A brand new story in the Mongolian Wizard universe.
Ritter was newly returned from seeding the harbor of Odessa with kraken eggs, an act of sabotage that would deny the Mongolian Wizard access to the Black Sea for years to come, when a uniformed young man appeared at his door with a telegram.
“Tella-gram?” Ritter asked in sleepy befuddlement. The word meant nothing to him.
The boy cocked an eyebrow but did not actually sneer. “Just read the slip of paper. Since you’re new to this, I’ll explain that you’re supposed to give me some brass in gratitude for my diligence. Sixpence is customary.”
Ritter gave the boy a coin—threepence, for he disapproved of insolence in the lower classes—and, closing the door firmly, read: MURDER AT THE DEPOT. YOU ARE NOW ACTING DIRECTOR. CAR ON ITS WAY.
By the time Ritter had slapped water on his face and donned a fresh shirt, one of the new motor carriages, with its two-stroke engine and eerie lack of horses, was outside his door. Minutes later, his wolf lying at his feet, he was being briefed on the essentials of the murder, while the carriage sped through the night at the breakneck speed of twenty miles per hour.
The Depot was located miles outside of London on a lonely country road. At the sentry hut, Ritter presented his papers and the guard raised the pole to let them pass. They followed a glow in the sky for what seemed a very long time before coming to the main gate. An endless fence stretched in either direction from twin guardhouses. Behind it were row upon row of war machines.
Here, Ritter was directed to get out of the car and wait. A not-unreasonable time later, Major Jeffries, the Depot’s commander, hurried up to shake his hand. “I’ll be your escort. We walk, I’m afraid. No civilian vehicles. The regulations are most firm about that.”
“It will give me time to learn more about what happened.” The gates closed behind them and they walked between long lines of armored cannon-cars which, if Ritter’s memory served him right, had been dubbed tanks. Though it was an overcast, moonless night, they could be seen clearly, thanks to sputtering electric arc lamps raised regularly on a series of tall poles. The cold, unhealthy light gleamed on the rows of weaponry and on puddles from a recent rainstorm. “The murder took place in the old mill, I understand?”
“Everyone here calls it the Spook House. Your Sir Toby had it made into a kind of conference facility, which he could use for meetings where security was of utmost importance.” Jeffries, Ritter had been told, was a solid man. Conscientious, hard-working, unimaginative. A perfect fit for Ordnance and just this week put in charge of the Depot to free up a man better suited for combat.
“Yes, I have been there.”
“Forgive me. I’m new to this post,” the major said. Then, “You have noted how many guards there are? This is the most secure site in all Europe.”
“Yet they did not stop the assailant. Which means that it was an inside job.”
“Yasss…” Major Jeffries looked off into the distance, as if searching for his rapidly receding career. Then, all business again, “Present at the time were three guards and three civilians: the building manager, a cook, and your Mr. MacDonald.”
Ritter stopped. “George MacDonald, do you mean?”
“Yes. You know him, I assume?”
“Very well, unfortunately.”
Spook House was an old rustic mill alongside a stream that meandered incongruously through seemingly endless ranks of mobile cannons. Ritter noted with approval that the guards at the entryways—front, back, and one side—had been doubled and looked alert.
A phantom jackdaw, glowing bright as if lit by the morning sun, flew past Ritter’s face and through the wall as they approached the mill. Major Jeffries flinched back from the apparition. Seeing the man’s horrified expression, Ritter said, “You were not told about this?”
“I…somebody started to say something. But it was nonsense, so I cut him off.”
“I see.” Ritter looked carefully about, then drew Major Jeffries away from the building and, speaking in a low voice so they could not be overheard, said, “You should have been briefed. What I will now tell you is classified Most Secret by His Majesty’s Government. You know the punishment for sharing such information.”
Quickly, Ritter sketched out the existence of MacDonald’s organization of scryers—though not its name or location—systematically peering into the future to relay back schematics of technology that would not be invented for many decades yet. “That is why the sudden appearance of all these wondrous weapons that surround us.” The major nodded, clearly untroubled by what he had heard. Unimaginative indeed! Ritter thought. “However, there is a price. Think of our voyage through time as a path, one of an infinite number of forking paths constantly diverging in a dark wood. Every anomalous”—Ritter pronounced the English word with care—“invention jolts us onto a new path, one we were not destined to trod. The universe knows we do not belong here and tries to jolt us back. However, the momentum”—again, he spoke carefully—“of our journey keeps us going. So, briefly, two paths overlap and something that does not belong in our world appears.”
“Ghosts, you mean?”
“Sometimes. It depends on how much pressure the universe applies. If there is enough, a man might walk into our world from one that no longer exists and…” Ritter was going to say, shoot you dead, but changed it to, “…shake hands with you.”
The major shuddered. “I will confess that the bird gave me a start.”
“You will get used to it,” Ritter assured him. “And worse.”
The building manager was waiting for them. He was compact, a touch chubby, and, given the circumstances, preternaturally composed. He introduced himself as Nigel Mouldiwarp. “Mr. Ritter,” Major Jeffries said, inadvertently accentuating Ritter’s provisional status by dropping his military title of Kapitänleutnant, “is Acting Director of Intelligence. He will be conducting the investigation.” Turning to Ritter, “I imagine the first thing you’ll want to see is the corpse?”
Ritter indicated this was so.
Leading them inward, Mouldiwarp said, “He has—had, rather—an office here. He was found at his desk.”
Ritter sent Freki, who had sharper senses than he, in first to sniff things out. Thus, by the time he saw the body—mustached, grossly corpulent, and thrown back in its chair by the force of the bullet to its brow—Ritter already knew it was dead. Despite the blood that had flowed from the bullet hole, the facial features were unmistakable.
After a long, grim silence, Ritter said, “There can be no doubt of it. This is Sir Toby.”
Sir Toby was dead.
Ritter felt a visceral shock at seeing the body. It was a terrible thing to see a close friend, comrade-in-arms, and military superior lying lifeless before oneself. Nevertheless, there was work to be done. After a long and careful examination of the crime scene, he directed Major Jeffries to send for a detail to remove the corpse. Then, because there was no point in putting it off, he went to confront MacDonald.
A good half of the mill’s space had been converted to a thoroughly modern conference room with a long table at its center, comfortable chairs scattered here and there, and a map of Europe dominating one wall. A modest coal fire in a fireplace to one end burnt off the worst of the autumn chill. MacDonald himself was fussing over what appeared to be a scientific apparatus on the table. Standing nearby were a guard and a young woman who could only be Lillian Willowes, the facility’s cook.
“Where are the other guards?” Ritter said without preamble.
MacDonald looked up with a small, infuriating smile. “They have been questioned and dismissed.”
“They were innocent and I have proved it. So they are no longer needed. Hullo, Ritter. Still as stuffy as ever, I see. But let me explain. This device”—he stroked the apparatus before him as if it were a cat—“will make your job obsolete.”
Under other circumstances, Ritter might have felt a flicker of amusement. “It talks to wolves?”
“Don’t be tedious. Your job as an investigator, I mean. All that running around, asking questions, crawling about on carpets and rummaging through dustbins, looking for clues. The mechanism is properly called a polygraph, but my scryers assure me that it will come to be universally known as a lie detector. It measures and records blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity—all physiological indices that change when an individual feels threatened or nervous, as liars inevitably do. The leads are attached here, here, and here.” MacDonald demonstrated by attaching them to the young soldier. “I will now ask a series of questions the responses to which will be recorded on a moving paper tape.” Four pens quivered at the ends of long, spidery wire arms. “When the guilty individual is confronted with a question bearing upon his crime, the device will record his evasiveness.”
“Suppose he is a very good liar?” Ritter asked.
MacDonald looked superior. “He would have to be a damnably calm fellow indeed to experience no fear when his very life is on the line. But allow me to demonstrate.” He flicked a switch on the machine and, turning to the guard, said, “State your name.”
“Private Timothy Sutton, sir.” The pens scratched up and down, leaving four jagged but roughly parallel scribbles on the tape.
“Where were you when the murder occurred?” The pens leaped wildly.
“On guard duty. By the kitchen door.”
Again, the pens leaped.
Freki, meanwhile, had been moving quietly about the room, sniffing the shoes and hands of all present. The cook had her hands clasped behind her back and when his wet nose touched them, she jumped and then turned a crimson red.
“The other guards testified that Miss Willowes brought them a cup of hot cider. Did she do the same for you?”
A third leap, even more pronounced.
“It was cold and damp, sir. I was grateful for her kindness.”
Ritter glanced at the sheet from which MacDonald was reading and saw that the list of questions was very long indeed. So he stood Freki up and made him attempt to leap up and place his forelimbs on the cook’s shoulders. She shrieked and backed hastily away.
Putting on a voice that his wolf had been trained to recognize as insincere, Ritter scolded, “Down, Freki! Down! If you can’t behave, I’ll just have to put you out in the hallway.” Then, suiting deed to words, he opened an interior door and shooed Freki off to examine the rest of the mill.
Moving all but silently, Freki went first to the building manager’s room and smelled nothing more than expected: hair oil, shoe-blacking, cigarette ash, whiskey from a flask of modest proportions, a cup of tea left on the windowsill and long grown cold. The wainscoting in the hall smelled of wood polish and the carpet of rug cleaner; Mouldiwarp, it seemed, took his duties seriously. There was a supply closet, which Freki could not enter because the door was firmly shut, containing various cleaning supplies. It smelled very strongly of bleach. He passed by Sir Toby’s office, which had already been examined, though Ritter noted that the taint of putrefaction there was fading quickly.
The kitchen pleased the wolf for it was full of interesting odors and all of them save for the pervasive scent of cooking coal, were pleasant: hot cider in a pot still steaming atop the cast-iron stove, flour, raw red meat (chiefly mutton), kidneys and mustard, sprouts, cabbage, raisins, vinegar, cucumber, gingerbread. Lingering underneath those, from long-forgotten meals: fried fish, boiled tripe, batter for Yorkshire pudding, and the laundry smell of suet boiled in a cloth. Not yet cleared away were some chopped ham and mango chutney, the makings of Sir Toby’s favorite snack, Bengal toast, an emptied plate of which still sat on his desk. Wartime shortages and rationing did not, it appeared, apply to the head of British Intelligence.
Finally, the wolf went into the little room behind the kitchen where the cook slept: floral sachets, a small bottle of rose water on her dresser, beeswax for her embroidery, and various cleansing agents, laundry soap dominant. Freki carefully sniffed the girl’s unmade bed and then returned to sit down outside the door to the conference room and await his master’s emergence.
Within, MacDonald had finally finished his interrogation of the soldier. Drawing Ritter and the major aside, he said in a low voice, “The man is undoubtedly guilty. You see?” He pointed at spikes in the irregular line that ran across a yard’s worth of paper in his hands. “His tale of the discovery of the body is completely false! He can only be the assassin.”
“Please,” Ritter said. “Stop this nonsense.” Turning away from MacDonald’s astonished face, he raised his voice. “Mr. Mouldiwarp, I would like to hear how you discovered the murder.”
“There is very little to tell,” the man said. “Sir Toby had informed me that I would not be needed for anything, so I was in bed, asleep, when the gun went off. I hurriedly dressed myself and arrived at the master’s office simultaneous with Miss Willowes and Private Sutton. Inside, he was as you have seen. Mr. MacDonald heard our exclamations and joined us very soon thereafter. Private Sutton examined the master and declared him dead. There is one of the new telephonic devices in the office. I used it to summon Major Jeffries.” He paused. “I can think of nothing more.”
“So the other guards did not rush in? Wasn’t that odd?”
“They testified that they mistook the sound for thunder,” MacDonald said. “There was a bit of a storm at the time. So it is telling that Sutton alone identified the sound correctly. The polygraphic device records his alarm when I asked him about that. Also, Mouldiwarp was delayed by the need to dress, while the others—”
“Your testimony is worthless,” Ritter said, “and therefore I shall ignore it. While you were playing with your little toy, I have been hard at work assembling a very good picture of all that happened.”
All present gaped at him in astonishment.
“I shall address the question of the tardiness of two of our suspects first. Miss Willowes is not only a lovely young woman but good-hearted as well, as witness her distribution of hot cider to the guards on duty. I imagine most of the soldiers on the base fancy themselves half in love with her. The conference center is used only sporadically. It is only natural that a lonely woman frequently left alone in a house haunted by phantoms and sourceless noises should find a stalwart young soldier a reassuring presence. By slow degrees, she would find herself returning the emotions he feels for her. Earlier tonight, Private Sutton stepped into the kitchen for a quick kiss or two from his sweetheart.” The two had, by the scents on the cook’s bedclothes, done a great deal more than kiss. But Ritter was a gentleman, so he left it at that. Addressing the young couple directly, he said, “When you heard the gunshot, you both naturally consulted each other to make certain you were not mistaken about its nature. Am I right?”
Miss Willowes blushed and stared down at the floor. After an almost imperceptible hesitation, Private Sutton gave a tight-lipped nod.
“Now follow me into the hallway, please.”
Ritter led the others to the supply room. “This is the one room that Freki was not able to examine directly, because the door was latched. If I find what I expect within, my understanding of the event will be all but complete.” He opened the door.
Inside the small room were the expected brooms, mops, and cleaning supplies. There was also an oversized galvanized bucket containing at least five gallons of bleach and what might be items of clothing. Ritter removed his jacket and rolled up one shirt sleeve. Carefully, he fished out an apron, a pair of white gloves, and a pistol. “You will note that the apron and gloves are discolored from powder burns. The murderer knew that a member of the Werewolf Corps would be involved in the investigation and took steps to ensure that his guilt could not be sniffed out by one such as me.” Turning to the building manager, he said, “You seem extraordinarily calm, Mr. Mouldiwarp, for someone whose employer has been murdered and whose murderer is still, presumably, among us.”
“I am of a phlegmatic temperament, sir. That is how I got this job. The previous five men occupying it were put off by the phantoms haunting this building. Nothing much bothers me, it is simply the way I have been from boyhood.”
“You are also very systematic. The supply room is meticulously tidy.”
“So if anybody but you yourself had imported so much bleach—far more than is required for such a small building—I am certain you would have noticed. It baffles me that you made no attempt to disguise something so obvious. Almost as much as it baffles me how you could have known you would have the time to commit your horrid deed, dump the incriminating evidence in bleach, and retreat to your room so you could burst out, looking—and smelling—like an innocent man.”
Mouldiwarp said nothing.
“Do not think silence will help you! Miss Willowes and Private Sutton can each vouch for the actions of the other. Mr. MacDonald had no reason to kill Sir Toby—indeed, his current position is due to Sir Toby’s patronage. Were I the permanent rather than Acting Director, he would have been fired the instant I stepped into this building and he knows it.” (MacDonald shrugged in a manner indicating he doubted seriously that a foreigner would ever be made permanent Director of British Intelligence.) “The other two guards never entered the building. There is no other possible suspect than you. Admit it!”
“Oh, very well, I killed him.” Mouldiwarp spread his hands, as if to say it was all beyond his control. “Willoughby-Quirke was considered a danger to the Empire and so I was dispatched to eliminate him. It was an act of war.”
“You came here as a spy and an assassin. Unlike a soldier, you are subject to summary action. I could kill you here and now and there would be no one to say I was wrong to do so.”
“But you won’t.” There was the faintest trace of a smile on Mouldiwarp’s face, as if he were in on some joke not known by the others. “You see, I am a scryer, much like your Mr. MacDonald here. I can see the future. That is how I was chosen. The Mongolian Wizard’s espionage service routinely trains precognitives as assassins. We are never sent out unless we have seen ourselves alive and well long after the event. Eighteen months from now, I will be sitting in a bierstube in Rastenburg with a stein of pilsner in my hand, a girl of loose morals on my knee, and a medal on my chest for extraordinary service to the Mongolian Wizard. So, one way or another, I will come out of this a free man. I had expected a bungled investigation, but that turns out not to be the case. So, most likely, I will be traded for one of your own assassins, caught by our people. In any event, I have nothing to fear.”
“You sound damnably sure of yourself.” Ritter could not keep the anger out of his voice.
Mouldiwarp’s face was as serene as the moon. “I have seen the future. It cannot be changed. Of course I am sure.”
Turning to address the others, Ritter said, “There has been an assassination attempt. But, by a miracle, Sir Toby escaped unscathed. Tobias Gracchus Willoughby-Quirke remains the head of British Intelligence.” He saw MacDonald open his mouth and raise a hand to object and glared him to silence. “Those are the facts as the world must know them. Anyone caught spreading rumors to the contrary will be arrested and charged with treason. Does everyone understand?”
Miss Willowes’s eyes were wide when she nodded. The major, the guard, and MacDonald all tried to look manly.
“As for this fellow,” Ritter said, drawing his automatic. “I am afraid that he was shot while attempting to escape.”
Mouldiwarp was still smirking in disbelief when the bullet penetrated his forehead and splattered blood and brain matter on the wall behind him. He had foreseen the wrong future.
When Ritter returned to the carriage, the sun was coming up. The motorman leaned over from his perch and reached down with gloved hand to open the door. Ritter got in and the engine sputtered to life. When he had settled himself into the cushions, he turned to the dark figure sitting beside him and said, “You will need to have the cook transferred elsewhere if you hope to keep up the pretense that you are dead.”
Sir Toby sighed. “I will miss Lillian’s cooking. The girl was a dab hand at Bengal toast. Still, all must make sacrifices if the war is to be won. You uncovered the murderer, of course. I can see it in your comportment. Did my doppelganger last long enough to be removed from the mill?”
“According to a messenger who arrived just minutes ago, the body disappeared shortly after being placed in the morgue.”
Sir Toby sighed deeply. “Then my timeline is the stable one, not the corpse’s. I will confess, the possibility it would go the other way had me worried. And my assassin?”
“Using my best judgment, I executed him.”
Scowling, Sir Toby said, “You were supposed to arrest the man.”
“I wanted to plant uncertainty in the enemy’s mind as to whether the assassination succeeded or not. I ordered the witnesses not to share any of the details of the execution or your death. Thus ensuring that there would be rumors. The Mongolian Wizard’s people will hear you are alive and not know whether to believe it. Their assassin will not return as he was foreseen to do. Your every action will be analyzed twice—as something you might do and as the act of an imposter. It will, however briefly, drive them mad.”
“Why, Ritter! I begin to believe we shall make a proper spy of you yet,” Sir Toby said, with an approving smile.
“Also, there was an even chance he had killed a man I esteemed and admired. That called for revenge.”
The expression soured. “Or perhaps not.”
“I would like to point out,” Ritter said, “that your lie-detecting machine did not render me redundant, as MacDonald boasted it would. In the end, all your shiny machines were inferior to one man, one wolf, and one talent.”
Sir Toby drew a cigar case from his jacket, selected his victim, bit off the end, and, striking a match, puffed it to life. At last, with great solemnity, he said, “Considering, Ritter, that all our hopes of winning this war are hinged on machinery and all the Mongolian Wizard’s on talented men such as yourself, you had best pray that you are wrong.”
“Murder in the Spook House” copyright © 2019 by Michael Swanwick.
Art copyright © 2019 by Gregory Manchess.