A long-haired dog licked at Athia as they reached Ted’s home. It moved out to greet her, but never strayed more than a few feet from the door. Ted the ice maker met Athia on her third knock. He ran it with his two sons. The older son left his wife and two children with their grandmother and an older cousin, for safety. Ted’s younger son watched over his brother and father.
“You’re the one here to, eh, catch that lurker, right miss?” Ted asked when he saw her.
He stood in the doorway of his business. The sign above read, “Never Too Cold.” Two small towers, less than a foot in diameter, sat at the front corners and spiraled down deep into the Earth. Pipes topped the towers, letting off excess heat from the cooling rooms. They worked by a symbolic contraption that siphoned heat.
“Yes, and I need your aid. We’re going to investigate the ice chests; I think the creature is storing the bodies there.”
Ted’s hand rubbed against his doorframe. “They checked that already. Even tore my place up looking.”
“I think they missed something,” Athia said, an easy to justify half-truth. She wanted to check the cooling systems instead. Close enough, but he didn’t need to know that.
“If you think that will help, I can send my boys.”
“Thank you. Oh, and they need you to help at the main hall. There’s an issue with the heating system. You need to be with others anyway.” She pointed to three Tricorn members, waiting behind Athia’s own escort.
“I have work to do,” Ted said.
“Of course sir, but these are difficult times and we can’t afford the hall freezing over.”
Ted licked his lips and said, “alright, let me go get them.”
Athia grabbed his arm before he could move inside. “They’re waiting,” she said with a firm voice.
“Y-yes.” Ted gave a slow nod and walked out toward the Tricorn. Athia watched him as the Tricorn flanked him and walked with him toward the hall.
“What do you think?” Clare asked in a whisper.
“Maybe,” she said, “but, maybe too suspicious.”
When the group left sight, Athia and her guards headed into the building. They’d stopped by the Socratians on the way back, letting them know all was clear, though Athia wished she could have spent more time talking with them before leaving.
Inside, a clean lobby met them. Athia called out to the brothers, one replied with, “coming, just a minute.”
As they waited, Tana fixed her attention on Athia. “How did you get your last name?”
“I picked it, before someone picked one for me.”
Clare’s face scrunched, “you can’t just pick one for yourself.”
Tana spoke, slow and unsure, “I could just decide I want one? Besides just Tana Tricorn or Tana Spear?”
“It’s your identity, don’t let someone else choose it for you.”
Tana thought on that as Ted’s younger son, Cline, approached them.
He smiled, strong from hauling heavy ice blocks and heavier equipment. His thick coat fit the ice cellar far more than the comfortable coolness of the room.
“Something up? Can I help you?”
“Your father told us you could help with some investigating. He’s helping at the town hall right now.”
“Yeah, let me get my brother. What’s wrong at the hall?”
Cline called and his brother, Tren, and the two joined the women on a walk down to the upscale side of town. Galister lacked a clear delineation of regions. The hodgepodge core of the town gave way to whatever else someone thought to build next. A familiar sort of confusion, eased away by the locals’ surprisingly high literacy. Correctly spelled and used signs went a long way.
Still, those with means always huddled close. In Galister, that meant behind the town hall.
As they traveled that way, Athia thought back to the morning’s murder. It frustrated her, chances were good that man might live if Gar didn’t hand out weapons to a frightened, untrained populace. But it also raised a question. What if the dead man, she learned his name was Zak, came to his friends for good reason? She wouldn’t be surprised if the lurker orchestrated it, to further enflame the situation. Part of her wanted to rush to investigate it, but she didn’t want to give the creature time to hide the bodies if she was right about this. And she didn’t want to fall for another trick.
They searched the first three homes to no success. Athia’s suspicion hinged on the fact that the heating worked, at least in part, by forcing hot air up and out the home. Stick a body there, on top the cooling section, where the air flowed through and up and you might be able to hide a body. The local guards searched the obvious places. Cellars, attics, ice boxes, warehouses, and all the other little nooks that miscreants thought clever.
The cooling systems escaped scrutiny due to misunderstanding of how they worked. A common misunderstanding. Much of the air went straight out the top, instead of circulating within an enclosed space, due to the size constraints of the symbols and inscribed parts.
Both owners of the third home let the group in without argument. Athia thanked them for saving the hassle of the last two. The brothers lead them through the large home and set a ladder up in a back hallway behind the larder
Clare and Tana watched the brothers. Once they opened it for Athia she climbed up the ladder. The trapdoor at the top took a little effort to force open, but once she loosened the hinges it popped without any more trouble. She held out a lantern in the small crawlspace. A few roaches moved in the dark.
Athia pointed a spike down the path toward the vent that let out. It traveled several feet beyond the light of her lantern. Then it stuck something. Her spike retracted and a dead weight forced her to put a little effort into it. A dark mass clunked and pulled against the vents, knocked twice, then bare feet came into the light.
She grimaced and shouted, “found one.”
It took some work, but they got the body out of the vent, along with a second a few minutes later. When they came free, and Athia failed to find another with her spikes, she climbed in and started crawling. Clare got up the ladder to watch her while Tana kept eyes on the brothers.
She squeezed, flexed, stretched, and wiggled her way to two more corpses. The difficult part of the work came from the weight, the creature broke most their large bones to squeeze them into the vents. As she got them out, her mind settled on a new question. One she didn’t think over sooner because she needed to locate the bodies first.
How did it put them in the vents without someone knowing?
So she climbed down and asked.
“What’s the easiest way for it to get those bodies in there? Without the owners knowing?”
Cline said, “if you can fit, probably the roof. I don’t know how it would sneak up there.”
Athia’s help, both the women and men, handled the endeavor better than she anticipated. Or at least they faked it well. None of them much enjoyed pulling ruined bodies from a cooling shaft, but they didn’t complain. No outwardly at least.
“We’ll summon the militia, have these taken for examination,” Athia said. “Important thing is to try and identify them.”
The lurker already removed most, if not all identifying marks. Must have that night, but these would likely line up with the known dead. Better than nothing, and cutting off the beast’s avenues of disposal would go far in hemming it in.
Frustration needled at her as the militia removed the bodies and questioned the homeowners. Athia tossed her spikes on the top of the home and shot herself up to the roof. The hatch for the vents sat opposite the chimney. A cursory glance told her, with the bones broken, it wouldn’t be too hard to fit the bodies down there.
Other large manors sat close enough to move roof to roof with a long stride. It led all the way o the ramparts of the palisade. At least six buildings, maybe eight though she couldn’t be sure without getting closer, lined up enough to make easy access. The creature only needed regular access to one to stash bodies in any of the vent systems.
“Get some lamps,” she shouted down to Tana. “Tonight, I want the rooftops lit and under close watch.”
She stayed on the roof a little longer. A few birds roosted nearby, undaunted by the coming winter. Few besides the patrols moved on the ground. It gave her a few moments of solitude. Some time to think again.
How much longer could this go on? Athia could tighten the snare, but she wasn’t sure she could choke. The lurker didn’t fear her, not after beating her to the punch once again. But fear wouldn’t help regardless. No threats, truth or lie could change the creature’s course. The lurker might be after something as grand as destruction of the Tricorn’s section of Loiys, or it might simply want to kill one person in an exceedingly specific manner. Either way it wouldn’t stop so long as it lived.
And she still needed to find the heads.