((Yeah, I’m hopping back in time. Too dang many plot bunnies at once to keep up with it all!
Feel free to comment!))
Bookworm Hienrichs had pondered on the best way to approach the Blue Sparrow and be able to question anyone there. She rather thought going in her Militia uniform wouldn’t work well; folk of that ilk didn’t warm up to authority figures. But she couldn’t go there in her usual clothing, either–the clothing of a respectable woman. Finally, she decided on wearing one of her suits, which would blend in better in that area, and give her freedom of movement if she needed it. She belted on her revolver under the jacket, and set out.
It was evening when she went–early enough so that it was still well light on this summer’s day, but late enough, hopefully, that someone would be there to question. Bookworm had never been in the area of the city where the Blue Sparrow lay, as it was in a particularly unsavory neighborhood. But she’d heard enough about the establishment from other Militia members that she was confident she could find it.
And confidence was precisely what she needed–not so much, of course, as to make herself a target, but she didn’t dare look lost, either. So she walked briskly through the narrow streets, keeping a discrete watch around, and searching intently for the landmarks she needed to guide her way. Thankfully, she didn’t run into any trouble, and she found the Blue Sparrow where she’d expected. Putting her hand to the door handle, she took a deep breath, then entered, hearing a far-off bell chime.
Several couches were scattered about the dimly lit front room–presumably for women to wait for clients, though all were currently empty. A woman entered from the back, smoothing her hair. She was an older woman–thin and angular, with something of a hard, cynical air about her, though something else seemed to lurk underneath. She eyed Bookworm over with a practiced glance, and said, “Suzette or Mia for you, I think. Just wait here, and I’ll go wake them.”
“Wha–no!” Bookworm was glad for the dimness of the room, which would help to hide her sudden, intense blushing. “No, no, no. That’s not at all why I’m here!”
“Oh?” The woman came closer, looking at her curiously.
“I’m trying to track down a missing man from Falun,” Bookworm said. “I was told he might have come here.” She described the man, and the time frame he might have come.
The woman shook her head decidedly. “No, ‘e’s not been ‘ere.”
“I see everyone who comes in here, dearie, and I’ve a good memory for faces. ‘Sides, a coat like that ‘un be rather…distinctive ’round ‘ere.”
“I see,” Bookworm said slowly. “Well, thank you for your help.” She turned to go.
“‘Oo was it as told you ‘e came ‘ere?”
Bookworm looked back, her hand on the door handle. “Underby, of the ‘Bucket of Blood.'”
The woman snorted. “I wouldn’t be so quick as to believe everything that ‘un says.”
“I don’t,” Bookworm replied immediately. “Nor am I so quick as to believe everything *you* say–yet.” She was astonished at her own temerity, but the woman merely snorted again, a look of honest amusement on her face, and left the room the same way she’d come in.
Bookworm slipped outside and paused, letting her cheeks cool down. After a few moments, she was able to chuckle, seeing the amusing side of it. She should have known something like that might happen. Having exorcised her embarrassment, at least for now, she thought about what to do next.
She decided to trace the route between the Blue Sparrow and the Bucket, to see what it was like. It didn’t take her long to see that much of it lay beside a canal, one that led to Iron Bay. She stopped and looked into the dark waters, pondering. A drunken slip…or a push…it wouldn’t have taken much for him to drown. Though, in that case, he should have washed up in Iron Bay. While there had been a couple of bodies reported there recently, they were local folk. Frowning, she hurried in that direction.
Bookworm kept to a back path that ran right beside the canal, looking around for anything that might catch her eye. The shores of Iron Bay were lined with shipyards, both air and sea, as well as the ramshackle homes of the workers in the shipyards. Passing by the backyard of one such home, she suddenly stopped short, looking through a gap in its fence. Even in the fading light, she could make out something hanging on a rail to air out–a frock coat. A dark gray, velvet frock coat. She marked which house it was, then hurried on until she was able to gain access to the rather squalid main street. She backtracked until she found the house she wanted, and knocked at the door.
The door was opened by a woman who probably wasn’t much older than Bookworm, but who looked quite a bit older, worn down by hard work, poor diet, and, perhaps, fear. The reason for that fear quickly became apparent, as a rough-looking man shoved her aside. “Wha’ you want, then?” he asked rudely.
“Good evening, sir, ma’am,” Bookworm replied politely. “I am Miss Bookworm Hienrichs, of the New Babbage Militia.” He looked keenly at her at those words, and she knew she definitely had his attention now. “I’m trying to trace a missing man from Falun, who disappeared somewhere in this area the night of June 22-23.”
“We don’t know nothin’ ’bout ‘im,” the man replied quickly. Rather too quickly, to her mind.
“You’re sure?” Bookworm described him, ending with the frock coat he’d been wearing. The two definitely flicked glances at each other at that. But the man stubbornly said, “We’ve no’ seen anyun like that.”
“Really?” She took a step inside. “Then you won’t mind if I go and take a look at the dark gray velvet frock coat I saw in your yard out back.”
The man’s face darkened. “All right–so we ‘as a frock coat like ‘e was wearing! Foun’ it floatin’ in the Bay, an’ took it as salvage, as is my right.”
“And you’re sure there wasn’t anything inside the coat at the time?” Bookworm folded her arms and looked sternly at him. She was sure of the tack to use with him now–pretend to know more than she actually did, and get him to admit things himself. He tried to stare her down, but she held firm, feeling that she was on confident ground.
“All right, all right! I foun’ the man’s body. So what?”
“When was this?” Bookworm asked.
“‘Long ’bout 4 a.m. It were snagged on somethin’ in the canal, not far from where it empties into the Bay. I grabbed an ‘ook and dragged it ‘long to the shore.”
“And where is the body now?”
“Buried,” he said shortly.
Bookworm raised an eyebrow. “And you didn’t think to inform the Militia, or Doctor Miggins, of your discovery?”
“No, I didn’t,” he said defiantly. “Not my place to go runnin’ to the bloody Militia ev’ry time some fool drowns hisself.”
“I see.” And Bookworm did, indeed, see what had likely happened. A body discovered–a body of an obvious stranger. Drag the body somewhere hidden, rob it of whatever was on it–including one velvet frock coat, which could be picked apart, and the material either reused or sold–and bury the body hastily. Who could connect them with the disappearance of a stranger? The coat had probably been hidden for a while, in case questions did arise, but they’d felt safe after a month of no word. The question was, what else had they found on him?
“I’ll need to take the coat as evidence. I’ll also need anything else you took off the body.” She said this sternly, doing her best to intimate that she knew full well exactly what he’d been carrying.
The woman looked at her husband fearfully. “Arr,” he growled at her, “go get it, then.” She went out the back, and returned with the coat filling her arms. Meanwhile, the man had retrieved a pen, a handkerchief, and a few coins, slapping them into her upturned hands. Bookworm slipped the coins into her own pouch, and asked, “Are you sure that’s all?”
He looked at her, growled, and got a few more coins from another hiding place. Bookworm took them, pocketed them, and then held out her hand again, saying nothing. The man exclaimed in frustration, and finally went to a corner, where he lifted up a board and retrieved a pouch containing several more coins. “‘Ere,” he said disgustedly, “take it–and I ‘opes you choke on it! We done spent the rest–and sold ‘is watch, before you ask.”
“Thank you,” Bookworm replied mildly. After getting the location of Mr. Callenby’s grave, she left, saying, “I’ll be in touch.”
Bookworm hurried back to Militia headquarters with her evidence. Once there, she examined it all carefully. The frock coat showed no signs of blood or large tears. The money came to a few pounds–a reasonable amount for Mr. Callenby to have been carrying for his personal expenses. She still had no idea of where the satchel was, or what it might have contained. If only she knew what he’d been carrying–that might give her a clue to who would want to steal it.
‘Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained,’ she thought as she composed a telegram to Falun.
Bookworm sighed as she read the reply from Falun. They still refused to divulge the contents of the case the man was carrying. All they would tell her was that, if Mr. Callenby was doing his job correctly, he would never have let it out of his sight. That suddenly sparked a thought, and she quickly leafed through her notes.
Mr. Callenby should have had his satchel with him at all times. Mr. Underby had said he was carrying nothing.
‘Another indication pointing to Underby,’ she thought. ‘But still…’ She frowned, shaking her head. There were so many ways to easily explain things away. Callenby might have had it at the Bucket, and Mr. Underby simply didn’t see it. Callenby might have disobeyed orders and stashed it somewhere, knowing he was going…slumming. Or he might have betrayed those he was working for, and delivered it to someone here in New Babbage. He could have been killed at the Bucket, or the Blue Sparrow, or anywhere in-between, or later. Or he might simply have accidently drowned.
After letting her thoughts go round in circles for several minutes, Bookworm finally decided it was time to get some help. She gathered together her notes, and headed for the home of Miss Jedburgh Dagger and Miss Kimika Ying.
She hadn’t been to their new establishment yet, but Miss Dagger had given directions to it when they moved, so she was able to find it fairly easily. She hurried through the workspace and up the stairs to the living area. Peeking inside, she saw the back of Miss Jedburgh’s head, and called out, “Good evening!”
“Hiya,” came the reply. Bookworm went around the corner of the couch, looking at Miss Jed in concern. “How are you doing, Captain?”
“Eh, I’ve been better, but time heals most wounds.”
Bookworm nodded. “I do hate to bother you at such a time, but…I have a dilemma.”
Jed smiled–a careful smile–and said, “Drag up a seat. It’s no bother–I was taking a break.” As Bookworm sat down, she continued, “So, what can your humble servant do to assist, oh chosen one?”
Bookworm smiled wryly. “Well. Several days ago, we received a message from the city of Falun, asking us to try to track down one of their citizens, who had apparently gone missing here.”
“Ah. Normally, I wait for the third request from those jacklegs. I round-binned a few from last year, just on principle.”
“Hmm,” Bookworm said with a sigh. “I’m beginning to wish I had.”
Bookworm began outlining the problem, and the steps she’d taken so far in her investigations. Jed interrupted her as she detailed her questioning of Mr. Underby.
“One thing you have to learn is that it isn’t what they say as much as what they don’t say,” she said. “Have you ever been to the circus, Book? Seen the little woman in the gypsy tent telling fortunes?” When Bookworm nodded, she continued, “The gypsy makes you think she can read your mind. What she does is ask very vague questions, and she lets you tell her what she can ‘read from your thoughts.’ The key is to know what you know, enough to let him tell you what he knows. Underby is a tough nut, though. He’s a grifter and a charlatan.”
Bookworm nodded, storing this advice away for the future, and continued, until she got to describing her visit to the Blue Sparrow.
“You went? Alone?” At Bookworm’s nod, Jed stated, ” My, my, Book is rather the daring one now…”
Bookworm blushed again, remembering the beginning of that visit, and Jed chuckled. “Sorry, hon, couldn’t resist. I remember a time when you’d do that,” she pointed at Bookworm’s reddened face, “and that alone.”
Bookworm smiled a bit. “True.”
“I wonder if Crook-nose Kate still works there…” Jed mused. Bookworm raised an eyebrow, and she continued. “She used to be just Big-nose Kate, until she said something rude about Mom…”
Bookworm chuckled, and finished up her tale with her conversation with the Iron Bay worker. Jed frowned at that, and pulled out a notebook to scrawl a note. “I’m sure a round of demerits will help when Cleanslate renegotiates his contract. ‘Not his business,’ indeed.”
Bookworm nodded. “So. We have one dead body, one missing satchel, and far too many possibilities about what happened.” She signed. “I just…don’t know where to go from here.”
Jed scratched her chin. “The hard part is the time elapsed,” she mused. “You need someone you can trust, but who won’t raise a lot of suspicion.” She refocused her attention back on Bookworm. “Which urchins do you trust?”
She pondered that a moment. “Tepic, certainly. And Gilhooly.”
“What I would do is talk to the boys discreetly. Get them to start looking in the trash and discards around the Bucket and near the canals. Reason being, most of the robberies in this area end up leaving something on the ground or in the immediate area.”
“Mmm. Good idea,” Bookworm replied. “If we could find the satchel, even empty, where it is could tell us a lot.”
“Exactly. I’d be willing to bet if someone took it, they tossed it as soon as they checked the contents. They typically don’t tote things around like that for a long time. If they do, they take it to somewhere close by and out of the public eye to examine the contents. So I’d check the sewers around Iron Bay.
“The next bit is a touch more work,” Jed continued. “Get a crew and dig up the body and call Doc Miggins. While he’s been rotting away, perhaps Doc can still find out something for you of use.”
Bookworm nodded. “Yes, I was definitely considering that. At least we’d be able to see if he suffered a significant injury. Blow to the head, or something like that.”
“Or broken bones of any sort,” Jed agreed. “The means of death can be very enlightening. At least that would give you enough to say, ‘Dear Falun, he’s dead.'”
Bookworm nodded a small, wry smile on her face. Jed looked at her shrewly. “They may only care if he’s dead, Book.”
She sighed. “An unfortunate thing to hear, but you may well be right.”
“If they ask more, you can correctly say that it is being looked into. And it isn’t like they have an Embassy, nor need we expect enraged Falunites to march on City Hall demanding justice.”
Jed groped behind her on a table, and handed Bookworm a desk key. “My desk upstairs in Militia HQ has some very official-looking stationary. Fire off a letter to Falun, tell them what you found out; be as direct as you need to and vague as you have to be. The copy of the last ‘official inquiry’ letter should be in my file as well.”
“Thank you. That should help.” Bookworm stood up. “I’ll start tracking down Tepic and Gilhooy–and Doc Miggins, of course. I hope you have a quick recovery, Miss Jed!”
Jed winced. “It’ll just take time.
Bookworm nodded sympathetically. “Do let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”
Bookworm smiled and waved, and took her leave, ready to get back to work.