by Derrick T. Perkins
Captain XO's note: Derrick has written another crackerjack de Curieux story, a bit different than his usual Ruritania type stories. We are proud to continue to publish his work.
“I don’t like this at all,” said Sergeant Siobhan O’Leary, pacing the cramped hotel room, one hand on her hip, the other on her holster. “Not at all.”
Sitting forlornly on one of the two beds crammed into the place, mechanic’s apprentice Joe Miller nodded silently. From the lumpy mattress, he had a full view of the angry, gray Atlantic beating against the oddball collection of docks and piers lining this stretch of the eastern Maine coastline. This time of year, it proved difficult to determine where the water ended and the overcast sky began.
“He left two hours ago, two,” O’Leary said. “And all he has with him is that funky revolver and the nerd we picked up yesterday. There’s something rotten in Rottsport, Maine.”
“That’s the third time you’ve said that, and it’s still not funny,” Miller replied, not breaking his gaze from the window. “I’m also pretty sure it’s pronounced ‘rotes-port.’”
“The point stands,” O’Leary said. “I say we go looking for him.”
“How? And where would we even start?” Miller replied. He liked O’Leary. The fiery public affairs specialist for the pirate airship The Renegade was equal parts sass and bravado. More often than not, though, the traits combined as well as fire and gasoline. Two things she liked, oddly enough.
“I’m sure there’s someone who knows something. Maybe that dumpy fishermen’s bar down the street, or that creepy church by the docks,” she said. “Anything is better than sitting here.”
“His instructions were pretty clear,” Miller replied, gesturing at the note they had found underneath their door that morning. “Enjoy the view until he returns.”
The lanky, roseate-haired woman stopped and grinned daringly at Miller.
“There’s a lot of places in this town to enjoy the view,” she said. “Let’s go sightseeing.”
Miller groaned. But he reached for his gun. Maybe he wouldn’t need it, he thought. Not likely, but a man could hope.
Two days prior, Miller had been back in Wick, Scotland, still believing he might re-adjust from the jetlag before duty called yet again. Although exhausted from their exploits across the Atlantic, Colonel Thaddeus de Curieux, military attaché to the pirate airship The Renegade, had immediately put them back to work. After all, he said, there was a black cloud hanging on the horizon.
A black and crimson-painted cloud. The rival airship Grafvitnir had vanished into the stormy sky above Vermont’s north country and not been seen since, although de Curieux warned that was bad rather than good news. With his rival Degory Blackwood, a polymath formerly of the mysterious Miskatonic University, at her helm, The Grafvitnir remained an imminent threat. Tracking her down, rescuing The Renegade’s chief of engineering--held hostage by Blackwood--and destroying her were de Curieux’s directives.
To do so, he reassembled his travel-weary team after just a few hours of sleep, handed them each a mug of tea and assigned them a selection of news outlets to monitor.
“Look for anything out of the ordinary,” he said, as Miller had rubbed his eyes. “Obviously, a sighting of a Konig-class Zeppelin would be preferential, but I doubt a man like Degory will be so helpful.”
“Out of the ordinary?” Miller asked.
“Strange sightings, inexplicable phenomena, peculiar weather patterns, that sort of thing,” de Curieux said. “Oddities of any sort, as well. Blackwood is beating the devil’s tattoo and all manner of vile creatures will heed his call.”
De Curieux pointed toward a thick stack of newspapers on the center table. Many of them, from Miller’s vantage, appeared to be small town weeklies from all corners of the globe.
“The silver lining in all of this may be that while Degory is a subtle man, many of his would-be adherents are not. They may leave a trail of breadcrumbs,” he said. “Report anything unusual to me, immediately. Miller, take the city editions of the major papers. Sergeant O’Leary, social media is your domain, so have at it.”
The colonel turned to Gustav Hanover, the prickly German pilot with a penchant for assassination.
“Lieutenant, how many languages do you speak again?”
“Six, not including the various dialects I am familiar with,” he answered succinctly.
“Good man,” de Curieux said. “You will read the international broadsheets.”
The last to receive an assignment was the New Zealander, Corporal Logan Winters, a broad-shouldered giant with a penchant for heavy arms. He got the tabloids.
They sat for days in the debriefing room in Wick, taking breaks only to go to the bathroom or return to their billets for sleep. On those few occasions Miller passed other members of the crew, they gave him a bewildered respect. Word of the incident in Vermont had not gone far in the traditional press, but it spread like wildfire in Wick and aboard The Renegade. Miller enjoyed the newfound respect where de Curieux was mildly annoyed. Still, the colonel held his protest when they all received free drinks at the Zeppel Inn.
In the end, it was de Curieux who found their next destination spot. Miller had been rubbing his eyes, wishing for once he could take a break from the computer and get back onto the engineering deck of The Renegade. O’Leary was amusing herself with cat photos on Twitter and Winters dozed, eyes open, in front of his computer. Even the straight-laced German struggled with the task, zealously drinking black coffee to ward off fatigue.
“Maine,” de Curieux said suddenly, sitting up with such haste he nearly knocked over his earl grey. “We go to Maine.”
He slammed down the thin newsprint in his hand, making a loud enough snap to awaken Winters. Miller nearly jumped out of his seat, earning him a raised eyebrow from O’Leary.
“Warum?” Hanover asked. “I mean, why? My apologies. I was reading the Frankfurter Allgemeine.”
De Curieux slid his newspaper across the long table. All four of them gathered around it as it came to a stop. It was, Miller thought, a pretty typical small town publication, The Rottsport Independent. The brightly colored advertisements were for mom-and-pop retailers and small operation service contractors--only the realty listings had the glitzy, professional feel. There were the usual photographs of a community events, but you couldn’t miss the double-decker headline: “Fourth body washes ashore, police release few details.”
Miller skimmed the article. It read like the author wasn’t used to writing about multiple fatalities. The few quotes came from a panicked-sounding town selectman, vowing to get to the bottom of it, and one or two of the locals theorizing that a fishing trawler might have gone down off the coast. Rogue waves and quick moving squalls weren’t unheard of, after all.
“The Atlantic doesn’t give up her dead lightly,” a fisherman was quoted as saying. “Could be days before the whole crew comes ashore. If they ever do at all.”
There as little to go on from the local authorities. Just that the bodies lacked identification. All of them suffered some form of mutilation, though whether it occured pre- or post-mortem remained unknown. The state police in Augusta were offering help in the investigation, but all the law enforcement officials played down the likelihood of a serial killer on the loose. The chief of police maintained there was a rational, if unfortunate, explanation.
“Grim stuff,” Hanover said.
“Just gross,” replied O’Leary.
“Awful,” Miller said.
“Indeed,” de Curieux said, an eyebrow raised. “I have not seen Maine in some time. The last time I was escorting a submarine.”
Miller sighed and rubbed his forehead. He looked around and saw that everyone was staring at him. His private objection had been noted.
“There’s not a lot to go on here,” he said. “A fishing boat going missing--hell, that stuff happens out there, every winter, especially. And I kinda figured Blackwood lit out for somewhere a long way away from New England. Plus, it’s not like they’re reporting seeing a zeppelin in the sky.”
“Reasonable objections, I will admit,” de Curieux said. “I, too, doubt it is Degory behind the appearance of these bodies. He is much more circumspect in disposing of incriminating evidence.”
“So what’s the tell?” O’Leary asked.
“A quote in the article,” de Curieux replied. “I recognize the name. Or the initials at least. We leave for Maine at once.”
“That’s still not a lot--” said Miller, who was seeing dreams of resting for a few more days falling apart. He stopped when he felt O’Leary’s elbow press against his side. He knew when to shut up.
“When does the Cessna leave?” she asked, releasing the pressure on Miller’s torso.
“Unfortunately, we must be even more discreet on this sojourn,” de Curieu said. “My understanding is that officials in the United States are not particularly pleased we attempted to ground The Grafvitnir alone. Apologies and extenuating circumstances notwithstanding, it is best if our presence is not known at all in America.”
He spread his hands and offered a thin smile.
“Fortunately, I have gathered quite the collection of noms de guerre in my time, all with the proper paperwork,” de Curieux said. “Unfortunately, we must remain circumspect. Lieutenant Hanover and Corporal Winters will not be accompanying us on this trip.”
It was O’Leary’s turn to start protesting, but de Curieux cut her off.
“We will not be going in cold, of course,” he said. “There is a subject matter expert I would very much like to have accompany us. Fortunately, he resides between Logan International Airport and Maine. We can pick him up on the way.”
“Wait, we’re flying commercial?” O’Leary asked.
“I’m sure we can arrange seat upgrades,” he replied. “I have a friend at Lufthansa.”
“Why me, though?” Miller asked.
De Curieux stared at him quizzically.
“I should think it obvious. You have ties to the region and likely the deepest well of local knowledge,” he said, and then clapped his hands. “Now, please pack accordingly. We will reprise our roles as tourists.”
He turned, precisely, and strode out of the room. Alone and in silence, they took turns staring at one another. Winters and Hanover seemed disappointed to have been grounded. O’Leary gave Miller a reproachful look.
“So what do you know about Maine?”
“I read a lot of Stephen King when I was a teenager,” he replied. “Ask me anything.”
Attempting desperately to look like a tourist, Miller cursed under his breathing. He was trying his best to make his sidearm disappear under his winter jacket and not succeeding. He was unaccustomed to carrying a firearm. Despite his lack of formal training, both O’Leary and de Curieux insisted he be prepared for all eventualities.
“Worst case, you just pass it over to me when I’m out of ammunition,” O’Leary had told him. Given his prowess with a gun, it sounded like a good idea, he thought.
On her, the snub-nosed Taurus PT111 vanished, disappearing into a waistband holster tucked under her fleece top. Miller had to marvel at her expertise: her lithe frame also concealed two knives of varying lengths and specialties, a burner phone, pack of cigarettes, multiple lighters, some sort of explosive and energy bars. To unwitting eyes, though, she looked like any other urbanite attempting to go rustic for the weekend, complete with a bottle of Poland Spring water poking out of her handbag.
Following her down the stair well, he briefly made eye contact with the sullen clerk at the desk, who just nodded at them before answering a ringing phone. His gaze rested on the pair until they departed into the cold afternoon.
“Slow down,” Miller called out, immediately stepping into a pile of half-frozen slush leftover from the town’s last snow. O’Leary ignored him, her feet clopping against the cobbled sidewalk of the downtown area. Like most remote New England fishing communities, the town was mostly a cluster of buildings along the short stretch of coast carved into a natural harbor by the beating ocean. In years past, a few farmers probably branched off inland and, in its heyday, two or more logging companies might have set up competing sawmills, shipping the finished wood by sea to Boston and New Bedford.
The cobblestone sidewalk was recent, though, machined too precisely to have been laid down by colonial forbearers. If Miller had to guess, the town probably paid for it and a few other refurbishments, like the green street clocks by way of a state or federal tourism grant. North of Bar Harbor, yet well south of the Canadian destination spots, Rottsport was well off the beaten path. Lobstermen and crabbers called a place like this home, no one else.
But O’Leary wasn’t having it. Nearly as soon as Miller caught up to her, she diverted down a side street toward the water. He nearly fell trying to make the cut.
“Better keep up, honey,” she called over her shoulder with a laugh. Miller rolled his eyes, but he sped up as she barreled into a weathered bar.
Stepping inside the Bait and Tackle, he paused a moment to let his eyes adjust. Even compared to the gray, fading light outside, the barroom was dark. A few worn pool tables sat beneath neon signs advertising various domestic beer brands. There was no television, just an old dial-operated radio propped up on the faded wooden bar. A few fishing trinkets adorned the walls out of respect to its name. There were the obligatory posters enjoining patrons to root for the Red Sox.
One other customer sat at the bar, a weathered-looking fellow in jeans and a worn leather jacket. A baseball cap rested beside him. He looked to have been in deep conversation with the barkeep, but the conversation had died as soon as the door swung open.
O’Leary pulled up a seat at the opposite end of the bar, sat and smiled coyly Miller. Refusing to engage, he grabbed the stool next to her. It was about as uncomfortable as he felt in the dingey watering hole.
His companion seemed more at home. O’Leary unabashedly waved at the bartender, calling him over. Despite his sullen response--the act of straightening up from his perch on the bar seemed belabored--she ordered for the both of them, asking for two beers from one of the popular microbreweries in Portland.
“I only keep that beer out back,” the barkeep answered, wording it to sound like fetching a pair of India pale ales involved traveling to the subcontinent for which they were named. “If you want something on tap, we have Bud, Bud Light and Coors.”
“The IPAs, please,” O’Leary said, twisting a lock of her roseate hair in her finger. Just like a tourist, Miller thought.
The bartender sighed, wiped his hands on his rag and disappeared into the rear of the building. Down at the far end of the bar, the only other patron took a swig out of a beer bottle.
Miller tried avoiding looking at him, but his eyes kept drifting back. The man was a curiosity, older than Miller, but muscular in the sinewy way men got from physical, outdoor work. His fingers, Miller saw, were cut and calloused. His skin was tanned, nearly enough to match the brown leather of his coat. But he did not seem a fisherman. Just a drifter with a lot of miles on the odometer.
The other man seemed to notice Miller’s gaze. A fine smile tugged at the corners of his lips as he took another sip from the bottle.
“You folks visiting for the weekend?” he asked in a scratchy voice, not looking their way. “Not a great time of year to tour the coast.”
“We’re looking at vacation homes,” O’Leary said, sounding a bit bored. “Thought we would check out the local culture.”
The handsome man chuckled softly.
“That’s a first in this town,” he said.
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a faded, black leather wallet. He pulled a handful of crumpled dollars from it and tossed them haphazardly onto the bar.
“You might think about somewhere south of here, Camden or Rockport,” he said, standing up and grabbing his ball cap. “A little closer to civilization, you know? This place is a little rough around the edges.”
“Thank you for the advice,” O’Leary replied. “We’ll take our chances. We like rough around the edges.”
He stuck his ball cap on his head, nodded at them.
“It’s your life,” he said walking out. “Hope it works out for you.”
Alone again, O’Leary turned to Miller.
“Nice enough guy,” she said. “I’m starting to get a feel for New Englanders. They’re very caring.”
“Ayup,” Miller replied.
The bartender returned, ales in hand and looking slightly worse for wear. It was an act, of course, and in his effort to show how he was coddling the bottles, one slipped out and crashed onto the floor.
Swearing viciously, the barkeep glared at O’Leary and Miller as if it were their fault. He called out for a barback.
“Henries, get your ass out here,” he shouted, and presently a disgruntled-looking early twenty-something in a stained t-shirt and ragged pair of jeans appeared.
“Clean up this mess, would’ya,” the bartender said. “I got to run out back again and look for another beer.”
The kid sighed, but reached for a mop. But the bartender grabbed it.
“Find the damn dustpan first,” he snarled. “The glass. You’ll spread it everywhere with a mop. Pick up the goddamn glass.”
With a huff, the bartender disappeared into the back again, droplets of beer flying off his soaked apron as he went. That left O’Leary and Miller in the company of the kid, who was studiously ignoring them as he gingerly plucked glass from the floor. Miller could hear him mumbling under his breath, nothing pleasant from the sound of it.
“Hey, kid,” O’Leary said. “Your boss always this friendly?”
The kid glanced up as he dumped a few shards into the trash bin under the bar.
“That’s better than usual, actually,” he said. “Everyone in this town is a little off.”
“You from here?” Miller asked. He took a pull from the bottle and handed it over to O’Leary. They would have to share for the time being. It suited Miller fine; he was too anxious to enjoy the bitter ale.
“I’d say no, but it depends on what you mean,” the kid said. “My family is from a few towns over. A real town, not like this dump. I just come here to work. But to anyone south of Bangor, it’s probably all the same.”
O’Leary giggled. She seemed to like his attitude. At least she was enjoying herself, Miller thought.
“I don’t know if I’d call it a dump,” she said, smiling. “It’s a little quaint, sure.”
“It’s a dump,” the kid said flatly. “The state tried to fix it up a few years ago, but it didn’t take. You can paint over all you want, but this is the place all the druggies and drunks end up. Whenever something strange or awful happens up this way, it either happens here or comes from here, you know? Last year, they busted a cigarette smuggling ring. Can you believe that? They were bringing in Canadian cigarettes on fishing trawlers and selling them to get around the state tax.”
The kid shook his head.
“And this year we got the murders. It’s always something,” he said.
“Murders?” O’leary said in faux shock. She put a hand on her breast in mock disbelief. Miller fought back a nervous laugh.
“You didn’t hear? I figured it would have made the Boston news by now. Four bodies, all of them washed ashore,” the kid said, not picking up on O’Leary’s acting job. “The cops are playing cool, saying it might be a boating accident or something, but I don’t buy it.”
“What do you think?” Miller said, hoping his voice was even.
“I think it’s bullshit,” the kid said. “Like I said, there’s a lot of addicts and drunks here. They mostly come for fishing work or a place to set up shop in the summer--too much woods and too few cops to bust up all the camps. It’d be hard to tell if a few went missing.”
The kid stopped talking as the bartender bullied his way back through the door, a fresh India pale ale in hand. In a smooth motion, he popped the top and procured a pair of glasses for Miller and O’Leary. Then he glanced at the barely touched mess on the floor and began cursing the kid out.
“It’s all right,” O’Leary said, interjecting. “We were distracting him with questions. It’s our fault.”
That only made the bartender angrier. He slapped his towel against his hand menacingly.
“What did I tell you about bothering the customers,” he growled. “What’d you say?”
“It’s fine,” Miller said, holding out a hand. “We were bothering him.”
The bartender grumbled a few choice words under his breath and snapped the towel against his hand a few more times. He departed in a huff, mumbling about cleaning up in the back. An angry man, Miller thought, glancing out back toward the entrance.
And he froze. For a second, he thought his roving eye had caught a face in the dusty window, lined and grinning like a death head. It vanished as Miller squinted to make it out better. The chilling face vaguely reminded Miller of the man sitting at the bar.
“Hey kid,” he said. “I don’t want to get you in any more trouble, but who was that guy here when we got in? Seemed nice.”
“Don’t worry about it--I’m always in trouble. Maybe he’ll do me a favor and fire me,” the kid said. “I know the guy you’re talking about. He’ll be back later tonight. They call him a couple of different things, like the Ramblin’ Man, because he just showed up a few years ago, hitching up the coastline looking for work.”
The kid had picked up all the glass by now and was at work wiping the flooring down. He pulled a bottle of hardwood cleaner out from underneath the bar.
“He also goes by The Preacher Man, and that’s because he’s always quoting from the Bible. Doesn’t stop him from taking a girl home from here at all, though,” he said. “I saw him quoted in one of the newspapers as Rawson Fife, if that means anything to you. He’s just another weird dude in this weird town, as far as I care.”
The kid shrugged.
“Everyone seems to like him, though. Hasn’t done me wrong, but he doesn’t tip well, either.”
“Well, here you go, kid,” O’Leary said, handing him a ten-dollar bill. “For helping out a couple of tourists.”
“Ah, you don’t have to,” the kid said, but the cash disappeared quickly. “It was nice talking to normal people for once.”
O’Leary nodded knowingly and left a twenty on the counter for the barkeep. She tapped Miller on the shoulder and they quickly walked out, not saying a word. The two half finished beers rested on the bar behind them. Outside, night was beginning to fall. It was just shy of four o'clock in the afternoon.
Feeling watched, Miller glanced over his shoulder. He saw nothing but lengthening shadows. The streets were empty. He turned back to O’Leary.
“Learn anything?” he asked.
“Just that I really don’t like this town,” she said. “I’ll feel better when we get back to the hotel.”
They hurried down the street a bit, only slowing when they saw the neon sign proclaiming vacancy to the still night. O’Leary led and held the door open for Miller. As he caught it, he took one last glance around.
About fifty yards down the street, he saw a figure. It was leaning against one of the spruced-up lampposts, but in such a manner that his face was obscured by shadows. Only the red glow of a cigarette broke the darkness.
But Miller recognized the coat, and the outline of a ballcap. He hurriedly slipped into the hotel, making sure the door was secured behind him.
After nodding at the still dour clerk, Miller hurried up the stairs. He reached her as she was opening the hotel room door. It swung open and suddenly the two of them were staring down the barrel of a gun.
“I believe,” de Curieux said. “I requested that you remain in the hotel until I returned.”
He placed the odd-looking revolver, large and bespoke--to the extent it was seemingly handmade--back into its ornate sandalwood box.
“You said enjoy the view,” O’Leary said.
De Curieux motioned toward the window. In the dark, only the lights of the berthed vessels were visible.
“Was it obscured in some manner?” he asked mildly.
“I figured we would get a better view on the ground,” O’Leary said.
Her arms crossed over her chest, she clearly had dug in for a fight. Miller, too busy trying to convince his heart to stop racing, was in no mood and remained silent. Even the “I told you so” on his tongue lacked vigor.
“And, in turn, you got a very intimate view of a beautifully crafted revolver,” de Curieux replied. “Count your blessings that was all of it that you saw.”
But he had made his point. There was no anger in his tone. Imperceptibly, O’Leary relaxed. Miller felt his pulse return to normal. The only person in the room still outwardly shocked was the thin, anxious man sitting on one of the two beds in the room. He looked, Miller thought, positively aghast. All throughout the terse standoff, his mouth had flapped open and shut with nary a sound emerging.
“Colonel, you might have killed someone,” he finally stuttered out.
Miller regarded the diminutive man with slight exasperation. That he had, just moments ago, been expecting a lead slug to shred through his flesh, was completely forgotten. The specter of Death had become a regular companion on his travels with de Curieux.
“Never, Winchester,” de Curieux replied soothingly. “I am the very soul of caution.”
The trio had picked up the pale man in one of the storied coastal towns of Essex County, just north of Boston. The colonel had taken the small rental car off the highway and zipped along several winding country roads before coming to a stop at an imposing clapboard house straight from a Hawthorne novel. The military attaché had excused himself and left to knock on the door.
Cornelius Winchester emerged shortly thereafter, unsuccessfully juggling multiple suitcases and at least one trunk. He was not the sort of subject matter expert either of them expected.
Winchester, who described himself as an anthropology lecturer with an interest in the history of spiritualism and the occult, began talking immediately. He kept on for nearly four hours, not noticing much of his conversation sailed over the heads of O’Leary and Miller in the backseat. Several times he paused, but only to thank de Curieux again for allowing him to accompany them on the expedition. It was a dream, he said, to work alongside such a renowned scholar--despite the accusations made in certain circles.
They made one other stop, after de Curieux made introductions, at a storage facility just across the border in New Hampshire. He had returned, clutching the sandalwood box lovingly. Winchester, undeterred by the colonel’s comings and goings, continued on about polymath Oliver Lodge’s early twentieth-century experiments concerning the ether.
The standoff in the hotel room entry way was the first time Miller could recall being in Winchester’s presence and not listening to him pontificating.
“The revolver, though, is that…?” Winchester asked.
“The situation may have called for it. The situation may still call for it,” de Curieux replied. “Did you not agree when we spoke by phone?”
“I did,” Winchester said. “But I did not believe you would have such an artifact readily available. I mentioned it only in jest--I believed it to have been lost for decades, if not an outright fabrication.”
Miller looked at O’Leary. She shrugged.
“Boys with their toys,” she said. “If I had a nickel for every guy I met on The Renegade who had a name and a backstory for his gun, I could buy my own pirate zeppelin.”
“Indeed,” de Curieux replied. “Did you learn anything of note on your adventures?”
“Just that this town is full of angry yankees,” O’Leary said. “We just stopped in at the local bar down the street. I don’t recommend it.”
The sergeant quickly recounted their exploits at the Bait and Tackle. De Curieux nodded along in interest. Winchester attempted to interject a few times, but quieted when the colonel raised his hand.
But when Miller rounded out the report with his mention of the stranger at the bar, de Curieux stopped him.
“The barback said he also went by the Ramblin’ Man or the Preacher Man, if that means anything,” Miller said.
“Average height, slim build, almost too thin, like he was strung out or something,” Miller said. “Scratchy voice, slight shadow of a beard.”
“Unkempt, but in the way you’d expect a working guy to be after a shift,” O’Leary said. “Handsome that way, too. It must have been his attitude or the way he spoke. I mean, what he said was creepy, but there was a confidence in his voice.”
Miller glanced at her.
“The kid said he was popular with the women,” she said, looking back at him evenly. “It’s all about how you carry yourself.”
“I think I saw him watching us through the window after he left,” Miller said. “And I swear he was smoking a butt outside of the hotel when we got in. Guy gives me the creeps, handsome or not.”
“Rawson Fife,” Winchester said slowly, turning the name over in his mouth. “Could it be?”
“It could and likely is,” de Curieux said. “And I believe he has taken a shine to my companions.”
He wandered back over to the sandalwood box and laid down his hand. For a moment, he stared at the inlaid carvings.
“I am happy to have pressed this revolver back into service, but I had hoped we would not need it,” he said.
De Curieux’s gaze returned to Miller and O’Leary.
“Your jaunt was certainly more fruitful than ours,” he said. “I apologize if I spoke out of turn earlier. It seems your adventure has aided us immensely.”
“No worries,” O’Leary said. “What’s our next move?”
“I believe this Rawson Fife has marked the two of you,” de Curieux said. “Since we have the bait, we might as well build a trap.”
That Miller fell into a fitful sleep was putting it mildly. The colonel outlined what he and Winchester had uncovered in their travels through the region with the rental car. The first stop had been to the police station, where pulling the reports for each of the bodies should not have been a problem, yet it involved a surprising amount of delays. When they arrived, the photocopied documents, far more descriptive than the newspaper accounts, detailed the mutilated corpses. It was not the work of animal scavengers, de Curieux told them.
Winchester, for his part, assured them that the mutilation was highly artistic and would have been considered extremely tasteful by the worshippers of the particular cults that had practiced the art in their heydays. O’Leary was quicker than Miller in telling him to stuff it.
Next they had gone through the town’s history in the local library, splitting the poorly written accounts collected by local historians and government records between the two of them. Much of it rang familiar to Miller. Rottsport was settled in the century before the Revolutionary War, though it was known originally as New Nebo. The town flourished, mostly because it was led by men with dreams of making a fortune in the New World rather than their cousins to the south, who were focused on eternal salvation. As such, the founders of New Nebo welcomed any strong-bodied man willing to work hard, including ne’er-do-wells, accused pirates and other men of ill-repute.
But when witch fever swept the Massachusetts Bay Colony, New Nebo was not spared. Nearly twenty men, women and children died before it subsided. Although the local accounts glossed over this portion of the history, it seemed clear the accusations, investigations and executions continued well after the more famous incident in Salem.
At this point in the story, Winchester attempted to speak up. But a cold look from de Curieux returned him to silence.
Rottsport was formally incorporated following the Civil War and hung on. It would never be a tourist destination, despite at least one attempt to open a casino in the dying years of the nineteenth century. Instead, the town made its fortune the way its founders might have endorsed: smuggling, offshore gambling, bootlegging, weapons trafficking and, later, illegal fishing, hunting and logging. Local opinion columns chalked up the more recent economic woes to government regulation, do-gooders in Augusta and nosey interlopers from the Justice Department.
A few columns in the local paper, though, predicted good times ahead, de Curieux said. None presented any evidence to back up the prognostication, though.
“So what?” O’Leary had asked. “What’s any of that got to do with anything?”
“Well, the witch trials likely stem from a rift between the Puritans settling in any safe harbor in New England and the local economics. Coupled with the following harsh economic downturn, there is evidence to indicate the backlash stemmed from more than just mere hysteria, after all--”
“--Not the time and place for an academic thesis, Winchester,” de Curieux had said, cutting off the lecturer.
“But it is quite interesting. All of it.”
“Granted,” de Curieux said. “And your expertise has been invaluable. We must, however, focus on more practical matters.”
He turned back to Miller and O’Leary.
“I believe this Rawson Fife may have tapped into local lore,” he said. “In return for letting him get away with despicable acts, the townspeople--those who matter, at least--may have been promised good times ahead.”
“They’re that dumb?” O’Leary asked.
“Optimistic, perhaps, or desperate,” de Curieux replied. “Willful ignorance is a powerful tool.”
“All for better fishing hauls, that’s insane,” Miller said. “Why would Fife want to do any of this?”
“My guess is Fife has different motivations and likely a different goal,” de Curieux said. “He may be using this as an excuse to cover more nefarious work for Blackwood. He may be a killer, plain and simple.”
De Curieux glanced at the sandalwood box.
“And he may be something else altogether.”
After explaining the trap he had concocted, de Curieux bid them all to sleep. They would need their strength in the day to come, he warned them.
So Miller slept, sharing one of the two beds with Winchester, who began snoring immediately. O’Leary, possessing of that priceless gift of the ability to sleep under any conditions, fell quiet. Only de Curieux remained awake, sipping a glass of scotch and pouring over the photocopies procured at the police department.
Eventually, Miller drifted off. He was awakened sometime later, by a scuffling sound emanating from the foot of the door. At first, he assumed it was a bad dream. But the soft, probing noise continued. He shot up, eyes blinking rapidly.
“Quiet, if you please, Mr. Miller,” whispered de Curieux.
It took a second for his eyes to adjust, but Miller made out his silhouette sitting in a desk chair. The colonel was facing the door.
Miller slid out of the bed. The noise stopped. And then resumed again, a little more forcefully this time.
He heard a click, the sound of metal on metal. Despite the darkness, Miller could see the heft of the revolver in de Curieux’s hand.
A shadow flitted beneath the doorway, temporarily obscuring the light from the hallway. Miller saw the oblong shape of the gun trace its movements.
“What is it?” he whispered, approaching de Curieux.
“A scouting party, I assume,” the colonel replied.
A squeaking at the door caught both of their attention. Miller watched the handle turn slightly. De Curieux leaned forward in his chair, the revolver now raised to eye level.
Weight pressed against the door. Miller involuntarily held his breath. A series of clicks indicated that the locking mechanism had held. A shuffling thump followed, which Miller took to be frustration. The shadow in the doorway flitted away.
De Curieux leaned back, relaxing the hammer of the revolver. He and Miller exhaled the same way.
“It has been that way, off and on, all night,” de Curieux said, his voice tired.
“If you want to switch off standing watch…” Miller said.
“No need. I am quite used to lack of sleep,” de Curieux said. He raised the heavy revolver in the air.
“I have the best chance of stopping interlopers, anyway.”
“It’s an interesting weapon,” Miller said. “I don’t know that I have seen one like that outside of a museum or a movie. Maybe a comic book.”
“They prefer the term ‘graphic novel,’” de Curieux said, and Miller heard the thin smile in his voice. “Stories have attached themselves to weapons time immemorial. This custom-made revolver is no different. It once was held by a good, if sorely tested man. Through this man’s travails, the gun became legendary. It is said to possess some extraordinary qualities, although I have not had the opportunity to test the rumors. Regardless, it serves its primary purpose remarkably well despite its age.”
“How do you get your hands on a piece like that?” Miller asked.
“If you live long enough--and dangerously enough--peculiar objects are bound to cross your palms,” de Curieux said. “Although I have abhorred firearms for many years, I could not turn down this specimen.”
“I’d like to hear the stories about it,” Miller said.
“And I would be happy to share it, time permitting, although I would wager that you know much of it already,” de Curieux said. He motioned with his free hand back toward the beds.
“I would suggest trying to get a bit more sleep before the day’s festivities begin. Do not fear, we are quite safe at the moment.”
Miller did not know that he believed de Curieux. But he trusted him, and that was enough.