct. Running for Parliament as well, isn’t he?”

            “Yessir, uh-huh.”

            “Perfect…”

            “What’ll you do? We can’t go after the chief of another district, let alone one running for a seat. We try, and we could end up in the gutters of Low Street by suppertime.”

            “How does a man like that even get to where he is…?”

            “Came from Teelton, I believe, a margrave’s son or summat.”

            “Far enough out in the boonies for people to not care enough about his appearance in the aristocracy.”

            “Well, if you say there was a score they split, he’s got the money to buy some fake nobility to fit right in. And after what he did to his old pals, he’s certainly got the mettle to stab more than a few backs to get ahead.”

            “And if he’s got his eye on a seat in Parliament, killing his former partners-in-crime would tie up loose ends. Cutthroat politics at its finest.”

            Jennas muttered, “Yee,” as he closed the ledger, tossing his pen onto the notepad at his right. Gram slouched lower in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose.

            “This case is giving me a headache…”

            “I s’pose that’ll be it then?”

            “What? Why? Two men are dead, Jennas.”

            “Yee, two crooked men, and we can’t touch the killer without losing our badges.”

            “No one is untouchable.”

            “You won’t stop until you’re felled in action or swinging for treason, will you?”

            “I’d much rather die at my desk, choking on my eighth oilcake.”

            Gram pushed himself from his chair.

            “Oh, speakin’ of…” Jennas reached for a small basket at the corner of his desk, and picked out a hand-sized ring of glazed dough.

            “Don’t eat them all, I want one when I get this done.”

            Jennas muttered something with a full mouth, and Gram snorted.

            “Gram, Jennas!” An aging man draped in a gold-trimmed cape called from the doorway of a room of glass walls.

            Gram tapped a finger on the ledger on Jennas’ desk, and headed for the room. Jennas licked his fingers and jumped from his chair, putting the ledger under his arm. The chief’s office gave a full view of the hall, to keep an eye on his subordinates, while also leaving him exposed to everyone’s eyes, ensuring trust and transparency in the Constabulary Hall.

            “You discharged your ‘lock this morning?” the chief asked.

            “Yessir,” Gram responded.

            “Why?”

            “Trying to halt the escape of a murderer from the scene of a crime, sir.”

            “Scene of what crime?”

            “Aforementioned murder, sir, by…the murderer.”

            “At the farrier?”

            “Correct. I was questioning the farrier himself when someone else appeared. I hid and overheard a conversation about a cut of loot.”

            “And you believe this to be connected to the murder of the baker last night?”

            “Yessir.”

            “What exactly is the connection between an Upton baker and a Southend smithy?”

            “The farrier was seen visiting the baker on several occasions, nearly a regular at the bakery. With little else to go on, I chose to meet with him.”

            “And?”

            “Although the farrier denied knowing of any baker, the conversation I overheard says otherwise,“ Gram explained. “He certainly didn’t seem to be a man on the straight and narrow either, especially after what we learned of the baker.”

            Gram turned slightly to Jennas, who stepped up.

            “We got the books from the bakery, and there’s a discrepancy in how much the baker was pullin’ in, and how much his expenses were.”

            “And the farrier seemed fairly well off to have been in business for as long as he has, but all of the work I saw in his shop was some of the worst smithing I’ve ever seen. No one would happily pay for such shoddy craftsmanship.”

            “Mayhap his shoeing was to die for.”

            “Possible, but I feel it’s unlikely.”

            “And what of inheritances? Dowries? They couldn’t be using those to support their hobbies?”

            “Farrier and baker both were unmarried, and their names are far from noble. They were proletarius.”

            “Then, this amounts to…what?”

            “We have reason to believe both the baker and the smithy were former thieves who are livin’ off of some big score,” Jennas explained.

            “The murderer from the smithy’s shop spoke of that score, and all but demanded the farrier’s share.”

            “And that’s what got him murdered?”

            “Precisely. The murderer’s cape also had what I believe to be the remnants of flour on it, which we believe is from the bakery. The baker may have hidden his stash of coin in a flour trough.”

            “Motive?”

            “Well, he obviously wanted their shares of the loot.”

            “But there may be another reason, as well…” Jennas muttered. “…tell ‘im, Gram.”

            Gram’s shoulders sank, and he meekly cleared his throat. The chief leaned back in his chair and brushed his bristly chin with a wrinkled thumb.

            “I have reason to believe the suspect is a man from House Camleff.”

            The chief’s eyebrows shot up into his forehead. His chair cried in stiff agony as he leaned forward and rested his palms on his desk.

            “What are you implying, Politia Gram? You do know who you are talking about, do you not?”

            Gram pursed his lips and nodded.

            “Count Artego Camleff is the chief of the Northern Constabulary.”

            “And running for Parliament,” Jennas said.

            “Yes, thank you Jennas. As the suspect escaped, I saw the coat on his cape. Fairly certain that it was House Camleff.”

            “That’s a dangerous conclusion to make,” the chief muttered.

            “None are above our laws, least of all the aristocracy. Less so fake nobility bought with ill-gotten gains.”

            “T’was nice knowing you, Gram,” Jennas said.

            “Listen, sir. The farrier was visited by an old friend, and the farrier himself often visited the baker. The suspect demanded the farrier’s cut of the score, citing their shared history, and killed him when the farrier refused to hand it over. The night before, the baker was killed and his own cut of the loot was most likely taken. Whether or not they both refused, or the baker acquiesced, they’re both dead. Unless my eyes were playing tricks on me, a man of House Camleff is responsible for the farrier’s death, and could almost certainly be placed at the bakery. If it truly is Artego, it’s possible he was removing anyone who could potentially sully his campaign, and taking their coin to fund it.”

            “Are you truly going to pursue this lead?” the chief asked.

            “If I’m wrong, he has nothing to worry about. But if I’m right…” Gram’s brow popped with implication.

            “You’ve no worry for your career?”

            “I’m more afeared of a loss of integrity, if I’m honest. I can’t let this go. We shouldn’t,” Gram said.

            “I feel that this is something to be left alone. Two men are dead, yes, but they were crooked men. A baker was cooking his books, and a farrier somehow survived professionally on a neophyte’s quality. Seems they got their comeuppance.”

            “But what about the murderer, sir? Should his uppance not come?” Gram crossed his arms.

            The chief leaned over his desk and took a deep breath. He glanced up at Gram from just past his angled brow.

            “I’ve said my piece on the matter. If you feel there is more justice to be served, then that is your prerogative. Dismissed.”

            Gram’s head nodded in quick, short bursts, and he left the room. Jennas followed.

            “So you are…going after him?”

            “You know me so well, Jennas.”

            “I…think I’ll stay here. There’s a bit more work to be done, filin’ the papers on the bakery and all.”

            “I understand, Jennas.”

            “No…look Gram, I…Tileah, the baby is soon.”

            “I understand, Jennas. Paperwork is important.”

            Jennas’ shoulders sank, his fingers catching the corner of the baker’s ledger.

            “He’s killed twice already. Be careful, Gram.”

            “Aren’t I always?”

            “No…?”

            “Then why start now?” Gram smiled and slapped Jennas on the shoulder, and then turned, leaving the Hall with a calm stride.

~

            A biting chill arrived with the moon. Gram walked down the cobblestone street that led to the estate of House Camleff, lit only by the lanterns hanging equidistant on the sides of the road. The estate was small compared to the others in the Upton Blocks, with little grandeur to its outward appearance, simply a squat, three-story square comprised of marble bricks. Gram stood patiently at the door after knocking, and entered behind the sway of a butler’s welcoming hand. Gram followed into the foyer where the butler left him. He took in the sights of the front room, with its modest furnishings, save for a garish painting of a blond man on a horse. Gram recognized that oil-slicked hair, and the piercing green eyes.

            “Master Camleff will see you now, in his study,” the butler said, guiding the officer with his hand again.

            Gram entered the study, of which its two bookshelves on either side of the room were meager, mostly bare of their namesake. Instead, they were filled with spread out trinkets and other items of little concern. Behind the desk, a chair was turned towards the bay window, a head of slicked-back blond hair peeking out from atop of the chair’s back.

            “To what do I owe the pleasure of an officer of the Eastern Constabulary?” The voice was definitely familiar, the same as the farrier’s visitor from that morning.

            Gram walked up to the desk and noticed a small patch of flour on the side of it.

            “To the point then…” Gram said.

            Camleff rose from his chair, a saber rattling at his hip, the gilded basket to protect the hand glinting in the faint, orange light. He rounded the desk, keeping eye contact with Gram as he stopped close to the officer. Camleff was an older man, slight creases at the corners of his eyes, with strands of white hiding among his blond locks, impostors of youth.

            “Where were you last night around…oh…eleven o’clock?”

            “Right here in my study.”

            “And what about this morning, six o’clock?”

            “In my dining room, enjoying breakfast.”

            “Is that…gunpowder I smell?”

            “Perhaps – I was target shooting today, in my yard.”

            “Really? How is your accuracy?”

            “Oh, I’m certainly no crack shot. Being of the old guard…I could only hit squarely a target I press the barrel against,” Camleff said, a grin slowly cracking across his face. “Fortunately, I’m off the beat, so my aim isn’t as much of a concern as yours is.”

            “Of course.”

            “I do certainly hope your aim is clean.”

            “Most certainly, my aim is always true.”

            Camleff let out a curt chuckle.

            “Do you mind if I see your firearm?” Gram asked.

            “Certainly.” Camleff drew his pistol from its holster, the barrel pointed directly towards Gram’s chin.

            Gram could smell the residue of a fired round snaking out of the barrel. Neither man broke eye contact as Camleff turned the pistol in his hand and gave it to Gram. The same ornate pistol that was shoved into Gestral’s neck. A spatter of blood was dried on the bore, smeared across the barrel. Camleff was rather careless in hiding evidence of his wrongdoing, or just maybe, Gram thought, he too believed himself untouchable. Why hide what you can’t be punished for?

            “It’s nice.”

            “Yes…a finely crafted wheellock for us superiors. You may get one someday, if you do well in your position; if you follow the rules.”

            “That would be the dream, wouldn’t it?” Gram said, tightly gripping the evidence.

            “I find them to be rather unruly, however. I prefer the fencing of my forefathers, only the crooked would use such an uncivilized thing.” Camleff kept his grin wide.

            “Yeah…those who don’t follow the rules and all.”

            Camleff chuckled, turning away and towards a bookshelf. “Do you remember the old days, although it might be before our time; the judicial system would allow crimes to be decided in a trial by combat?”

            “I remember the history classes, yeah. An archaic process, if you ask me.”

            “It’s fascinated me to no end, if I’m honest.” Camleff turned back. “Think of it – any man could carve out their innocence simply by being the best, the strongest. One didn’t even have to be innocent. Power controlled what was right.”

            “Which is why I’m glad Parliament did away with it. Truth should always prevail over power,” Gram said, his brow dipping in stern.

            Camleff clicked his tongue. “When did you join the constabulary?”

            “Near on five years, come Nox Primus.”

            “So by now you should know the way of this world of ours. The Eastern Constabulary presides over a large stretch of Altroim.”

            “A good range of Upton to Southend, and all betwixt.”

            “Then surely picking your battles is common course for you. Following leads in your own precinct, staying out of the affairs that don’t concern you.”

            “Oh of course, but I’m of a mind that feels that justice supersedes borders. Believe you me, I’d pierce the veil and do a jig through hellfire to deliver justice. Hence, my presence here.”

            “Figured it out, have you?”

            “Some old scores to settle, for an old score. A margrave’s estate, I hear. No matter how you got to where you are now, a past like that could plow a man’s career.”

            “Ha…I see. You’ll not take me in, unless you want to throw away your career.”

            “Caring more about career than duty is exactly why you are where you are, with me at your heels, correct?”

            “Yes well, with that career I can make your life very miserable,” Camleff said lowly.

            “I do that well enough on my own.” Gram shrugged.

            “Two crooked men dead, who is to care?” Camleff’s jaw tightened.

            “Well, the most crooked of the three still stands.”

            “You think they need justice? I served it to them when I laid them low.”

            “Justice isn’t simply about victims; it’s about punishing the crooked. And thank you for the admission to the charges. Makes my job easier.”

            Gram pressed his palms together in a show of mock grace. Camleff’s lips parted, revealing gritted teeth as he sneered.

            “Will you come quietly, or will we make a scene of it?”

            The two men stared each other down when suddenly Camleff threw a right hook into Gram’s face, sending him to bend over the desk. Gram turned around nursing his jaw to see Camleff doing what he apparently did best – fleeing.

            “A scene it is…” Gram lifted himself from the desk and placed Camleff’s ornate pistol beneath his belt, before rushing for the door.

            Gram burst from the study, his gaze darting down both ends of the hall, catching a glimpse of Camleff’s shadow on the far wall to the right. Gram gave chase, hustling down the hallway amidst the echo of their footfalls thumping on the wood and carpet. Ahead in the darkness, a patio door opened, the panes of glass catching the light of a sconce as it lazily swung to close. Gram slid through the door before it shut completely, his feet slapping on cold stone as he halted to catch Camleff’s flight. The noble was rushing down a curling stairwell on one side of the patio, and Gram took off, running straight for the patio’s railing and throwing his hands on it, swinging his feet between, and propelling himself down onto the yard. Gram landed on Camleff and both rolled through the damp grass, erupting into aggressive stances a few yards from each other.

            Camleff drew his saber, a flashing line of silver arcing in the moonlight.

            “Oh come now, really?” Gram’s shoulders sank.

            “Let us see which prevails – your Truth, or my Power!”

            Gram knew he could never take an aristocrat with years of sword training. There was, however, one thing he knew would prevail; above truth, and above power. Gram’s right hand slid like a lightning bolt under his cloak, drawing his wheellock, flicking the hammer, and blasting a round from the barrel in one swift motion. The lead bullet spiraled into the curve of Camleff’s elbow, throwing his arm back and his sword flying from his hand. Camleff screamed, taking a knee as he clutched his arm. Gram replaced his pistol and pulled his handcuffs from his belt as he trotted forward.

            “Chief Constable Artego Camleff, the law binds you. Any action you take hereafter while detained may be used counter to your own defense,” Gram recited.

            “I know my rights, you fool,” Camleff growled.

            “If you truly did, I would imagine you knew that getting away with murder and theft aren’t among them. Now let me finish – it is suggested that you refrain from action until representation is available to you,” Gram continued, latching the cuffs around Camleff’s wrists.

            “Gram!”

            Gram and Camleff turned their attention up towards the patio, where Jennas stood in lanternlight with two other officers and Camleff’s butler, who looked as horrified as he did confused.

            “Jennas, you made it!” Gram called, smiling.

            “Sorry for tuckin’ me tail earlier,” Jennas said as he descended the stairs.

            “No complaints from me, only makes this easier.” Gram pulled Camleff to his feet. “You would have fallen behind anyway, Camleff decided to run.”

            “Oi I hate it when they run,” Jennas grumbled.

           “You’ll be chuffed to hear though – he admitted to the murders both.”

           “I told you! Someday is today!” Jennas cackled.

            “I’ll have your badge for this, mark my words,” Camleff growled as Gram passed him off to the other officers.

            “Just because you’re going to lose yours doesn’t entitle you to mine.”

            Gram drew the aristocrat’s pistol from his belt, handing it to his partner.

            “Wuzziss?” Jennas said, taking the ornate firearm in his hands.

            “Evidence. Now we know who the hell kills a baker.”

~

            Count Artego Camleff was detained on the charges of theft and murder of Dolden Elef and Gestral Tan. When the trial began, Artego’s real identity was revealed to be Dar Leifwen, the leader of a defunct bandit group, of which Dolden and Gestral were also members. Another two counts of theft and murder were applied for the discovery that Dar and his group had set upon the manse of Margrave Tressl Camleff and manufactured his passing from illness, allowing Dar to assume the identity of his son, who had been killed as well. Dar was convicted on all counts and imprisoned for life. Dar was later killed by another prisoner when he attempted to wrest influence through what he declared a trial by combat.

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This story is part of the Adjacent Anthology, a devised collection of stories that take place in the same world as Blast Back, which you can also read for free by following that link!