Bookworm was lounging on her couch in front of the fire, reading a book about ancient Greece. Night had fallen several hours ago, but she was having a difficult time getting herself to stop and go to bed. The warmth flowing from the fire made facing the chilly walk upstairs to her room a less-than-inviting prospect. Finally, though, she set aside her book and stretched, nerving herself for a dash upstairs.
But then she froze in mid-stretch. Out of the corner of her eye, floating by the front door, she saw a transparent figure. Blinking away the brightness of the fire, she turned her gaze toward it. It was still rather nebulous, but she saw enough to know it was male, and that it was not any of the ghosts from the graveyard. She stood up and took a step or two toward him. He said something, but all she could catch was an indistinct murmur.
“I’m sorry,” Bookworm said. “I can’t understand you.”
The ghost wavered a bit in frustration, then beckoned to her, clearly wanting her to follow him. She glanced down at her robe and bare feet. “Let me change first.”
The ghost shook his head and gestured more emphatically. With a sigh, Book wrapped a cloak around her, shoved her feet into a pair of boots, and hurried out the door after the faint figure. The chill air seemed to penetrate to the bone immediately, and sent knives into her lungs. Bookworm began shivering, even as she ran after the ghost.
She followed across the bridge near her home, then around the Wheatstone Central Terminal and along the edge of the canal there, until they reached Miss Galli’s herbarium. To her discomfort, the ghost floated out across the canal to the very edge of the ice. It hovered there, then pointed down.
“I was afraid of that,” Book muttered. She kept to her feet as far as she dared, but as she neared the edge, she lay down prone and crawled the last few feet. She peered over the edge into the murky depths. At first, she couldn’t see anything, but then the moon peeked from behind a cloud and lit up the depths enough for her to see…a body lying on the canal floor. She glanced up at the floating ghost. “Yours?”
“All right, then,” she said, carefully backing up from the edge before she stood up. “I need to get some assistance. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” She slithered her way across the canal to solid ground, then ran back home.
She dashed up the stairs and knocked on Mariah’s bedroom door. And knocked again. She heard some grumbling from behind it, then heavy footsteps, effectively conveying annoyance, stomped up to the door, which opened on the half-sleepy, half-glaring visage of Mariah. “What is it?”
“Body in the canal,” Bookworm answered shortly. “I need help getting it out.”
*That* definitely woke Mariah up. Without a word, she turned back to go to her wardrobe. Book took the opportunity to dash into her own room and change into an old set of clothing. She joined Mariah downstairs, where they grabbed two coils of rope from the storeroom, bundled up in warm cloaks, and hurried away.
Bookworm lead Mariah back over the route to the canal, and the edge of the ice. She noticed, abstractedly, that the ghost was gone. ‘I guess he didn’t want anyone else to see him,’ she thought.
Mariah carefully approached the edge, looked down for a moment, then backed up. “How well do you swim?” she asked.
“Hmm. Not good enough. I’ll go down.” Mariah began divesting herself of her heavy clothing and boots, while Bookworm knotted the two ropes together, and put a large loop in one end, handing that to Mariah when she was ready. Mariah took a few deep breaths, then inhaled sharply and held it, and stepped off the ice into the water. Bookworm let the rope play out through her hands, noting when it came to a relative stop and tightening her grip on it. For several seconds, all was still. Then she felt a tug on the rope, and began hauling on the rope with all her strength.
Slowly, the body came up, pushed from behind by Mariah. Mariah heaved the limp limbs up over the edge of the ice, and rolled the torso away from her. Bookworm threw a loop of the rope to her, and helped her to get herself out of the water. She lay on the ice a moment, panting and shivering, then dragged herself over to her boots and warm clothing to put them on. “That was…definitely not enjoyable,” she said, her breath steaming. “The wiggyfish were already starting to gather.”
Bookworm shivered herself at that. “I’m glad we got…him…out, then.” She didn’t wait for Mariah to take hand on the rope, but started dragging the body over the ice, thankful for the crampons she’d clamped to her boots to give her traction on the frozen canal. It wasn’t the most dignified way to transport a body, but it was certainly easier than carrying it the entire way.
Mariah caught up to her quickly, and together, they made short work of transporting the body via canals to the Gelato store. From there, they picked up the body, carried it over the bridge, and up the street to their shared home, placing the body in the storeroom.
First things first, of course. They were both in need of warmth; indeed, Mariah was beginning to look blue around the lips. They both shed much of their clothing at the door, and quickly made their way upstairs to their rooms. Bookworm was able to change quickly, and dashed back to the kitchen to put water on to boil for tea. Mariah stepped inside about 15 minutes later, still drying her hair with a towel. Book handed her a mug of tea, which she took with a quiet but heartfelt, “Thanks.”
They sat in silence by the stove for a while, cupping their still-cold hands around the warm mugs and taking deep sips. Finally, Bookworm looked at Mariah. “We’d best go take a look.”
“Aye.” Mariah sighed, and set down her mug. Together, they reentered the storeroom, and set up lit lanterns around the body lying sprawled on the floor.
“Not much doubt about the cause of death,” Bookworm said, wincing at the gaping wound in the neck. “Any ideas about what caused that?”
Mariah squatted to take a closer look at the wound. “Possibly a knife, but more likely a sword. I couldn’t say offhand what type, though.”
“Hmmm,” Bookworm said abstractedly. “Perhaps Miss Hermit could help there.” She looked the body over carefully. “After that dip in the canal, of course, there’s no judging from body temperature the time of death. But given that the fish don’t seem to have gotten to it, and not even all of the blood has been washed away…” She pointed to some other cuts, still sporting traces of blood on the sliced flesh. “He can’t have been in there long.”
Mariah frowned at her. “You saw no one in the area?” Bookworm shook her head.
“He’s obviously Asian,” Book continued, studying the man’s face. “Perhaps even Japanese, as Miss Hermit is. Another reason to ask for her help.”
Mariah nodded, then fell to studying the tattoos that showed through the torn shirt adorning the body. Finally, she shook her head. “I’d bet these mean something, but I don’t know what. And take a look at this.” She held up the man’s left hand, displaying a little finger that was missing its tip. “This didn’t happen recently.”
“Huh. Strange, that.” Bookworm was suddenly interrupted by a yawn that felt as if it’d split her head open. “Look, we’ve both had a busy, chilling night. I don’t think we can do anything more. Let’s get some sleep, and I’ll go see Miss Hermit in the morning.”
“A wide idea.” Mariah led the way out of the storeroom, through the kitchen, and up the stairs. Bookworm nodded a good night to her as she entered her own bedroom, and then shed her clothing again, putting on her nightgown. As she crawled under the covers of her bed, she hoped fervently that she’d have at least a few hours of sleep before any nightmares started.