A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Full Hand
Scene Three: Interview with the Butcher
About an hour before sunset, the fat guard Douglas appeared at the door to Denario's cell. He was tussling with someone at the same time as he was trying to turn the key and dial the combination. Denario could immediately see a flaw to the new system. The guards probably hated these locks already. You needed both hands to work them.
Douglas had to push his prisoner down onto the floor. He sat on the fellow while he cursed the fancy lock.
When he finally got the door open, Douglas half-pushed and half-rolled his man into the cell. This particular drunk reeked of wine, not ale like the first two. He had two layers of flannel clothing, which in this area made him rich. Perhaps it was the padded clothes but he didn't look hurt by the rough handling he'd gotten.
“I was just sleeping!” he protested.
“Ye were pissing on the mayor's sister's house.”
“I was?” The thought seemed to slow down the puffy-eyed fellow. He put a hand to the wall, probably to keep from falling over. “That's my aunt Berta, then. Did she send for you?”
“Sorry. I know what she's like.” The tipsy fellow sat down on one of the sleeping drunks. Then he realized that the lump wasn't a chair and moved to the side. He glanced at Denario. “Who's this, then?”
“Sorry, sir. We're full up. Crazy new captain. So I can't put you in a cell by yerself. And I can't put ye in with the one who looks like a killer. The mayor would get mighty shirty with us if ye were beaten te death.”
“Well, I'm not in favor of that either ...” the drunk continued. But the guard interrupted.
“You don't belong here.” Douglas stepped into the cell and grabbed Denario by the elbow.
“Me?” Denario tried not to grin. “You're perfectly right. I didn't ...”
“No one minds if ye're killed.” The guard dragged Denario out so fast that his heels barely touched the ground.
While the accountant staggered to keep up, his jailer took him to the corner cell. This looked like the largest of the rooms and Denario's first impression was that it might not be that bad inside there. But when Douglas started to open the door, he thought better of it. Whoever sat inside made him nervous.
“Rolph! Willi!” he called.
Only after he had gotten two other guards to come help, both with their swords drawn, did Douglas dare to open the door. Even so, despite their armor and weaponry, none of the men appeared confident.
“In you go!” shouted Douglas. He kicked Denario so hard in the buttocks that he nearly flew into the room.
Denario landed face down on the floor and was slightly surprised to find that it was covered in straw. Nice. But who in here could merit better treatment than the rich fellow they'd just arrested? The door slammed shut behind him. Denario lifted his head.
In front of him, on a stool, sat the most muscular man that Denario had ever seen. The man's head was nearly bald but he had a thick, brown mustache. Even his jaw muscles looked frightening. He had no beard but there was stubble on his jaw as if he'd gone without shaving overnight. He was dressed in a plain, linen shirt that strained to cover his barrel chest, thick pants of soft leather, boots made from the pelts of furry, gray animals and a sword belt. Naturally, he had neither scabbard nor sword. He gave the impression of being the sort of man who wrestled cows for a living or who had done so for a while until he slaughtered them all in a fit of rage. And he had, Denario noted, a tattoo of a crown crossed by spears on his left arm. It was precisely the same design that Yannick, Moritz, and Gerhardt had worn.
“Who are you?” Denario asked as he picked himself up. Then, realizing that might be construed as rudeness, he added, “I'm Denario.”
He brushed himself off. His cell mate allowed him that, at least, before rising to his feet. Then the man Denario was convinced had to wrestle some sort of livestock grabbed Denario by the right wrist. He lifted Denario off of his toes. Then, silently, his fellow inmate pushed Denario's right sleeve from the forearm to the shoulder. He switched wrists and did the same thing to the left arm, left sleeve.
“Why does everyone do this to me?” Denario wondered aloud.
For the first time, his cell mate made a sound. It was a low, soft, dangerous chuckle.
“What are ye?” he drawled. He let Denario's feet touch the floor.
“An accountant?” He hadn't meant for it to sound like a question. “Really, I am. I just didn't wear the vest or cap today.”
“Accountant, accountant,” grunted the inmate. “What's that, then?”
“It's ... numbers.” Denario ratcheted down his opinion of the cow butcher's intelligence as he sought to find a description that an uneducated man would understand. “I make sure amounts paid and amounts received are the same on either end. You know, for a large merchant partnership or for one of the barons or earls or a knight. That is, the nobles come into the picture for me if I'm lucky. I work for them sometimes.”
“Ye a tax collector?” The mountain of veins and sinews rumbled. His bloodshot eyes squinted. “'Cause I hates 'em.”
“Er, no.” Denario had often wished he were a tax collector but now he denied it with a feeling of relief. “Actually, I'm in trouble with one right now. I suppose, in a roundabout way, that's why I'm here in Hogsburg.”
“Trouble over taxes?” A grin opened at the top of the mountain. The muscles and sinews shifted as they relaxed. A moment later, the inmate sat back down on his chair. He folded his arms. “That's all right by ye, then. That's normal.”
The bloodshot eyes closed. After a long time, so long that Denario thought his cell mate must be asleep, the gravelly voice spoke again.
“What one of what?” replied Denario.
“What burgher meister did ye cross? 'Cause I'm going to kill Burgher Hamhock.”
“You are?” Denario believed him for a moment. This fellow seemed capable of killing without thinking much about it. Of course, it had to be an idle threat. No one in these little towns had killed anyone so prominent as a burgher in fifty years, probably.
“He says he's having a farmer friend of mine stoned but I won't have it. Bad for business. Got to pay ransom for the farmer or kill Hamhock.”
“Oh.” Denario had a hard time trying to picture what business this fellow was in. Livestock wrestling probably didn't pay much.
“So, ye didn't say.” Both bloodshot eyes opened. “Which one?”
“Burgher Figgins. Maybe you don't ...”
“Haw!” The prisoner slapped his knee. Denario felt it through the dirt floor. “That damned fool! Stole from the baron, eh?”
“Er, yes. About half the take, more or less.”
“Is he a friend of yours?” Denario asked, dreading the answer.
“Not likely. But he's Baron Ankster's man, so I'm happy to see them fighting. No, I ain't got no friends in the Ankster court. But Burgher Figgins, he got less than none.”
Since this was a logical impossibility, Denario felt compelled to point it out. He hesitated, though. His cell mate might not take to being corrected. Good old Winkel had always laughed with delight when Denario caught him in a mistake. No one else ever did that, Denario noticed.
“What do you mean, 'less than none?'”
“Wouldn't ye like to know, eh?” The prisoner suddenly looked rather sly. He folded his hands in his lap. “But it's obvious enough. The baron suspects his burghers are stealing from him. Of course they are. They always have. But it's more, now. They're trying to cut themselves free, especially out on the Zeige where they've been independent in the past. So the baron wants to catch one or two cheaters an' make an example of them.”
“But Ankster didn't hire me. The mayor of Ziegeburg did.”
“Ah.” Eyes closed, the dangerous man nodded. “That's better. Wouldn't like to think of ye working for the baron. But that's how ye did it wrong. If ye were hired by the mayor, ye were supposed to find for his brother and ye didn't. The baron probably sent his own man for the job, by the way.”
“Yes. The mayor kept telling me for weeks and weeks that the baron's accountant would come to check my work. But in mid-winter, he announced that the man was killed by bandits.”
“Yeah. From what ye say, it figures for the baron's man to have an accident along the way. For all I know, it was me who provided the accident.”
“Is that your business?”
“When I'm this far west, it sometimes could be. Usually not, though. Can't spend the time to make much money that way. And I would never work directly for Ankster or the Figgins brothers.”
“My fiance said I should have figured it out. But the math ...”
The cow butcher made a rude noise.
“Look.” The man's voice, already low, got deeper and quieter. “It's not math. It's people. The mayor knows his brother is in trouble. So he brings in someone independent, that being ye, to prove the burgher didn't do what everyone knows he did. No one expects Baron Ankster to believe it but so what? The baron just wants his money, that's all. Troops are expensive. He's looking for a reason to avoid sending them. Of course, getting his regular tax money is the best reason.”
“And I screwed it up.”
“Yeh.” He chuckled. “The baron hates to send soldiers as far as the Ziege. Most of his troops are at Faschnaught this year. He's worried about his lands closer to home, too.”
“How do you know he won't march onto the Ziege?”
“He can't pay for a fight. And that's the part that's really about numbers. You said it's your job to do numbers, right? So ye should know.”
“Master Winkel told me about the costs of tax collection. I've never seen an incident happen, though.”
“Ye will. If you hang around here long ... without hanging, I mean ... yeh'll see.” The man had a funny accent. It sounded familiar but Denario couldn't place it right away.
Then they fell silent. Denario was glad to find that his cell mate, whether he was an ox wrestler or a butcher, could be calm. In fact, he seemed to progress beyond calm into a state of meditation that barely involved breathing. Maybe he didn't have much to think about. He looked like someone who did reacting, not planning. His arm muscles and neck muscles cast shadows in his flesh even when he was relaxed.
Finally, Denario remembered where he'd heard his cell mate's accent. The sailors at the Paraventiri dock yard in Oggli spoke like that. So did other dialect speakers from pirate nations around the Complacent Sea. A few of them traveled through Ziegeburg. Of course, maybe all bandits talked that way. Denario didn't doubt that his fellow prisoner was a bandit in the eyes of Captain Eberhardt.
Someone in a nearby cell sang to himself for a while. When the singer got tired, he hummed.
About half an hour later, after Denario had calmed down enough to wonder if his geometer tools were still safe, he heard a metallic clank from the other end of the prisoners' hall. The hall door thumped open hard. It rattled.
“That ain't just liquor. Ya smell like piss,” said a guard, probably Fritz, to the prisoner he'd brought.
Denario could hear the rustle of cheap leather uniforms, chain mail, and scabbards. Heavy boots clomped down the line of cells. There were at least three sets of footsteps, one of them as light as bare feet. The procession stopped well short of Denario's cell, though, so he knew he wouldn't get to see the new prisoner.
“Hey, ya!” someone shouted.
Suddenly, a light set of footsteps came Denario's way. He stood up as he listened. He turned toward the window on the cell door. Maybe he would be able to catch a glimpse. At his height, though, it wouldn't be easy even if the man made it this far. He took a step closer.
As he stretched on his tiptoes to see, a man's head appeared between the bars. The fellow had a a shock of brown hair and piercing blue eyes. At first, he spied Denario standing on his toes. Then he saw Denario's cell mate slumped on the stool. His eyes went wide. He grinned. It was not a kind expression.
In a second, he was gone. A guard, definitely someone larger than Fritz, grabbed the stranger by the shoulder and dragged him back down to his cell.
“Ow! Just kidding! Ow!” the man called. The guards took a few swipes at him. Then they tossed him to the floor and closed the door to his cell.
After the guards left, silence settled in along the row of cells. Even the humming from next door faded. Denario nodded off once or twice.
Eventually, men in the cells began to mutter to one another. That made Denario realize it must be time for supper. Everyone sounded on edge. The high windows in the hall, which didn't give off much light even in the middle of the day, had dimmed further. It was getting late. Denario's stomach agreed.
Some time later, a clanking noise came from beyond the end of the hall. Wheels squeaked until a cart bumped into the cell hall door, then squeaked backwards for a few feet. The clanking turned out to be pots, pans, and ladles. It was a cart of food and Denario smelled it long before it got as far as his end of the hall. With the food came Captain Eberhardt.
“Give him a bit more,” said Eberhardt to one of his men. The ladle scraped against the pot.
From the scents and sounds, dinner was bowls of lamb broth soup and loaves of bread. The bowls weren't metal, so Denario assumed they were wooden. They must be pushed through the slots at the bottom of the doors because the guards weren’t opening any cells. Denario knelt measured the slot with his hand. It was going to be a rather shallow bowl.
When they finally got to his cell, Captain Eberhardt face appeared first. He looked tired. Puffy flesh under his eyes showed that he hadn’t slept lately. He’d pulled a fresh linen shirt on over his armor but it looked like a gesture he’d made because someone had told him he should.
“Well, well. If it isn't my two favorites, both together,” he said. He gave them a sarcastic smile. In an instant, it disappeared.
A small man who had been at the gate this morning, not Fritz, grabbed a wide, wooden bowl. He concentrated on his task of ladling soup and Denario hovered near the door gratefully. He was delighted that the guard cared enough not to spill.
Behind the small man was the larger one who Denario thought he’d glimpsed when the new prisoner had arrived. He was the fellow, probably, who had yanked the prisoner back to the correct cell. His sleeves were fishmail, a bit rusty and battered, but distinctive.
“We've had a courier come in from Ziegeburg.” The captain gave Denario a suspicious gaze.
Denario’s heart sank. He tried not to let the dread he felt show on his face.
“You know what the courier said? There's a man wanted for murder over on the Ziege. He's a short man. Thin. Wears a red vest or red cap and probably still has them even if he’s found a change of clothes. He worked as an accountant but then he robbed the mayor and burgher, killed everyone on the stagecoach, and fled.”
Denario started to shout that he never did that. But he saw a gleam in the captain's weary eyes. The man was looking for an admission of guilt. He was searching for anything that might prove Denario was the one Ziegeburg wanted. And the fact that he was searching for a response meant that he had doubts. Denario still had a chance.
“That sounds terrible,” Denario finally responded. He figured that much could be said by anyone.
“We've got two strange men who fit that description,” Eberhardt continued. “And one of them is you. I hear there are a couple more in town as well although they're probably just bandits, like this fellow.”
He gave Denario's cell mate a hard glare. It wasn’t like the look he gave Denario. It was much stronger. There was a physical sense of distrust between the two large men, perhaps because the captain wasn’t sure he could take down his bandit prisoner in a fair fight. He would never have had doubts about the other prisoners.
A bowl slipped through the slot at the bottom of the door. With a glance to his cell mate for approval, Denario knelt and accepted the soup. There was no spoon. At this point, Denario was hungry enough not to care. A thin wedge of bread, almost an all-over crust, tumbled through. Denario grabbed it from the floor and backed away so his cell mate could take his food next.
While the transaction went on in silence, Denario got the sense that he should try one more time to gain his release. After all, he was innocent, in a way.
“Captain,” ventured Denario, “aren’t the short, thin bandits better suspects than I am? I know you won’t let me go right now but if I get out of here tomorrow, I won’t leave town until you’re satisfied. You must know I couldn’t rob any stagecoach.”
“Huh!” the captain snorted. “I don’t see how anyone of your description could have done what they say. But I don’t like either of you men being tricky. And both of you are. Willi! Come here.”
“Captain?” the young man’s voice came from the front of the Hogz-Poliez house. It took him a minute to trot down the hall into the cells. “You wanted me?”
“Yes. First, Willi, did you see those campfires out there yesterday all around the town?”
“No sir.” Willi shrunk back, completely out of view of the cell window. “I was on desk duty then.”
“The bandits have come to break someone out of the jail. I’ve heard that from three informants, not that I trust any of them. And the campfires appeared the day after we captured this man at the cloth merchant's house. You were at the desk then too, as I recall.”
“Yes, sir.” The lad answered in a slightly-put-upon voice. “Three days in a row.”
“We’ll teach Manfrit and Douglas to scribe, don’t worry.” The captain’s tone softened for a moment. “But I read what you wrote down. Do you remember it? Do you recall the name this man gave?”
Captain Eberhardt’s arm pointed to the heart of Denario’s cell mate.
“That one? He said he was Vert Badli, sir.”
“Badli is not a family name, Willi.”
“It's a joke. He played a joke on you. And this one?” He pointed at Denario. “What name did he give?”
“Furtim Endiem, I think.”
“That's worse. That's old tongue for ... thief, I think. Is there any mother, anywhere in the world who would name her son that? I think not.”
He growled in Denario's direction.
“Didn't think I knew that, huh? Figured I was just as dumb as the other police?”
“Hey,” muttered Willi and someone behind him.
“Well, I know the old tongues, mister math teacher. And if you name yourself 'thief' here, then you can wait with the other thieves. Furtim Endiem ... is that 'thief in the day?' Thief of the gods? It doesn't matter. We'll send you and the other fellows of your description to Ziegeburg soon enough. I’d have the courier in here right now only he says he’s never seen the accountant that his mayor is looking for.”
“And now you,” said the captain. He put his hands on his hips and turned his steady gaze on Denario’s fellow inmate. “What have you done with the cloth merchant, eh?”
“Haven’t done nothin’,” answered the probable ox-wrestler.
“Then why won’t he talk to me anymore? Is he afraid for his daughter’s safety like he says? But if he is, really, he wouldn’t have let that boy go. I saw them making eyes. His daughter liked that boy. And where’s the older man who was with the merchant? He was the one who said you were going to commit a robbery. He and the merchant tipped us off. Now he’s gone missing. He had tattoos like you.”
The nearly-bald man showed no emotion as he endured the barrage of questions. He hadn’t even knelt to take his bowl of soup.
“At the time,” the captain continued, “I didn’t know there was a difference between types of bandits. I didn’t check on him. I was just so damn happy to have an informant. But I’m learning.”
As if to himself, the prisoner nodded.
“Well? What do you know?” the captain roared at him.
“You wouldn’t believe me.”
That made the captain hesitate. So it was probably true. Denario glanced back and forth between them as he slurped his soup. He had pieces of turnip and carrot in his teeth, along with flecks of lamb meat. He was trying to figure out why there seemed to be so much more going on than the words indicated. It wasn’t just two fighters sizing each other up.
“Why don’t you give me a try?” Eberhardt finally said.
“No. Can I eat now?”
The captain slumped, defeated for a moment. He was bound by his own pride and his determination to uphold law and order. He wouldn’t even threaten to beat his prisoners. The old captain might have done that, from the look of changes in the jail and the grumbles of the guards. Not this one, new to Hogsburg from the court of Sir Mekli and filled with a sense of nobility. He did things by the book. And he could read the book, all of it.
“I’ll bring you before the judge tomorrow,” Eberhardt promised.
“Uh, sir,” mumbled Willi.
“Judge Worter is at Sir Blockhelm’s court.”
“When is he supposed to be back? Never mind. The mayor can sit in for him.”
“No one's ever asked Gunterfast to do that,” said the big man behind Willi.
“But I will,” Eberhardt promised. “Rolf, you stay here until they pass back the soup bowls. Willi, Manfrit, you come with me. I want to find out who knows this Vert Badli fellow. We’ve been set up to capture him, I think, and I need to know why some folks around here think he’s important.”
“He was friendly with our old captain, sir,” mumbled Manfrit as he lumbered away down the hall. He was the giant in the fishmail. “Leastways, I seen them talking plenty o’ times.”
“Really? Damn it.” From the sound of his lowered voice, Eberhardt realized that he shouldn’t have raised the topic in front of his prisoners. Or maybe he’d brought it up deliberately as a way to generate extra worries for the inmates. If so, the mention of the man he’d replaced had changed his mind.
Denario’s cell mate ate in silence. He finished his soup not long after Denario did and pushed his bowl through the slot obediently. The guard packed up his cart and left. On his way out, he traded happy shouts with the drunks in the other cells. He seemed to be rather a jolly jailer until he pulled the hallway door shut and turned the lock.
“The name of the man wanted for murder,” whispered Denario’s cell mate. He walked closer, so only the two of them could hear. His massive shoulder was higher than Denario’s head. “That would be Denario, now, wouldn’t it?”
Denario paled. How had his cell mate guessed?
“Ye gave yer real name when you came in. Don’t think the guard noticed, though.”
“Oh my gods.” He blinked and checked his memory. His breath caught in his chest. It was true. He'd forgotten to give his alias to this man.
A heavily muscled arm jutted out in Denario’s direction.
“Me real name is Vir,” the man whispered. He took Denario’s hand and shook it. His fingers felt like iron. “Ye’ll learn about me soon enough.”
Chapter Five, Scene Four