Every Rose Has Its Thorns
Murder is big business in Malifaux. It's even comes in such a wide variety of heinous acts and suspects that it wasn't even news worthy most days. This was my second murder of the day and it wasn't even lunch. I took a drag on a cigarette, letting the smoke fill my lungs.
"Foster. You're never going to smell the clues if you keep fuming the place up." Lt. Piter was young for an officer. He was honest too, which made him a unicorn breachside. We'd been together for a couple of years now. Same unit when the breach reopened. First ones through. Now we were both investigators. Piter was married to the Guild. I preferred to see other people. It was starting to show. Piter was dressed immaculately. The very portrait of an officer and a gentleman. I, on the other hand, slept in these clothes last night, and maybe the night before too. I ran a hand through my dark hair, suddenly self conscious.
"That's why I started. I don't lose my breakfast nearly as often if I can't smell the crime scene."
"Maybe I should take it up so I don't have to smell you." He almost smirked. It was nice to see him crack a joke again despite the victim's home being so depressing. Even by the slum's standard. The little house never saw sunlight living in the shadow of the buildings on either side. The yellow light from the kerosene lantern pushed futilely against the shadows. The corpse in the center of the room wasn't in pieces so that marked the majority of Neverborn off the list. Always a positive start to a murder investigation. The man was in his fifties. His skin was tan and leathery. I picked up his hand, examining it. Hands can tell you a lot about a person. The calluses indicated a life of manual labor. He had enough scars to get his money's worth from a palm reader. His nails were too dirty to tell if he'd fought back. McMourning should be able to tell us more after the autopsy. Doc practically spoke with the dead. The thing I figured he'd notice first was the deceased's face, or should I say lack of one. It had been cleanly removed leaving a mess of red muscle and ligaments. It looked more like my Friday night steak than I cared to think about. Piter started giving me a summary of the case.
"Leroy Strauss. Guardsman Sims says the neighbors confirmed he lived here alone with his son. He was a sailor on a fishing trolley. Retired. His son runs a tavern next door. They've had a bad run lately, but they were nice enough."
"Bad enough for someone to remove his face? I've seen some loan sharks send a message, but this would be a damn right riddle." I blew a smoke ring introspectively. "I'd put my money on a Ressurectionist or some of the more cunning Neverborn. Either way we'll probably wind up handing this over to the elite division." Case opened. Case closed. Piter shook his head.
"Not until we know who to refer it out to. It could just be a kook. Stranger things have happened."
"We're never that lucky. Besides. In Malifaux bad things are all that ever happen."
The hand yawned and languidly reached for the seven. A gear took off on its morning jog completing a circuit around the aethervox. The announcer was in the middle of a story about Arcanist terrorists, and their latest crimes against the poor and downtrodden. I blindly felt around the night stand for the ashtray. My fingers traced the length of the butts until they found one longer than the others. The box of lucifers was more adept at hiding. I slung the pillow off my face with a grunt. I lost my balance reaching under the bed. A fall, a thud and a few moments later I was puffing the last breaths of a cigarette. I rinsed my mouth with a bottle of whiskey, and started getting ready for work. I might even eat breakfast today.
Another faceless body. Literally just around the corner from the old man's house. This time a lady of the evening in a back alley behind some godforsaken bar. The Painted Swine? Where do they get the names for these places? Piter was hovering over the body. He glanced up when he saw me walk through the line of guardsman. I nodded at Sims. He was honestly the only one of the bunch I could ever remember the name of. I knelt down next to Piter so we wouldn't be overheard. It wouldn't be the first time a story was leaked in the Undercity Chronicle. She might have been cute with her long blonde hair. Honestly hard to say with the face missing. World's oldest profession Earthside, deadliest profession breachside.
"Two makes the start of something. Small area too. Maybe something marking its territory," Piter said in a hushed tone.
"Sounds like someone, or something, has a hobby. Who found her? "
"Morning patrol. I've got a sketch artist coming in. We might be able to get a composite from the locals. A name if we're lucky. If she used her real one. Going to be difficult to pull a Guild record on this one."
"Is this tavern the one that belongs to the old man's son from yesterday?"
"His name is Daniel."
"We send Sims to get Daniel's statement?"
"That seems like something that you might find on your desk... at the office... where we keep the records. You know. That place you work, but only ever come in to get your pay." Piter's face turned red in frustration. Finally he sighed. "He didn't know anything. Swore they didn't have enemies and mostly kept to themselves. Sims said he was a timid fellow. Didn't look like he could hurt a fly. Claims he left home early that morning to take inventory."
"We should talk to him ourselves. Could just be a coincidence, but let's be honest there aren't any coincidences." Piter had a right to be frustrated. I knew I was walking a line. Well I had been walking a line. Lately I was so far on the other side of the line I'd need a compass and a map to get back. He'd probably been covering for me with the captain. I should do something soon. I don't want to drag his career down with mine. Thing is when you see something like this poor woman almost every day it eats a piece of your soul. It wasn't that I didn't care. I just preferred to be comfortably numb with a bottle to get through the day. Hell it was the only way I could. I needed to focus. Get my head back in the game. Deal with my personal short comings later. "McMourning find anything on the first body?"
"Cuts were started with a tool. Then pulled the rest of the way off by hand. He seemed surprised how cleanly the face had came off. It was such a rough job he said there should have been more tearing. I think we can forget about the rest of the Neverborn. He said the nail marks were probably human."
"So Kook or Ressurectionist. Let's go talk to the son. The sooner we can hand this over to the Death Marshalls the sooner we can get to the back log." Piter shook his head.
"I'm not done here. I'm going to concentrate on figuring out who she is. She deserves that. Someone out there deserves to know what happened to her. The Death Marshalls aren't going to take that burden." I nodded, dusted myself off and turned to go.
"Foster?" He paused. "I don't need to send someone with you do I?" The question hung heavy in the air.
"I'll be fine." I think we both knew I wouldn't.
A miner came crashing out of the tavern door.
"And stay out until you have money!" The bouncer, or waitress, flashed me a smile and held the door open. It was really more of a lopsided grin. She was a large woman. She had to be to throw an M&SU man around like a rag doll. Frankly I was pretty sure she could take me in a fight, and I didn't want to find out.
"It's Brenda," she interjected.
"Brenda, if you don't mind stepping outside I'd like to ask you a few questions."I could at least make an attempt of being professional. She looked over her shoulder into the bar, shrugged, and joined me outside.
"What can I help a fine gent of the guard with?" I really didn't think she thought that highly of me. I ran through the standard questions to warm her up before cutting to the meat of the matter.
"How was the relationship between Daniel and his father?"
"I'm not one to speak ill of the dead... or my employer." Her chin lifted defiantly. Loyalty. I could respect that.
"It's okay, Brenda. These are just standard questions. We just have to clear him before moving onto the next suspect." I gave her my best disarming smile.
"Daniel's father was a good man. He raised the boy by himself after his wife died in childbirth. He was a bit stern. A little too generous with the switch if you take my meaning." There was a flicker of doubt in her eyes. I needed to dig deeper into that.
"That had to be ten or more years ago. Does Daniel ever talk about it?"
"Begging your pardon, sir. He, Mr. Strauss, never really considered Daniel an adult. Any child of mine under my roof and all that. There've been times Daniel opened the tavern with a bruise or two. Never mentioned it though, and I didn't pry, but Mr. Strauss came in from time to time for a drink. I saw it once when I went downstairs for a new keg. He was giving Daniel what for in the storeroom." The fact that she carried a keg by herself did not surprise me at all.
"Why didn't Daniel just stay here in the tavern?"
"Mr. Strauss gave him the money for the tavern. I'm not sure either one ever really felt like it was Daniel's to do with as he pleased. He didn't run things directly, but one could tell some of things around here were more his idea." She shrugged, looking sullen. I think the conversation had made her reconsider the Strauss family a little closer.
"Did either of you know a blonde belle that worked this street? Did anyone hear any kind of commotion last night?"
"Not really. We had some miners in. They were so loud I couldn't hear my own thoughts half the time. Belles come and go. I've seen more than I can count come in here with a date. Some you get to know, but usually they move on after a few weeks. I didn't see any last night. Generally they start work after I do, and quit before I get out."
"Is Daniel in?" She opened the door and motioned me inside. This time the lopsided grin was replaced with a sad thoughtful look.
If I had to describe Daniel in a single word it would be weasel. He had squinty eyes, a pencil mustache, and wore his hair parted down the middle. I immediately hated him. I'm not a perfect person. I know that, but there was just something about him beyond how he looked that just grated on my being. The bar on the other hand had a certain charm to it. There was a lot of dark wood, and a stone floor. It had ambience. It was also empty. There weren't a lot of bottles behind the counter. That might explain why they were having such a hard time of it.
"Get you a drink, sir?" He had a high and nasally voice. I shuddered suddenly positive I knew where the real lack of business stemmed from. Surely one drink wouldn't hurt though. Right? Might open him up to conversation a bit. I ordered a whiskey. Then another.
I woke up at home in a pool of drool, and something not drool. Ugh. I vaguely remembered drinking songs with Brenda and a few miners. I didn't remember getting anything from the weasel. I really needed to get a hold of myself. Of course I thought this to myself while I cleaned my mouth with the last of my whiskey. There still weren't enough pieces on the board to bring someone in. I needed to catch up with Piter and see if he'd found anything. First I was going to find a bath, and some clean clothes. Well.. less soiled clothes.
Sims. Damn. Victim number three. He was a good kid. I thought the case had gone cold the past couple of days. There hadn't been enough in the belle's, Mildred's, Guild record to lead us anywhere, and no one was admitting they knew her to Piter's boy scouts. The killer was getting bolder murdering a guardsman. Sims had pulled night patrol in the slums this week. He'd probably ran afoul of a moody sergeant. It had gotten him killed. He was only a couple of streets over from our other two crime scenes. Piter looked like he was taking it hard. His jaw was clenched. His brow was in rebellion against his usual stoicism. He nodded at me.
"There was a witness this time." He said quietly.
"Good. We need a break in this case. Especially for Sims. They're not getting away with this."
"I'm not sure how much it's going to help. Witness was drunk in the gutter. There was a woman's cry for help from the alley. He saw a guardsman rush in. It was too dark for him to see, but he could hear a scuffle punctuated by a groan. He assumed it was Sims discharging his duty. Then a pretty blonde belle walked out of the alleyway. Her hands were covered in blood and she was carrying Sims' face."
"Did he give us a description?"
" Yeah. He was deep in his cups, but he still gave us a description that sounded eerily like our second victim. I brought in a sketch artist. Different one this time. I wanted to make sure what I suspected wasn't just the artist reading into the situation. It looked so much like the other sketch I called McMourning to make sure she was still in the morgue. The good news is she's still dead... That's a phrase you can only say in Malifaux. Sounds like the murderer was not only wearing her face, but the exact clothes we found the her in. He did notice a rose tattoo on her left arm. McMourning said the victim didn't have any markings. That might be something to look into."
"Isn't it time to hand this one over to the Death Marshalls? This is getting above our pay grade. We know it's not just a kook now." Piter balled up his fists.
"He was one of ours. I'm not handing this over. Not yet," he all, but yelled at me. I held my hands up defensively. I could see the war behind his eyes. He was torn between loyalty to his men, and to Guild protocol. I used my best conflict resolution voice.
"Why don't we take 48 hours to wrap up our leads? That way we can hand over the case file with all the usual, mundane leg work completed. We'd be doing them a disservice if we handed it over otherwise." Piter's shoulders visibly sagged, and he let out a held breath. "Let me have the first sketch. I'll see if I can hunt down any of the other belles that know her. Maybe someone was jealous and used magic to get even. You follow your lead on the rose tattoo. Maybe have the men see where those clothes are sold. We'll meet back here tomorrow evening to debrief." He waved for me to leave. The gesture felt like there was a weight of finality to it.
It was dark when I met up with Piter. I was only fifteen minutes late. Personal best for me this month. "How do I know you're you?" Piter asked. It was a genuine question all things considering.
"Who would want a face like this?" I snorted.
"That's a good point, Foster." There was a touch of humor in his voice. He mostly sounded tired though.
" I think we've got our man." I quickly recounted the story some belles had told me over drinks the night before. "Seems young Strauss had a crush on a certain Mildred. Despite her profession she politely declined his advances. Guess he didn't listen. He started following her. Scared off some of her business. She had to get an acquaintance of the primitive type to give him a more firm understanding to leave her be."
Piter scratched his beard.
"Nothing spoils a temper like money problems. or family issues. Rejection from the fairer sex... Daniel definitely has motive for the first two victims."
"Sims interviewed him, and came away with a poor opinion. Maybe Daniel took offense at something he said." That was a reach for me, but damn it I just had a hunch about that guy. Even after drinking all night in his tavern I still didn't have an inkling of positivity for the man, and that was not usual for me. I can always find common ground between a drink and another man.
"He's definitely the one factor in common that stands out. Let's see about bringing him in." Piter was determined to do right by Sims. The tavern was closer than calling the Death Marshalls. It wasn't against protocol if the suspect was a flight risk. I don't think so anyway. Regardless I wasn't going to take this away from him. If we made the collar the worse that was going to happen would be another promotion for him. I knew there was a captain's slot opening up in Ridley. Whether Piter looked for the opportunity or not they seemed to find him, and water cooler gossip, which I got from the bar, from a guy that actually went in to the water cooler, was that he was their first choice. I wanted this for him. My days were numbered and I knew it. I wanted to see him out of the rank and file before I went. Just one more for the road.
We walked the two blocks to the Painted Swine in relative silence. We arrived just in time to see Sims, Not-Sims, leaving the tavern. I shouted and yanked my collier from the holster, but Not-Sims was faster. He closed the gap before I could get the pistol up. The punch felt like a sledgehammer against my jaw. There was a moment as time seemed to slow, I felt my feet leave the ground and I floated in the air. Then the cobblestone ambushed me from behind. To add insult to injury there was a pebble prodding me in the lower back. Black spots flickered across my vision. My consciousness was trying to swim against the current, desperate for breath. I could see Not-Sims through the polka dots put his hands around Piter's throat. A manic look of glee lit his face up like a little girl, who just got a pony for her birthday, and now she was choking the pony... Did I mention my head hurt? My hand was shaking so bad the revolver couldn't get a bead on him. If I tried to shoot Not-Sims I might hit Piter so instead I aimed higher. The first shot went off wildly into the dark. The second struck the post holding the tavern sign above the door. Splinters showered the two men locked in combat. The wood cracked under its own weight. The heavy lumber swung downward against Not-Sim's head. Piter was thrown to the ground with him. I could hear him gasping for air. I had meant to do that. Actually I just thought it would break the two of them up, but that wasn't how I was going to retell this story later. I crawled towards Not-Sims, my head swimming too much to stand. When I was close enough to be sure I wasn't going to miss, as in six inches away, I unloaded the four remaining shots from the chamber into his chest.
"Stay dead. Damn it." I don't know what kind of mojo he's working. I just hope it's the kind where he can't come back from that.
Sim's face shriveled into a hideous looking mask. The guardsman uniform dissolved into dust. Piter pushed himself off the ground. That was just the stuff of legends to me right now. The ground and I were dear lovers never to be parted. I may have heroically threw up a little.
"Are you alright?" His voice had a raspy quality to it. The ladies were going to love that.
"My head feels like a soccer ball after a match using Queensberry rules."
"Good. For a second I thought you might be hurt." Piter stumbled over to the now much thinner and less muscular corpse. He reached out and pealed Sim's face back. It was Daniel Strauss alright. There was an irony to him being taken out by his own bar sign. It made me laugh a little.
"Yeah, Ben?" The formality had slipped from his voice. I couldn't remember the last time he used my first name.
"How much do you think a place like this costs? Market should be good. I heard the owner wasn't around anymore. I've been thinking of retiring, and I'd like to not have to move anymore tonight." He shook his head in exasperation.
The embalmer prepped the body for entombment. He didn't mind the macabre chores of his occupation. It was usually quiet and gave him time to think. He paused, turning toward the parlor door. He thought he'd heard an indiscernible whisper. He returned to his work, clearly mistaken. As he started removing the blood soaked shirt he heard it again. This time it was closer. This time he could almost make out what it said, but there was still no one else here besides him. Fear gripped him, but so too did curiosity. He pulled the shirt free letting it fall with a wet slapping sound against the floor. The whispering intensified. He understood perfectly now. The rose tattoo on the bartender's forearm was speaking to him. He traced it with his finger. The thorny stem reached up from the corpse and wrapped around his finger. The rose tore itself free as the stem dragged it across the embalmer's arm. As he stared with awe and reverance, the rose bloomed. The petals spread open to reveal the face's of its sacrifices: mothers, fathers, children, lovers, strangers, friends. It whispered arcane secrets in his ear. He knew. The most powerful things in this world are nameless, faceless things unconstrained by labels or definitions. He could become forgotten. He could gain the power of the unknown. The rose would show him how...