This vignette is part of The Ligan of the Disomus, the third book of the noir fantasy series “The Observer’s Casebook.”
Having apprehended accused murderer Marcus Reider, the Security Corps Observer assigned to the port city of Lemaigne decides to take him inland for sentencing.
At sunrise, Reider signed a paper giving me permission to retrieve his ligan but, since I had already taken it, I had to waste the morning pretending to go get it. So, I walked down to where I had dragged my johnboat ashore, in the narrow gap between two dockside warehouses, and took a seat.
As I sat in the boat, staring out into the rippling glare of Lemaigne’s harbor reflecting the morning sun, I dreamed of inland fields, rolling hills with lines of old trees marking the edges of farmholdings, the far blue ridge of the Duck Eye range, heat rising from the bare yellow dust of the road.
Escape from this salty, grungy, corrupted seaboard.
I jerked, snagging the tip of an oar with my shin. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Diana Ashcraft, standing between the two buildings with her feet on my shadow, wild-haired and bright with reflected dawn, but looking contrite. “Sorry about that,” she said, with left-sided smile.
“I was just about to head out,” I lied lamely, as if Diana didn’t know I already had the ligan.
She moved around to the front of the johnboat to face me, turning to silhouette in the process. A long, loose braid swung behind her like a cat’s tail. “I heard they caught him, and you watched over him last night.”
Reider had become simply “him” now. “Did he say anything?”
“Nothing worth keeping a thought on.”
“I also heard that you’ll be taking him to the Fortress,” she leaned forward. The sun was directly behind her and I couldn’t read her face in the shadow. “I don’t know if you’ve thought about this, but you don’t have horses for your trip.”
Damn, she was right. I had Schimmel’s men cleaning up the prison coach from its long storage, but no team to pull it. And, here I was wasting my time down by the water instead of taking care of business that would put the sea behind me. I was so eager to leave the coast that I was stumbling.
“Or, have you already arranged something?” Diana asked in reply to my silence.
I shook my head. “No, no, I was expecting to do that—” and I almost let “after I got back with the ligan” fall out of my mouth. Hell’s coals. Diana must think me an idiot sitting here idling in a johnboat, pretending to do something I already did so it wouldn’t look like I broke the law, all the while playing The Lawman. I sighed and concluded with, “—after the sun was a little higher.”
“The Frers have a pair of horses,” she tilted her head to one side, “I don’t know if they’ll pull a coach, but they’re in good shape.”
The Frers were two monks, Jacob and Nebo, who served as Lemaigne’s last existing clergy of the old order. They didn’t have a real parish since Lemaigne had long since converted to Prelatarianism and so, against the grain of the old High Church, they welcomed all comers to their counsel and confessional. At least, all comers who had coin. People often went to them for guidance, but hardly ever came out less confused, since the two could barely agree on the existence of God much less the finer points of theology and ethics. On top of this, their sparring matches regularly consisted of nothing more than indecipherable allusions to obscure parables and proverbs.
“They get along, too, because they’re twins,” Diana said, and for a breath I thought she was talking about the monks, but then she grinned, “Real brothers, unlike the Frers.”
Diana walked with me back up the hill to the Frer’s place of business. There was a wooden placard hanging over their door with two simple lines of text, “Frer Ja. Frer Ne. \ Spiritual Counseling,” and a lighthouse extending above the main rectangle of the sign. I was amused to note one day, while passing by their office on my way to the wharf, that the lighthouse had no beacon shining from its high windows, and therefore is only an image of futility.
“Well, here we are!” Diana sing-songed with a suspiciously enthusiastic smile, as if she were enjoying the notion of inserting me between the two bickering clerics. “Take care on your trip… and if that Reider guy has any old books, squirrel them away secret for Tom Sul before they get squandered in some locksafe as evidence.”
I gave her a sidelong glance. I hadn’t noticed any books in the ligan, and couldn’t see why Tom would expect there to be any, or why Diana would expect me to withhold evidence to indulge the obsessions of a crazy man.
“He’s a collector, you know. Always looking for exotics and rarities.” And, with that, she turned and stiff-legged the steep street back down toward the black-and-gold speckled oval of the harbor below.
Taking a diver’s breath, I knocked on the door. It was a solid sound.
There was a shuffling from inside, and soon the door cracked. Jacob’s ruddy face grinned impishly through the breach. “Observer! Have you come to confess your trespasses?”
“I have not,” was the height of etiquette I could muster. Whether the Frer’s query was due to Diana’s loose talk about the ligan, or simply a too-familiar jibe, I was in no mood. “I am here on business. Diana tells me that you two have a pair of horses.”
“Oh? Yes, we do, but if you’re wanting to buy them we’ll have to go find Nebo. He’s not here at the moment.” Jacob swung wide the door and motioned me inside. “I need to go find their papers.”
The waiting room looked more like part of a whorehouse than a chapel. The seating was upholstered a deep bordello red, with velvet of a somewhat lighter shade covering the single table. Atop the table, an ornate silver candelabra held seven unburnt, fleshy pink tapers. A gaudy and gold-framed painting hung against the far wall, depicting a half-naked, androgynous angel entangled (in what I assumed was intended to be the struggle of battle) with a brutish—but clearly dominated—devil.
Jacob was shuffling around the other room. I could hear the scraping and slamming of drawers. “Do you have an idea what you’ll be asking for them?” I shouted.
“Here it is!” Jacob appeared from the back, waving a canary yellow slip of paper enthusiastically in one hand and holding his holy book in the other. He slipped the team’s bill of ownership into the scripture as neatly as he and Nebo had inserted commerce into their priestly duties.
“Shall we go find my brother, and yours?”
From their office on Pier One Way, we turned onto Market Street, where Frer Jacob expected to find Frer Nebo. Before losing sight of the harbor around the corner, I glanced down the steep and empty slope, and found the pantherine swoosh of Diana’s hair far below, nearly at the water’s edge. She was slipping in and out of visibility as the street crowds wove from one side of the street to the other, like a cloud of grey and beige smoke, blotting then revealing the sharp, dark flickering flame of that single braid.
“Careful, Observer. That’s a long hard roll.” I hadn’t been paying attention to my step. He was right—the slope down Pier One Way was quite steep.
“Have the two ever drawn a cart?” I asked.
“Good thing Diana found you this morning,” Jacob chimed, ignoring my question. I grunted affirmative. “She has an instinct for bringing things to your doorstep. Like a cat with hunted mice, pining for a scratch behind the ears, maybe?”
I replied simply, “I wouldn’t expect that sort of observation from a chaste man.”
“Celibate, not chaste,” he countered, and with a sly grin: “The stomach still needs fed and it is a wonderful banquet God has laid before us.”
No wonder Nebo calls this man out as a deviant! I thought, “Who’s in need of the confession now, monk?” but I was there for horses, not a moral debate, so I kept silent my judgment.
Then, with a more serious look that seemed intent on winning redemption for his irreverent comment, he went on: “Still, the celibacy is key. For too many, the spouse is an idol. I found, before I took on the cloth, that as fulfilling and warm a woman as I could find never stilled my predatory eye. I hunted with food at the table, until I recognized it was not my stomach that hungered, nor my heart.”
“Nor any other part of my anatomy,” he winked at me sidelong, sabotaging his fragile repentance.
“Nor did the casual, debt-easy release of prostitutes seal away this hunger, in the shadows which were its seat.” He gave me a brief look that I knew was measuring my reaction, trying to decide if this were my particular fault. He looked away, shaking his head.
“There is no bedroom substitute for God.”
His preaching was beginning to grate, not only because he was thereby dodging my question, but simply because he was attempting to fulfill a request I had not made. “I haven’t come to you for counseling, Jacob.”
“In all the bustle of life,” he waved to the streams of Lemaigners washing by, completely ignoring my protest, “one thing remains Constant and we can either lose ourselves in the multiplicitous rush of sensations or throw a mask over this Constant and call the mask our salvation. And indeed it is salvation, because what it covers up threatens like a rattlesnake at our feet.”
At this moment, we both spied Frer Nebo ahead at the blacksmith’s, dark brows clenched, arguing with the sooty-faced brawn who owned the stall. Jacob gestured.
“See there my comrade? He has no book of Scripture in his hand.” Jacob held up his own black, smooth volume as if this proved his superior piety. “That’s because he long ago threw his book of Scripture over that snake.”
With only his thumb showing on the top cover, Jacob began drumming his fingernails on the black leather of the book’s underside, sounding all the world like there was a serpent rustling its tail inside, waiting to strike out at Nebo as we approached. “He has gazed across the flood and seen his salvation, but he will never reach out and grab it, even though it is as close to him as his own ankle.”
Just then Nebo looked up and noticed our approach. Jacob immediately ceased his rattling and put a hand at my back as if to encourage me to explain the meeting. So, I recounted the entire case up to that point. During the retelling, Nebo’s trim beard twisted in disapproval at every mention of Reider.
“Typical story of crime,” he finally spoke up, “People acting in ignorance and lunacy.”
“Don’t be too quick to look to weakness for the origin of evil,” Jacob injected with eyes mostly closed, “Remember they were Angels who fell at Hell’s conception.”
Nebo’s gaze narrowed and his mouth pinched to a near pucker. “You’re mixing Angels and Serpents again, Brother…”
“Every feathered bird has a lizard’s feet,” was Jacob’s reply.
Nebo thundered, “You base heretic!” Several nearby street shoppers stopped to glance askance at the brothers. One matron with arms wrapped around wicker baskets of rust-colored potatoes rolled her eyes and tipped her head up dismissively.
“Enough,” I interrupted with a voice that surprised me with its weakness and weariness. I really needed to conclude these preparations and escape this exhausting whirlpool of mindless contention that was Lemaigne. “Are the brothers available to draw the prison coach or no?”
Nebo and Jacob passed a look that let me know that their theological contest was clearly not over, but Nebo turned to me, stroking his peppered beard, and nodded. “You need them more than we.”
“I apologize for earlier, Observer,” his ruddy face staring down to the straw and mud of the stable floor. “It’s in my character to jest about… certain games in which I am no longer a contender.”
I was tugging at the girths and traces that I had inherited with the team, noting how they fit and trying to imagine a comparison with the tack that was part of the coach’s gear. The brothers were bay roan and light blue dun, casting a bit of doubt on Diana’s claim that they were twins.
“No matter, Jacob. I only came for the horses.” His gaze wandered across the backs of the two animals as if he finally recognized the singularity of my purpose. Against my own better instincts, I offered him: “And, Lemaigne is hardly a place to live a celibate life.”
“Isn’t it?” he replied with a quizzical look.
“It is,” running my thumb over the bridle’s stitching. Then, retracing my thought, “not.”
“Eh… this was a willful decision on my part, Observer. I left behind the red life of the predator and took on the shepherd’s cloth. That’s when I seized my own ankle and changed my name. But, that uncelibate man inside is still angry that I stole his birthright. So, I let him out to chat every now and then, as an act of mercy.”
“After all, the snake is first,” he grinned, holding up his right hand then switching to the left, “and the dove second.”
“No need to explain yourself, Frer.” I noticed that the terrets were nothing but bars hammered crudely into circles, not poured solid as rings or even welded together. A few good tugs on the reins and they might open. I decided to use my own gear. “It is just odd talk coming from a man of the book.”
“A man of God, Observer. There are many books.”
“So people keep telling me.” I held up one hand, as a motion to end the conversation and as a farewell salute, and led the horses off toward the jailhouse.