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It had been a frustrating time for Bookworm. She and others of the Militia had been searching for the killer, but could find no leads. The disappearance of the second body certainly hadn’t helped matters, either. She could feel the mood of the city growing more on edge, tensed, as if waiting for the next blow.
And, indeed, it wasn’t long in coming. She had returned home from another fruitless day of searching for clues, and had just removed her cloak, when Mrs. Pritchard called out, “Miss Bookworm? There’s a note for you on the table.”
Bookworm picked it up, scanned its contents, and quietly cursed. Another body–this time, behind the Literary Annex in Academy. She shoved the note in her pocket and reached for her cloak when there was a banging at the door. She opened it to a tall, rough-looking, bearded man, one whose bearing provoked an immediate feeling of antipathy in her. “May I help you?” she said, trying to quell that reaction.
“My name is Cortman,” the man said, coughing lightly.
“Ahh–so you’re Mr. Cortman.” Word had been spread asking for Mr. Cortman to assist the Militia with their investigations, but he had not approached any of them until now. With some reluctance, Bookworm stepped aside and said, “Come in out of the cold.”
He stepped inside and stood towering over her. Bookworm fleetingly wondered why seemingly every adult in New Babbage was so much taller than her. Then her attention was caught by his question. “What happened to Yolinde?”
Bookworm frowned, unsure how much he knew. “I’m sorry, but he was killed.”
“I meant his corpse,” Cortman replied impatiently.
Bookworm flushed. She really didn’t want to get into this with him, but there didn’t seem any way out of it. “That, I do not know.”
Cortman lit a cigar–without asking leave. “How do you lose a corpse?” he asked contemptuously.
“There was… a miscommunication. I thought other militia members had taken charge of it, and they thought I had. Unfortunately, we didn’t discover the trouble for some time.”
Cortman broke in abruptly. “Another of my men is missing.”
Bookworm stilled, wondering if she would soon be going to that missing man. “Can you provide a description?”
Cortman, however, seemed less interested in assisting her than in getting his message across. “If his corpse vanishes under your watch too, I may just have to do something about it. I’m missing four men total. Boeman went missing last night, looking for Yolinde–before anyone bothered to tell me his corpse had been found.”
Bookworm felt her patience slipping, and frowned. “You are not exactly an easy man to find. And perhaps if you had told *us* they were missing when it happened…”
Cortman coughed into his hand roughly, and said nothing. Bookworm crossed her arms, showing her impatience. “Their descriptions?”
His eyes narrowed when he looked back at her, “I don’t expect anything out of the militia, except to produce a corpse. You have always been incompetent, and you always will be.” Cortman moved to the door, opened it, and looked back. “If you don’t lock the cat up… someone is bound to string him up.” He slammed the door, leaving behind a lingering stench of cigar smoke.
Bookworm sighed, snatched up her cloak, and went out the back door. ‘A thoroughly unpleasant man, that,’ she thought as she began her trek across the city. The cold still hadn’t let up, and it bit into her nose and lungs as she hurried along.
Finally, she arrived at the Academy building, and went around the side to a back area. There, indeed, was the body. He was a fit, muscular man, looking to be in his early thirties. He was wearing garments similar to those worn by Yolinde. That, and the fact that the body was not completely frozen, suggesting he hadn’t been dead for a particularly long time, made Bookworm guess that this was the associate of Cortman who had gone looking for Yolinde.
She was taking a close, careful look at a dagger in the dead man’s left hand when she heard footsteps behind her. She rose and turned, unable to hide a frown when she saw it was Cortman.
“I just followed you to see if you would be wasting time. Didn’t expect you’d have a lead,” he said.
“I was about to leave to investigate this when you arrived at my home,” Bookworm replied curtly. “Can you identify this person?”
“That’s his favorite dagger. Saw him slit more than his share of throats with it.”
Bookworm graimced. “Please step back now, sir, and do not interfere with this investigation.”
“What investigation?” Cortman snorted. “The cat did it.”
Bookworm had knelt back down by the dagger; it was covered with blood, but the wounds on the body were from claws and teeth, not a dagger, and it lay well away from the pools of blood from those wounds. She looked back up at Cortman. “Unless Arnold has a rather substantial knife wound, he did not do this.”
“Don’t be naive. That blood could have come from anything,” Cortman said contemptuously.
Bookworm was about to answer in kind when she saw a figure approaching from behind Cortman. “Ahh, Commodore Dagger,” she said with relief.
Jedburgh Dagger looked from her to Cortman, then back to her. “So what’s all this, then?”
“Another victim, Commodore. And another… associate of Mr. Cortman. He identifies the victim as Boeman.”
Ms. Dagger shook her head. “Too many corpses in my city of late.”
“People die everyday,” Cortman replied; his disposition hadn’t changed.
“How nice of you to observe that,” Jed said sarcastically. “Now since this is a crime scene, I’d suggest you take a stroll elsewhere.”
“Screw off, child.” Cortman said in a backhanded manner. “I will sit back, but you already lost one of my men.”
“Last chance, bucko, or you’ll be in my jail.”
He moved back, but then crossed his arms defiantly in the property next to the Annex. “I will stand right here till I get the corpse.”
“You will get the body when Doc Miggins releases it.”
“Then I’ll follow it to Doc Miggins,” Cortman countered. “Deal with it.”
Jed approached him, glowering. “Last chance.”
Henry Cortman started to smoke, ignoring her. “This is private property. Or it isn’t owned by anyone.”
“It is in my city.”
Cortman laughed, mockingly. That was a mistake–he was coughing even before Jedburgh brought her shotgun into his gut, making him buckle as he went to his knees. As he fell, Jed brought her knee up into his chin.
Cortman fell back, coughing from his position on the ground, Jedburgh standing over him, after she crushed his cigar under her boot. “Walk.”
He sat up slowly, recovering his ability to breathe, and then reached for his dropped cigar. The snow and Jed’s boot had ruined it, but he put it into his mouth all the same. “Young woman, I have no intention to do as you say.”
“Resisting a lawful order,” she tsked.
“Do you think I care? Do you think you scare me?” Henry said quietly, derisively, before he coughed. Bookworm could see the blood now covering his hand. She hoped it was caused by Jed kicking him.
“Dying of the cold, dying in a cell, dying by claw…” He stopped talking. He looked past Jedburgh, past Bookworm, at Boeman. Finally, he rose and started to leave, adding quietly, “Doesn’t matter. I’m dying.”
((To be continued…))
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