By Charles de Lint
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1985 Charles de Lint
All rights reserved.
Janfri Yayal watched his house burn down without expression.
The two-story, wood-frame structure was beyond rescue. Flames leapt half its height into the night skies. Smoke erupted from windows and eaves, roiling upward like a ghost escaping the doomed flesh of its host body. A gasp came from the watching crowd as a section of roof collapsed in a shower of sparks. The firemen pulled back, all too aware of how ineffectual their efforts were at this point. Janfri's only response was a nerve that twitched in his cheek.
The red light of the flames and the glare of the rotating beacons on the police cars and fire trucks flickered across his dark skin, highlighting the strong features set in their mask of indifference. He was oblivious to the growing crowd of thrill-seekers who jostled for position against the hastily-erected barricades that the police had set up. He watched the home he'd known for three years burning and remembered other fires. Not the cook and camp fires of his childhood, nor the pleasant crack and spit of seasoned wood burning in a stone hearth. Instead his mind thrust up memories of a man set afire and the crowd around him, jeering and laying wagers as to how long he would live. Of the wagons of his parents and grandparents and others of their kumpania burning in the night. Of the men who wore the four-armed symbol of the swastika and set countries alight with the same single-minded purpose with which they burned Gypsy wagons.
But there were no swastikas here. It was another symbol that had erased the expression from Janfri's features. He had seen it on the wall of his home before the flames and smoke took it from his sight — a scrawl of black paint that was meaningless to the Gaje, the non-Gypsies, but that he understood with a bleak emptiness. It meant marhime. Ceremonially defiled. Unclean. It was a message from another Rom to him that there was no welcome among the Gypsies for a Rom who had become too Gaje. And yet, though he understood, he could not believe that one of his people could have done such a thing. Such a display of violence was not the way of the Rom. One who was marhime was not tolerated in the company of o phral, the true Rom. He was ostracized from every facet of Rom society, but he was not treated with violence. Or fire.
And yet ... He had seen the symbol, the black paint with the excess liquid dripping from its lines like drops of blood; and who else but a Rom knew that he was one of their own? Who else but a Rom would know the secret patrin and defile the wall of his home with it?
"Jesus, John," a voice said in hushed tones at his side. "You've lost everything."
Janfri's companion knew him as John Owczarek — one of Janfri's Gaje names. Like all Gypsies, Janfri used and discarded names as a Gajo might a suit of clothes. Only the other Rom of his kumpania knew him as Janfri la Yayal — Janfri son of Yayal — and they were most likely to call him by his nickname, o Boshbaro, "the Big Fiddle," for his skill on the instrument that was at this moment tucked under his arm, forgotten. To Rom who didn't know him as well he was simply Boshengro, "the fellow who plays the fiddle."
"I sure as hell hope you've got enough insurance to cover it," Tom Shaw added. He glanced at Janfri's face, puzzled by his friend's lack of emotion. It had to be shock, he decided, because the stiff lack of response he saw in Janfri's features simply didn't jibe with the man Tom knew him to be. The John Owczarek that Tom knew was expansive in his moods, apt to gigantic joys and sorrows.
Tom stood a half head taller than his friend. He was a burly six-two, barrel-chested and meaty. Amongst the Gypsies, his size would label him as an important man, for they judged importance by size as well as other attributes. He was forty-seven this summer, which made him Janfri's elder by two years.
"John ..." he tried again, touching his friend's arm. The wiry muscles were stiff under the light cloth of Janfri's coat.
The Gypsy turned slowly to regard him. "Yekka buliasa nashti beshes pe done grastende," he said softly. Forgetting himself, he spoke Romany. With one behind you cannot sit on two horses. He saw the puzzlement rise in Tom's eyes, but made no attempt to explain. Let Tom think he spoke Hungarian. But the old saying rang all too true in his own mind. One was either Rom or Gajo. There was no in between.
"Listen, John," Tom said. "If you want a place to stay ... ?"
Janfri shook his head. His dark features were pained now. A fire smoldered in the depths of his eyes that were such a dark brown they were almost black.
"There is no John Owczarek," he said. He turned and, before Tom could stop him, disappeared into the crowd.
For a long moment Tom stood in shock. The noise of the crowd seemed to grow louder. The roar of the flames and the pushing, jostling bodies around him combined to throw off his sense of the here and now. The night was abruptly surreal, filled with strangeness and menace. A chill traveled up his spine. He stared into the crowd, trying to see what had become of his friend.
"John!" he cried. "John!"
But the night had swallowed up the man he knew as John Owczarek as completely as though he had never existed.
The body lay at the back of the alley and, looking at it, Detective-Sergeant Patrick Briggs of the Ottawa Police Force bit down hard on the well-chewed stem of his unlit briar. He thought he might be sick. Under the bright glare of the police photographer's lights, there was no avoiding the gruesome sight. The body lay in a sprawl. The head, half severed from the neck, was on its side, facing Briggs, its glazed eyes holding his gaze with a vacant stare. A gory trail of abruptly disjoined muscle, esophagus, trachea, spinal cord, jugular veins and carotid arteries trailed from below the jaw. It looked, Briggs thought, as though something had chewed right through the neck.
The body itself had sustained wounds as well. The right hand and forearm had been opened to the bone — defense wounds caused by the victim's unsuccessful attempt to fend off his attacker. The flesh and muscle hung in ribbons from the arm. The left shoulder was no prettier. The cloth of the man's jacket hung in tatters, matted with blood, and clung wetly to the corpse and the ground around it. Briggs looked away, hoping his stomach would settle down.
He was a veteran of twenty-four years on the Force — the last fifteen of them in General Assignment. To some extent he was inured to the inevitable results of violence that his work brought him into contact with — more so than a civilian confronted with the same situation might be. But at the same time, that familiarity, the sheer volume of man's brutality against his fellow man that he was forced to be witness to, fueled an anger in him that sometimes frightened him with its intensity. This ... thing lying in the alley had once been a man. Someone had worked real hard to make it look like he'd been torn apart by some kind of animal, but Briggs wasn't buying it.
Briggs looked up at his partner's call. Will Sandler was a tall, sharp-featured black man who went through life in a constant state of suppressed tension. It showed in the taut pull of the skin at his temples, around his eyes and the corners of his mouth, in the birdlike darting of his gaze. He contrasted sharply with the unimposing figure that Briggs cut — five-eight with a perpetual slouch that made him appear shorter, dark hair that was prematurely gray at the temples, sorrowful eyes. His suit was rumpled, tie loose, shoes scuffed. Will, on the other hand, always looked like he'd just left his tailor's. But the two men made an effective pair, for their strengths augmented each other's weak points. Briggs was a slow mover, a deliberate collector of details with little imagination, while Will's mind moved in intuitive lunges. Since they'd been paired, their success on cases had reached a departmental high of sixty-seven percent.
Briggs removed his pipe and thrust it into the breast pocket of his suit coat, stem down, as he moved closer to his partner. "What do you think?" he asked.
"Well, it sure as hell wasn't a mugging. There was over fifty bucks in his wallet."
"Animal or man?" Briggs asked, wanting his own feelings confirmed.
Will shook his head. "A doberman might leave a mess like that ... but I don't know. We're going to have to wait to see what Cooper comes up with once he's done the autopsy. Thing is," he nodded to the ground, "there's enough dirt here to hold a track, but Alec didn't come up with anything we could even pretend was an animal's." Alec MacDonald was with forensics and was standing at the mouth of the alley waiting for the body to be removed so that he could finish up. "I think we've got us a psycho on our hands. That, or a case of spontaneous mutilation." Will glanced at his partner, but Briggs didn't smile. "Bad juju, Paddy," he added softly. "All the way."
Briggs nodded and studied the body again.
"Hodgins wants to know if we're finished with it," Will said.
Briggs glanced to where Al Hodgins waited with the medics. A pale green body-bag lay on the stretcher. Briggs imagined them moving the body and the head coming loose, bouncing down the alleyway with a wet sound. ... He grimaced.
"Stan got all the shots we need?" he asked.
"What about that?" Briggs pointed to a symbol that had been scratched into the dirt near the victim's head. It was a circular shape, cut with three slashing lines. Two of them were so close together that the topmost line ran into the one below it.
Will called the photographer over. "Did you get a shot of that, Stan?"
Stan Miller nodded. "A nice close-up," he said. He was chewing on a pencil stub and talked around it rather than removing it.
"What the hell's it supposed to mean?" Will muttered.
Briggs motioned to the medics that they could collect the body and watched his partner. He could see the cogs turning under Will's short Afro, but his face mirrored the bewilderment Briggs knew was on his own. He and Will moved aside as the medics took the body away. All that remained now were the chalk outlines of where it had lain and the thickening pools of blood. It never failed to shock Briggs as to how much blood there was in one human being. There were only about ten pints in a full-grown man, but when you saw it all spilled out in some alleyway like this, it looked like about ten gallons.
"Hey! Is one of you Briggs?"
Both men turned to see a patrolman standing at the mouth of the alley.
"I've found you a witness."
The man's name was Ralph Cleary and he was a wino. He was in bad shape tonight, hands shaking like he had palsy, shuffling his feet, staring at the detectives with scared rheumy eyes. He wore a baggy suit that even the Sally Ann wouldn't have accepted on a bet. It hung from his sloped shoulders and slender frame in loose, oversized folds. His face was flushed with alcohol poisoning, blue veins prominent.
"Where'd you find him?" Briggs asked the patrolman.
"Down the street in the park. He was sitting on a bench, just shaking and talking to himself. When I asked if he'd seen anything, he just started telling me that he 'didn't hurt no one.'"
Briggs nodded. "Okay. Thanks. Stick around, would you? I want to talk to you after we've had a word with him."
"He's all yours," the patrolman said, turning Cleary over to them with obvious relief.
Briggs led the frightened man to the unmarked car that he and Will had arrived in. He helped him into the back seat, then climbed in beside him. Will got into the front and leaned over the seat to look at them.
"I didn't do nothing," Cleary mumbled.
"No one said you did," Briggs explained gently. "We just want to ask you what you saw tonight, that's all. Think you can do that, Ralph?"
The wino nodded. "They call me Red-eye on the street," he offered, "on account of the way my eyes get, you know?"
"Would you prefer to be called that?"
"No. I like being called Ralph better." He shot a quick glance at Will, then returned his watery gaze to Briggs. "I used to be a midshipman, you know — out of Halifax. I wasn't always ... you know. Like this."
Briggs nodded sympathetically. "Times are getting tough again," he said. "All we can do is just hang in there the best we can."
"Yeah. We just gotta hang in there...." His voice trailed off. Briggs let the silence hang for a few moments before he spoke again.
"So what did you see, Ralph?"
Cleary shrugged. "I was just minding my own business, you know, sitting on the stoop over there, resting my feet." He nodded to the front of the indoor parking lot across the street from the mouth of the alleyway. "I was just sitting there, when this guy comes by. I thought I might hit him up for some change, but when he got into the light and I could see him better, I saw he didn't look a whole lot better off than me. I thought maybe I'd call him over, offer him a swig, you know, just to be sociable. I had about a third of a bottle left and I was feeling pretty good, but then ..."
He'd been looking at what he could see of his feet between his legs while he spoke. As his voice trailed off for a second time, his gaze flicked to Briggs' face, then back to his shoes.
"What happened then, Ralph?" Briggs prompted him. For a long moment Cleary didn't say anything. When he finally spoke, his voice was strained. Scared.
"Did you ever stand in a harbor and ... and watch the way the fog comes rolling in?" he asked. "The way it licks up the streets at first, you know, hanging real low?"
"Yeah, sure." Briggs wasn't sure what Cleary was on about, but he wanted to keep him talking.
"Well, that's what it was like ... like a little patch of fog that came rolling up the street, only there was this guy in the middle of it and the fog just sort of hung around his feet like it was ... I don't know ... following him. The first guy, he stopped in front of the alley when the guy with the fog called out to him, and then he just sort of faded back into the alley, like he was scared of him, maybe. The other guy followed and the fog ... it ..." He looked up at Briggs. "You're going to say I was drunk, and maybe I was, but there was something in that fog, mister. It was up to the guy's knees now, maybe, and there was ... things moving in it. It didn't look like no fog I ever saw and I've seen a lot. I used to be a midshipman, you know — out of Halifax. I worked hard, real hard, but old Red-eye likes his bottle, you know, and I guess they just had to let me go...."
"Then what happened, Ralph?"
Cleary looked back at his shoes. "Then the other guy — the first guy — screamed. ... But it wasn't loud or anything, you know? It was this long whispering ... wet sound. Well, I just took off, mister. I dropped my bottle and I ran, but I just didn't get too far. I made it to the park and I just sort of couldn't go no more. I sat down on a bench and I been there ever since.
"I saw you boys all pulling up with your lights flashing and I knew I should tell you what I saw, but I couldn't get up. And I thought ... maybe ... you'd think I done it, you know? Whatever happened to that guy in the alley ... I thought you'd think it was me that done it. But I never hurt no one, mister." His gaze fastened onto Briggs, searching for confirmation, needing to know that the detective believed him.
"No one thinks you did," Briggs assured him.
"That first guy ... he's dead, isn't he?"
"Did you see the second man come out of the alley?" Will asked.
Cleary shook his head. "I just took off."
"Was he ever in the light?" Briggs asked. "Would you recognize him if you saw him again?"
Cleary shivered. "I ... I think so. He had these scars under his eyes...." He lifted a trembling hand and touched his upper cheeks. "... right around here, but maybe ... maybe it was just the way the light fell on his face. He was dark-skinned — not as dark as you," he added, looking at Will, "but dark. His clothes looked all black and so did his hair. And his eyes ... his eyes were like the fog ... all sort of pale and smoky...."
"You've been a big help, Ralph," Briggs said as the man's voice trailed off once more. "I want you to know that." He nodded to Will and the two detectives got out of the car. "What do you think?" Briggs asked Will as his partner came around the car to stand by him.
"A defense lawyer would tear his story apart in about ten seconds."
"Yeah. But what do you think?"
Will sighed. "I don't know, Paddy. All this weird stuff about a fog doesn't make a whole lot of sense."
Briggs nodded. "But he saw something and it scared the shit out of him. And I don't think it was just the booze."
"No. It wasn't just the booze...."
What I cant figure, Briggs said, is why the murderer would take the time to make it look like it was the work of an animal, but then leave that symbol scratched in the dirt like some kind of calling card. Anyone with half a brain —"
Psychos only have about half a brain.
The two men stood silently by the car. At length, Briggs headed over to where the patrolman was still waiting.
I want you to run Cleary downtown, he said. He pulled out his wallet and took out a twenty-dollar bill. But get some food into him first.
Sure. What's the charge?
No charge. Lets call it protective custody. He's all we've got right now and I don't want to lose him. And I don't want the press to get wind of the fact that we've got him and I don't want anybody — and I mean anybody — asking him questions. Now before you go, this is your beat, right? Where were you when it happened?
I had a disturbance up on Dalhousie — a couple of hookers got into a tussle over this John and ...
The coroners initial report, combined with the story Ralph Cleary had given them, brought Wills offhand remark about juju a little too close to home. Juju was Wills catchall word for anything inexplicable or spooky. And this alley murder, Briggs thought, was shaping up to fit both categories perfectly.
Look, Briggs, Cooper had said when the two detectives stopped off in his office, at this point I cant rule out the possibility that some kind of animal didn't do it.
What about the symbol scratched in the dirt? Briggs asked.
And there were no tracks, MacDonald said from his desk across the room.
The two men shared the office, Alec MacDonald a hulking figure behind his desk, while Peter Cooper was almost lost behind the clutter on his own. Cooper was a waspish, balding man who moved his hands in broad gestures as he talked. He pointed a finger towards MacDonald, but Alec spoke first. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Mulengro by Charles de Lint. Copyright © 1985 Charles de Lint. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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