Tracker

forest-and-fog-1406291Fog swirls around your feet in playful eddies. You watch them instead of the back of the man walking in front of you. Even though you’re not looking at him, however, you can’t escape what his presence means.

His knock came at your door less than an hour ago. You live well away from town, anyone visiting in the early hours of the morning isn’t a good sign, but this one’s even worse than usual. Grim faced and clothed in his distinctive blacks, he held out his badge and asked for you to follow him. It wasn’t a question though. You weren’t given a choice. No one refused the Inquisitor.

“Found the body by the lake,” he starts explaining without any preamble. “Someone took a wire to the girl’s neck.”

“Who is it?” you rummage up enough courage to ask.

The Inquisitor glances over his shoulder. The look’s dark, disapproving. “None of your business. All you have to worry about is tracking the culprit.”

You keep your silence although part of tracking is anticipating where somebody’s going to go and seeing if the evidence supports your guess. A-wounded-deer-heads-toward-water kind of thinking.

The sun crests the horizon before you reach the scene. It’s not warm enough, though, to burn off the fog. All it does is make it bright and crisp.

“Over there,” the Inquisitor gestures to where you can just make out the edge of the lake in the fog. It laps gently against the dark rocks of the shore.

You see the crumbled shape of the woman and approach by stepping on larger rocks. You needn’t have been so careful, though. There’s a bevy of footprints around the body.

You keep your eyes averted from her bloodied throat and focus on the ground around her.

“Disturbed the scene rather badly,” you mutter.

“Old fisherman who lives down the lake found her,” the Inquisitor replies. He comes to crouch beside you. “These prints,” he points out a smooth, narrow set of prints. “Are his and these,” he points to heeled boot prints, “are mine.”

You glance at his feet.

“Let me see the soles.”

He scowls but you hold out your hand like you’re asking him to hand something over.

“Tracking’s my job,” you insist and keep your hand out.boot-1256402

He grumbles but lifts up one foot so you can see the tread on the bottom of his boot. You examine them and move on.

“These are her’s,” you trace in the air a smaller impression. The woman walked more on the balls of her feet than her heels, which left little but the toe print of her slippers. “You have anyone else out here?” you ask.

“My boy,” the Inquisitor answers, “he’s in training.”

“Boots like yours?”

“Just smaller,” he nods.

You move around the body, disregarding the prints you know until you find some you don’t. “Odd,” you mutter under your breath.

“What?”

You jump and only then realize you spoke out loud.

“The fisherman may not have been the first to find her,” you point to two round spots in the sand beside her body. “Someone knelt here and tried to stem the flow of blood from her throat. When it didn’t work, they pitched the rag they used.”

“How do you know that?”

You point to some willows by the shore. “They threw the rag into the water. The water brought it back.”

A bright red cloth tangles in the long stalks of the willows. The Inquisitor moves to retrieve it and you welcome the two seconds when he’s not watching you.

“Whoever tried to stem the blood may have witnessed the murder,” you say, “those tracks are pretty clear heading that way.” You indicate a trail headed toward the fisherman’s house down the lake. “These tracks might be the killer,” you point to another indentation but it’s faint, smudged by others and lacking much to make them distinctive. Leather shoes maybe, you guess, because there’s no hard sole to the indentation. “They’re going to be difficult to follow. Which do you want first? The Witness or the Killer?”

The Inquisitor drops the bloodied rag into a leather sack and doesn’t look up.

“You decide,” he says, “who do you think you can find faster?”

A. The Witness?

Or

B. The Killer

Tracker Option A: The Witness

forest-and-fog-1406291Neither the witness nor the killer will be easy to find but the witness’ tracks are by far the clearer in the sand. Plus, you’d rather not track a killer while the fog’s so thick.

“This should be faster,” you point at the witness’ prints. “We following them now or do you need to do something with her body?”

“My boy’s coming to get the body,” the Inquisitor gestures for you to lead the way up the shore.

“All right,” you move forward at a low crouch until you spot where the witness moved into the trees. The fog still swirls around your feet and the tree trunks but the day’s slowly warming and the gray mist has thinned to the point you can see ten or so feet ahead. The dew from it clings to the branches and wets your hair and shoulders as you move into the foliage.

The Inquisitor’s steps crunch softly on the damp underbrush behind you.

The trail heads deep into the trees where the witness brushed past several thorn bushes. You stop to pull a piece of fabric from one of the thorns.

“Same kind as the bloodied piece we found earlier,” you observe and hand it over to the Inquisitor. “It’s from a pocket,” you explain further, “a decorated pocket. We might be looking for a girl.”

“You tell that from a piece of fabric?” the Inquisitor asks, one brow raised.

“No,” you start moving again as you speak over your shoulder, “the fabric confirmed my suspicion. Length between the knees and the feet when the girl knelt was what clued me in.”

The Inquisitor gives a grunt in response. It’s the most approval you’ve gotten so far from him and you hide your smile as you inspect a tree with a broken branch.

“The dead girl was Cora Straight, wasn’t she?” you ask but keep from looking back so you don’t see the Inquisitor’s  dark frown of disapproval.

Silence. It’s enough of an answer for you, though. You didn’t know Cora well, met her once or twice at a community dance, and you wanted confirmation of her identity. But, despite living away from town, you stay informed about the goings on in the community.

The biggest to do lately was about Cora. She had three suitors and it was becoming an issue because she wouldn’t choose one. Bit of a flirt but a sweet girl as far as you recall.

“Your boy was one of the suitors, wasn’t he?” you ask and this time you do look back to gauge his response. He gives you such a look that you almost look away but then some part of you rebels and you lift your chin and hold his gaze.

He frowns, perhaps confused that you didn’t give in to his dark demeanor.

“Afraid he’s part of this?” you press.

“He was with me last night,” the Inquisitor finally responds, “but that in itself will look like favoritism unless I have more proof it wasn’t him.”

People hate the Inquisitor, fear and hate him. You can see his point. People will take the first possibility to call his judgment into question.

You move forward. You’ve never dealt with the Inquisitor before but now you’re starting to see, he must be a very lonely man. Appointed to this town as law keeper but restrained, by his duty, to not get too close to anyone. Tends to make people hate the law keepers, the rule about remaining aloof.

You hold up your hand for stillness and the soft crunch of the Inquisitor’s steps goes silent. You gesture for him to stay where he’s at and move forward on your own into the small glade you just found.

Small patches of grass are laid over from the girl’s steps but the grass is springy. The girl was here recently.

A faint whimper comes from the far side of the glade. You continue forward and then sit down in the grass beside a young woman. She’s just old enough to wear a woman’s dress but not old enough to be comfortable in it. And she looks like a smaller version of the dead woman.

The Inquisitor’s far enough back that the fog keeps him hidden.

You pull your cloak off and drape it over the girl’s shoulders. Then you simply sit beside her and wait.

“She had a date,” the girl finally says, “with one of her suitors.”

“Which one?” you ask when she doesn’t continue.

She shakes her head. “Cora wouldn’t say but she was so excited I wanted to see who it was, so I followed her to the lake.” The girl cuts off and stifles a sob against her hand.

twig-1526282A twig snaps and she swivels around in fright. She spots the dark shape of the Inquisitor and utters a screech.

You grab her arm before she can bolt.

“Did the suitor look like him?” you ask.

“Yes—no, I mean, kind of,” she shakes her head hard and tears roll down her cheeks. “The suitor had a dark cloak like him but he wasn’t the one that killed her.”

You shoot the Inquisitor a dark look. The only ones allowed the wear black cloaks are the Inquisitors and their trainees, which means the Inquisitor’s boy did see Cora the night before. He lied to you but you refrain from saying anything for now.

“What did the killer look like?” you ask.

“I didn’t see him well. I was leaving to get back home before Cora when I heard her scream. When I got back to the lake I saw a man crouched over her. He was stocky in the shoulders and had a green coat but the hood was up, so I didn’t see his face. I hid until he left and then went to help Cora but—but I couldn’t.” Full, shuddering sobs overtake her and you wrap an arm around her shoulders.

“The other two suitors match her description,” the Inquisitor mutters. “One’s a woodsman, the other’s a smithy.”

“Green coats?” you ask.

He shrugs. “Only one way to find out. Which one do we see first?” he asks.

You’re not sure why he’s asking you. Taking a moment to think on it, you can’t come up with a good reason not to call the two suitors to the Inquisitor instead of him paying them each their own visit. But you kind of want to look over the tracks at the crime scene again now that you’ve heard the witness’ story. Do you…

Aa. Opt to See the Suitors?

Or

Ab. Reinvestigate the Scene?

Tracker Option Ab: Reinvestigate the Scene 

“See the suitors if you want,” you say, “but I’m headed back to the lake. I want to make more sense of the tracks now that I know more of the story.”

The girl, definitely Cora’s younger sister, looks at you with a horrified expression but the Inquisitor simply nods. “Makes sense.” He gestures for you to lead the way.dew-covered-nettle-1499321

The fog’s cleared by now, leaving dew on every branch and leaf. The small bits of water sparkle in the weak sunlight. It’d be beautiful if you weren’t searching for a killer but the day’s cold and you can’t keep a shudder from running your spine.

The girl hurries to keep close to you. “He’s kind of scary,” she whispers.

You glance back at the dark man in his Inquisitor clothing. The expression on his face stays bland, almost expressionless, but you catch his eyes and there’s a hint of worry there. Perhaps he’s concerned for his boy.

“He’s just doing his duty,” you reply. “It can’t be an easy job.”

The girl gives you a wide-eyed stare like the concept of the Inquisitor being human never occurred to her.

When you reach the shore of the lake again, you find nothing disturbed. Thankfully, the Inquisitor’s boy hasn’t arrived yet to gather the body. You gesture for the girl and Inquisitor to stand back while you look at the scene again.

So much of it has already been muffled by others walking around the scene that you can’t find where Cora and the Inquisitor’s boy spoke to each other. For all you know, that spot could be directly beneath the body.

It’s easy, however, to locate where the girl knelt to help Cora. Tracing those tracks backwards, you find they come from the same direction as Cora’s prints. That makes sense. She followed her sister from home. You follow them to find where the girl hid to watch the encounter. Just within the tree line you find the spot, clearly outlined by the fact that she sat on a bush to keep from sitting on the damp earth.

You look for her prints when she headed back and then heard the scream. The incoming tracks speak loud and clear. The outgoing tracks—you look carefully to make sure they aren’t mixed with the incoming—but even taking that possibility into account, you don’t see where the girl left her hiding spot to head home. You do see where she rushed toward the lake and Cora though.

You start looking again to make sure you’re not missing something. Before you’re finished, you hear voices back by the lake.

“I was only here for a few minutes,” says a voice you’re not familiar with. You peek out of the trees to see another man with the Inquisitor. Due to his blacks, you know it’s his boy in training. “I wanted to give her the necklace I made.”

tool-n-toy-1557954Necklace? Although you didn’t look closely at the body, you’re pretty sure she wasn’t wearing a necklace.

The boy jumps when you appear out of the trees. “What necklace?” you ask.

He looks to the Inquisitor before answering.

“Made it out of cord, three strands of different colors. Nothing fancy but I wanted to give her something unique.”

The girl stands behind them with her face down, chin and nose tucked tight into the collar of your cloak that she’s still wearing. Even with her head down, though, you catch the upturn of her eyes. She’s watching the Inquisitor’s boy through her lashes but you can’t quite tell if he fascinates her or scares her.

You return to the body and actually look at Cora this time. No necklace hangs around her neck but you can see where something was drawn tight around her throat.

“Could this necklace have cut her?” you ask.

Tears well in the boy’s eyes. He nods. “I made it sturdy. Wanted it to last awhile.”

The tracks you pointed to earlier as maybe being the killer’s catch your eye. You look at the boy’s feet and, sure enough, he’s wearing soft soled shoes, not the boots he must have worn earlier when he and the Inquisitor came to investigate.

The girl’s story doesn’t fully add up. There are no more tracks, so there wasn’t a second man who came to kill Cora.

A sinking sensation makes your stomach roll.

The Inquisitor asks the boy another question but you don’t focus on it while you’re reexamining the scene. You’re sure of your conclusion, however. The only people who came to see Cora are standing on the shore with you right now, except the fisherman who found her. You disregard his prints though, because they’re clear and the fisherman had no reason to kill Cora. He’s mostly a hermit.

The killer’s right here but who is it? Where’s the necklace? You glance at the others from the corner of your eye. You could pull the Inquisitor aside and tell him but there’s the possibility he’s trying to cover for his boy. If that’s the case, you and the girl could be in danger.

Or it could be the girl. In which case, it’d be advantageous to clue the Inquisitor in so he can catch her in her lie.

Do you…

Ab1: Speak with the Inquisitor?

Or

Ab2: Protect the Girl?

Tracker Option Ab1: Speak with the Inquisitor?

In the past, the Inquisitor’s shown he puts his duty above personal attachments. He obviously cares for his boy in training, but you doubt he’d put the boy above justice. Plus, you’ve got to trust someone.

“Can I show you something?” you ask him.forest-and-fog-1406291

The boy and girl try to follow when you move to show him where the girl hid within the trees.

“Just the Inquisitor,” you tell them. “This won’t take long.”

They glance at each other but don’t argue and you lead the Inquisitor away.

“Something doesn’t add up,” you tell the Inquisitor softly. “Can you confirm the existence of this necklace?”

“Saw him working on it over the last week,” the Inquisitor confirms.

“There’s no necklace on her body,” you tell him. “And there are no tracks from the girl heading towards town.” You point out the bush she sat on. “She never left her spot, so she either saw Cora’s death or she did it. Also, I’ve identified all the tracks around the body. There wasn’t another man here last night. It was your boy, Cora and her younger sister. The only others belong to the fisherman.”

“If my boy did this,” the Inquisitor says, “why would the girl cover for him?”

You tilt your head back toward the other two. Since you’ve left them alone together, they’ve struck up a stilted conversation.

The girl’s dark head remains down through most of the conversation but she keeps glancing up through her lashes. At this distance, you can just make out the faint tint of a blush across her cheeks.

“She likes him,” you say.

“Enough to cover for him?” the Inquisitor’s voice for once isn’t monotone. You hear the pain in the words.

But you don’t respond immediately. The girl stuffs her hands in her pockets and fiddles with whatever she’s carrying. It’s a nervous gesture. Something she’s not even aware she’s doing judging by how focused she is on her conversation with the boy.

“What colors were the necklace?” you ask.

“Blue, green, and purple,” the Inquisitor’s watching you, waiting. He seems to have gotten to the point where he trusts your observations.

“She’s not covering for him,” you say and look away from the boy and girl just as she glances toward you. “She’s got the necklace in her pocket.”

You saw it, just for a moment, before she realized she was fiddling with it and pulled her hands from her pockets.

“You’re sure?” the Inquisitor asks.

You simply nod. All the pieces fit except the why. Why would she kill her sister? For the boy, perhaps. She did keep the necklace instead of destroying it.

“What’s the world coming to?” the Inquisitor mutters but it’s a rhetorical question and he walks away before you can answer.

“Miss Straight,” the Inquisitor addresses her for the first time.

She jumps and hugs your cloak tight around her like she can hide within it.

“Yes?”

“Tell me your story again. What happened last night?”

She starts to tell it but instead of letting her tell it uninterrupted, the Inquisitor stops her again and again, asking questions at each small detail. His skill in the questioning unnerves you but you see the purpose in it. Within moments, her story starts to fall apart.

“I started to head home—“

“The tracks don’t support that. You saw the murder,” the Inquisitor interrupts.

“I looked away, I saw nothing, I—“

“Was the necklace on her when you rushed to help?”

“No—“

“Then how did you come by it?”

The boy gasps at this and Miss Straight goes completely silent as her hand sneaks into her pocket. She shakes her head as thoughfriendship-bracelet-4-1495065 to deny his question but then spins to run. Her feet catch in your cloak and she falls.

The Inquisitor moves to tie her up.

“Why?” he asks. “Why did you kill her?”

“She had everything,” the girl mutters with enough venom in her tone that it doesn’t sound like her. “I didn’t mean to kill her. I just wanted something pretty. Something small.”

***

After more investigation, you and the Inquisitor find out that Miss Straight has always been a bit unstable, tending to steal things she finds pretty. The Straight family kept her cloistered due to it, but on the night of Cora’s death, her younger sister snuck out to follow her.

All she wanted was the necklace but Cora fought her when she tried to take it. Things went downhill from there.

You develop a professional friendship with the Inquisitor and he calls on you for any case in which your skills might be useful but you rarely speak of that first case. Something about it always haunts you.

The End

Blessings and have a wonderful weekend!

Jennifer