Bruce Davis

Quality of Mercy

Tales From the OR
Chain Story
The Quality of Mercy
Benthic Rhapsody

The Quality of Mercy

By Bruce Davis


Ian swore as the mule lurched and almost pitched him out of the saddle. The beast recovered its footing and plodded on, following Sergeant, the big roan gelding ridden by Warrant Officer Keith. Ian shook himself and ran his left hand across his face, rubbing his eyes with the broad paddle of his middle finger. He must have been dozing; otherwise the mule’s slight stumble wouldn’t have nearly thrown him. His dignity might survive a fall from the saddle, but a glance down the sheer cliff face at the edge of the trail made it clear that his body wouldn’t. He tightened his grip on the reins with his good hand, the right one, and willed himself alert.

It didn’t work, of course. Within a couple of minutes his head sagged forward only to jerk up again as the terrible falling sensation returned.

Behind him, McEwen, the forensics tech, cleared his throat respectfully. “Are you all right, sir?” he asked.

Ian shook himself again. “I’m fine, McEwan. Just a little tired.” He raised his voice and called to Keith. “Warrant Keith, I think we should rest the animals soon. Sophie here is stumbling with fatigue.” Sophie snorted indignantly at him. It wasn’t her fault if he fell asleep in the saddle.

“Aye, sir. There’s a wide spot in the trail just past the next switchback. We’ll stop there.” Keith’s tone was properly respectful, but Ian thought he detected a hint of amusement in the Warrant Officer’s backcountry burr.

Ian shrugged off the implied disrespect, too tired to care. They’d been riding since just after dawn and it was now late afternoon. Hibernia’s sun, a K-class orange giant, hung low on the horizon. A cold wind, thick with the promise of rain, blew out of the south. Ian shivered despite the insulated skinsuit under his dark green Hibernian Constabulary uniform. The skinsuit held in body heat and also doubled as body armor, proof against most small arms fire. He doubted he’d need that kind of protection on this mission, but it was regulation to wear the suit while on duty, so there it was.

He was glad it was early summer and not late fall. Getting caught in a snowstorm high in the Caledonian mountains was not on his list of things to experience before he died. He smiled grimly, considering the fact that if he did, it would probably be the last thing he experienced before he died.

To his left, the cliff face soared upward, vanishing into the gray mist that seemed to permanently shroud the Caledonian peaks. To his right, the same face fell away to the rushing waters of the Fallon River. Downstream, two hundred kilometers to the north, the Fallon was broad and green as it meandered its way through the middle of Port Jefferson to the sea. Here, deep in the mighty Caledonians, the river was white - a violent rushing and roaring thing that bit into the surrounding rock and tore a ragged gorge through the hills.

They wound their way through a switchback in the steep trail and Keith turned Sergeant into a natural archway in the cliff wall. Beyond was a deep hollow in the rock, partially roofed by a granite overhang and wide enough for the three animals to stand abreast. The ceiling sloped down at the back to a cleft only a meter or so high. Water burbled from an opening along one wall and drained away through the cleft to fall in a narrow cascade to the river.

Sophie turned in beside Sergeant, who nickered companionably at her. McEwan guided Eleanor, the wiry black mare he rode, into the hollow on Ian’s left side. Eleanor snorted and shied sideways to bump Sophie’s hindquarters. Eleanor had developed a possessive attitude toward Sergeant even though the gelding could do nothing to return her advances. Sophie, a small and nimble mule, offered no competition, but Eleanor still seemed to need to assert her claim. Ian contemplated this quirk of horse psychology as Keith dismounted and tossed Sergeant’s reins over a stubby bush by way of a hitching post. He unhooked a collapsible canvas water bucket from the pommel of his saddle and went to fill it at the back of the hollow. McEwan dismounted and quieted Eleanor with a bit of sugar he pulled from his pocket before turning to Ian.

“Ready, sir?”

Ian nodded, hating the overtone of pity in the forensic tech’s voice and then reproaching himself for the thought. The man’s just being polite, he thought. Not everyone thinks you’re a cripple.

McEwan pulled Ian’s left foot out of the stirrup so that it hung stiffly against Sophie’s flank. Ian braced his left hand on the tech’s shoulder and gripped the pommel with his right as he swung his right leg over. McEwan caught him under the armpit as he slid from Sophie’s back and guided him to the ground.

“Thank you, McEwan,” Ian said quietly. He straightened his jacket, determined not to let his embarrassment at being helped like a child show in his posture or his voice. He shifted a bit to settle the stump that was his left leg more securely in the prosthetic boot and wished for the thousandth time that Captain Stewart had let them make this trip by aircar, or even in one of the ancient helicopters the Constabulary still maintained.

“You will be King David’s Voice up there in Glenfallon, but we don’t need to descend on the place like the wrath of God.” Stewart had actually chuckled as he said it. “His Majesty is determined to win the hearts and minds of these hill people, but they must be made to understand that the old ways are gone. Hibernia has rejoined the galaxy and we must meet the same standards as any other Federation world.”

“Aye, sir,” Ian had replied. What else could he say?

He’d been thrilled when Stewart had first called him to the command office and informed him he was being dispatched to the backcountry on a murder investigation. His elation had lasted exactly ten minutes – the time it took for him to report to the Constabulary HQ and for Stewart to get two sentences into the mission briefing. He replayed the meeting in his head as McEwan and Keith tended to the animals.

“Stand easy, Lieutenant Campbell,” Stewart said as he scrolled through a file on his desktop datalink. “I’m dispatching you along with two Constables to Glenfallon, a village in the south Caledonian range. This is a case of infanticide.” Stewart glanced at his desktop. “The baby, Anna McCord, was six days old. The local priest, a Father Damian Ramsey, filed the allegation of foul play. He accuses the baby’s father, Lemuel McCord, of killing the child because she was a mutant.”

Ian bit his tongue and said nothing. Of course. Send the mutie to investigate the death of another mutie. No need for a Clean officer to sully his hands with a Cavorite baby killing.

As if reading his thoughts, Stewart went on. “I want you to know, the Home Minister specifically requested you for this duty. His Majesty wants this to be a test case. He wants to take a clear stand against the old practice of killing these unfortunate children.”

“The Home Minister, sir? How does the Home Minister know anything about me?”

Stewart glowered at him. “Don’t be dense, Campbell. You’re as much a test case as this investigation. If His Majesty’s mercy is to be extended to mutant children, then it must be seen to support them when they are adults.”

Ian ground his teeth and barely controlled his voice. “I didn’t get here by the King’s mercy, sir.” The doctors aren’t even sure I’m a mutant. It may be a combination of birth defects. Teratogenicity, not genetics. Not that it matters much. I’m not likely to have any children.  

Scientists blamed the cyclical solar flares that plagued Hibernia’s sun every thirty years for the increased rate of mutations and birth defects. Various religious groups blamed God’s wrath toward a sinful humanity. Backcountry folklore blamed the evil eye. Ian was neutral on the subject.

Stewart sat back in his chair and cocked his head, regarding Ian for a long second. “No, I suppose not. You’ve worked hard, there’s no doubt about that. Some of us had doubts about whether you’d pass the physical tests, but you proved us wrong.” He sighed. “Whatever the Home Minister’s political motivation in asking for you, I would never have agreed if I didn’t think you could handle the job. But if you have doubts, I’ll tell the Minister to stuff it. The King has too much invested in this to tolerate failure.”

“I understand, sir. I won’t let the His Majesty down.”

“Good. You’ll be issued a temporary Writ of Adjudication and a Warrant Officer will be assigned as one of your team.”

Ian gulped at that. “Summary Justice, sir? Why not just arrest the murderer and ship him back here for trial?”

“The King wants this kept local. Glenfallon is nominally Hibernian Catholic, but the Caledonian Mountains are a Cavorite stronghold. They still preach infanticide of ‘unclean’ children despite ten separate laws and Royal edicts banning the practice. His Majesty wants a local trial with local jurors to prove there was no central Church influence on the verdict.”

“I understand, sir.” The Cavorites, followers of John Cavore and his Church of Stellar Redemption, still had influence in Parliament, despite the resurgence of religious freedom since King David’s coronation. For nearly twenty years, during the Regency of the King’s uncles, the Cavorites had held almost absolute power in Parliament and in the Privy Council. They’d never quite managed to establish themselves as the official state religion, but most other faiths had been persecuted and suppressed. The Hibernian Catholic Church, with deep roots in the Irish population of the big cities and long held ties to the Royal Family, had survived and was now rebuilding its base in the countryside. King David was openly, almost ostentatiously, Catholic, so Ian could understand the political dilemma of trying a Cavorite for infanticide in a Port Jefferson court.

“I hope you do,” Stewart said. “Because you’ll be walking a fine line up there. His Majesty can’t be seen as being vindictive toward any religion, no matter how misguided its teaching. He must be a unifying force or we risk plunging the world into a religious civil war.” He softened his tone and held Ian’s eye. “Be careful, Ian. A good Constable is the Kings Voice. He dispenses the King’s justice, but also the King’s mercy.” He made a shooing gesture with his hand and looked back to his datalink, “Now go forth and do good works.”

Ian remembered how his own hand had trembled as he saluted and left the command office. Rather like it was trembling now as he thought about his mission and the real possibility that he’d have to order the death of another human being. For death was the King’s sentence for murder, and although Ian himself wouldn’t carry it out, that was Keith’s job as a Warrant Officer, the signature on the death warrant would be his.

Ian looked up as Keith cleared his throat. “Yes, Warrant Keith?”

“We should be moving on, sir, if we plan to make Glenfallon tonight.”

“How much farther is it?”

Keith scratched his chin, considering. Ian had noticed that the big man never spoke quickly and seemed to consider even the most routine statements carefully. “About three kilometers to the top of the pass, then another ten through Fallon Vale to the lake. The village sits on the western shore. We’re behind schedule for this part of the trek, as it is. It’ll be full dark when we clear the pass and nigh on midnight before we get to the village.”

Ian thought for a moment, and then said, “We should make camp here.”

Keith’s face registered a brief flash of annoyance before he controlled it and his features resumed their usual neutral expression. “May I ask why, sir? Our orders were to proceed with all dispatch. If you’re too fatigued to continue, then perhaps a longer rest period would help.”

“Our orders also require that we respect the local authorities and work with them as much as possible. How can we do that if we arrive like ghosts in the night? We look arrogant and inconsiderate if we roust someone out of bed in order to see to our needs.”

“We have our service issue tents,” Keith said.

“And so we sprout like mushrooms on the village green while everyone is asleep? Aside from the shock to the first passersby, we will insult the village elders, or speaker, or whoever passes for authority. Or perhaps we camp in the front yard of some crofter or merchant and have to answer to a trespassing charge before we can start our investigation.”

Keith crossed his arms but said nothing.

Why must I explain myself? Ian thought. Why can’t he see it? “We need to arrive openly and make a good impression – authoritative but not arrogant. This mission will only succeed if we have the support of the community leaders. If we rest here tonight, we can leave at dawn tomorrow and reach Glenfallon by midmorning. We’ll still have the rest of the day to begin our work and we won’t inconvenience the very people we need on our side.”

Keith nodded in grudging acquiescence. “Shall I break out the tents, sir?”

Damn it, Keith. I’m in command here. I don’t need your approval but I do need you to understand my decisions. Ian shook his head. “Just the bedrolls. The hollow is sheltered from the wind. We’ll be fine.”

“Very good, sir.” Keith’s tone was neutral but Ian thought he saw a slight smile play across the Warrant’s sharp features.

Have I just passed some sort of test with Keith? More likely failed one. Oh, well, nothing to be done. The decision is made.

They ate a cold supper of ration bars and water, there being scant fuel on the cliff for a fire. Ian was warm enough in the service issue bedroll with its infrared absorbent blanket, but he slept poorly. What dreams he had were haunted by images of hospital wards and operating rooms.

He awoke just before dawn, rubbing the paddle of his left hand across his eyes again. He looked down at the hand with its too long thumb and the middle three fingers fused into a single digit with a thick, claw-like nail. Clumsy, but at least it worked the way a hand should work. It was better than his left foot, which was hardly a foot at all. From the knee down, his leg was a fat stump that ended in a flat sole and rudimentary toenails that sprouted along the inner side of what passed for his calf. It bore his weight, painfully, but was useless for running or climbing and made his walking gait a rolling, limping affair. The custom built prosthetic boot helped, but even with it, he had barely passed the physical fitness test to become a Constabulary cadet. His yearly physical readiness qualifications were still torture. 

Ian rolled his blankets and stored then in the pack behind Sophie’s saddle as Keith readied the other animals. They were on their way as the dawn sun cleared the nearest peak.

It was nearer midday by the time they reached Glenfallon. The village nestled along the western shore of a deep blue lake. Two largish wooden buildings flanked a row of rough stone houses roofed with turf. Green pastures spread away across the valley that surrounded the lake, broken here and there by fieldstone walls and gates of woven brambleweed. Mist shrouded the surrounding hills but the overhead sun was bright and warm.

Ian sighed. Here was the Hibernia of old, of legend. This was how the rest of the galaxy saw his poor, benighted world; a rustic place filled with simple shepherds who were as likely to couple with their sheep as their women. Backward, barbaric, Hibernia, who killed her own deformed children and had tried to betray humanity to the alien Rilz.

They dismounted in front of the nearer building. A cluster of comsat antennae sprouting from its roof marked it as the administrative center for the village. Barrels of apples, stacks of hand tools, and a table holding bolts of tartan cloth on the building’s covered porch marked at the community store as well. The porch was deserted. Nothing stirred in the village, although Ian had the feeling of being watched.

Do we just go in? Or should we wait until someone notices our arrival?

Keith stood next to Sergeant and looked at Ian, his face as neutral and unreadable as always. McEwan fidgeted nervously with Eleanor’s reins and glanced around as if expecting attack.

Ian handed Sophie’s reins to McEwan and stepped toward the porch, intending to go into the building. The door banged open and a large, dark haired man stepped out. He looked down at Ian and frowned. He stood a little less than two meters tall, with heavily muscled arms and shoulders and a waist that had once been trim but was beginning to spread with middle age. His face might have been handsome if not for a thick scar on his right cheek that twisted the upper lip into a half snarl.

“You’d be Campbell, then?” he asked, his voice somewhere between suspicion and belligerence.

“Lieutenant Ian Campbell, Royal Constabulary,” Ian answered with studied politeness. He stood with his left hand behind him at the small of his back, a habitual gesture of concealment. “And this is Warrant Officer Keith, and Forensic Technician McEwan. And what is your name, sir?”

“Cartwright. Hamish Cartwright, First Sergeant, retired; Second Battalion, Royal Marines.” His tone, while now equally polite, made it clear that he considered his service rank superior to a mere Lieutenant Constable. “I’m also the Village Speaker. I told your Captain Stewart it was a waste of time to send men up here. This is a case of cradle death. The child was undersized and unwell. Its death was a mercy.”

“That’s not true and you know it, Hamish,” said a thin, reedy voice from behind Ian. “That poor baby was murdered and half this town is complicit in covering it up.”

Ian turned to see a small, painfully thin man in dark pants and shirt and a priest’s white collar standing next to Keith. Behind the big Warrant Officer, almost as if hiding from the man on the porch, stood a young woman. Her drab brown dress was a size too large in the waist and a size too small in the bust. Dark stains on the fabric marked where her lactating breasts strained against the fabric, still leaking milk six days after the death of her infant.

This must be the child’s mother, Ian thought. Though she looks more frightened than grief stricken. But then, what do I know of grieving mothers?

“Forgive me for interrupting, Lieutenant,” continued the small man. “I’m Father Damian Ramsey. I reported the baby’s murder. This is Mary McCord, Anna’s mother.”

Anna? Oh, yes, the baby’s name. “Father Damian, Mistress McCord.” Ian nodded to each in turn. Father Damian returned the nod and stepped forward to offer his hand. Ian shook it, but felt Mary McCord’s eyes on him. She sketched a circle over her left breast with her right forefinger – the sign against the evil eye. Ian clenched his left hand but pretended not to notice as he smiled at her. He disengaged his right hand from the priest’s grip and waved her forward.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Mistress McCord. I know this is difficult for you, but there are certain formalities which we must get through before more time is lost.”

“You don’t have to say anything to this man, Mary,” Cartwright said from the porch. “You got a right to stay silent.”

“Mary has nothing to hide, Hamish,” Father Damian said quietly. “Or are you speaking for yourself?”

Cartwright glared at the little priest but his retort died on his lips when Keith stepped between the two men. “Mr. Cartwright,” he said. “Our animals are in need of water and forage. Perhaps you have a stable or paddock for them?”

Cartwright glanced at Keith, then at Ian. With a final glare at Father Damian, he turned back to Keith and nodded. “Aye. Come with me. I’ll show you.”

“You’ll have to forgive Hamish,” said Father Damian after the two men had led the animals around to the rear of the building. “He feels I’ve compromised his authority by calling the Constabulary.”

Ian shrugged. “In a way you have. I take it you don’t agree with his assessment of the baby’s death. Did he make an official determination as Village Speaker, by the way, or is that just his personal opinion?”

Father Damian shook his head. “Up here, things are done differently than down in the low country. There’s rarely any official determination of cause of death, especially with infants. Until a few years ago, half of them died before their first birthday. It’s much better now, but infant deaths aren’t considered rare like they are in the cities. And Hamish is right. The baby was sickly.”

“She wasn’t.” Mary McCord spoke up for the first time. “She had trouble sucking but she was getting better. She’d even gained some weight before . . .” Her voice trailed off and she looked at the ground twisting the edge of her blue and green tartan shawl.

“I didn’t mean to sound cold, Mistress McCord,” Ian said. “Can you tell me about Anna?”

She looked up at the mention of the baby’s name. Her eyes took in his left hand and then focused on the faint scar on his upper lip. They widened in surprise before she looked down and studied the ground once again. “I’m sorry, my lord,” she whispered.

“I’m not a Lord, just a Constable. Please, tell me about Anna.”

She didn’t look up but said, “But Campbell, my lord. It’s the King’s name.”

Ian sighed. The same old assumptions, even here. “A distant second cousin. My family’s not noble. My father is a shopkeeper.” Well, the owner of a chain of thirty prosperous markets, but compared to His Majesty, still a simple shopkeeper. “I didn’t get into the Constabulary because of family connections. They took me as I am.”

She seemed to ponder this for a second. Slowly she raised her head and met his gaze. “She had the rabbit’s mouth, you see. She couldn’t suckle at first. She cried all the time and I tried and tried to feed her. After the second day, she got better at it. She didn’t cry so much and she got some color and started to gain. It took everything she had to suck and she’d choke now and again, but she was getting better.”

“And then what happened?” Ian kept his tone gentle, almost as if asking a child.

“Lem and me, we wasn’t getting on so good. It wasn’t his fault. A man needs his rest and Anna, she cried so. I couldn’t always quiet her, so we was both up nights that first week and Lem couldn’t rest at his work. I napped when Anna slept, but Lem had to work all day.” She took a deep breath, as if preparing for a plunge into cold water. “The day that – that day, we’d been fighting. Lem was mad because Anna cried ‘til late in the night. I hardly got no sleep, and neither did Lem. He said he had to get his rest and he was going to his Ma’s and sleep in his old bed that night. I yelled at him, told him he was a husband and shouldn’t ought to run back to his Ma when things was tough. He yelled back and we both said some awful things. I had to get out of the house for a bit, to settle my mind. Anna was asleep in her cradle, so I told Lem to watch her while I went to fetch some eggs for his breakfast. He didn’t say nothing but he sat down in the chair next to her cradle. I went out and got the eggs from the chicken coop.” She paused and sighed. “I stayed out there a while. I didn’t want to talk to Lem or fight no more. When I got back, Lem was gone. He’d took his jacket and tool belt and some bread and cheese. I figured he was headed off to work. I weren’t hungry and Anna looked like she was still sleeping, so I laid down on the bed. I must have fell asleep, because when I sat up it was full morning and the sun was over the trees behind the house. That’s when I checked on Anna and she weren’t breathing. I checked twice. Her little face was so cold. I just sat there for a while, then I started to shout and cry for Lem. I don’t remember much after that.”

She shuddered but did not cry. She didn’t say anything more and Ian had a feeling that she wouldn’t answer any more questions for a while.

“What sort of work does Lem do?” Ian asked Father Damian.

“Whatever he can – field hand, woodcutting, herding. I hear he’s a fair carpenter. That day he was working for Mr. Aberle, doing some framing for a shed.”

“That’s Reverend Aberle,” said a deep baritone voice from behind Ian.

Father Damian bowed his head slightly toward the man who had spoken as if acknowledging an old unpleasantness that he had no wish to revisit.

Ian turned and looked the newcomer over. He was a short man with a broad chest and shoulders. Black curly hair framed a pale, wide face with high cheekbones and a prominent beak of a nose.

“I’m Reverend Charles Aberle, Church of Stellar Redemption. I’m Lem McCord’s spiritual advisor.”           

“Is Lem a member of your church, then?” Ian asked. “I thought he was one of Father Damian’s flock.”

“He is.” Father Damian’s voice was quiet but forceful. “Lem and Mary were married in the Church. He wasn’t a regular at Mass, but Mary was. Lem was confused after Anna’s birth, but I know in his heart he was still a believer.”

“Lem left your false church when his faith was betrayed by the birth of the abomination you called a child. You even baptized it, as if that could remove the stain of evil that marked its face as plain as the sun in the sky.” Aberle’s voice was deep and sonorous, as if addressing his congregation rather than the small group gathered in front of the porch.

I don’t like you, Reverend Mr. Aberle. I wonder how you’ll react to me?

“That which is born of man and woman is human and has a soul,” said Father Damian in his quiet way. “Of course the child was baptized.”

“What was born was an abomination. Only by purifying the genome can humanity return to a state of Grace,” intoned Aberle.

Ian held up his left hand, halting further discussion. “I came here to conduct a murder investigation, gentlemen, not a theological debate.”

Aberle took in Ian’s hand with widened eyes and a sharp intake of breath. Father Damian stared also, but only for a second before a wry smile played across his face.

“Just so, Lieutenant.” Aberle’s tone held such venom that the words were almost a curse. “It’s clear where our King places his faith. Which of my flock will you haul away to your accursed city for persecution?”

“Believe what you like. His Majesty wants this matter handled locally,” said Ian. “I carry a Writ of Adjudication. I intend to investigate fairly and if charges a brought, the trial will be held here in Glenfallon with a local jury.”

“Ha! I can imagine what kind of investigation we can expect from the likes of you.” Aberle’s lip curled in a sneer. “Do you expect the good people of this village to let you kill one of their own? Your fancy Writ doesn’t mean much up here.”

Ian’s stomach tightened.  He’s right, you know. If the whole village is at his back, what can I do? Call in the cavalry from Port Jefferson, I suppose, but that’s just what Captain Stewart and the King wanted to avoid.  He saw his career spiraling down in flames before it had begun.

“That’s enough, Charles,” Cartwright said as he returned with Warrant Keith at his side. “The King’s law applies here as much as anywhere and as long as I’m Speaker, you’ll damned well obey it.”

Aberle glared at Cartwright but held his tongue.

Ian stifled a grin. Once a Top Sergeant, always a Top Sergeant.

“Where is Lem McCord, Mr. Aberle?” he asked. “I’ll want to talk with him.”

“How should I know?”

“Lem ain’t been around since we buried Anna,” Mary said. “He went to talk to Mr. Aberle after she died and as far as I know, he ain’t been home since then, neither.”

“How about that, Mr. Aberle?” Ian asked. “When did you last speak to Lem? As his ‘spiritual advisor’, I mean.

“Three days ago,” muttered Aberle. “Just after they buried the baby.”

“Her name was Anna.” Mary’s voice was soft but her tone was fierce. Aberle looked away, not meeting her eye.

“Perhaps Lem is with his mother?” said Ian. “You said he had mentioned returning to her house to get some sleep at night.”

Mary shook her head. “I seen Gran McCord yesterday. She asked me where Lem was. He ain’t been to her place since before Anna was born.”

“What did you and Lem discuss, spiritually, Mr. Aberle?” Ian asked.

“We talked about God’s true plan and the need for the human race to cleanse itself and not spread its vile corruption to the stars. That’s why humanity is being punished with these mutant children. That’s . . .” he ran down as Keith stepped forward. Keith didn’t speak or change his expression but his presence was suddenly uncomfortably large.

“Did Lem tell you that he’d killed Anna?”

Aberle shook his head. “No. He didn’t say one way or the other.” He lifted his chin defiantly, looking at Keith. “Not that I’d tell you if he did.”

Ian smiled. “But you just told me he didn’t admit to it. I’ll take you at your word for now. Warrant Keith, would you please help McEwan gather up his forensic kit. We have an unpleasant duty to perform.”

“Aye, sir,” said Keith. He held Aberle’s eye for a second longer before turning away.

Ian stepped closer to Mary. “I’m afraid I have to ask your permission to exhume Anna’s body so that McEwan can do a proper examination.”

Mary’s lip trembled but she nodded her assent.

“Is that really necessary?” asked Cartwright. “It’s a case of cradle death. What’s to be gained by digging up those pitiful remains?”

“Justice, perhaps,” said Ian. “Did you make an official finding of cradle death in your capacity as Speaker?”


“Then it’s up to me to determine a cause of death. Hence the exhumation.”

Cartwright frowned and rubbed a spot between his eyebrows. “Nothing good will come of it. There’s been enough pain already.”

Ian felt his face redden. “Pain for whom? Anna is beyond pain. Mary’s pain is something neither you nor I can imagine. All we can offer her or Anna is justice. And I mean to see they get it.”

Cartwright didn’t respond. He stared out across the lake as if seeking something on the far shore. Ian almost turned to look himself, but then Cartwright sighed and nodded. He stepped off the porch and motioned for Ian and Keith to follow him.

He led them around the side of the building where a shed leaned against the weathered wall. In it, he found a shovel, which he handed to Keith. Father Damian and Mary joined them with McEwan trailing behind, struggling with his heavy forensics case. Keith handed McEwan the shovel and lifted the bulky case easily. McEwan nodded gratefully to him and slung the shovel over his own shoulder. With Father Damian and Cartwright in the lead they set off toward the fields behind the store.

A walk of about five hundred meters brought them to a patch of bright green grass, cut close to the ground and enclosed by a low wall of rough fieldstone. A gate of woven brambleweed opened on the side closest to the village. Rows of graves filled the small enclosure, some marked by weathered wooden crosses, others by ten-pointed stars. Apparently in death, the sundered religious communities could still come together.

There was a small grave, as yet unmarked in the corner nearest the gate. Father Damian crossed himself as he entered and walked directly toward the freshly turned earth. Keith and McEwan followed him. Mary stopped at the cemetery gate. Ian and Cartwright waited there with her.

Ian spoke quietly to Cartwright as Mary watched the digging with anguished eyes. “Mr. Aberle seems a trifle, shall we say, zealous, in his beliefs. What is the state of the Cavorite church here in Glenfallon?”

“Not near so active as it was under Charles’ father. Uriah Aberle was a truly thunderous speaker and a fanatic about his religion. Most folk here were raised Hibernian Catholic but Uriah managed to convert or badger almost half of the village into his congregation. It didn’t help that the priest Father Damian replaced just last year was half senile. Charles doesn’t have his father’s gift for preaching and most of his flock has drifted back to the Catholic side.”

It was the work of only ten minutes to uncover the tiny bundle, wrapped snuggly in green and blue tartan, like the shawl her mother wore. McEwan put a facemask over his mouth and nose and sprayed a small cloud of odor suppressant over the bundle. Then he bent and carefully unwrapped it. He keyed the recorder in the forensics kit and began speaking in a low monotone as he described what he saw. After only a minute or so he looked up at Father Damian, then over at Ian.

“Her neck was broken, Lieutenant,” he said. “It was twisted hard until it snapped, then reset so it would look normal as she lay on her back.”

Father Damian glared at Cartwright who hung his head and refused to meet the cleric’s eye.

“Cradle death, you said.” Mary spoke in a hoarse whisper. She turned and stalked away toward the village.

“Do a complete forensics analysis and come see me when you’re done,” Ian said to McEwan. “Mr. Cartwright, I think you and I have a few things to discuss.”

Two hours later, Ian sat in a hard-backed chair reading the report McEwan had rushed to completion. The chair was set in a corner of the downstairs room that comprised the community center part of the store. A large holovid matrix dominated the corner of the room opposite Ian, with a dozen or so wooden chairs scattered in front of it. Next to the holomatrix was a wooden lectern, backed by a faded Hibernian flag and a newer King’s banner in the green and white checked pattern of the Royal family. The rest of the room was filled with orderly piles and stacks of bulk goods for sale; flour and sugar, bags of seed, hand tools, rows of boxes, and a large table covered with bolts of cloth in a riot of colors and patterns.  

Mary sat in one of the chairs near the holovid matrix. Her eyes were closed but she rocked slowly back and forth as if comforting a child. She hadn’t spoken since Ian and the others had returned from the graveside.

The formal report confirmed what McEwan had said at the cemetery. The baby’s neck had been broken by someone who knew what they were doing. She weighed just a little over three kilos, not big, but not bad for a six-day-old infant. She had been born with a cleft lip, Grade 2, with a partial cleft in her hard palate. A simple birth defect, not a mutation at all. Easily repaired in Port Jefferson or Olympia or maybe even in the clinic at Bailey’s Ford. Ian absently rubbed the nearly invisible scar on his own upper lip as he read. There was no trace evidence on the body, no stray threads other than those consistent with the death wrappings. McEwan had taken tissue and fluid samples for more complex toxicology analysis back in Port Jefferson, but it really didn’t matter. The cause of death was evident and the manner of death was clearly homicide. Oh, little Anna, someone will pay dearly for this.

Ian looked up as Cartwright entered from the porch. A bulky woman in a red and yellow tartan shawl bustled after him. She saw Ian and stalked toward him, almost knocking Cartwright over as she elbowed him aside.

“You!” Her voice was low and husky. She pointed a thick calloused finger at Ian. “What gives you the right to dig up my granddaughter’s grave and make trouble for good folk who ain’t done nothing but live the best they know how?”

“I am a King’s Constable investigating a murder. That gives me the right to do whatever is necessary to further that investigation.” Ian spoke calmly as he rose from his chair and laid the report aside. “And who are you?”

“This is Gran Anna Carmichael, Mary’s mother,” said Cartwright, rushing forward and laying a hand on the woman’s shoulder.

She shook off Cartwright’s restraining hand and leaned close to Ian’s face. “What murder? The babe was sickly. Sometimes babies die.”

“Anna’s neck was broke, Mama,” said Mary from her chair. “My God, she was your only grand daughter. She had your name and you ain’t once been by the house since she was born. Don’t you care?”

Gran Carmichael turned toward her daughter and her posture softened. “And you’re my only daughter. I’m trying to protect you from any more shame.”

“Shame! That’s all you can think about. I shamed you by having a mutant daughter. Well, she wasn’t no mutant. She was a baby. And she could have been fixed if we took her to a bigger town with doctors and hospitals. Rabbit’s mouth can be fixed. They said so on the news vid.”

The older woman rounded on Cartwright. “I told you no good would come from putting that infernal device in here, Hamish Cartwright. Now you’ve gone and filled everybody with wants and desires that they can’t never have. Best nobody know what we don’t have up here in the hills.”

“It’s time we learned what’s possible, Anna. The old ways just don’t work anymore. I saw things in the service nobody back home would believe. This,” He pointed to the holomatrix. “This is a window to what might be. It took me five years to save enough for the vid and the satcom antenna and the generator to run them. I’d do it again, ten times over, if it opens the world to young folks like Mary.”

“Then you’re a damn fool, Hamish. All that does is show people what they’re missing and so they feel bad about themselves and where they live. The sooner Mary gets over that mu-, that baby, the sooner she can go back to being a proper wife and maybe, in time, a proper mother.”

“A proper mother like you, Anna,” Cartwright said softly.

Wait, thought Ian. I’m missing something here. Something between these two.

She glared at him. “You know what I mean, Hamish.” She turned back to her daughter. “Come on, Mary. I’m taking you home with me.”

“I have a home, Mama. I ain’t been back there since Anna died for thinking it was my fault. I couldn’t face that empty cradle. But I’m thinking now I can. Because I know the truth. Who killed my baby, Mama?”

“No one killed your baby, child. It was a mercy to her and to you that she died. Now come home with me. You’ll see the right of it before too long.”

Mary was on her feet, hands on her hips as she glared at her mother. “Who killed Anna? Father Damian thinks Lem did it. Did you and that Mr. Aberle put him up to it?”


The shout from the front door caused Ian to turn his head. A red-haired young man in heavy work pants and a leather apron shook off Keith’s restraining hand and charged into the room, followed by the Reverend Aberle whom Keith was able to stop with a thick forearm.

Lemual McCord, if I’m not mistaken, Ian thought as he watched the red-haired man rush to his wife.

“I didn’t. I couldn’t. You can’t think that of me, Mary.” He fell to his knees in front of her clutching at her skirt. “It all got turned around in my head and I went to Mr. Aberle and he said it was for the best. But it don’t feel like that. It hurts too damn much.”

He buried his face in her skirt holding her around the waist. Her hands hovered over his head as if wanting to comfort him but were held back by her doubts.

“Why’d you leave her, Lem? She was so little. Why’d you leave her alone?”

He looked up. “I didn’t, Mary. I thought it would be all right when your Ma came by and asked where you was. I told her you’d be back soon and I took my tools and left.”

Mary looked up. “Mama?”

“He’s lying. I wasn’t there.”

Lem stood and put his arm around his wife. She didn’t pull away. “You were. Bad enough the whole village thinks I killed Anna. I’m damned if I’ll have Mary think so, too.”

Gran Carmichael looked from Ian to Keith who had stepped into the room after Lem and now stood close to her right elbow.

“You can’t prove that,” she said, looking not at Lem, but at Ian.

Dear God, thought Ian. She did do it. But how to prove it? Lem had the same opportunity and he’d been under Aberle’s influence since the baby was born. The village is as likely to believe either story. If I sentence one, the other will look like they got away with killing the baby. If there’s no clear finding of guilt, what’s to stop this from happening to the next time, and the time after that?

“Can you offer any proof, Mr. McCord?” Ian asked, striving for a neutral tone. Please God, let the answer be yes.

Lem nodded and reached under his leather apron. He produced a scrap of tartan cloth, bright red and yellow. He handed it to Ian. “I found that snagged under the rocker of Anna’s cradle. I never got a chance to sand the rockers proper. Anna was a week or two early, you see.”

Ian reached out and took the bit of cloth. “Gran Carmichael, may I see your shawl, please?”

“That don’t mean nothing,” she said. “I could have snagged my shawl on that cradle any time. It don’t prove I was there when the babe died.”

“But didn’t Mary say you hadn’t visited them after Anna’s birth?”

Mary nodded vigorously, her eyes filled with pain. “And the cradle was in Lem’s shed until the day after she was born. He had to finish it quick so’s Anna would have a place to sleep.”

Ian felt a sledgehammer slam into his chest as the bark of a gunshot filled his ears. He staggered back under the force of the blow and fell to the floor. He was vaguely aware of shouting and caught a glimpse of Keith struggling with someone near the door. Then he was staring at the ceiling as McEwan knelt beside him and tore open his shirt.

“ ‘M all right,” he mumbled as McEwan’s hands probed a very tender spot on his sternum.

“He’s all right,” repeated McEwan to Keith. “His skinsuit stopped the bullet.”

With McEwan’s help, Ian managed to sit up, and then slowly stand. His breath came in short gasps. Every movement stabbed hot pain into the center of his chest, but he struggled to stand straight and look his would-be murderer in the eye.

“Was it something I said, Mr. Aberle?”

A hint of a smile played across Keith’s face. The big Warrant Officer held the now handcuffed Reverend Aberle with one hand and an ancient, military issue 9mm pistol with the other.

Aberle’s lips twisted into a snarl. “Don’t you dare to judge this good woman, you filthy mutant. She does God’s work.”

“Shut up, Charles,” said Cartwright. “You’re not helping her.”

Aberle glared at him. “She rid her family of a curse. And if Lem had the good sense to stay out of sight and keep his fool mouth shut, there’d be nothing the mutie could do but go home with his tail between his legs.”

“The curse wasn’t for Lem to bear,” Gran Carmichael said softly. “It’s mine.”

“Anna, you don’t need to do this.”  To Ian’s surprise, it was Cartwright who spoke.

“It needs to be said, Hamish. It’s my sin. I won’t draw the King’s wrath down on the whole village because this idiot tried to kill a mutie Constable.”

“He’s a mutant!” shouted Aberle. “His existence is a stain on humanity and his so-called King is an agent of evil.”

“Be quiet now, sir,” said Keith, his voice calm as he twisted Aberle’s arm painfully behind his back. “There’s a good gentleman.”

Thank you Keith. Now if I can just get her talking without that fool Aberle interrupting. And make sure it’s admissible.  He took a deep breath, painful though it was, and struggled to remember the right words.

“Gran Anna Carmichael,” said Ian. “Do you wish to make a statement to the King’s Voice of your own free will? Do you make this statement truthfully, without fear of coercion or in hope of gain?”

The old woman looked at him for a long moment then nodded. “I hoped Mary was Clean, you see. Out of all my children, she was the one who looked perfect. Uriah said she was proof that the curse could be lifted from the righteous.” She sighed and her voice grated. “But it wasn’t so. It was still there, inside her, waiting to come out in her children.”

“I thought Mary was your only child,” Ian said.

“No, just my last. There was four before her, all cursed.” Her voice was matter of fact, as if discussing a flock of sheep.

Dear God, no! Ian swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry. “You killed four babies,” he managed to say, his voice barely above a whisper.

She nodded, her face expressionless. “Counting little Anna. Three of my own, just like Uriah taught. The fourth was stillborn. It was the worst of the lot, a horrible, twisted pinhead. Uriah said it was the curse leaving my body. And sure enough, a year later, Mary was born and she was perfect. After all the pain and the prayers, I thought it was over. But I was wrong.”

“Mama?” Mary’s voice quavered, the terrible question packed into a single word.

Gran Carmichael looked at her daughter with a faint smile. “I did it for you, love. A mercy. There’s no way you could’ve done the right thing. It had to be done.”

“That’s enough, Anna,” said Cartwright. “The Constables have heard enough.” He looked from Ian to McEwan to Keith, each in turn. “It was the way things were back then. During the Regency, most folks up in these hills never gave a thought to the King or his government. He never did anything for them. Why should they obey him? Uriah Aberle held a lot more power over this village than any Kings Regent. So when Uriah said to folks ‘kill all your mutant children to atone for your sinfulness’, that’s what they did.”

“My father was a righteous man,” shouted Aberle.

“If you don’t shut up, sir, I’ll have to silence you.” Keith’s burr was thick with emotion and threat.

“How many children?” Ian asked.

“Does it matter? Enough so that there isn’t a family in the village who wasn’t touched by it.”

The whole village? What kind of justice can I give baby Anna if the whole village is involved? He had a vision of calling in an air strike to wipe out the entire valley in an orgy of fiery retribution. Wrath of God? Stewart had no idea what this place deserved.  He shook his head as if to banish the thought.

Ian nodded toward Aberle. “Can I trust you to place that man under guard while I discuss this with my team?”

Cartwright drew himself up. “I’m the Village Speaker. He’s committed a crime in my presence. I’ll not let him get away with that.”

“And what of Glenfallon’s lost children?” Ian asked.

Cartwright looked stricken. “I wasn’t here for most of that. I was off serving my King. When I found out how things were back here, it was too late. Maybe if Anna, Gran Carmichael that is, had come away with me when I left for boot . . .”

Anna Carmichael shook her head. “It wouldn’t have worked, Hamish. You’re an honorable man, but I was in love with Uriah. Marrying Joe Carmichael kept me here in the village, close to Uriah’s flame.”

“And it burned you, Anna.” Cartwright sighed. “You’d best come with me, too. I expect the Lieutenant will have more to say to you.”

Ian, McEwan, and Keith huddled in the corner near the holovid matrix. Mary and Lem sidled away to the other side of the room, talking in low earnest whispers.

“Did you get her confession, McEwan?” Ian asked.

“Aye, sir. And I got your Admonition, so it’s legal and admissible.”

“Any doubt as to her guilt, Warrant Keith?”

“Oh, she killed the baby, no doubt about that,” Keith said after his usual pause for reflection. “As to guilt, that’s not for me to say. That’s your job, sir. I will comply with whatever you decide.”

“Damn it, Keith. That’s not what I asked. I’m looking for some way out here that doesn’t involve shooting half the village after we, (that is you), carry out the sentence on Gran Carmichael.”

“I will comply with whatever you decide, sir,” said Keith stiffly.

“McEwan, could an older woman like Gran Carmichael have broken the baby’s neck?”

“No question, sir. Aside from the fact that she’s already killed three infants, she’s probably wrung the neck of many a hen or rabbit to throw in the pot for her family dinner.”

Ian rubbed his forehead. He wanted to massage the pain from his heart, but his chest hurt too much to touch. “So we have an unequivocal finding of guilt,” he said, half to himself. “The Writ gives me very little discretion in sentencing. It’s ‘Death’. Not ‘Death or some lesser sentence as mitigated by circumstance’.

Keith’s face remained impassive, but his voice was soft, as if he spoke for Ian’s ears alone. “It is the King’s justice. And you must speak with the Kings Voice.”

But I’m not the King’s Voice. I’m just a Lieutenant Constable and a mutie at that. No one will believe that I wasn’t getting revenge on a bunch of mutie hating bigots. What purpose will be served by that woman’s death if everyone in this village is guilty, or at least complicit, in the same crime? It won’t bring baby Anna back and it won’t serve King David’s needs here, either. Administer the King’s justice; that’s what Stewart said. But also the King’s mercy. How?

Ian shook himself, suddenly aware that both McEwan and Keith were watching him intently.

“McEwan, see if Cartwright has a document printer. I want to make copies of Gran Carmichael’s statement that we can post around the village.” The technician nodded and hurried away. “Warrant Keith, get Cartwright and Father Damian. The three of you get as many villagers as can be reached to assemble in front of this building within half an hour. Tell them it’s by order of the King’s Voice. If we’re to carry out this sentence, it will be in public and I will rub their damned noses in it.”

Keith nodded and turned away, his face as bland and unreadable as always. If the prospect of shooting a woman in the village square bothered him, it wasn’t evident to Ian’s eyes.

Ian walked slowly across the room to where Mary and Lem clung to each other. “I’m sorry to do this to you, but as Anna’s parents, I must ask that you stand with me as I pronounce sentence. If you wish to return here before the… before the end, I will understand.”

Lem looked stricken but Mary just nodded gravely.

“It’s for Anna, Lem,”she whispered to her husband.

Ian left them and sat in one of the hard wooden chairs near the holomatrix. He barely glanced up when McEwan brushed by him, carrying the Hibernian flag and the Kings’ banner out to the porch where Ian would address the villagers.

Eventually Keith came for him. “The village is assembled, sir. Cartwright says most of the adults are here. Not a few brought their children as well. Should I have them sent home?”

Ian shook his head. “No. They need to bear witness as well. Maybe it’ll be remembered when they grow up.”

Keith’s face darkened for a second before his iron control reasserted itself. “As you say, sir.”

Ian stood and with Keith beside him, walked out onto the porch. More than a hundred people crowded the green lawn in front of the store. Their mood was somber, perhaps a bit sullen, but Ian sensed uncertainty in the crowd rather than open hostility. He walked forward until he stood between the two flags and came to attention. He held his left hand behind his back in his habitual gesture of concealment, then thought, No, let them see what I am.

Keith took up a position behind him and to his left and the McCord’s moved uncertainly up to stand on his right.

“My name is Lieutenant Ian Campbell, Royal Constabulary,” he said in his best parade ground shout. “I was sent here in the name of the King to investigate a charge of infanticide in the death of Anna McCord. I hold a Writ of Adjudication in this matter.” He held up the scroll with its green and white ribbon and the heavy seal of the King’s Judicial Minister. “Through this, I am the King’s Voice in Glenfallon and am charged with administering the King’s justice.”

He paused and surveyed the upturned faces as he rerolled the scroll and tucked it unto his breast pocket. They looked back, some curious, some attentive, more than a few staring at his left hand. A few made the sign against the evil eye, but most of them just waited for him to speak.

“Speaker Cartwright, please bring out the accused.”

Cartwright stepped through the door, Aberle’s still bound arm gripped in his right hand and Gran Carmichael walking passively at his left. A murmur ran through the crowd but was silenced as Keith drew his sidearm and held it at port arms.

Ian waited for quiet before continuing. “Charles Aberle, you stand accused of the attempted murder of a King’s officer. As the officer in question,” A titter of laughter ran through the crowd. Ian smiled slightly. “I am unable to impartially adjudicate this case. You are therefore bound by the King’s law and will be conveyed to Port Jefferson to stand trial before the Kings Bar.”

“You filthy mutant! Your King cannot judge me. I answer to a higher law, a righteous law, a . . .” Keith’s fist smacked him behind the ear. He dropped like a stone to the floor. A smattering of applause swept through the villagers, but was quickly silenced by Keith’s glare.

Ian waited while Keith dragged the unconscious Aberle away. The crowd grew still as he turned to face Gran Carmichael. “Gran Anna Carmichael, by your own confession and by the evidence presented by witnesses you are found guilty of the murder of your granddaughter, Anna McCord. Do you have anything to say before sentence is passed?”

She drew herself up and faced the crowd. “I did what had to be done. For my family, for my daughter.”

Ian swallowed hard and willed his voice to be steady and calm. “Anna Carmichael, in the name of the King, I now sentence you to death for the murder of the infant, Anna McCord.” The villagers groaned with a single voice, an animal sound of pain and despair.

Ian held up his left hand for silence. “This sentence is held in abeyance for the term of your natural life and on condition of the good will of your neighbors. Henceforth, you are legally dead. All your property, all your worldly goods, are forfeit to your daughter. You may not work or interact in the life of the village in any way save as a supplicant. For your shelter, your food, your clothing, your continued existence, you will depend upon the kindness of your daughter and the rest of this village. May you and those who provide for you learn the meaning of mercy.”

“Better if you killed me outright, mutant,” she hissed. “There is no mercy in this. Only humiliation.”

“Perhaps. Or maybe the next mutant child will survive because of the example you set.” He turned and strode back into the building, looking for a communications console to call headquarters for someone to pick up Aberle.

The next day a Constabulary aircar arrived along with a pair of burley Constables, a day late and a shilling short, Ian thought, but he didn’t say so. Ian signed off on the arrest report and McEwan was detailed to escort Aberle back to Port Jefferson. Ian and Keith would ride back with Sophie in tow as pack animal.

Only Cartwright came to see them off. Ian had hoped to see Mary McCord one more time, to try to explain his decision, but she and Lem had returned to their home. “Folk’s up here aren’t given to long good-byes,” said Cartwright. “For what it’s worth, I want to thank you for giving Anna some measure of justice.”

Ian noticed that the Speaker didn’t make clear which Anna he meant. He didn’t ask as Cartwright turned and walked away.

Keith stood at his elbow. “Are you ready, sir?”

Ian looked into Keith’s bland face. “Tell me, Keith. If I’d ordered it, would you have shot Anna Carmichael?”

“The Kings Voice can dispense both the King’s justice and the King’s mercy. A simple Warrant Officer must perforce follow orders.” His tone was bland as ever, but his eyes were bright. “Do you need help in mounting, sir?”

“No, thank you, Keith. I can manage.”

Keith actually smiled. “Very good, Lieutenant. I’m sure you can.”

Ian grabbed the pommel with his left hand in a broad based grip, forced the prosthetic boot into the stirrup, and swung himself up onto Eleanor’s back. She shied a bit, but he quieted her with a pat on the neck. He nodded to Keith and touched his heels to the horse’s flank. Keith fell in behind as they rode out across Fallon Vale toward the trailhead and home.





























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