Hunter stood silently in the meeting room with his arms folded across his chest and a dark frown on his face. He listened stoically to what each crew member had found aboard the wrecked ship. Now they waited quietly in the room with him while he wrestled silently with his own thoughts. At last, he took a deep breath and slowly paced the small room, walking from his cabin door to the table, and back. Two paces later, he stopped at the table and stared down at the bloody map.
“And the tracks led to the crew bunking also?” Hunter asked O’Fallon.
Over by the door that connected the meeting room with the main deck, the quartermaster nodded. “Aye, Cap’n. Right in. Ah be tryin’ ta follow them further but Ah couldna find where they be headin’ from there.”
“How many of the crew looked to be … at rest?” Hunter asked carefully.
Thorias cleared his throat. “Given a ship that size, Captain, I would say at least a third to half of her crew. Perhaps more. However, it looked to be just the crew. No officers of any kind among the hammocks.”
“None in the officer’s cabins, either Cap’n. As I mentioned, plenty of signs there was a fight, and a large one at that.” Krumer added to Thorias’ explanation. “Whatever happened was brutal, quick and messy. The officers either escaped, went overboard, or are stuffed somewhere we’ve not uncovered. ”
Moira looked around at the others. “But where’d that be? We about turned her on her side an’ shook her.”
Krumer sighed. “I couldn’t begin to guess. Though, I saw no longskiffs.”
Hunter gave O’Fallon a questioning look. The quartermaster shrugged. “Na lay eyes upon them, Cap’n. All Ah spied in the hold be busted crates an mostly coffee beans. Spilled ones at that. Be a right shameful waste a’ them if ye be askin’ me.”
The captain smiled a bit at O’Fallon’s particularly unique sense of humor. “Well, no sign of Adonia, Von Patterson, or the missing crew. Perhaps they disembarked on a longskiff, perhaps not. And that doesn’t explain why we’ve not seen anyone from the station itself. The four of you resupply and then head into the station, see what you can find. I’ll go over this map with Tonks. If we can discern a possible location that the crew might have escaped to, we’ll send out a longskiff or run the Griffin down there for a look.” A peal of thunder rolled in the distance. “Once the storm below us breaks, of course.” Hunter added.
Krumer chuckled at the captain’s remark, then stood up from where he had been leaning against the cabin wall. “Aye, Cap’n. We’ll take a spare opti-telegraphic and signal if we locate anything of interest.”
“Or even if what’s rather interesting is that there is nothing at all.” Thorias added dryly.
“What about the dead crew?” Moira asked.
“Those of us here will offload them and wrap them in proper shrouds. The Belgian authorities will, more as not, want to take a closer look at all this. However, those crew over there deserve a respectful burial. I doubt the Belgians would mind us doing at least that.” The captain explained. “So, anything else? No? Well, good hunting.”
“Spirits’ willing.” Krumer replied with his customary remark, then led the other three from the small cabin to the main deck.
“Since we be headin’ in, we ought ta be gettin’ more lights ta take along.” O’Fallon suggested as they left the meeting room.
Krumer nodded. “Everyone should grab extra of what they may need, I suspect. If the station has suffered any part of what the ship has, we may need it. Assemble on the dock in ten minutes.”
The four met on the dock, then made their way into the station. Ahead, the wooden warehouses with their random patches of brass and copper plate sheets loomed large and silent. Built as the outermost circle of buildings of any relay station, they often served as both supply storage for the station and as a place for merchants to store cargo, for a modest upkeep fee. Normally, a dock hand that lived and worked on the station could always be found nearby. This time, the warehouses stood alone save for a small contingent of firehawks and blackbirds. Each darted between the highest peaks of the warehouse rooftops, offering only the occasional shrill cry at each other, the storms, and the four figures walking beneath them.
O’Fallon stopped at a door to one of the warehouses. This warehouse was like all the others that comprised the outer ring of the station. Alike in that it was built from aged wood with the occasional sheet of copper when wood had obviously not been at hand.
Windows along the second floor of the two story warehouse were tall and thin, better to prevent the cold winds from invading the sanctity of the main storage area. Dominating the approach to it was a large door, used for cargo incoming from a newly-arrived ship. Along the side was a smaller, person-sized door. Beside and above the door were the only prominent markings that all the warehouses shared: A set of faded numbers used by the station’s inhabitants to identify one warehouse from another.
This small door on the side was where O’Fallon had stopped. The door was like the warehouse, built from strong Douglas Fir wood, yet weathered from exposure. Metal hinges, caught in one too many storms, showed signs of rust and the scars rusted metal obtained when used once too often for its own good.
O’Fallon carefully lifted a broken lock from the loop that normally secured the door. The lock was one of the newer types, where the inner brass workings had been wrapped with strong steel bands to give it added strength.
“What the hell? Would ye be lookin’ at this! Na in all me born days, be Ah seein’ a lock twisted about so.” O’Fallon turned the mangled lock over in his hands. The lock body was, by and large, intact, but the metal arm that would normally be placed through a loop to secure the door shut was twisted like putty and separated in two.
He tossed the lock to Krumer and then carefully opened the warehouse door. Krumer looked the abused lock over, “If this was paper, I’d have to say it was torn.” He then passed the lock on to Moira and Thorias for their own inspection.
O’Fallon tugged at the door once the lock was gone. It swung obediently open with only a brief squeak in protest from the rusted hinges. The quartermaster peered inside. A pair of firehawks set about a long series of screeching complaints at his intrusion. He grunted in surprise.
“Empty, if’n ye na count the noisemakers above. Just a wee bit a’ dust, ruined crates scattered here an’ about. Na more’n that.” The quartermaster commented.
Thorias looked the outside walls of the warehouse up and down. “Who would bother with an empty warehouse?” He asked.
Moira shrugged while she held the lock up in front of her face and turned it slowly around for a close view. “Better’n that. Who’d be able ta twist a lock so?”
“I have at least one question, perhaps two.” Arcady asked in his clipped, tin voice.
O’Fallon looked inside once more. In addition to the rotten crates and dusty floor, the shrill noise of birds in the rafters echoed again off the empty walls. With a sigh, he stepped back out to join the others while Krumer turned around to look towards Arcady, who had just come to rest on Thorias’ shoulder.
“Go on.” Krumer replied to the Clockwork dragonfly, his voice a bit more gruff than usual.
Unruffled by the orc’s attitude, Arcady turned his ruby colored eyes to look down at the ground. Inside he turned a gear, and a gentle ruby light glowed softly in the direction he was looking. “What kind of cat makes tracks that large, and where do they go?”
They all looked where Arcady’s light pointed. There, in the dust and dirt-covered side of one of the warehouses was the soft indentation of a large paw print. A print that, based on the size and shape, could only be from a very large cat, such as a panther or mountain lion.
“Same kind as Ah be findin’ aboard the wreck.” O’Fallon commented, leaving the empty warehouse to the firehawks to get a closer look at the tracks.
“Now we know where they went after leaving the ship.” Thorias added.
“Stay watchful, but it’d do us well to see where they lead.” Krumer suggested, then set out in the same direction as the paw prints.
The trail wound its way among the warehouses, both between and behind them. On most all relay stations, inside the outer ring of warehouses, stood buildings for numerous machine shops, a medical clinic, several rooms for sleeping chambers, and monitoring stations to watch over the health of the giant steam engines that powered the fans and gas bags above. However, each station was commonly altered fairly quickly as parts needed to be replaced, or a station had to recover from storms. In the end, each station wound up with its own unique floorplan. The High Fens Relay Station was no exception, with its nineteen buildings that were for the crew and officers to use.
It was a good hour later before the tracks left the confines of the warehouses, wound around one of the clockwork power stations and arrived at a long, one story wooden building. The building was in modest condition and was likely one of the older structures on the station itself, given the weathering and quilted pattern of patches and repairs done to its walls. The door lock was again twisted and misshapen as if a great hand had squeezed the metal and gear workings to death.
Krumer frowned and eased his pistol from the holster at his belt. “I have an unpleasant feeling about this.”
While the others drew their weapons, the first mate tugged at the ruined door latch. Slowly, the door eased open, its metal hinges and weathered wood complaining noisily at the inconvienience of being disturbed. Once open, a faint, sickly, stale odor filled the air. Krumer blinked as his sensitive orcish nose caught the scent and threatened to make his eyes water. With a deep breath he stepped inside.
The room was quite large, being forty feet long and twenty wide. Tall, thin windows lined the wall that faced the station’s main steam engine boilers. It was thanks to these windows that Krumer did not need a lantern, since vertical slashes of light from the windows played out across the room. Along the wall that had no windows lay a set of bunk beds. On these were piles of wool blankets, clothes, small journals and other personal effects. He moved over to one of the beds and picked up a coat, only to discover the bed was not just a rumple of a blanket and jumbled clothes. His hand came away damp.
“Thorias! Inside here, quickly!” Krumer called out just loud enough for the others outside the room to hear him, while his heart throbbed hard in his chest.
O’Fallon and Moira rushed in with weapons drawn. Thorias and Arcady were only a moment later. They looked around, confused at seeing Krumer alone in the room. When their eyes adjusted to the gloom, they realized they were only partially mistaken. Krumer was not in danger, but he was definitely not the only body in the room.
The first mate showed Thorias his hand. “His throat’s sliced open like aboard the wreck. Check the others.”
Thorias slipped around O’Fallon and Moira who were looking around in a mild horror at the number of bodies in the room. The doctor stepped over to the next nearest bunk.
“Though I suspect none of us are truly surprised, this one is dead. They all are, most likely, but I’ll check to be sure.” The doctor said dryly. “You never know, one could just be sleeping off a particularly strong night of whiskey.” With a faint sigh, he slowly moved between the bunks and took his time with each examination. His initial guess was not wrong.
O’Fallon looked around then stepped over to the door for a nervous look outside. “It be like walkin’ about in a graveyard. A floating graveyard.”
“Well, we’re na the only ones.” Mora said, pointing to two faint sets of tracks in some dirt that happened to have collected at the side of one of the bunks.
Also in the dirt were two boot prints, neither looking small enough to belong to the boots that sat on the floor next to them. Likewise the paw print did not match any foot in the room.
“Spirits guard us. Again with the cat.” Krumer growled. “How can one assassin do so much?”
Thorias walked down the length of the room, wiping the blood from his hands on a spare rag he had located on a footlocker. Arcady flew just behind his right shoulder. “I have my doubts this cat or even its owner had anything to do with the initial deaths. Though I am convinced they have everything to do with the crew being in their bunks with their belongings around them.”
Krumer considered this a moment then shrugged. “I don’t see where you’re heading here, Doc.”
Thorias waved a hand around in a sweeping gesture. “Look at the remains. Not how they were killed, but how they are now. No sign of a fight at all. Stretched out silently as if caught while sleeping. But how? This many men caught sleeping at once? Not likely.” The doctor stepped over to a bunk and lifted a journal to show the others. “Look, their belongings are around them on the bunks. One or two I might could see that. I myself have read to sleep more than once. But all of them?”
Moira cleared her dry throat. “Last rites.” She whispered hoarsely.
Thorias nodded. “Indeed. But not any kind I’m familiar with. There are some stains of oil, some scent of herbs I daresay I don’t right off recognize.”
The first mate’s expression deepened into a firm glower at the room and its occupants. “If the person we are following did not do this, then who did?”
At the door, O’Fallon had been looking out at the silent buildings, watching the occasional gust of wind scurry around a corner. He looked down, then knelt and frowned. “If it’d be a snake, Ah’d be more’n dead.”
“Actually it depends on the snake,” commented Thorias who was looking closely at one of the fatal knife wounds out of curiosity.
Krumer walked over to where O’Fallon knelt down. “What is it?”
O’Fallon pointed to what Krumer thought looked exactly like a few smudges at the edge of the doorframe. “There and there. That na be the same bunch.” The quartermaster then pointed to a larger smudge that, the longer Krumer looked at it, slowly resolved into a partial paw print. “That be the bugger we’d be tryin’ ta follow.” He then pointed at another set, almost obscured by the second. These arrived from a different direction than the paw prints. “Them be different. Ah be seein’ those aboard the wreck, but at the time, Ah’d assumed they be for the crew or the bugger who owns that big cat. Now? Na so much. That cat’s got some with him, but they be comin’ the way we did. Them others, they came in a slightly different way. Ah’d think they be doin’ the killin.”
Krumer was impressed. He could track on his own, but was not a master tracker by any means. “Where did you learn to track?”
O’Fallon grinned slightly. “Ah na always be a sailor. When ah be a lad, me Uncle felt me own education be lackin’. So he be takin’ me up inta the Highlands. There we’d spend days a time followin’ the odd beastie we’d come across.”
“Well then, praise to your Uncle for doing so. How do you know this other group are the killers and not the ones with the cat?” The first mate knelt to peer closer at the smudges of tracks to try to discern what O’Fallon could see.
Still in his kneeling position, O’Fallon half-turned and looked at the closest bunks. He smiled and pointed at the second closest. “There, the big boot prints. They be more’n a bit bloody. But the blood be around the boot. The prints next ta it smear the blood. They had ta come after.”
“So two groups.” Krumer said aloud to confirm his own thoughts.
“That’s all fine and well, but how do we know both groups aren’t equally murderous?” Thorias asked, a hint of irritation in his voice.
Before anyone could answer, a ring of metal echoed in the air, bouncing off the buildings. Immediately, all four crouched low and looked around, pistols at the ready. O’Fallon cocked his head sideways when the noise happened again. Silently he motioned towards the far side of the room they were in, then slipped past and silently walked that way. The solemn eyes of his crew mates watched him carefully as he approached the rear door.
O’Fallon paused, tense as a bowstring, then closed his hand around the door latch. Carefully he put his weight on it and unlatched the door with what seemed to be a deafening click. O’Fallon eased the door open an inch.
Suddenly, a gunshot rang out! O’Fallon jerked backwards instantly, and the thud of a body hitting the ground was heard throughout the room.
“O’Fallon!” Krumer shouted as he bolted across the room.